On social life, dating and relationships
It will be lonely at first. You may want to talk to your friends and family, but the time difference might make it hard to be in contact all the time. It might take time to make friends, and even then, your friends might be busy with their studies and/or part-time jobs.
Alcohol is expensive in bars and clubs, but very cheap in supermarkets and convenience stores. But don’t stock up on alcohol to drink at home alone. It can become a habit. Do not drink too much.
Dating will be hard if you are a woman. It’s easier if you are a man. Japanese women are more confident and won’t mind being out with a foreigner. “They” say Japanese women are very “meek” as girlfriends but when you get married, the script is flipped and she is in charge. It is common and expected in Japanese households for the women to control the finances and make all the life decisions regarding basically everything. You are expected to hand over your salary and she’ll budget it and give you pocket money.
You’ll find yourself downloading Tinder and trying out online dating, something you’ve never had to do because of the deep social ties you have in your country; or the ease with which you can approach a stranger and ask for their number. Don’t be embarrassed about it, we conduct our lives online now so dating is just one aspect of that life that has moved online now. Unfortunately, online dating is full of creeps, but so is the real world.
On Getting a Mobile Phone Contract
Immediately you land at Narita or Haneda or Kansai, your first thought will be how to get an internet connection. Change enough money into yen to rent a two-week portable wifi device. It can get you going until you’re settled.
It took me a week of negotiation to get a Japanese mobile contract. It’s not like in Kenya where you can just get a pre-paid SIM card in under 5 minutes. Here, most providers want to sell you a phone and SIM contract. They won’t even let you buy a SIM card only since you’ll already be arriving with your phone. If you want to upgrade your device, this is a chance to get a 2-year contract. Otherwise, try getting a contract-free SIM card from the mobile virtual network providers.
Japan loves its cash. People carry huge wallets walking around with over ¥100,000 (approx $1,000) in cash. Luckily, it’s a safe country. There are a lot of cash-based transactions and useless bank cards that only act as CASH cards, not debit cards.
You’ll burn through the Yens very quickly. The cost of living here is very high. Getting on the high-speed train from Tokyo to Osaka will easily cost you ¥12,000, one way. In Kenya, that’s the equivalent of the journey from Nairobi to Mombasa, which costs ¥3,000. So if you want to travel during the university holidays, just know it will be costly to take the express or high-speed trains. Buses are a way cheaper option especially if you book in advance.
It will be cheaper living in rural or near-rural prefectures than in Tokyo or Osaka. If you have to choose between a university in Tokyo/Osaka or rural Japan, consider cost of living vs having a social life. There is a better social life in the big cities, but you will end up spending more on these social activities. The food costs are about the same. Rent is what is significantly cheaper in rural Japan.
If you want to send money to your family, use WorldRemit, it’s the cheapest. Transferwise is cost-effective too. Avoid Western Union, it is convenient but quite expensive. I’m just giving you tips here for you to do begin your research, so don’t ask me to take you through it step by step.
You can work part-time. You are allowed up to 28 hours a week. You can teach English, do dishes in restaurants, make ramen, convenience store clerk, etc. If you have a scholarship, you can just work for fun and to make a bit of money. If you are working to pay your fees and upkeep, it can get tough but know that you’ll make it. Keep your eye on the prize.
For the love of God, do not come to Japan without a driving license if you ever plan on driving in Japan. It will cost you about ¥300,000 ($3,000) to get a driving license from scratch. It will cost you less than $50 to convert your existing license to a Japanese one. You can use an international driving license but only for a year after arrival in Japan. After that, you have to convert it to the Japanese one. Even that won’t be an easy process, but it’s cheaper. I wrote all about it here.
You are going to need a car especially if you leave in rural Japan, more especially if you have a family. Do not buy a white plate car (that’s a car of 1,000 CC or more). A yellow plate car (less than 1,000 CC) will do just fine (Also called kei-cars.) Cars are cheap to buy initially but you pay tax annually. For a yellow plate car, the annual tax is about ¥10,000 (~$100) and it goes upwards of ¥35,000 ($350) for white plate cars. There is also a need to renew registration every two years (¥60,000 – ¥1000,000 or more).
Make sure you get insurance, which may cost over ¥72,000 annually (~$700). Without insurance, you can be royally fucked if you ever get into an accident.
If your university offers you accommodation, take it. The cost of renting in Japan is quite high. The average cost for a one-bedroom apartment in Tokyo is around ¥80,000 a month. University apartments are usually subsidized. If they don’t provide accommodation, ask if they partner with real estate agents. The universities will usually help you find accommodation or direct you to a real estate company that will help you. Some universities have family housing
All the secretaries are women. All the doctors, men. All the pilots, male. All cabin attendants, female. In my 6 years of living here, I’ve never seen a female pilot or a male cabin attendant. You will be surprised to find Japan lags behind Kenya when it comes to gender equality. So sexism, language and cultural barrier (and xenophobia) will stand in the way of your career success.
Medical universities literally lowered the high scores of female candidates to limit the number of women who will become doctors. Their spots went to men who had lower scores. It’s that sexist. Reason being? When the women get married and get kids, they’ll stay home to look after kids so no need to train them in the first place. That’s because, in Japan, they are set in their way of life and don’t want to change. There are clear rules of division and labour. Women are denied access to high paying jobs meaning they rely on their spouses. They stay home and look after the kids, men go to work.
They are averse to change. Risk-averse. Once a system works in Japan (fax), they cling to it and never want to change. Unfortunately, things have to change if the negative population growth is anything to go by.
On the weather
Japan has four distinct seasons and it is something that they are very proud of. On weather-related tips, one practical thing I can tell you is don’t bother shopping for seasonal (winter) clothes in Kenya. No need to bring too much luggage. Once you arrive here, there is no need to go to high-end shops. There are so many good quality clothes in second hand/recycling shops. That’s where I got all my winter wear, which I still have 6 years later. Remember to enjoy seasonal activities and events. Cherry blossom picnics and BBQ in spring, summer festivals and fireworks, autumn foliage drives, winter skiing.
On Natural Disasters
Typhoons in the summer. Earthquakes that occur at any time. Especially in the greater Tokyo area. We have slight earthquakes from time to time. The country is well-prepared to deal with natural disasters and you’ll be given information on how to prepare for such disasters by your university and local city hall. Pay attention. Stay calm.
On Staying Here with your family
If you can bring your spouse/children to Japan, do it. It will be a nice experience for everyone all around. It will also be a great support system for you. It’s very easy for your family to join you in Japan, although finding work for your spouse might be hard. One option is joining you in the same uni to also further their studies.
Choose rural Japan if you want to bring your family. The cost of living is cheaper, people are friendlier and there will be spaces in kindergartens for your kids. If they are of school going age, they will have to deal with the Japanese language barrier when joining elementary or high school, so think about that.
If you plan to bring your family, make sure you put in extra effort to study Japanese so you can navigate the visa applications, the schools, the hospitals, the supermarkets, etc.
On Staying After Graduation
If you don’t plan to live in Japan after graduation, you don’t have to invest too much time in studying the language.
If you plan to stay on after graduation, I would advise you right now to start studying Japanese. It will be your most useful skill. It’s crazy but Japanese companies can hire someone with a nuclear physics degree to work in marketing, as long as you’ve got good communication skills (including Japanese). So study Japanese.
If you want to stay on for the very long term, it is possible to get permanent residency and even a Japanese passport. Just be aware that Japan doesn’t allow dual citizenship and you’ll have to give up the citizenship you currently hold.
Sorry, this post has been all over the place. Here are some my posts about Life in Japan. Japan is an awesome country, if a little boring. It’s a great country to study in. Working here for a few years would also be a good experience. Living here in the long-term will be a difficult journey though not an impossible one.