Tokyo, Japan Report of what it's like to live there - 11/12/20
Personal Experiences from Tokyo, Japan
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No, Tokyo was our third Foreign Service posting, but we've also lived in other cities. Non-FS: Yamaguchi prefecture Japan, Spain, and Northern Ireland. With the FS - Santo Domingo and Antananarivo prior to Tokyo.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Texas, USA. If you fly through LAX, it's not too bad, about 19 hours door-to-door. Tokyo is a major world city. You can get almost anywhere in the world here, often direct or with just one stop.
3. What years did you live here?
4. How long have you lived here?
We were in Yokohama for language one year and then in Tokyo for three.
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
State Dept. (US Embassy).
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing in Yokohama was great: a house on the Bluff, close to YIS and easy walking distance to Motomachi. In Tokyo, we lived in a townhouse on the compound (Mitsui side). Compound housing is much larger than typical Japanese housing. The location is great: right in the heart of the city with easy access to everything (either by train, bike or walking). The housing is not modern at all, but it's fine. They were doing updates when we were there and some of those updates happened right after we left.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can get most things, but it's expensive. You get used to it. Small quantities are the norm (think 10 Brussels sprouts or 15 green beans per pack). US Embassy families have base access and if you have a larger family or really want US brands you can go to the Yokosuka or Yokota on a weekend (about an hour to 90-minute drive each way). On the compound there is the Employee Welfare Association (EWA) store and you can get a lot of standard American things there: cereal, chips, canned goods, sodas, cheeses and lunch meats. There's not a huge selection, but that combined with finding the local stores for your fresh goods is a pretty good set-up. It takes some getting used to, but in the end, it's not as bad as people think.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Nothing really. Clothing is hard if you're taller than 5 feet for a women or 5'10" for a man and very thin. Plan to order online or shop from home when you go back if you're average American size or bigger.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Restaurants are amazing! Incredible Japanese food at reasonable prices everywhere! We've been gone just over a year and this is the thing we miss the most. Also lots of other foods, to include Korean, Thai, and Indian. Passable burgers (including Shake Shack). Pretty good brick oven pizza place near the compound. People will tell you there is good Mexican and Tex-Mex, but there's not :). Make your own if you're from the Southwestern US.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Some of the townhouses were known to have roaches, but we never had a problem. Mold is a big issue. The ventilation system is very old and creates problems with moisture. Dehumidifiers in the summer are a must!
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
When ordering from the US - DPO and pouch. When mailing out I almost always used the Japanese Post; it was faster and more reliable in my experience than the DPO. The prices were reasonable and overall I just found it much more convenient than trying to mail from the Embassy.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
I think it's pretty available. People get referrals from others on the compound. Not sure of the cost.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The compound has a gym and also a basketball court, tennis courts and pool. I don't know of anyone who used a gym outside of the compound.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Yes, but most people use cash.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can definitely get by without Japanese, but having some basic Japanese and taking the time to learn hiragana, katakana and a handful of common kanji will make your life a lot easier. If you want to learn Japanese - it's easy! There are lots of learning opportunities including the post language program.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, I think so.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes, they were safe, reliable, meticulously on-time, and affordable.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
It's best to buy a car in country as it's right-hand drive and used cars are quite inexpensive. If you buy in country you can also be certain you're getting a car that is a good size for Japan. We bought a local minivan for about $2500 and it was great! We have three kids and we drove all over the country with it; often with one additional visiting family member also with us.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
The connection on the compound is okay ; it can be hit or miss, but I do think it improved during the time we were there. It's set up as soon as you arrive...I think.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Cell phone service is way overpriced in Japan! And be careful, there are all sorts of things that feel like scams. For example, if you get a two year contract (we did this through the base) they automatically renew it at the end of the two years for another two years. We found this out when we had to "break" our contract when we left. Additionally, if you're not careful they will lock your cell phone. There is a law that passed that made this illegal., but they have all sorts of fine print My cell phone died, I bought a new one at the Apple store and switched out the SIM. Only when I left did I find out they had locked the new one! I spent days on the phone with them to no avail. In short: be careful and make sure you read the fine print if you get a local contract.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Yes. Lots of people have cats and dogs and vet care is reasonable. There are several English-speaking vets near the compound.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
There are lots of options. Some worked at the Embassy. It is also easy to telecommute or run your own home-based, US-based business. Other family members found rewarding jobs on the local economy or at international schools.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
This is more limited. There is not much of an infrastructure for the type of non-profit work that offers volunteer opportunities that you might see at other posts. TELL (an English language counseling hotline) offers some good volunteer opportunities. However, unless you have Japanese, the volunteer spots will be limited. Many people volunteer at the international schools where their children attend.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Japanese people tend to be put together. You can wear whatever you want, but you're going to be better received in public if you dress smart, modest and sophisticated. You'll see lots of interesting fashion styles and bold choices - it's a big city so there are all types of styles. However, for everyday, most people dress in plain colors and simple patterns.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Not really. It's very safe. Be smart, but in general you don't have to worry. I felt comfortable walking or biking home at night by myself.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The health unit at the Embassy is a good starting point. There is an American doctor on the local staff at the Embassy and he is really good, well loved and, since he lives locally, very knowledgable about the Japanese system. Our family had several types of specialists appointments and always found excellent care. It helps if you have some Japanese. Some aspects of the Japanese system are still quite traditional, but overall, there are no major issues with accessing quality, modern care. Medicines are readily available at a fraction of the US price.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
It's good! Tokyo is a surprisingly clean city.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Allergies are an issue year round - mold, flowers (in spring) and dust. Food allergies can be difficult here I've heard. You'll have to learn to read ingredient labels in Japanese. However, Japanese people understand food allergies so if you know what to ask - you can always check with the restaurant staff.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
No, not really. The climate and weather are nice. I think Tokyo can be an isolating post for some people. It's a modern post, but people don't always consider the effects of the cultural differences. It is really, really different from the US. Sometimes people find it more frustrating to navigate Japanese norms than they may have anticipated.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It's almost exactly like Washington, DC.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Our kids started at YIS (in Yokohama) and then switched to ASIJ. They had good experiences at both. The teachers were good - some more liked than others. The commute to ASIJ from the compound is often a concern for incoming families, but it never really bothered the kids. They got used to it and enjoyed the time with their friends. It is hard to be working parent and be so far from school though. It makes it difficult to get involved - since you essentially end up having to take off the entire day. There are several options. Some families had difficulty getting all of their kids into the same school. The schools do tend to get full. It should be easier - but it wasn't. School access was a considerable morale issue when we were there.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
We do not have a child with special needs, but from what I heard, the schools seem to be very unable to handle any level of special needs. Having taught in a Japanese public school as a JET 20 years ago - this seems consistent with my experience then. There is not the depth of understanding of learning differences in Japan that we tend to have in the US - this seems to feed over into the international school system.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
There is a preschool on the compound. It's a good option that most families use - convenient and well priced. In our experience, the teachers were all kind and loving. It's preschool - nothing fancy, but certainly suitable.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
There are lots of options, but they often felt like a hassle. Most are in Japanese, expensive and require a huge time commitment. If your child is in school - they're likely to get all of their extra curricular opportunities there. We looked into local baseball for our son - but it required about 4 nights per week, plus one entire weekend day, year round. There is an English language baseball league that some families joined - there practices were more like 1-2 times per week. Our daughter did gymnastics for a while - about a 15 minute bike ride from the compound. It was pretty good, but in Japanese. There is tennis on the compound.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Huge! I think overall morale was good. For corporate expats it's a great gig (because of the high salaries). I think it can be a bit more challenging for diplomats and much, much more challenging for expats on local contracts.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Anything you want! Tokyo is not always an easy place to live. Like anywhere, you're going to face ups and downs. However, I think mostly if you're unhappy or bored in Tokyo - it's because you're not taking the opportunities that are there. There is so much to do and so many people from so many parts of the world - there is something for everyone!
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Yes, I think it's good for anyone. It's a city though. The concrete can get to you. It's nice to take time to explore the countryside and other Japanese cities.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
It can be difficult to make close Japanese friends if you don't speak Japanese. Your Japanese friends are most likely to speak English and have lived abroad. Our cultures are also very different from each other. It takes a lot of time and patience to understand the Japanese perspective.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
From what I've heard, yes.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes. What Americans might consider to be blatant racism, religious prejudice and sexism happen often here. My experience was that this seemed less often to be out of animosity and more likely to be lack of exposure to different types of people or simple ignorance. This is more pronounced in rural areas than in Tokyo, but it exists everywhere.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
We really loved living in Japan! We traveled everywhere, all over the country, mostly by car and shinkansen. The people are welcoming, polite and friendly most of the time. It is very clean and safe. It's really different from the US and there are lots of opportunities to step outside your comfort zone. You learn a lot living here.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Kanazawa! There are so many wondering cities, but this was by far our (unexpected) favorite!!
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Yes, definitely! You'll find your favorite: fabric, pottery, art, food, antiques.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It's convenient, clean, safe, and easy.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I've lived in Japan twice - once as a JET and then again for this tour. I always remind people that, while modern, Japan is a culture very steeped in tradition. It is really different from the US. It takes patience. You have to remind yourself again and again that what you expected may not be true. Have an open mind.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Definitely! We assume we'll be posted to Tokyo again in the future and would willingly return.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Impatience, cultural assumptions, belief that your way is always right.
4. But don't forget your:
Sense of adventure, curiosity.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
These are old, but...Lost in Translation, the Japanese version of Shall We Dance (which was the original, I think).