How to Survive in Japan: Basics Edition

Many people who have been looking to get away from the dragging economy in their home countries have come to Japan, either as teachers, military personnel, or translators. Though there’s much to be offered in the Land of the Rising Sun, newly Western-world expats still have a thing or two to learn about living comfortably in Japan.


Japan has a lot of humidity in the air, which means that there is a lot of water coming into your apartment or house, becoming trapped in shoe boxes and closet spaces. To deal with the trapped moisture, it’s best to get moisture packs, which can be purchased from Daiso (105 yen shop), the local grocery store, or a D.I.Y. store. If there’s anything that you need in your household, moisture packs are those things. Otherwise, you’ll have moldy sweaters and boots.

COMMAND adhesive hook and strips

COMMAND Adhesive Hook (image from

Although most people don’t come to Japan to decorate their apartments, some people (like myself) feel the urge to make their place as homely as possible. One way is by posting frames, pictures, and posters on the walls. However, if you live in an apartment and there’s no putting holes into the walls for fear of losing a deposit, using adhesive hooks are a good option. But just to say, adhesive hooks from Daiso (105 yen shop) or the local D.I.Y. shop aren’t the best things to use because they leave behind a sticky residue. Tape can also strip walls, especially wooden walls. Best option? Buy some COMMAND Adhesive Hooks in your home country or at your local D.I.Y. shop (online at Amazon also sells them). When using these hooks, the adhesive strips must be applied exactly as the directions state, otherwise, you’ll find some broken frames on the floor soon after.

Of course, clean up is important. My hated part of the household to clean is the bathroom. Do I use toilet paper or paper towels to clean the toilet seat? (There’s no way I’d use a rag or towelette!) Thankfully, Daiso has flushable toilet wipes, strong enough to wipe down the toilet seat without crumbling without worrying about losing a trusty rag or towelette. They’re only 105 yen for a pack of 50 wipes.


Cooking at home is the best way to save money. You can easily rack up a 5,000 yen bill by going to an izakaya (bar) or eating out. Although 5,000 yen doesn’t seem like a lot, when you do it once a week, you’re spending 20,000 yen or more than $200 a month. Instead of spending that much on one meal each time, taking a trip to your local San-A or Marudai can save you a bunch of money. That 5,000 yen can feed you for 3 weeks, or 1,500 yen per week, that is, if you don’t mind making some simple meals. My favorite website to visit for this money-saving cooking skill is

Another money-saving option to grocery-buying is purchasing produce from a local produce vendor. Normally, they look like a bunch of obaa selling fruits and vegetables on the side of the road, or there’s a humbly-decorated store with fruits and vegetables in boxes. Either way, these modest vendors sell their produce for dirt cheap. My husband and I saved a bundle of cash (about 200 yen per bag of veggies) just by buying from a local produce vendor. Not only does saving money help you, but purchasing food from a mom and pop shop helps them out too.

Buying frozen foods can save even more money than anything else. If there are no frozen food stores in your local Japanese neighborhood, buying cheap meat in bulk is an alternative. Beef, for instance, can last for over 2 months frozen, so buying in bulk won’t make it go bad. Chicken and seafood are a little more sensitive, but they can be frozen for a while as well. I go to a local frozen food store and buy 7 pounds of frozen chicken breasts for 980 yen. For less than 1,000 yen, I can eat chicken breasts for dinner for a week. Not only does it save money, but your gut won’t expand as easily as your wallet.


Although English education has been incorporated into Japanese society as its second language, most Japanese people can’t speak English. It’s a reality that most expats realize the first month of arriving in Japan, and it puts a damper on communication efforts. If you’re planning to stay in Japan, learning some basic Japanese starts the process of breaking down cultural barriers. For me, the most useful thing to learn was katakana, a simple writing system that’s used for sounding out words, especially foreign words. I’ve mostly had to read katakana on restaurant menus, product covers, and most sports-related things and events.

Also, it’s good to have a paper dictionary or electronic dictionary that translates between Japanese and English. They come cheap in Akihabara (Tokyo) and in recycle shops. If you only have a paper dictionary and you need to use Japanese immediately, learning certain phrases ahead of time is good. I always use Google’s translation page to help me learn words and phrases that aren’t found in a paper dictionary.


Depending on where you’re working, getting a Japanese bank account should be pretty easy. First, you need your inkan, or your registered personal seal (it’s as valuable as a signature), your passport, your registered address paper (from your city office), work contract paperwork, and a few thousand yen to deposit. One other thing you need is a letter written by the director or supervisor of your company that states you are working for their company and the length of the contract. Some banks or bank tellers (depending on their viewpoint of foreigners) ask for this as an extra leap of bureaucracy. I personally think it’s stupid red tape when you already have an official work contract available, but you’ll face moments like this in Japan, so you might as well get this letter ahead of time. It’ll save a lot of time and confusion.

Since many people come to Japan with some type of debt or remaining bills to pay in their home countries, sending money home is really important. Still, many people worry about sending cash in airmail envelopes or even just talking to a nice person at the post office and asking them to exchange yen into dollar. Although Western Union is now available in Japan, it has limited offices around Japan. The simplest and best thing to do is link your Japanese account with your home country’s bank account. You can do this by getting a GoLloyds account, a Japanese company that specializes in transferring money. It costs 2,000 yen each time you transfer money, but the transfer also includes a money exchange based on the exchange rate available now.


Finding clothes in Western sizes is a little difficult if you’re bigger than a medium size. There are a few places to get some fitting clothing, but the best thing to do is to bring your own clothes ahead of time. If you’re a bigger size (bigger than a size medium for women with a shoe size 7 or smaller, or size 36 pant size in men with a shoe size 9 or smaller), you should bring some comfortable walking shoes, “indoor” shoes, or comfortable slippers you can wear inside only, and a few suits with thin and/or cotton material. Still, if you’ve forgotten something, there are a few places to get clothes. San-A has a plus size section, though it’s very limited, but you can get business clothing there. Uniqlo also has larger sizes, but if you have a bust size bigger than 36″, San-A is better suited with it’s XXL sizes. Another place to get bigger sizes, especially for women on the heavier and bustier side, is Shimamura (しまむら). Like San-A, you’ll find a plus size section.

If you go online to buy clothes, I would recommend going on ebay. Sometimes, sellers ship worldwide (don’t forget to click that option on the left side options) and they’ll give a decent price for international orders. However, if you want something new and right away, some American brand companies are available, especially if you’re on mainland Japan. Forever 21, Victoria’s Secret, Old Navy, and the Gap are available brands in Japan.


If you plan on driving in Japan and you have a driver’s license, you can get an International Driver’s Permit (U.S.) or an international permit to drive. It’s good for a year, but before that year is up, transferring your international permit to a Japanese driver’s license is a good way to go. Depending on what part of Japan you’re in, my advice would be to call a driving school and get lessons before taking the test. The Japanese driving test isn’t about driving safely or practically; it tests your ability to follow directions. Many people fail the first time because of the most trivial things, like not looking under the car before getting into the car. In some places, like Okinawa, the tests are more flexible, and in other areas, they’re more rigid. Just be prepared for it!

5 Things to Think About in Japan – The Downer Edition

Since I’ve been doing a lot of lists about things in Japan that might not be known by the people in my home country, I’ve decided to do a more thoughtful list. But, this list isn’t as happy-go-lucky as the other ones, so be prepared to think and wonder.

1. Japan has a lot of nice countrymen–so nice, that the usual codes don’t feel like discrimination. I’ve read stories of foreigners in Japan being turned away from clubs, bars, and other places because they aren’t Japanese. For those who don’t know Japanese, you probably won’t understand the situation until someone points it out. For others who do and have learned Japanese culture and code, it will always be a shock and disappointment. I’ve learned that Japan can still have close-minded people or methods. For example, when I went to open a bank account, the bank requested that a letter of employment from me–and the person who I went with was a bit angry. “That’s discrimination,” he pointed out later, and I didn’t understand until he told me that this was his first time hearing this and he’s helped many people open bank accounts in Japan. Another example happened more recently. My husband and I decided to check out a nearby bar that had pool. Right when we walked in, a bartender stopped us and kindly stated, “You must have a member’s card.” We were refused before ordering a drink. Everyone else in the bar was Japanese. This event also happened to some ALTs on mainland Japan, who noted it in a JET writing contest, the code of having a “member’s card” or being a “VIP” as the same thing. So, before anyone thinks that Japan is a quiet haven free of stereotypes and discrimination, remember that Japan was once closed to the rest of the world for several decades.

2. The quality of service in Japan is one that makes Western countries pale in comparison–or is it? In the United States, everyone expects McDonald’s hamburgers to be slapped together without a care, or other people to ignore you when you’re in a state of need. In Japan, it’s a little different. Food is made with more care, presents can be wrapped at any store, and people generally help you out when you look like you need help. My husband made a great point when he looked around with fresher eyes than myself; “Is it because the quality in Japan is so good, or is it because the quality in my home country is so bad?” My answer would be the latter. Why? Individualism has to have sacrifices, and one of them is human decency. The mantra, “Think of yourself! Buy for yourself! Be yourself!” rings more strongly than “Think of others! Buy for others! Be kind to others!”

3. Image is too important. When I went to a soccer match for one of my schools, all of the students that weren’t involved in the sports had to go to the match to cheer on their school. I sat there with my students–and became immediately bored and disgruntled. Why were these kids sitting in the hot, sweltering sun in these thick uniforms? Most of them were digging in the dirt or trying to stay cool. They weren’t even paying attention to the soccer match, and some teachers lectured them about it. What’s the point of dragging these kids to “cheer on” their school if they don’t want to? To form a stronger bond with their school’s team when the players don’t even realize they’re there? Or is it really just about images, like the image that there’s so many people to support you because there’s bodies in the stands? This is something to see in every aspect of Japanese life, too. Going to a nomikai, or a drinking party, is attended by a whole office to reinforce bonds for working. A non-drinker could feel left out, so why should they go? For an evening of watching other people get drunk? Or is it image again, the image that there’s unity amongst the office workers who really don’t know each other?

4. Everyone does everything hard–school, work, and playing. Students start studying rigorously for exams in junior high school. Adults work well past 5pm–sometimes until 8 or 9pm–just to complete a report. Additionally, adults can party hard in Japan. Lined on every street, there are armies of izakaya, or bars. Some you can recognize simply by the red lanterns glowing outside of their doors. Others are openly advertised with 100-yen beers on banners. Many adults go to these bars, drink until they’re drunk, stumble onto another bar, drink, maybe go to a karaoke place or bowling, then go back to drinking. And this can happen on any given night, most of the time, immediately after that 10-hour or more job. It’s really common to see a salaryman stumbling through the streets drunk. But does all this de-stress people, or does it add to the stress? It’s not like their livers are getting any better at filtering beer, work, or studying.

5. As a teacher, there is another close-mindedness that extends beyond the classroom. Many people just assume that as a foreigner, you don’t speak Japanese. For example, in meeting my husband’s school principal, he could introduce himself in English very well. Then, he looked at the Japanese librarian and said in Japanese, “She’s cute.” I said to him in Japanese, “Thank you,” and his eyebrows went up in surprise. In class, it’s fine if the students struggle a little bit to find the English word–they’re studying the language and every bit of practice can help them on their tests and in the real world. But as an adult, it’s somewhat sightly to see the internal struggle. Just say it in Japanese, and if I don’t understand, it’s not a big deal. Gestures work too. English, or any other language that’s learned, doesn’t have to be perfect. This is where students and people get in an unnecessary panic. I, as a native English speaker, simply just appreciate the willingness to try to communicate in English.