Capital City: Tokyo
Population: 127, 500,000
Government: The government of Japan is a constitutional monarchy with the Emperor as a figurehead leader. Power lies with the Prime Minister and other ministers in the Diet (a bicameral parliament).
Main Languages: Japanese
Main Religions: Shinto Buddhism (although most non-practising). Other minority religions are tolerated.
Japan is an archipelago of 6,852 volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean characterised by a rich cultural history and remarkable natural beauty. It is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and the majority of its 127 million residents live on the largest islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku. The expat population is small in comparison to other countries with 98% of people registered as Japanese. The majority of expats living in Japan are Filipino, Chinese, Korean and Brazilian. Japan is a constitutional monarchy and the Emperor has limited ceremonial powers. The Liberal Democratic Party has ruled almost exclusively since first coming into power in 1955.
Despite being hit by the global economic crisis, Japan remains the 3rd largest economy in the world and is considered a powerhouse of scientific research, technological advances and industry. Although Japan is a small country with a large population, Japanese people enjoy a high standard of living as a result of an outstanding education system, infrastructure and disciplined culture based on group harmony.
Japan has a multi-faceted culture, where ancient traditions contrast with modern technology and fast-paced cities. Japanese culture is based on strict discipline, hard work and a devotion to group mentality. Social conventions and manners play an important part in Japanese life, in particular the bow, which is used in Japan to signify gratitude, greeting, respect and remorse.
Japan’s rich culture is encapsulated in its traditions such as the complicated and delicate tea ceremony, the silk and paper calligraphy and ancient pottery. However, Japan is also known for its singular popular culture of manga (graphic novels and comic books), and anime (distinctive animated films and cartoons) which have a cult of followers around the world.
Food And Drink
Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world, thanks in part to the country’s healthy diet of fish, vegetables, rice and noodles. Being an island nation means seafood is abundant and the average Japanese person consumes around 70kg of fish per year (compared to 21kg in the UK). Japanese people eat very little meat and few dairy products, although milk and ice cream are gaining in popularity.
Miso paste (a seasoning produced by fermenting soybeans) and soy sauce make up the most popular flavours in Japanese dishes. The national dish, sushi, which is raw fish served on rice and seasoned with vinegar, is served with artful presentation and great ceremony. Tempura, batter-coated seafood and vegetables and sashimi, delicately presented slices of raw fish served with wasabi, a pungent green horseradish-style paste, are also popular.
There are hundreds of varieties of noodles available in Japan, the most common being soba (thick buckwheat noodles) and ramen (Chinese-style noodles). Usually served in a broth with vegetables and fish, it is customary to slurp noodles down with chopsticks to show your appreciation. Meat dishes include yakitori (chicken skewers) and yakiniku (meat dishes grilled at the table).
Although sake (rice wine) is considered the national beverage, Japan is fast-becoming a nation of beer drinkers and Japanese brands such as Asahi and Sapporo are among the most popular.
From viewing the stunning cherry blossoms in spring or joining the 260,000 climbers on the slopes of the iconic Mount Fuji each year, there is no shortage of things to do in Japan.
Japan’s national sport is Sumo and the titanic clashes between wrestlers attract a huge following of fans. There are six main tournaments held each year and competition for tickets is often as fierce as the bouts themselves.
Traditional martial arts such as Aikido and Judo are also widely watched and practiced, mainly in the larger cities. Football is the fastest-growing sport in Japan following the hosting of the World Cup in 2002 and most towns have lower league teams. Many companies also stage five-a-side football matches at lunchtimes or after work as a way to help bonding among bosses and subordinates. Skiing and snowboarding are also popular, with the major resorts to be found on Honshu Island, just an hour from Tokyo.
For relaxation, Karaoke is a national pastime and it is taken very seriously in Japan. There are hundreds of Karaoke booths and bars in both the cities and smaller towns which can be hired for groups of friends or even for individuals determined to polish their singing skills.
A more traditional way to unwind is to immerse yourself in a hot onsen bath. The therapeutic waters can be enjoyed at numerous public bath houses which are governed by strict hygiene rituals.
Japanese is the national language of Japan and is spoken by almost 100% of citizens. As wells as Japanese, some residents living in the Ryukyu Islands chain have their own languages (Amami, Kunigami, Okinawan, Miyako, Yaeyama and Yonaguni), yet most also speak the national language.
Japanese is a challenging language to learn, not least because of the two different types of characters – kana and kanji – used in written form. English is widely spoken in the larger cities, particularly among the younger generation, yet expats who don’t speak Japanese may find communicating with locals in rural areas more difficult without the help of an interpreter.
Accents and Dialects
Japanese has subtle variations in both accent and dialect, which may not be discernible to outsiders learning the language. The Tokyo accent is generally taught in language schools and the Osaka accent is the second most heard accent in Japan.
Japan has a temperate climate similar to some northern European countries. It has four distinct seasons; Winter (December to February), Spring (March to May), Summer (June to August) and Autumn (September to November). Temperatures can reach around 27°C (81F) in the summer months and drop to around -2°C in the winter, which is generally mild but with frequent snowfall in the central and northern areas of Japan. The country experiences a brief rainy season in June, when farmers plant rice in the paddy fields. The best time to visit Japan is undoubtedly in spring, when the country’s famous cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Keep in mind that Japan’s typhoon system is from May to October. On average three typhoons hit Japan directly each year.
Safety and Security
It is often said that if you dropped your wallet in Japan, someone would spend the rest of their life tracking you down in order to return it. Indeed, Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the industrialised world and is one of the safest countries to visit for foreigners. Japan’s culture of discipline and respect means that even with a population of 127 million people, street crime is almost unheard of and drug use miniscule. Being arrested carries huge social stigma in Japan, which serves as a natural crime deterrent. However, white collar crime and identity fraud are on the increase, so it’s a good idea to stay safe while online in Japan.
Japan has one of the most effective education systems in the world, with zero illiteracy and 100% enrolment in compulsory grades (age 6-16). Nearly half of Japanese schoolchildren go onto university. High standards of work, both in quality and quantity, are expected from Japanese children both by their teachers and parents.
The Japanese education system is regulated by the Ministry of Education and is publicly funded, although private schools are becoming more popular at the upper secondary level (ages 16-18). School is compulsory for children aged 6-16, and is divided into primary, middle and upper secondary. Attendance at upper secondary school is not compulsory but 98% of students choose to continue their studies following middle school.
The academic year runs from April to the following March and is divided into three terms. Children have a six-week summer break and two weeks off in winter and spring.
The school day starts at 8am and finishes around 3pm, Monday to Friday (and some Saturdays). The majority of children attend after school clubs and further learning until at least 5pm most nights.
There are 778 universities in Japan, of which 80% are private. The higher education system in Japan is well regarded and many of the country’s universities feature in the top 30 of the QS World University Rankings. The most prestigious are the University of Tokyo (known as ‘Todai’) and the University of Kyoto, which are among the 20% of publicly-funded institutions in Japan. Students enrol by passing an entrance exam, rather than a grade point system, and competition to achieve the highest marks in the exam is intense. The Japanese Government aims to attract 300,000 international students to its universities by 2020. Measures to facilitate this include additional grants and scholarships being made available to foreign students and some courses taught in English. Certain courses will also start in September, bringing universities in line with Europe and America. More information about scholarships can be found here http://www.studyjapan.go.jp/en/index.html
Japanese students pay annual tuition fees of around ¥535,800 (£2,868) with international students paying around £5,500 for both undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses while private universities can charge more. Partial and full tuition fee waivers are available to high achieving students from poorer backgrounds. A wide range of scholarships are also available.
Most degrees are taught over four years, except medicine, veterinary science and dentistry which take six to seven years. Postgraduate courses take two years to complete. Courses are mainly taught in Japanese although some universities now teach part of their courses in English. International students are required to pass the Examination for Japanese University Admission for International Students (EJU) – which can be taken in 14 countries worldwide – plus a Japanese language test.
Japan has a number of world-leading research universities, particularly in the scientific and technological fields. The country’s economy depends on the research and development of universities to advance some of its major brands, such as Panasonic, Canon and Sony. The Japanese Government invests heavily in research and offers various grants for international joint research activities.
Primary and Secondary Education
Attendance at school in Japan is compulsory from age 6 (grade 1) to age 15/16 (grade 9). Following primary school, students are enrolled in middle school until age 15 or 16 when they can choose to continue into the upper secondary grades, necessary for gaining entry into university. Class sizes in Japan are large, ranging from 30 to 40 pupils, and learning is centred around core subjects such as maths, science and Japanese combined with English and traditional arts such as haiku (Japanese 3-line poetry) and shodo (calligraphy). Education is taken seriously in Japan and children often have up to three hours homework a night on top of after-school activities and clubs.
Pre-school or kindergartens in Japan, known as yōchien, are widely available to children aged between 3 and 5. Parents can choose to enrol their child in a publicly-funded preschool or one of the many private yōchien which offer extra features such as English language tuition. Pre-school education in Japan emphasises play-centred learning and basic education needed for enrolment in primary school at age 6.
The cost of living in Japan is famously high, particularly in urban areas. However, it is important to remember that Japanese salaries are also above average (around £1600-£3650 per month after tax) and that expats moving to Japan will enjoy a high standard of living. Although rents and utilities are costly by international standards, food and eating out can be relatively cheap in Japan. Living costs in general are significantly lower outside of the Tokyo area, particularly in the southern cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and northern cities, such as Hakodate.
Property prices in Japan are considered astronomical even to Japanese people, particularly in densely populated areas where space is at a premium. It is common for Japanese residents to take out mortgages with 100-year terms in order to get a foot on the property ladder. There are no restrictions on foreigners buying property in Japan but the technical (and costly) property system and legal procedures involved with buying a home can be off-putting.
The majority of Japanese people rent their accommodation, particularly in Tokyo, where most people live in studios or small family apartments. Rents can be high in the more luxurious areas of some cities, but are less as you get further from the city centre. Short-term rentals are available in Japan but contracts are usually for one year. Unless you are fluent in Japanese, the best way to find a rental property is through an English-speaking estate agent such as Housing Japan.
The initial costs involved in renting a property in Japan can be confusing, and appear unfair, to outsiders. On signing a lease agreement, a tenant must pay a rental deposit of 1-3 month’s rent as well as ‘key money’ (reikin), a non-refundable payment to show ‘gratitude’ to the landlord for permitting you to rent the property. Key money amounts vary but it is usually between one and three month’s rent. In general, tenants are also required to pay an annual service charge contribution to the upkeep of the building if the rental property is an apartment.
An annual municipal tax is paid by all homeowners in Japan, which is calculated on the value of the property.
Rates for utilities in Japan vary according to area and – as with most services in Japan – are high in comparison to Europe and the USA. When renting a property, your landlord will usually connect the utilities on your behalf. You will then be sent a monthly bill, which is paid by direct debit. There are a number of electricity companies in Japan, the largest being the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) who also supply gas. Refuse collection is free but tenants must sort their waste before taking it to the local refuse collection area. High speed broadband Internet is widely available and companies such as ASAHI and J:Com offer competitive TV, phone and broadband packages.
The average cost of utilities (electricity, water, gas) for a studio apartment in Tokyo is around ¥19,663 (£164) per month with a cost of ¥3975 (£21.25) per month for a broadband connection.
All television owners in Japan must pay an annual licence fee or ‘receiving fee’ to fund the public broadcaster, Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK) of ¥13,600 (£72)
Healthcare and medical costs
Japan has a high standard of healthcare provision at relatively low cost to residents. Payment for medical treatment is through a government contribution of 70% with the remaining 30% paid for by the patient through a universal healthcare insurance system (kaihoken). Payments for health insurance can be made through an employer or one of the many specialist insurance companies in Japan. Fees for medical treatment are tightly regulated by the Japanese government and kept low. All foreigners are required to have a private health insurance policy to gain entry into Japan, although those who remain for longer periods are permitted to register with the National Insurance System, which also covers 70% of the cost of prescription medicine.
Japan is deservedly known throughout the world as a ‘shopper’s paradise.’ Fashionistas, techno-addicts and bargain hunters are all catered for in the cities which, despite their packed in urban areas, boast shopping malls spectacular both in scale and design.
Groceries and alcohol are generally cheaper in Japan than many Western countries and there are a number of large chain supermarkets such as Albis and Daiei which offer competitive prices. A number of online food shopping and delivery websites such as yoyo market are also widely used. On the whole Japanese people are very fashion-conscious and clothing can be expensive, particularly in cities.
Shops in Japan are open between 9am and 8pm, with limited hours on Sundays.
Most goods and services in Japan are subject to a sales tax, which is currently set at 8%.
Source: www.numbeo.com (accessed November 2015)
Budgeting and Savings
Japan has a number of price comparison websites, such as http://kakaku.com/, but bear in mind that they are all in Japanese. Savings can be made by shopping for food at large supermarkets and picking up bargains in the ubiquitous second hand and vintage clothing stores in Japan.
Japan’s public transport system is so efficient that the majority of people go to school or work by train. Therefore, driving is seen as something of a weekend hobby, rather than a necessity.
For those who wish to drive, Japan has a well-maintained network of expressways (which incur toll fees) and smaller dual carriageways connecting major cities and towns. Vehicles drive on the left hand side of the road in Japan and have right-hand drive controls. The national speed limits are 100 km/h (60mph) on expressways and 30-40km/h (20-25mph) in urban areas. Drink driving and talking on a mobile phone carries harsh penalties in Japan. Foreigners wishing to drive in Japan must apply for an International Driving Permit (IDP). Fuel is widely available, usually served by an attendant who will also hand you a towel for your dashboard and take your rubbish away.
Taxis are viewed by many Japanese people as a very expensive alternative to public transport. However, taxis can be useful after midnight, when most public transport stops operating. Taxis are generally hailed from the street rather than booked ahead and can be recognised by their distinctive red and yellow or green and black colours, according to the city or town. Fare calculation is by meter and Japanese taxi drivers rarely take advantage of their passengers.
Buses and Coaches
Bus travel is the second most popular way of getting around in Japan, after trains. Buses are punctual and run to a highly organised timetable. Using a bus in Japan can be intimidating for foreigners as most information – including the destinations – are displayed in Japanese characters. On boarding a bus it’s helpful to remember to take a ticket from the machine and pay your fare to the driver when you get off (except in Tokyo, where you pay when you get on) Further information about bus travel can be found here.
For longer distances, there are plenty ‘highway buses’ (coaches) which link all the major cities. The largest coach companies are Willer Express and JR Buses which are run by the Japan Railways Group.
Japan’s main four islands are covered by an extensive and highly efficient rail network. The iconic high speed ‘bullet’ trains (shinkansen), which can reach speeds of up to 320km/h (198mph) whisk travellers between all the major cities in comfort and style. Shinkansen are punctual almost to the second and most include a buffet service and reclining seats. The majority of Japanese cities have a metro/subway network and the intricate Tokyo Metro – carrying 3.334 billion people each year – is the busiest underground railway system in the world.
The rail network is managed by Japan Railways (JR) which also runs bus and ferry services. The JR Rail Pass offers an economical way to travel and can be purchased prior to travelling to Japan. There are also a number of sections of track which are owned by private rail companies, some which are not covered by the JR Rail Pass.
Trams and light rail
Much of Japan’s tram (streetcar) network has now been replaced by subway/metro systems, however the cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima all have one or two lines still in operation. The cities of Hiroshima and Toyama both have efficient Light Rail Transit (LRT) networks, which offer a cheap and environmentally-friendly way to travel.
There are 97 airports in Japan which serve domestic and international destinations. Tokyo’s Narita Airport is the largest and busiest, followed by Osaka International Airport. The dominant airlines are Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airports (ANA), but there are also some budget carriers serving domestic and international destination such as Fly Peach and Jetstar Japan.
Other ways to get around
Japan’s main four islands are connected by a series of tunnels and bridges, but the many other thousands of smaller islands can only be reached by ferry. Japan has an efficient ferry network which is relied upon by island residents as their only way of reaching the mainland. Ferries carry people, vehicles and cargo, and some are luxuriously equipped with cabins, or more basic dormitories. Ferry tickets can be booked through aferry.com.
Bicycles are widely used in Japan by people of all ages. You can rent a bicycle from most train stations and cycle lanes, both on the pavements and roads, are clearly marked.
Japanese people are proud of their reputation for devotion to work and it is not uncommon for employees to work 60+ hours a week. Despite reports of employees suffering karo-shi, literally translated to mean ‘death from overwork’, these cases are rare and most workers enjoy excellent conditions. Dedication to career progression and loyalty to employers are the main motivations for working extra hours.
Holiday entitlement in Japan is shifting in line with much of the developed world with employees entitled to around 18.5 days paid leave per year. However, according to the Labour Ministry, the average worker only uses 9 of the days entitled to them. In 2015 the government announced plans to force employers to grant workers a minimum of five days of paid leave per year. Workers generally use holiday entitlement to cover sick days. Maternity leave is considered generous in Japan, with new parents being entitled to 14 weeks – six weeks prior to birth and eight weeks after – with up to 67% of their wages covered by social insurance.
Japan has 16 public national holidays, almost twice the number of UK and the rest of Europe. The Public Holiday Law, first introduced in 1948, enshrines holidays in the constitution. May is considered the busiest holiday period, when there are three consecutive holiday days in a row. Certain events of either celebration or mourning relating to the Imperial family are also regarded as national holidays.
Public holiday dates
New Year’s Day: 1st January
Coming of Age Day: 8th January
National Foundation Day: 11th February
Spring Equinox: 21st March
Showa Day: 30th April
Constitution Day: 3rd of May (observed on 6th if falls on Sunday)
Greenery Day: 4th May
Childrens’ Day: 5th May
Marine Day: 16th July
Respect for the Aged Day: 17th September
Autumn Equinox: 24th September
Sports Day: 8th October
Culture Day: 3rd November
Labour Thanksgiving Day: 23rd November
The Emporers Birthday: 24th December
New Year’s Eve: 31st December
Visas and eligibility to work
In April 2015 a Highly Skilled Professional (HSP) visa was introduced to make it easier for people from certain countries to stay and work in Japan. To qualify, workers need to achieve at least 70 points based on academic achievement, salary, age and work experience. Workers will qualify for a HSP if their skills are proven to benefit the Japanese economy. This preferential visa allows workers to stay in the country for five years. A permanent visa can also be applied for after three years. Other foreigners intending to work in Japan must apply for the appropriate visa by submitting a Certificate of Eligibility. Working visa holders must also apply for Resident Registration at a local government office within 14 days of moving into an address. Workers moving to Japan with an existing company can apply for intra-company visas if they have worked for more than one year in the overseas office. There are 27 visa types in Japan, separated into three main groups; working, non-working and family-related.
In Japan the tax year runs from 1st January to 31st December. There are three categories for people living in Japan; non-resident, non-permanent resident and permanent resident. Japan’s tax system is based on a combination of self-assessment and withholding taxes, which are contributions automatically taken from salaries. The amount of tax you pay will depend on your income. If you earn less than ¥1.95million (£10,464) per year you will pay a rate of 5% tax. Top earners are taxed 40% on earnings more than ¥18million (£96,605). Tax returns must be submitted to your local zeimusho (tax office) either in person, by mail or online, between 16th February and 15th March of the following year. Permanent residents who have lived in Japan for at least five years are taxed on all income from Japan and abroad.
Since 1st January 2010 the Japan Pension Service has managed pensions, known as Kokumin Nenkin, which requires all residents, including foreigners, aged 20-60 to make contributions. Contributions can be paid either at banks, post offices, convenience stores or deducted automatically from pay packets. You must contribute to the national pension scheme for at least 25 years to qualify for the basic pension. Pensions are paid when a person, whether living in Japan or not, reaches 65. Lump-sum payments are available for foreigners who have paid into the pension scheme for at least 25 years if certain criteria are filled. Enrolment onto the national pension scheme can be done by visiting the municipal office in person. For more information, visit the http://www.kochi-kia.or.jp/ website.
Since 2013, the rights of disabled workers in Japan have been protected under the Act on the Elimination of Disability Discrimination. This prohibits discrimination against any person for reasons of disability. This commitment to equal rights was further underpinned by the government of Japan ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in January 2014. Employers are expected to make appropriate provisions to accommodate disabled workers in workplaces.
Business structure in Japan is strictly hierarchical but with the central ethos to corporate success being based on group effort. Each worker has clear roles, responsibilities and boundaries with loyalty and long service being rewarded with promotions. Harmonious group activity and solidarity among workers is considered paramount and is the cornerstone of Japan’s success as the 3rd largest economy in the world. Japanese business culture places emphasis upon customer needs, giving the country a reputation for levels of customer service rarely experienced in other developed countries.
Japanese management style is bound by complex rules and emphasis is on harmonious relations between workers and their superiors. The relationships between line managers and their immediate subordinates are often as close as siblings, with loyalty and respect considered a vital attribute for career progression. While a strict management structure exists, Japanese businesses operate a decentralised decision-making culture known as the ringi system, whereby all workers reach a consensus on a proposed venture or idea. This system may seem arduous to someone from a Western culture, where most workers are used to top-down decision-making, but Japanese emphasis on consensus and the clearly defined roles of workers underpins the national ideal of group harmony.
Japan has an intensely formal business culture and politeness, sensitivity and manners are considered important to good business practice. Even the exchange of business cards, customary at the start of meetings, comes with a set of strict cultural rules (present the card with both hands, place a card from someone senior at the top of your pile, always place cards in a leather business card case and never in an inside pocket). First names are rarely used in a business setting and co-workers call each other by their last name with the affix ‘san’, for example, ‘Mr Tanaka-san’. If you unwittingly make a faux pas in a business environment, it is unlikely you will find out until much later, your audience being too polite to tell you your mistake.
Japan has a formal business culture and do not like to bring their private lives into the workplace. However Japanese office workers are encouraged to socialise with their boss and co-workers after work in bars and restaurants most evenings, particularly Friday night. Socialising with colleagues is generally not optional and is seen as part of workplace duties, to the point where if you must leave early, it is customary to apologise to your co-workers and congratulate their continuing dedication to their work before you leave.
Japanese people place great importance on business attire and sloppy or outlandish work clothing is unacceptable. Men should choose a dark-coloured suit, shirt and tie and wear polished shoes that are easy to slip on and off (removal of shoes is necessary in many homes, restaurants and hotels in Japan). Women are expected to wear long or knee length skirts (Japanese businesswomen rarely wear trousers), flat shoes as opposed to heels and keep their hair tidy and tied back.
Bowing, rather than a handshake, is used as a greeting and thanks in Japan. The speed and depth of a bow depends on who you are greeting. Deep, exaggerated bows are reserved for highly respected figures, senior managers and office bosses. However, most Japanese people do not expect foreigners to understand the bowing system and will offer a handshake to visitors from Western cultures. The European peck on the cheek is rarely seen, yet the air-kiss is not uncommon among friends. More information about bowing in Japan can be found here.
Punctuality is highly important in Japan and is woven deeply into the culture of ‘no hidden surprises’ (i.e. do not be unpredictable). Japanese people are very punctual and turning up to a meeting late would be seen as exceedingly rude, even by a few minutes. Public transport in Japan is known for being punctual to the second and most people like to arrive at meetings at least five minutes early.
Business meetings in Japan are highly-structured and strictly bound by social and cultural etiquette. At the beginning of a meeting, following a series of bows and the exchange of business cards, participants must wait until the highest-ranking person present is seated before they sit down. Meetings are very respectful and everyone is given their opportunity to speak. Over-gesticulating, talking loudly or over other people or being aggressive would cause great offence in a Japanese business meeting. It is not uncommon to see managers subconsciously copying their superiors’ gestures and mannerisms, from removing their jackets to writing notes almost in unison.
Business culture, along with other elements of Japanese culture, is dominated by intricate rules of etiquette, politeness and formality. Japanese people do not expect foreigners to understand each and every rule and are very forgiving of the odd faux pas. However, it is a good idea to try and keep a respectful demeanour, attempt the correct bow and learn some phrases of Japanese in order to gain trust in a business setting. Trying but failing is often considered worthy of respect in itself and can mean the difference when clinching a deal.
Most business in Japan is done in Japanese. English is widely taught in Japanese schools and, although many people are proficient in the language, most people will be too polite to stop you even if they do not understand what you are saying. When using English in Japan, try to speak slowly and keep what you say simple.
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