Politics in Japan

This morning I read an article saying that the cIty of Musashino (in Tokyo) is considering giving voting rights in local referendums to non-Japanese (always so charmingly referred to as “foreigners”). Voting rights for foreigners are always a contentious topic, and I am definitely not going to go into that right now. If you can read Japanese, then maybe look at Japanese Twitter to look at some Uyoku (Japanese right-wingers) going absolutely crazy about this topic. It is kind of entertaining, but also somewhat depressing.

Anyway, this gave me the idea to write a bit about political systems in Japan. Commenting on politics itself is can of worms that I am not all that eager to open, but maybe I can give you a rough overview so you can form your own opinion afterwards. Another reason for writing this article is, that I want to educate myself about this topic as well, so we will be learning together on this one.

Characteristics of politics in Japan

There are three types of elections held in Japan. First there are elections for the lower house, also called the House of Representatives. Then there are elections for the upper house, also referred to as the House of Councillors. The Prime minister is elected by these two Houses. Finally, there are local elections for posts on a prefectural or municipal level, such as governor or mayor.

Politics in Japan have been generally dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since the end of World War II. Since the its inception in the 1950s, there have only been two brief intervals were a Prime Minister and his cabinet were not from the LDP. The LDP’s junior coalition partner since 2012 is the Komeito, a small party that is closely affiliated with the Buddhist sect Soka Gakkai. Both parties stand for conservative and at times traditionalist values. Opposition parties, on the other hand, are very fragmented and there are no real contenders for the LDP’s spot as the biggest fish in the pond.

Another characteristic trait of Japanese politics is that prime ministers tend to not last very long in office. The former PM, Yoshihide Suga, served for only 1 year and 19 days and he is decidedly in the midfield there. His predecessor, Shinzō Abe, managed to last for 7 years and 266 days and holds the record as Japans longest serving prime minister. Since the 1870s, there have only been 15 prime ministers who served for longer than 1000 days.

Election-woes in Japan

A big problem for politicians in Japan is motivating their constituents to actually go out and vote. For the last general election, voter turnout was at a measly 55%. The Coronavirus measures of the former PM and his cabinet were deeply unpopular, and people were actually hopeful that turnout would go up. But in the end it ended up being one of the lowest turnouts ever. There are many reasons for this and going into them would probably amount to writing a thesis about this topic. From what I have gathered in my time living in Japan, politics are simply not a topic that interests many people. Especially among the young, politics are seen as “uncool” and being interested in politics is considered to makes you an Uyoku (Japanese right winger).

Since younger people do not vote, politicians focus their policies and campaigns heavily on the older generations. This creates the perception that they do not care about younger generations, leading to people in their 20s and 30s feeling disenfranchised. This cycle seems to be one of the bigger factors for the low voter turnout.

Finally, since this article was inspired by an article about voting rights for foreign residents, let us also very briefly talk about them. Simply put, short of changing your nationality, there is no way to gain access to voting rights as a foreigner in Japan at the moment. According to information I found online, there are about 40 municipalities in Japan that allow foreign residents to participate in referendums at the municipal level, but even this is rare. From what I have heard, there were movements to introduce expanded voting rights for foreign residents in the past, but they were shut down by conservative politicians. Personally, I feel it would be a nice gesture to allow longterm foreign residents to vote at least in the mayor or prefectural governor elections, but I have my doubts that this is ever going to happen.

A Question of Locale – How to Choose Where to Live in Japan

When it comes to moving to Japan, people tend to fall into one of two categories. On one side of the coin are those, that think about potential jobs first while being flexible about the location. On the other side are those, that have a specific area in mind where they want to live, while considerations about work are secondary. “I want to live in Tokyo not matter what, so I’ll do whatever work I can find” is a pretty common attitude among people that newly arrived to Japan or are still abroad, waiting for their chance to get in. As you can imagine, an all-or-nothing approach like that quickly leads down the path to disgruntlement and sooner or later you will find yourself at the HUB, sipping stale beer while you and your (foreign) colleagues rant about everything that is wrong in the world and specifically Japan. But I digress.

As can be understood from the above (very much tongue-in-cheek, but still accurate) paragraph, deciding on where you want to live is a very important decision to make when moving to Japan. As ever, this is not really a guide, rather I hope to give a more nuanced opinion on the whole issue and encourage you to do your own research to find somewhere that is actually livable for you.

The Problem with asking for advice

This is a bit more general, but bear with me because you will encounter this a lot when looking for advice on where to live in Japan. Whenever you ask someone for advice, be that online or offline, it will inevitably contain the opinion and bias of the person that is said advice it. When it comes to to our living environment, requirements vary from person to person so it is a very good idea to keep this in mind. One person might describe a somewhat run-down part of town as “seedy”, while another might praise it for the “urban vibes”. Another problem (mainly in online discussions) is the fact that people giving their opinion usually really love or really hate the thing they are giving their opinion about, so it is hard to find a balanced take.

Okay, but I still want your advice!

In that case, I am going to assume you have read and understood the above. I am trying my hardest to give the ever-elusive “balanced take” here, but it is still advice/my opinion so keep the above in mind.

I would recommend being more flexible with WHERE you work, rather than WHAT you work. Sure, you have seen all those glamorous or outright crazy instagram pictures from Shibuya, you spent two weeks in Tokyo on a holiday, absolutely loved it because you could still get Gyudon from Matsuya at 2 a.m. and now you absolutely HAVE to live here. But consider this, if you are willing to apply for absolutely any form of work, just to be able to live in Tokyo you will a) not make enough money to actually enjoy living here and b) will probably not have a lot of free-time to even use you meagre savings. I find that being content with and motivated for your work is a big contributor to personal happiness, so I would definitely prioritize it above where you want to live. Another more pragmatic reason is the fact that you need work to be eligible for most visa, so if you absolutely need to be in Japan as soon as possible, it is definitely better to figure out where you can work first.

Once you have a job offer, it is now time to think about where you want to live. If you are going to work in a bigger city, it is likely that you will have to commute by train. From personal experience, a commute that takes longer than 45 minutes is just awful, so I would think about that when choosing a place to live. If you like partying and going out a lot, then you might consider living in the city proper, but be prepared for the fact that partying in Japan might be different from what you are used to and rents can get pretty expensive in places like Tokyo. If you only go out on the weekends, then living in more affordable housing in the suburbs might be better for you, but be aware that you might need to take the train to go to a restaurant that you like.

Where should I live though?

You will have to figure that one out for yourself I am afraid. Apart from the above, the only other advice that I can give you is to not be overly dismissive of a place. Japan has 47 prefectures, which all have their own little quirks and characteristics that make them worth exploring or living in. People love ripping on Saitama or Ibaraki online, but I have found both of these places to be a lot nicer than their reputation suggests. When it comes to figuring out where you want to live, nobody but yourself is going to be able to give you a definitive answer. And if you get it wrong, do not be afraid to move somewhere else to try something new. You have already made a massive step in moving from abroad to Japan, is moving from Tokyo to Osaka really going to be such a big challenge?

Medical and Health Care in Japan – What to do at the Doctors Part II

If have not seen Part I of this series, I highly recommend you to go and check it out here!

Last week, I left you with a bit of a cliffhanger on part I. Sure you are now face-to-face with a doctor, but what happens next?! That is a good questions and it depends a lot on your personal situation, but after finishing last weeks article I still felt like I had more to say on the topic so here goes.

A few more things before you enter the 診察室

But first, we have to go one step back to the point where you submit your カルテ (the clipboard with a document that has all your relevant information on it). Depending on what kind of problems you are having, you might be asked to measure your pulse first. Yes, you often have to do this yourself but it is quite simple. They will show you to a machine that looks somewhat like an old printer from the 90s with a big hole on the side. You then stick your arm through that whole, tell the machine to start (there’s usually only one button, so press that one) and it will then measure your pulse. The result will be printed on a small paper slip which you hand to the reception staff. If you are nervous and have a high pulse as a result, they will ask you to try and calm down a bit and then measure again. If your pulse is still high after your second measurement, they might measure again manually or simply just roll with it.

Next, Japanese doctors love taking your blood (further confirming my theory that all doctors are secretly vampires) so expect to get pricked at least once. Again, depending on the type of treatment this might happen before or after you talked to the doctor but it is very likely to happen. The process of taking blood is pretty universal I think, the only stumbling block is when they ask you whether they can disinfect the area with an alcohol wipe first. Just say はい when you hear the word アルコール (a good idea in general if you are into that sort of stuff), or refuse if you are allergic.

Entering the lair

Now onto the really difficult stuff, the actual talking to the doctor. When you are called, you can proceed directly into the 診察室. Some people knock before they enter, but you do not have to. Unless you specifically go to a doctor that can speak English (or whatever language) and is advertised as such, it is best to expect that they can only speak Japanese. It is very important that you are able to express yourself properly, so the doctor can get a good idea of what is bothering you. If you cannot speak Japanese, best bring somebody who can.

During the interview, the doctor will try to diagnose as much as they can. Sometimes they might be able to tell what is wrong by simply looking at you. If more tests are necessary, you might have to go out and wait in the waiting room again until the tests can be performed. You will then be called to perform further tests until they can determine what they can do to help you, at which point they will call you into the 診察室 again and tell you as much. Generally, you will be given a thorough explanation of their findings and what they think is the best way to treat you. This often includes a boatload of pills and other medicines. Finally, you will be asked to go and wait in the waiting room while they process your payment.

Escaping the castle

Some people are want to leave, once the final consultation with the doctor is over but do not leave just yet. You still have to pay your 30% share of the costs. Simply go to the waiting room and wait until the receptionist calls for you. When paying, cash is often your best bet. Some clinics and hospitals may accept cashless payment, but from my experience most do not. If you do not have enough cash, it is generally acceptable to go to the next ATM and withdraw some (they have your info after all, should you decide to simply leg it). Make sure you double-check the receipt, I have been charged 60.000 Yen in the past when I should have been charged only 6.000. After you have paid, you will receive your prescription for your medication. Now you have almost made it.

The last step on your journey is to pick up your medication. Prescription medication is sold at the 薬局 (yakkyoku) and there are often several 薬局 in the vicinity of a clinic or hospital. You want to be on the lookout for the following sign: 処方せん受付 (shobousenuketsuke). This roughly translates to “We accept prescriptions” and is often displayed very prominently in front of the store. Go in, and present your prescription and insurance card first. Now comes another one of Japan’s peculiarities, the 薬手帳 (kusuritechou). This is a small booklet where all the prescription medication that you receive is logged. If you do not have one, they will make you one for free. If you forgot it, simply tell them, it’s no big deal. Also, you often have to fill out a カルテ again if it is your first time here. After that is done, it’s to waiting again. Once they have assembled all the medication you will be called and get the same explanation about the medications that you already got from the doctor. Then you pay and are finally free to go about your way.

That was quite the adventure, but I hope that it was useful to one or two of you out there. If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to leave me a comment or contact me via the contact form or social media. Have a good one and see you next week!

Medical and Health Care in Japan – What to do at the Doctors’

If you want to live in Japan – or even if you are just visiting – it is very important to get familiar with the medical system. Depending on where you are from, the medical system might be very different or not that different at all. Still, going to the doctor was always a challenge for me, even in my home country, so going to the doctor in Japan sometimes seemed like an insurmountable hurdle. Now that I have gotten a bit older, I feel like I have gotten somewhat used to the idea of having somebody else analyze and judge my body, although I still feel uncomfortable. So, for people that may still be struggling with the idea of visiting a hospital or a doctor in Japan, I hope that I can make it a bit easier for you.

But first, what about money?

If your stay in Japan is 6 months or longer, you are required by law to have health insurance. Generally speaking, there are two types of health insurance in Japan: one for unemployed people and one for employed people (I simplify a lot here, if you want to read more about insurance I have written an article about it). Once you are at a medical facility, the two types of insurance generally do work the same though. People who have insurance, generally only have to cover 30% of the fee of most general medical procedures with the insurance covering the remaining 70%. There are some procedures that are not covered by insurance (cosmetic surgery, childbirth, STD testing among others), so it is a good idea to check in advance. Also, since I see it mentioned sometimes: no calling an ambulance does not cost you anything unless you are judged to have made a prank call.

The language barrier

While there are some English-speaking clinics in Tokyo, and younger doctors may sometimes know rudimentary English, hospital or clinic staff will generally only be able to speak Japanese. If you feel like you might not be able to explain yourself, try searching online for places that might be able to help you in English (or any other Language) or bring someone who can translate on your behalf. There are also translation services available that will dispatch a translator to accompany you or translate for you over the phone – for a cost.

I have seen other blogs do vocabulary lists, so I guess I should try making one too. So here is a list of the different medical practices and what they are called in Japanese (not an exhaustive list since I will probably forget some). The translations are not literal and are meant for people to understand what they can expect when they visit this type of clinic.

内科 – naika – internist, generalist medicine
歯科 – shika – dentist
眼科 – ganka – eye medicine
耳鼻科 – jibika – ear, nose, and throat medicine
皮膚科 – hifuka – skin medicine
尿器科 – nyoukika – urology
胃腸科 – ichouka – stomach and bowel medicine
小児科 – shounika – pediatrician
(産)婦人科 – (san)fujinka – (obstetrician), gynecologist

Obviously, there are many more but I think the above list should cover most basic needs. Clinics will often specialize in one of the above. When it comes to hospitals, there are specialized, as well as generalist places that cover a wider range of disciplines.

I have a medical problem, what to do?

If it is an emergency, stop reading this and call an ambulance. Otherwise, choose what kind of treatment you need from the list above and take it to Google, together with the name of your area (for example “耳鼻科 小平市”). If you do not know what kind of treatment you need, go to an internist and they will generally tell you where you have to go. Google reviews are a decent indicator of what you can expect. If you want to take it further and make sure you go to the best doctor (often simply meaning the one with the friendliest staff), there are also dedicated review sites but they are all in Japanese. If it is not urgent, consider calling in advance to make an appointment. Especially in bigger cities, waiting times can be quite long if you simply walk in.

Speaking of which, once you walked into a clinic/hospital, the first thing you need to do is make your way to the reception (受付, uketsuke). Explain why you are here – just something like “My eye hurts and I would like it looked at” is enough – and if you have an appointment, let them know. Then you will be asked to hand over your insurance card and, if it is your first time at this particular clinic/hospital, you will also be asked to fill out a カルテ (karute from German Karte, many german loan words in Japanese medicine), which forms the basis of your medical file. The カルテ is in Japanese and most places will expect you to fill it out in Japanese, so if you can not write Japanese very well, ask somebody who can. That being said, some of the information asked is very basic, such as your name, age, and address, but sometimes it might ask for important information such as allergies or illnesses you have/had, so make sure you read and understand everything.

Once you have filled out your カルテ, hand it back to the receptionist and they will return your insurance card to you. Now you have to wait for the doctor to see you. Some places have a number system, where you receive a number at the reception and are called by that. Other places will simply call you by your name. In any case, once you are called, you may proceed to the 診察室 (shinsatsushitsu, examination room) where the doctor will have a first chat with you, figure out what is wrong and how they can help you.

And with that, we have reached the end of this article, since everything that comes after this point will vary greatly on a person-by-person basis. I hope I was able to give you a general idea of what you can expect. If all goes well, I will write a bit more about this topic next friday. See you then!

Living and Working in Japan – Then and Now

I am now getting close to completing my fourth year of living in Japan, and recently I have been thinking about how this might have changed me and my perspective. Living in a foreign country is obviously a huge challenge and if you go in with the expectation that everything will go according to plan you are bound to be disappointed. So your perspective, your plans, your very idea of yourself and your life might change and it is up to you to figure out whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for you. However, in order to not get too philosophical and write a more relatable article, I will try to stick to a single topic – my expectations before coming to Japan and how they are holding up.

Expectations are there to be subverted – that does not have to be a bad thing

My expectations before going to Japan

Not to toot my own horn here, but I feel like I had pretty realistic expectations before coming to Japan for the first time. I did not expect futuristic skylines or real-life anime characters walking around in the streets (they do in Shibuya though). I expected people to be friendly and customer service to be top-notch. Also, I expected people to be pretty tech-savvy – high-tech and Japan supposedly go hand-in-hand after all – and generally very interested in the goings-on outside Japan. My expectation was that people were cooking Italian food while listening to rock music from abroad. I had read many of the books by Murakami Haruki and his characters definitely influenced my perception.

My impressions upon arriving in Japan

The one thing that I completely underestimated before coming to Japan is the sheer amount of people (especially true for Tokyo). I grew up in a town with a population of around 600.000, which is not exactly small by European standards. But coming to Japan and seeing the masses that flow through airports and train stations here was definitely a big shock. Another impression that I had immediately upong landing was that there are a lot of restaurants and other food-related shops. Advertisements seemed to be either women in short skirts, some exotic travel destinations or, more often than not, somehow food-related.

My Expectations – Four years later

But the point of the whole article was to reflect a bit about what has changed. I often hear that people are bothered by being treated differently due to being a foreigner, even after they have been here for a long time. For me, this is not such a big concern. I recognize that I am different from all the Japanese people around me and being treated accordingly does not bother me (for now, at least). I try my best to fit in, of course, I speak fluent Japanese and try my best to observe rules and customs, but at the same time, I recognize that I am different from those around me just by virtue of having lived somewhere else for 25 years. As long as people do not treat me like an idiot, I am generally fine. But if I am to be treated differently, then I expect to be given some slack when I behave differently in some situations. Sure, when in Rome, do as the Romans do are wise words to live by, but for me at least there are limitations – you can only bend so much without breaking.

As for my expectations, I think it is fair to say that I was pretty off-base, even though I did not picture an anime-fairytale wonderland. While customer service is polite, there can also be a robot-like quality to it, which makes it hard to deal with unforeseen situations. People are generally friendly, but distant and it is just as hard to make meaningful connections as it is anywhere else. Also, the high-tech image is a complete hoax, many people are so stuck in the past that they are still using Windows XP on their work computers. And while there are a lot of people interested in the goings-on outside of Japan, I am reminded of a zoo, where the visitors represent the Japanese, the animals represent everything and everyone non-Japanese, and there is a big sheet of glass that separates them which represents their Japaneseness. There are a great many people here that think that they are different – although not necessarily better – from the rest of the world and I guess if you imagine something for long enough than it will eventually become true.

As for me, I still enjoy living and working in Japan. Sure, it is different from what I expected but I adapted and made it work for me. I enjoy the challenge of communicating and finding my way in a different culture and while it can sometimes be very frustrating, I feel like I am growing and learning so much that it is all worth it. Never stop dancing is the message of one of Murakami’s best books, and living in Japan is definitely a quickstep.

Importing Holidays – Valentine’s

Since last Sunday was Valentine’s Day, I thought I ought to post at least something about it, since it is a pretty unique aspect of the Japanese culture. Be warned, I’m not the biggest proponent of customs like this one, so here you will probably not really find a rosy telling of how everybody gets handmade chocolate.

While in most other countries, Valentine’s is decidedly for couples only, and even then mostly just used as a justification to go on a more expensive date, in Japan everybody participates. Sure, couples might go on fancy dates on Valentine’s in Japan as well, but generally, the day is all about chocolate. Specifically about women giving men chocolate. Smells of a marketing campaign? Well, you would be completely correct on that one, according to Wikipedia the act of giving chocolate was promoted by confectionary makers in the 1950s, and apparently, it caught on (not the most reliable of sources, but I’m not writing an essay). It must have been some pretty impressive marketing because Valentine’s day in Japan is now not only about couples, women will give chocolate to all sorts of men in their life, not only their significant other. Family (I got chocolate from my Japanese sister and mother-in-law, yay), friends, even co-workers, everybody can expect to receive tasty treats. Starting around the middle of January, department stores et al. will start selling large quantities of chocolate. Only on very rare occasions will somebody actually go through the trouble of making chocolate treats by themselves.

The true marketing masterstroke, however, is in the fact that they simply did it again, just a month later. Enter “White Day”, a Japan-exclusive custom observed on the 14th of March. While on Valentine’s Day, women are supposed to give chocolate to men, on White Day the roles are reversed. Now men are supposed to give chocolate to women. Originally, you were supposed to give white chocolate, marshmallows, or other white sweets – hence the name – but by now that custom seems to have been eroded and men will give all sorts of chocolate. If they give any at all, I have lived in Japan for around four years now and I can’t remember ever seeing a man giving chocolate to women on White Day. My best guess would be that it is a generational thing, with younger generations not really following this particular custom while maybe older generations still do.

Anyway, a rather short post about the odd way of celebrating Valentine’s Day in Japan. While it is most certainly an odd holiday everywhere in the world – couples should not really need a special day to celebrate their relationship – the pure commercialization of the Japanese variant has always been off-putting to me. If I give chocolate to my sister and mother-in-law (as I am supposed to, per the White Day marketing campaign), it’s because I like them and want to thank them, not simply going through the motions.

Vending Machines in Japan

If you’ve ever been to Japan, then you will know that there are vending machines everywhere. Seriously, in bigger cities, you can’t walk 20 meters without spotting a vending machine that sells various drinks. Hot and cold, Tea and coffee, lemonade, coke, energy drinks, sometimes even alcohol like beer, wine or sake, there is almost no drink that you will not be able to find in a vending machine somewhere. You can find them in malls, train stations and other public places, but also often in residential areas, just along the street, in house foyers, almost everywhere you go you will be greeted by the familiar hum and glow. As you leave the city, there will be fewer machines, but even in the countryside, you will still be able to find lots of them all over the place. Due to the sheer number of machines, there are also many variations. From modern ones, that accept cashless payment via your smartphone, to older ones that will not even accept paper money, only coins. As to why these drink vending machines are so ubiquitous, it is hard to say. Japan can be pretty hot and humid in Summer, so it is important to stay hydrated and they often sell isotonic drinks in summer. But then, you could simply walk to the convenience store that is just a further 30 meters down the road. Another reason I’ve heard mentioned, especially by older folks from the countryside, is that they are good for public safety because they emit light and make it harder for criminals to use the darkness to be criminal. Japan is a pretty safe country, and considering that there are lots of vending machines, there just might be some connection there. Maybe other countries could follow suit and replace their police force with vending machines. They are also less likely to shoot someone.

But back to the topic of vending machines. While there are all sorts of different machines, selling goods like the aforementioned drinks and alcohol, soup, snacks, cigarettes and kid’s toys, there are also more obscure ones, selling adult goods or even (allegedly) used underwear. Another common type is found in restaurants, where you choose what you want to eat at the machine, pay upfront and then simply hand the slip of paper that you receive to the staff and they will prepare what you ordered. These machines are commonly found in ramen shops, but also other restaurants and fast-food chains. While there are modern machines with a touchscreen that shows you exactly what you ordered and might even have an English menu option, the ones that you will find in ramen shops are usually more akin to the picture on the right, and can be hard to navigate if you are not used to them. 

Getting your ramen-ticket

I greatly prefer ramen from a mom-and-pop style restaurant, so I will use this opportunity to tell you all about these machines. Usually, the menu options will only be written in Japanese and there will be no pictures. The upper section usually contains buttons for the different kinds of ramen soup that you can order, while the lower section is reserved for toppings and extras, such as eggs, rice or fried dumplings (Gyoza). Another quirk of these machines is, that they often only accept coins or 1000 Yen bills, so if you only have a 5000 or 10,000 Yen bill, you have to ask the staff to change it for you (just walk up to the counter and say 両替ください, ryougae kudasai, please exchange money for me). Many machines will not automatically return your change, so after you have ordered something and received your paper slip (食券, shokken, meal ticket), make sure to look for a button that says おつり (otsuri, change), and crank/push it to receive your change, otherwise, the person behind you will probably notify you that you’ve forgotten your change. Then, simply take a seat at the counter and hand your paper slip to the staff. Sometimes they might ask you questions, like what kind of noodles do you want, if you want them hard or soft, or other things. But if they notice that you do not speak Japanese, they will probably just prepare it like they think you might like it. 

And that’s it! At first, it can be a bit daunting to walk into a mom-and-pop style ramen shop but trust me, the ramen here tastes so much better than in the tourist-friendly chain stores that it is worth it. Sometimes you might make a mistake and get something different from what you wanted to eat, but in that case, just treat it as an experience and try again another time. Enjoy ramen (and all the other various things that Japanese vending machines have in store)!

Online Shopping (in Japan)

Online shopping is taking off around the world, or maybe it’s better to say that it is already soaring. The coronavirus has given another boost to the industry, not that it necessarily needed one. And while there are many downsides to online shopping, for example, the woeful working conditions of most delivery truck drivers that deliver your Amazon parcel, or the huge amount of waste that is created by packaging, the sheer convenience of buying what you need without actually leaving your house seems to trump these. 

Of course, this holds in Japan as well. The cities in Japan, especially the shopping areas, tend to be very crowded, making a trip to the shops bothersome. On the other hand, the number of stores in the countryside might be very limited, with no brand stores and only a few chain-stores to be found. This dichotomy creates an environment that makes it easy for online shopping to flourish. As you would expect, Amazon is a household name and used by lots of people to buy lots of different things. But different from other countries, there is still enough space in the market for another big-name online retailer, namely the Japanese company Rakuten. Another competitor to Amazon is Yahoo! Shopping, which profits from being part of the Yahoo! brand. While Amazon has seen rapid growth recently, no one of these companies has become a truly dominant force in the market, unlike other countries where Amazon is often clearly alpha in the field.

Different platforms, different prices

When you are online shopping in Japan, it is often a good idea to compare prices on different platforms (although that is a good idea everywhere). One annoying part about online shopping Japan is often the payment methods. Bank transfers are often not accepted when online shopping, so you will need some other form of payment option, which often ends up being a credit card. However, getting a credit card in Japan can be pretty daunting, up to impossible for most foreigners. Even credit cards which advertise themselves as being so easy to get that even high school students can apply are often impossible to obtain for non-Japanese people. Other options are available, such as placing an order, then going to a convenience store and process the payment there. Once the payment is processed, your article will then be shipped. But this method kind of defeats the purpose of online shopping in the first place, which is to not have to leave the house to get shopping done. So, in the end, most people use some kind of prepaid card, or, in rarer cases, a debit card. But that also comes with its own troubles. Thus, online shopping is very convenient for Japanese, but there are unfortunately some hoops to jump through for most non-Japanese.

Shopping in Japan

Shopping in Japan will not be so different from other countries that you might already be used to. There are malls, supermarkets and department stores, as well as of course a variety of other shops selling all manner of goods and items that you might need. 

An important part of the shopping culture in Japan is the convenience store, or as it is called in Japanese, the konbini (コンビニ). If you desperately need something, for example, you forgot to buy salt at the supermarket, odds are that it will be sold at the konbini. Starting from toiletries, stationery and other goods that might be useful in a pinch, they sell sweets and snacks, whole ready-meals and you can buy drinks and alcohol as well. Some people live entirely on konbini food and drink, but be warned, prices can be a lot more expensive than simply going to the supermarket. At the konbini, you are not paying only for goods, you are paying for 24h around the clock service (though not every konbini will be open 24h) and accessibility as well. 

Supermarkets in Japan are as they are in many other countries. There are many different aisles, reserved for a variety of different foods, and other products. Usually, there is a section for fresh vegetables and fruit, as well as a section selling raw fish and meat. Many different chains exist, with none sticking out above another. Most people will simply go wherever is closest to their home. One thing to note is that, unlike some other countries, Japanese supermarkets sometimes do not stock toiletries such as toilet paper or toothpaste etc. In that case, there will usually be a drug store nearby that has whatever you need.

Speaking of which, drug stores are as they are in most other countries as well, selling cosmetics, shampoo, toilet paper and similar goods. Japanese drug stores will often also sell a variety of foods and beverages, such as snacks, frozen goods and sometimes even alcohol.

Taxes, shaken or stirred

One thing to be careful of when shopping in Japan is whether an article has been listed including or excluding sales tax (10% since October 2019). Some stores will display price without tax (zeinuki、税抜き), others will include the tax in the price (zeikomi 税込). If you are paying cash, it is always a good idea to check this, so you do not get caught out with not enough money when trying to pay at the register.

What You Need To Know When Opening a Bank Account in Japan

To set up a bank account, you need to have a visa that is valid for longer than 90 days, meaning you cannot open a bank account if you are on a tourist visa. Some bank branches might even reject you if you are on a visa that is six months or less, but this seems to depend on the bank and branch in question. If you get rejected, maybe try another branch or bank and you might get lucky. Another requirement for setting up a bank account, that seems to have come about recently is, that you now need to have stayed in Japan for longer than six months at the time of application, or you need to have already found work and submit a copy of your contract when applying. This is a recent change in accordance to a new anti-money laundering law and detailed information is still somewhat scarce at the moment, but it could mean that getting a bank account when you first come to Japan has become a lot more troublesome.

ATM machines will often offer English support

What you need to bring when you want to set up an account will be slightly different, depending on the bank, but in general, you will be required to bring your resident card (sometimes passport might get asked for too), a certificate of residence (juuminhyo, 住民票) and your personal seal/inkan/hanko (though some banks might allow you to simply sign). In many cases, you will also be required to provide a valid phone number when opening the account, which can be a problem. If you do not have a personal phone number yet, use a friend’s phone number, or simply give your companies or schools phone number for the time being. You can always change the number later.

Once you filled out the necessary forms at the bank and submitted them to the person at the counter, you will receive your bank book (tsuucho, 通帳) and a cash card (kyasshu kaado, キャッシュカード) sometimes on the spot or in rarer cases via post, roughly one week after opening the account. Some banks might not issue a cash card automatically and you will need to specify that you want one when making the application. Also note, that just because you have an account at a bank does not mean it will be easy to a credit card. Getting a credit card as a foreigner in Japan can be pretty difficult but at the same time this is seemingly entirely up to chance though, some people appear to be able to get a credit card soon after coming to Japan, other people that have lived in Japan for many years will still complete most of their transactions in cash because they do not have access to a credit card.