[Editor's Note: Obviously, this article was written before the earthquake and tsunami tragedy of 11 March 2011. As new information is available, we will update this article. We have contacted schools in the GSGI to ask for the recommendations as to ways to help, knowing that they would have vetted agencies and NGOs they are aware of locally. To see their notes, click on "Earthquake and Tsunami: How You Can Help" in the Tokyo section.]
To get a first impression of Tokyo, go and see Lost in Translation, but don’t let it put you off coming. It does convey very well the initial culture shock, but doesn’t show what it’s like once you actually live here. There’s no getting away from the size of the city – 12 million people in the capital alone. But Tokyo has reinvented itself. The new skyscrapers are very attractive and the Rainbow bridge over the Sumida River is beautiful and shows you the wonders of the area reclaimed from the sea, called Odaiba.
Unfortunately you often have plenty of time to admire the view because of the traffic jams or jutai which usually hit well before you get onto the bridge. Roads are less congested than they used to be but it’s like any large city. Driving is straightforward in that you drive on the left as in the UK and most signs are also in English but the one-way systems and the elevated express ways can be daunting as you head off down one, unsure whether you’ve guessed correctly and whether you’ll ever find your way back home. But it’s not actually that difficult.
Driving is one area where any preconceptions you might have about the Japanese being polite are quickly dispelled. They can be as aggressive as the next person and jump lights, sound their horns etc.
The subway system is a revelation. It’s clean, well-signed in English and the trains run punctually every three or four minutes. They can be very crowded but usually only at peak times and lunchtime. Compared to the London underground, it’s not expensive and you are unlikely to get your purse or wallet stolen. In fact, if you leave your handbag on the train or in a taxi, it will invariably be returned to you with everything still in it. Young primary school children travelling by themselves on the metro is a common sight.
This has to be one of the safest cities especially for your teenage children, although the nightclubs in Roppongi are not entirely risk or drug free.
There are some things which you become aware of, over which you have very little control- the forces of nature, namely typhoons and earthquakes. Typhoons are not usually a big deal in Tokyo but with climate change, 2004 was a record year for typhoons hitting mainland Japan. In the centre of Tokyo, it usually means heavy rain and strong winds but little damage except to your umbrella and shoes. However, the typhoon which made landfall in October 2004 was the strongest to ever hit Tokyo with at least three deaths in the capital from flooding and high winds. In more rural areas, the main danger is landslides and swollen rivers. You are advised to stay indoors. In extreme circumstances, outside Tokyo, people are evacuated.
Everyone is aware that a big earthquake could hit Tokyo at any time. It is overdue. Buildings and elevated expressways are reinforced. All schools, offices etc have regular drills. Everyone is advised to have a survival kit ready and it is a good idea to try the simulated earthquake experience if you get the chance. It is very frightening and makes you take the threat seriously. Having said that, there are lots of little earthquakes which you get used to and you can’t let fear limit your every day life. Being prepared is the main thing plus knowing where your nearest assembly point is. Also, if you do worry about such things, sleep with something on. The Kobe earthquake happened when people were asleep.
All foreigners aged 16 and over must register in person at their local city or ward office within 90 days of arrival. You need to take your passport, address and two passport photos. You will be registered with an Alien Registration Card (!). This must be carried with you at all times as ID and could result in disciplinary measures such as a fine, a letter of apology or in extreme circumstances, imprisonment. The card has to be updated annually. All your visitors should carry their passports with them whenever they are out to prove their identity if required to do so. If you wish to leave and return to Japan, you must obtain an exit/re-entry visa from Immigration. Multiple exit/re-entry visas are the easiest way to do this and can be used for unlimited trips in and out of the country.
If spouses want to work here then it is only possible legally with special permission or change of status (spouses and children have Dependent Residence Status, automatically). It’s important to keep your multiple re-entry permit up to date as any work permit would become invalid if you leave or enter Japan without a valid re-entry permit.
The essential hand book for new arrivals is being revamped at the moment and is called Here and Now, published by the Women’s Group at the American Club. The club is expensive but has a good gym and pool, video library and lots of classes. There is also the TELL Calendar which gives lots of very useful info on what’s going on in a calendar format so that you know, for example, when the national holidays are coming up and what they are celebrating. TELL is the Tokyo English Life Line which runs as a Samaritans- style telephone help line for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the expat experience. It has trained counsellors and regularly offers training courses for new recruits.
Accommodation in the capital is expensive but there are plenty of large western-style apartments and even, occasionally, houses if your budget is large enough. Do not expect a balcony or garden - you may be lucky, but these are rare in central Tokyo. Many apartments you may be shown are dark (buildings are built very close to each other) and kitchens and bathrooms often have no window. Having said that, it pays to persevere as there is now better choice at more competitive prices than in the years of the “ bubble.”
If you can face the commute, there are houses and larger apartments out of the centre and indeed, if schools are also on your list of priorities, you may look for the school first and then choose your area to live. Yokohama has become more popular with the new express line into central Tokyo.
There is no shortage of paid help, mostly Philippino. The problem is that legally, your maid must have a work permit and the rules governing sponsorship have tightened up. Most people share a maid with other expat families or take on their predecessor’s.
Japanese banks are bureaucratic and very difficult to understand. It’s best to have a resident expert if you have to register with a Japanese bank.
The cost of living is high but some things can be surprisingly cheap, such as eating out - set menus at lunch time can be a lot cheaper and better value than London. Shopping is easy if you restrict yourself to the international supermarkets, but they are of course much more expensive than the Japanese versions. You can get pretty well anything you buy at home at these international supermarkets, at a price. The downside of Japanese shops is that labels are often entirely in Japanese. It pays to get a Japanese friend to show you round.
Fruit and vegetables are mostly horrendously expensive. It’s amazing how quickly you become accustomed to buying five apples for nearly £5 or a minute broccoli head for £2. Many vegetables such as courgettes are sold singly. The good news is that fish is often cheap and very fresh. Pork, chicken and beef are all easily available. Flowers are sold by the stem and western-style bouquets quickly become rather more than you might want to pay- one good reason for taking up ikebana, Japanese flower arranging.
There are plenty of places to eat western food (Italian or French). Chinese, Indian and Korean restaurants are also popular. Vegetarians find eating out rather a challenge, particularly with Japanese food, but it’s not impossible.
Clothes and shoes can be difficult to buy locally if you are not a Japanese shape or size, which most expats aren’t. Even if you are not tall by English standards, shirts etc are too short in the sleeve and not long enough to tuck in at the waist. There are extra large shoe shops in Tokyo, but it does pay to bring a good stock of clothes and shoes with you.
Travel out of Tokyo does usually cost a lot. By car, there are tolls which quickly add to the cost of your journey. However, petrol is not expensive. The best way to travel any real distance, to Kyoto for example, is by shinkansen (high speed train). Tickets for these must be booked and if you are travelling on a holiday weekend, do reserve tickets well ahead as the trains get fully booked early on. It’s fast, comfortable but expensive.
Flying can be cheaper so it’s good to shop around. The three main holidays for the Japanese are Golden Week at the beginning of May, the O-Bon festival around the middle of August and New Year. Air tickets to foreign destinations, including the UK, are often booked a year in advance. However, that can also lead to last- minute cancellations so it can sometimes pay to be on a waiting list if you have the flexibility and can stand the strain of not knowing if you’ll get a seat or not. There are now regular public holidays throughout the year some of which have been moved to Mondays to make long weekends. Check when these are before making plans.
There are several English speaking churches: St Alban’s (Anglican Episcopal), Tokyo Baptist Church , Tokyo Union Church (Interdenominational), Franciscan Chapel Centre(RC), Jewish Community Centre, St Paul’s International Lutheran Church and St Anselm’s Benedictine Priory.
Hospitals in Japan are mostly very good, especially in Tokyo although it isn’t always easy to find English speaking staff in an emergency. Some doctors in Tokyo have spent time training in the States. There are English-speaking clinics and dental surgeries which are mostly good, although some of the staff can be older and somewhat out of touch with latest developments in certain areas. Many people have babies here and there is a good choice of hospitals for giving birth. The main thing is to choose your gynaecologist and make sure you are happy with the hospital’s procedure as it does vary from natural, non-interventional to high-tech caesarean, timed to fit into the doctor’s working/golfing hours.
Many people find the pace of life here hectic. The Japanese themselves are often very stressed and one explanation for them constantly falling asleep on the metro is that they don’t sleep at night. People unwind with hot spring baths and massage.
It is quite easy to exist in Tokyo without learning any Japanese and just mixing with the other expats. Many Japanese speak very good English, are very friendly and hospitable and go out of their way to introduce you to the more interesting aspects of Japanese culture. Most cinemas show films in English with Japanese subtitles and you can buy CDs, DVDs and videos in English. Books are also easily available. However, English is not universally spoken and the more Japanese you can pick up, the easier and more rewarding life will be.
Japan is a fascinating place to live. The pace is often frenetic but you are never bored. The culture is dazzling and so, so different from the West in many ways. Some people find they hate it here but the vast majority have a fantastic time and quite a few never leave.