A Practical Guide to Working as a Scientist in Japan

Robert W. Ridge

Arriving and Settling In


I advise that you try to arrange for someone to meet you at the airport. This will make life very easy at the beginning as you won't have to find your own way around initially. But if you are not so lucky you may have to find your own way to your university or institution. At Narita Airport catching a `Limousine' (which is a large bus) to Tokyo station is relatively easy. There are large signs in English and many of the staff at the airport can speak simple English. There is now a choice of trains from Narita to Tokyo, the cheapest being the Keisei line if you catch the ordinary train (which is still called express) rather than the Narita Airport special train, for which you often need a reservation. The former takes only about ten minutes longer than the latter, and costs about 1,000 yen to Ueno station. There is a special train to Shinjuku, but this generally costs over 3,000 yen. I will soon insert all the exact information and fares. At the moment I haveno information about travel to and from Osaka or other major airports, but I'm working on it!

If you are very apprehensive, try to push your host professor to come and meet you, or at least to send one of his students! As the street system in Japan is difficult, people there are very used to meeting someone to take them to their institution or wherever. Don't feel shy to ask. At the very least your host should provide comprehensive instructions on how to get to the institution.


For most of you, especially on short term stays, the university or institution will have arranged your accommodation beforehand. Quite a few universities now have hotel-like accommodation for guests staying on a short term basis, and such accommodation can be useful while you wait for an alternative. However, my hopeful guess is that most of you will be supplied with a furnished apartment fairly close to work, though I can't guarantee it. If they have arranged only an unfurnished apartment then push very, very hard for a furnished one. If you are staying even one year, it is quite untenable to be offered unfurnished accommodation. There are few second-hand markets compared with other countries, so you cannot buy cheaply and you cannot easily sell when you leave, and the language barrier doesn't help. You may end up with quite a financial burden. If you cannot get satisfaction over this from your host sponsor, approach your home country organiser for help. This is a very important thing to get right before you leave for Japan.

If you are going to Tokyo, expect accommodation problems for long term fellowships (over three months). I have seen some advertised post-doctoral fellowships that supply apartments except in Tokyo. The reason is that any kind of accommodation in Tokyo is expensive and very hard to find, especially for the short term. Another reason is that in Japan there is a `thank-you' money system for the landlord. This means that when moving into an apartment (especially Tokyo) you must pay one month's rent as a fee to the agent, one month's rent as a deposit, one or two month's rent in advance, and possibly three month's rent to the landlord as a non-returnable `thank-you' for letting the apartment. If the rent is Y150,000 (about A$1,500) per month for a two-bedroom apartment then you are in for a considerable amount of money up front just to move in. In the Kansai region (centred on Osaka) you may be asked for up to 18 months rent as a deposit! This is why Japanese people move into apartments with the long term in mind and also change addresses rarely. It is an invidious system but there is nothing we can do about it.

If you go to Tsukuba, either to the university or one of the institutes, and you have a family, you may well be supplied with a three-bedroom house at reasonable rent.

Generally, accommodation is small, especially in a big city, but it is great at making you use your space effectively. Space is at a premium in Japan, and you will have to get used to it.

Signing on

If you have a long term fellowship, such as a post-doctoral fellowship, one of your first tasks will naturally be to sign on so that you can get paid. Make sure you go with someone from the laboratory because usually the administrative staff can't speak English, unless you are very lucky. The administration may provide a Seal (Hanko) with your surname so that they can `clock-in' for you every day, or they will ask you to provide one. Your professor will help. Every university has slightly different rules, but if you go to work at a private university they may ask you to sign on and off every day. My advice is, even if you don't like it, do whatever your professor advises you to do. However, there is every chance that you will not need to do all that.


The seal (hanko) is used in all aspects of Japanese life, but as a foreigner your signature is accepted in many situations. They should cost around Y3500, which is expensive, but a foreigner can't buy one off the shelf. You can use it for banking (though they will accept a signature from foreigners) and if you teach you must use it for approval of student changes and to show that the copy of the exam results is bona fide. And of course, you will need it for your research grant application forms. I have put my seal on the title page of the booklet as an example, and if you know Katakana, you will be able to read it. Even if you use the hanko rarely, it is a very nice and personal souvenir from Japan, you can almost guarantee that it will be unique.

Meishi (business card)

Most academics aren't used to having business cards, but in all walks of life in Japan they are an essential introduction, and you will see these small cards being exchanged in many situations. For both short term and long term visitors they are very useful, as they can explain a lot about the giver without words being said. Always present the card so that the print is the correct way up for the receiver. You can get bilingual cards (Japanese on the reverse side) done quite quickly at local printers for about Y3,000 for 200 cards, but prices will vary!

Alien Registration

For many, one of the biggest pains of life as a foreigner in Japan is the Alien Registration. It wouldn't be so bad if the government didn't insist on a fingerprint (right index finger only) as verification; many foreigners feel as though they are treated as criminals. It is now a small card with photo and fingerprint, and you are supposed to carry it with you at all times. The Alien Registration is only necessary for those staying longer than three months. You must register at your local council offices within 90 days of entry, so its not an urgent thing. In a way it is quite interesting to see the bureaucrats at work in another country. You will need your passport, as well as proof of address and proof of employment, which your professor will help organise (are you beginning to realise that not only are you as helpless as a lost child, but you are in constant need of a baby sitter?). You must relinquish your Alien Registration card at passport control when you leave Japan.

Local information

Many Japanese City and Ward offices now have free bilingual guidebooks of the local town. These are extremely useful for foreigners because they abound with information on local public utilities such as gas, water, electricity (100V in Japan), what to do in an earthquake, transportation, education facilities, local clubs, sightseeing, public institutions (eg library), doctors and other medical facilities, and so on.

Special services for the foreign tourist

The Japan National Tourist Organisation (JNTO) offers a number of free services specially created to make a stay in Japan more interesting and rewarding. JNTO maintains three Tourist Information Centres (TICs): one at the New Tokyo International Airport (Narita), one in central Tokyo (see the Appendix for address) and one in Kyoto. They offer a wide range of English language Tourist information on Japan, including current events and free maps and brochures.

For a closer look at home life, JNTO has organised a Home Visit System. Through this program it is possible to visit a Japanese family free of charge in any of 19 cities around Japan.

The Japan Travel-Phone Service provides information for foreign visitors having difficulty in communicating or who need information on places they want to see. This service is available from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm every day of the year.

Finally, the Explore Japanese Culture System provides visitors with information on facilities in 54 Japanese cities where the visitor can experience the excitement of Japanese cultural activities and events. A list of facilities is available at JNTO's overseas offices and at TIC and `i' (information) offices in Japan. See the Appendix for telephone numbers.

Health insurance (kenko hokken) and medicine

You will have to pay insurance to the local city council. In your first year especially it will be cheap because it is rated according to your previous year's income, which you haven't had in Japan. You must get help from your professor to sort this out; it is very important to get this done as soon as possible. It is also possible to arrange health insurance through your sponsoring organisation before you leave for Japan.

All doctors and dentists in Japan have `Western' style training, and are highly competent. It is not difficult to find a female doctor. At the dentist's, doctor's or the hospital, you will have to pay immediately after treatment. You should have your insurance card (hokken sho) with you, and you will pay about 30% of the bill. However, the charges are not as high as in other countries and much lower than in the USA for example. The charges will include the cost of a prescription. Thus, after that there is nothing you can claim for or need pay for. Even the smallest local general practitioner has a dispensary, so usually you will not need to go elsewhere for your prescription. Some items for dentistry are not covered by the local insurance.

Usually if you go to the doctor for some complaint, you will get a pretty good check over as well. Recommended periods of rest or stays in hospital are usually longer than would be the case in the `West'. When you go to the doctor's surgery, no matter what your complaint, a nurse will take your temperature and pulse, and possibly your blood pressure. On all the visits to my local doctor I felt very well treated and in good hands. When I once suffered badly from diarrhoea, the local doctor gently insisted on two bottles of saline there and then, administered intravenously by a nurse. Most doctor's surgeries are open six days per week, with a mid-week day as holiday.

You do not need a referral from an ordinary doctor to go to a specialist, though of course they will help you to find who you need.

It is difficult to get the contraceptive pill in Japan, and some over-the-counter medicines such as paracetamol are hard to obtain. If you get mild Diarrhoea or have a bout of vomiting, I thoroughly recommend Seirogan, which you can buy from any chemist. They are small brown balls, one third creosote, the rest herbs, and work very well. They are very popular in Japan; I have used them a number of times over the last few years and can vouch for their effectiveness. I should say that it is very unlikely you will get sick from the food, as the hygiene standards in Japan are very high, and of course the water is drinkable everywhere.

Universities and companies have comprehensive health checks for all staff once a year. The checks usually include a chest X-ray (called Rent-o-jen, after Rontgen) which you can decline.


The first golden rule to remember in Japan is that officials never bend the rules. The second golden rule is to remember that no matter how much fuss you cause because it all seems so stupid, it won't make any difference, and it is much easier in the end to just wait patiently. In other countries the officials can be far worse, and at least in Japan they get it done correctly without too much hassle. Very often they can be very pleasant and try their best in their unbending way. One of the times I went to Tokyo to renew my visa (an all day job) I had forgotten a vital piece of paper. The gentleman realised that I had come a long way and had waited in a queue for two hours, and went to the trouble of telephoning my university for confirmation. Although he was able to give me only a one-year visa rather than two years, I felt grateful and happy that he had gone to some trouble. Some other officials I'm sure would have made me travel back to Tsukuba to retrieve the document.

Driving and driving licence (menkyosho)

The Japanese drive on the left, and basic road rules are the same as in the UK and Australia, for example. In many parts of Japan the roads are very narrow, often without footpaths. Tokyo is especially full of very narrow roads. Much of Tokyo has speed limits of 40 kph, but with high traffic volume and narrow roads, I can't imagine that it is possible to go even that fast. Japan has expressways (speed limit 100 kph), but they are all tolled and very expensive. For example, to go to Tsukuba from central Tokyo costs Y600 on the Shuto Expressway, and then another Y1,500 on the Joban Expressway. That is about Aust$21 to travel just 60km!! Unfortunately, however, alternative roads are very slow, as there are no really good A-class road equivalents in Japan, just expressways and C-class roads. In small roads, look out for cyclists on the wrong side of the road; an especially dangerous practice by Japanese cyclists is swinging out to get around a parked car when cycling on the wrong side, straight into oncoming traffic! They also often come into the road from a side street without looking.

In some areas, especially Ibaraki, the drivers are maniacs, and they only stop at a red light when the traffic is moving on the green the other way. In Tokyo, driving is better, but then you don't really need to drive because of the superb train system. On a trip to Nara, I found the drivers were very good. On the expressways, some truck drivers can be very stupid, mucking about because they are bored with driving. I have often seen them driving at high speed one metre behind a car, swinging wildly from side to side.

You can use an international driving licence for up to one year in Japan; you can't use a home country licence as you can in the USA. This means a trip to the licence bureau, and if you are in a country town it will probably be centralised somewhere, inconveniently in another town two hours away by train. You can do nothing but grin and bear it and take the day off. No-one will mind, they've all been through it. One of the things that impressed me most about the ordinary Japanese is how they are so enduring of officialdom. Anyway, you will need to take your passport and your home country licence (and everything you can think of, including your Alien Registration) and sit through a two hour lecture on car accidents (and a few grisly slides) and not understand a word. But that doesn't matter as long as you do it.


Usually the salary is quite enough to live on and save money for trips. You should also get an accommodation allowance if you aren't in university housing (which is usually cheap). I can't imagine that any researcher in Japan will need to worry about covering their costs. In addition, for the first two years you won't be taxed, unless you take out a contract of longer than two years, in which case you will be taxed from the beginning! If you are taxed and you think you shouldn't be, then go with your professor to the administration and sort it out; there may have been a form not completed. There are taxation treaties between Japan and many countries, and you are not taxed in the `host' country while you still may have tax liabilities in your home country. If you are worried about the implications of this then consult your taxation office before you go. If you stay longer than two years then you will start to pay tax after that, and there will be local tax as well. As in most other countries, your tax will depend on income and number of dependents, so expect to pay a higher amount if you have no dependent spouse or children. I have two children and a dependent spouse and pay around Y12,000 per month in federal tax, and about Y35,000 in local tax, but the local tax in Mitaka is apparently much higher than other places.

Return of expenses

If you paid for your airfare and shipped goods and there was an agreement to pay for these Expenses, which there usually is, don't expect the return of this money too quickly. You may have to wait as long as two or three months. It is rather long I know but you can't hurry them up. If its a consolation, they will be very generous with the exchange rates and there is a good chance you will be paid much to your advantage. As another rule in Japan, it usually comes good, but in time.

Short term fellows should expect re-imbursement within the duration of their stay.