Jun 28, 2017

11 things you need to do after arriving in Japan

In making the effort to move all the way to Japan it would be nice to get things off to a smooth start after arriving in the country.  It should also be noted that Japan is very much a nation bound by policy and procedure.  While such policies and procedures can appear to blur logic and lead to weeping frustration for many expats living in Japan, they are there to be followed.  As such then, there are some things that have to be done fairly soon after arriving in Japan whether we like it or not - getting a Residence Card being one example.  Others exist in a somewhat grey zone.  For example, mobile phones and bank accounts.  As far as we are aware there is no legal requirement to have these things, but to a certain extent, a person doesn't exist without them.  

This leads us to an important point about flow and the order of things for a life in Japan.  Residence Card, bank account, mobile phone - these are the three pillars from which all things flow.  You can't register for, sign up for, join, or book anything in Japan without a phone number and a bank account. OK, an exaggeration maybe but there's a certain amount of truth in there.  In order to get both / either of these you need a Residence Card.  

Here we take a look at that flow of things to be done after arriving in Japan, presenting them in the order in which they should probably be checked off.  For now, this is simply an explanation of what needs to be done, rather than how to do them (something we'll get to in other posts). 

* A qualifier - The situation here is that you are moving to Japan with a job lined up (or other permission obtained for mid to long-term visa status) and also have living quarters arranged (be this a share house, or an apartment organised through an employer). 

Get a Residence Card (在留カード)

Those arriving in Japan with permission to work or to obtain a mid to long term status of residence will be issued with a Residence Card (zairyu card) upon arriving in Japan at the following airports - Narita and Haneda (Tokyo), Chubu (Nagoya), and Kansai (Osaka). Arrival at any other airport in Japan will mean Residence Cards being sent by recorded delivery to the address given to your local city office in Japan. It will take around 10 days to receive the card once this notice has been given.

This raises a pertinent point - that it would be a good idea to make your first port of call in Japan one of the airports listed above. This will more than likely be the case anyway. Certainly, Narita, Haneda, and Kansai account for the majority of international arrivals to Japan. Where it might not be the case is with Fukuoka Airport which handles a lot of arrivals from Asia. Even if you are going to be based in Fukuoka or Kyushu, maybe it’s better to have a day or two in Tokyo or Osaka/Kyoto before moving on so as you can pick up a Residence Card directly.

You can read about the basics of a Residence Card at the Immigration Bureau of Japan.

Register your presence at your local city / ward office

Mid to long-term foreign residents of Japan are required to register their presence at the city office (市役所 / shiyakusho or 区役所 / kuyakusho) in the area in which they reside, within two weeks (14 days). Failure to do so will likely only result in a bit of huffing and puffing on the part of office staff but it’s the law so you’d better do it. If you’ve already got a Residence Card, bring it along and your address will be “stamped” onto the back.

To reiterate, registering at the city office is required within 14 days of deciding one’s address. This means that if you arrive in Japan early with plans to bum around / travel for a bit before, say, starting work then it’s not necessary to register the address of your hotel / hostel / friend’s house. That said, given the grey area that is travelling for an extended period on a work visa, it’s probably better to get settled sooner rather than later.

If you haven’t already gotten a Residence Card at the time of visiting city office bring along your passport and any other documents you received at airport immigration. Oh, and some nice photos to be used on your card. (There will be photo booths at city office.)

City offices in Japan are often located in the middle of the suburbs in areas with few distinct features, i.e. it isn't immediately obvious where they are.  Ask at the koban (police post) near your local train station.

Open a bank account with a bank that will actually let you

All banks in Japan will require you to have some form of contact phone number. In most cases this would be a mobile phone or a home landline. This poses a problem for the newly arrived expat in Japan - they typically have neither. To make matters worse, in order to get a phone in Japan one usually has to have a bank account. The solution to this catch 22 is JP Post (the post office in Japan) who, at the time of writing, will accept share house or workplace phone numbers when setting up an account. Accounts at JP Post are known as yucho ginko (ゆうちょう銀行). The other factor that makes JP Post the standout option for opening a bank account in Japan is that they don’t require foreigners to have a hanko (official seal) as many banks in Japan do. Your signature will suffice. As well as a Residence Card, foreigners in Japan will also need to bring their passport as supplementary ID. Oh, and some proof of address in Japan.

While an account at JP Post might lack glamour, in the face of unscrupulous banks playing with people's money, one could make the case that the humble post office is just about the safest place to store money. Anyway, beggars can’t be choosers.

Get a mobile phone

With Residence Card and bank account in place the newly arrived expat in Japan can complete the triumvirate with a mobile phone and thus open the doors of acceptance and opportunity in Japan. Waste no time in doing this. It may be a pain in the rear to do but one simply can’t establish a life in Japan without a phone number.  

Increasingly, mobile phone operators in Japan are becoming multilingual and heading to a big electronics store in a big Japanese city will increase one's chances of getting through this in English.  

Typically, to get a mobile phone in Japan you’ll need to present your Residence Card and credit or debit card. A signature should suffice to seal the deal.

SoftBank offer prepaid services on some mobile phones with no monthly fee. You might be able to try your luck at getting one of these with just your passport and the required funds. We can’t guarantee this will work though. See what phones are available at the SoftBank page here (in English).  

Keep a look out for your My Number card

What?  "My Number" is the cute moniker that disguises the rather ominous "Social Security and Tax Number System" that the Japanese government rolled out in recent years.  Supporters say it makes good sense and streamlines a lot of bureaucratic process.  Sceptics say it reduces us all to a mere number and is vulnerable to scams.  Either way, after you register at the city office, your "My Number" will be assigned to you.  You can confirm this on the day of registration but the notification card will be sent to you by post within two weeks.

The number is 12 digits.  You won't have to worry about it immediately but it's something not to be lost or handed out with free abandon.  The HR people at work may ask you for it (which they are legally entitled to do), and you'll need it for when you file your taxes in Japan.  There's nothing you need to do with the "notification card" other than keep it safe.  You don't need to carry it around with you.  

There is an "Individual Number Card" that you can get as a form of ID and something to help streamline a number of processes in Japan but after having just arrived here it's not something you'd need to get involved with until you get more settled.  In fact, it's not a requirement to have it at all.

Read some of the "My Number" basics at The Japan Agency for Local Authority Information Systems

Get an IC card

IC cards in Japan started out as rechargeable cards for use on public transport. In recent years holders of such cards have become able to make other payments such as those for goods at stores, restaurants and vending machines. In a way, they act like debit cards.

Metropolitan areas in Japan have their own IC card. Until fairly recently it was the case that use of these cards was restricted to their area of origin. These days however, it’s possible to use an IC card in most areas regardless the origin.

Why the newly arrived expat in Japan should get an IC card is simple enough - they make make life much, well, simpler. Besides which, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll get one at some point so why not get involved early doors, so to speak. These cards can also be used as a “commuter pass” once you get settled into the rhythms of working life in Japan. In fact, your employer may well ask you to get one so as they can pay your travel expenses through this.

IC cards can be “purchased” at ticket machines and ticket counters in train stations. You’ll need to cough up a 500 yen deposit and have cash to hand in order to add an initial amount of funds onto the card.

Major IC cards in Japan and their region of origin

Greater Tokyo, Niigata, SendaiSuica
Greater Osaka, Okayama, HiroshimaIcoca
Kansai regionPitapa
Greater Nagoya, parts of ShizuokaToica
Greater SapporoKitaca
Greater Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Kagoshima, Oita, NagasakiSugoca
Greater Fukuoka, cities in KyushuNimoca
Fukuoka CityHayakaken

Get on national health insurance .. maybe

There are two state-run / sponsored health insurance policies in Japan - Kokumin Kenko Hoken (国民健康保険) and Shakai Hoken (社会保険).  At a very basic level, you pay monthly premiums and in return have 70% of medical costs covered by the state (dependant on procedure).  

It's long been a grey area as to whether or not foreign residents of Japan have to be on one of the above insurance schemes.  If it is the law (and it certainly looks that way), it's not one that is strictly enforced in the sense that if you turn up to a medical facility in Japan without some kind of national insurance, they won't call the police!  In fact, this expat in their first two years of being in Japan was put on a private health insurance scheme by a reputable employer without any mention of going "national".  However, there are two things to bear in mind here; 

1)  Using private medical insurance in Japan will mean paying for procedures up front, to be claimed back later from the insurance provider.  Rumours used to abound about an insurance provider popular with English language schools being tantamount to useless.

2) Should the time come when you decide you want to join kokumin kenko hoken you'll be liable to pay some eye watering back payments for the time you had been in Japan without paying into it.  Somewhat perversely, this is not the case with shakai hoken, which for some reason allows you to start with a clean slate (probably because companies would refuse to make the back payments and thus not do the right thing and get their employees on it).  

The point here is that if you plan on being in Japan for more than a year or two and you are working for an employer that doesn't want to put you on shakai hoken then it would be a good idea to get on kokumin kenko hoken.  That or ditch your current employer and find one who will do things properly, which is easier said than done.  

To avoid those insurance back payments you are required to register with kokumin kenko hoken within 14 days of moving into your area of residence in Japan.

Familiarise yourself with earthquake procedures and evacuation zones

Apologies in advance as this isn't really the kind of thing that will inspire a move to Japan, however, if it wasn't already, the threat of earthquakes in Japan has become brutally clear (again) in recent years. Having been through the experience (albeit from a relatively safe distance) we can second the need for at least some awareness as to what to do in the unlikely event.

A good source of information is the Tokyo Fire Department homepage which gives the basics of earthquake readiness in multiple languages.  You can also find similar guides on city office webpages and even read an earlier post here on City-Cost: Be Prepared! Earthquake Readiness in Japan

To find evacuation areas near your living quarters dig into the info pack that you'll have likely received from city office at the time of registering your presence.   There will be a map in there detailing where to evacuate to.  These places are typically school yards and parks, but not always.  Of course, any open space will do, but designated evacuation zones in Japan are where you'll find support / supplies / provisions from authorities.

Probably the last thing you'd want to be doing after arriving in Japan is preparing a "grab bag" should you need to get out of your place in the event of an earthquake.  In fact, many locals probably have yet to prepare one themselves.  Still, it's worth having a bit of something set aside should you need to leave in a hurry.

Get a Taspo Card

This is for smokers only. Until fairly recently anyone could purchase cigarettes from vending machines in Japan as there was no way for the machine to verify the age of the person making the purchase. Clearly, this isn't a good situation (although Japanese people are comparatively so well behaved that it wasn't exploited as much as one might expect). In efforts to reduce underage smoking in Japan (20 years old is the legal age) the Taspo card was developed and scanners fitted to cigarette vending machines across the land. Essentially, Taspo is an ID card that you swipe on vending machines to verify your age. It can also be charged with cash giving the option of paying with the card.

Obtaining a Taspo is by postal application only. Forms can be downloaded or are available from tobacco vendors. Along with the forms you'll need to post a copy of your Residence Card and a passport style photograph. Cards will be delivered within three weeks.

While cigarettes can be bought from convenience stores and other vendors, having a Taspo card reduces the chances of being caught short.

Give your omiyage to the people in Japan you should be giving omiyage to

What?  You mean you haven't prepared a default bit of something to give as a gift to people at work, the in laws and teachers?  Well, get to it.  Having some form of omiyage on hand is the best possible way to get your working and social life in Japan off to a fine start.  Anything will do.  It's the gesture that counts here.  Food stuffs are usually a safe bet, particularly those that are unique to where you come from - cookies, teas, candy, chocolate ... really, don't think about this too much, but do so just enough so as you don't forget.

It can't be stressed enough - the culture of giving gifts is very strong in Japan.

Find your local nihongo kyoushitsu

New to the country and maybe strapped for cash (at least until that first pay day in a couple of months time) Japan's nihongo kyoushitsu are a great way to take those first tentative steps in learning Japanese, for free!  They are also a fine way to familiarise yourself with the local community, the machinations of how people live in Japan, and lay the foundations for an early social life outside of the obvious channels like work.

Nihongo kyoushitsu are informal Japanese language classes laid on by local volunteers typically at community centers, libraries, or maybe even public schools.  You can find out where and when they are taking place via the homepage of the city in which you reside.

Now, in terms of a social life, nihongo kyoushitsu are far from glamorous but the volunteers who run them are invariably some of the nicest, kindest people you will meet in Japan.  Also, and this really isn't the point, but if you are short of support in terms of how to get things done in Japan, the people you'll meet at a nihongo kyoushitsu will usually help you out (even though it really isn't what they are there for). 

So, relevant cards and accounts set up.  Means of communication established.  New colleagues placated.  The early seeds of a social life sewn.  Sounds to us like you're ready to really get into the nitty gritty of living in Japan and take advantage of all this amazing country had to offer!

Anything missing from this list?  If you have anything to add as to what we should be doing after arriving in Japan let us know in the comments.

Further reading ... 

The Cost of Furnishing an Empty Apartment in Japan

Moving To Japan. How Much Money Do I Need?

When We’re Required To Visit The City Office, Japan

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