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Living in Japan - A Guide for Students

There’s nowhere else quite like Japan. The fusion of ultra-modern society and centuries-old traditions means that Japan is a truly unique study abroad destination.

It’s unsurprising that Japan is one of the world’s most popular countries for international students, hosting around 130,000 each year. If you’re interested in pursuing postgraduate study in this fascinating nation, our guide to life in Japan covers the essentials.

What's it like to study in Japan?

Japanese people take traditions and hierarchy very seriously. Professors command the most authority and the supervisor-supervisee relationship is more akin to a master-disciple interaction. Debating is not as common as in Western universities and if you feel you need to challenge your supervisor, do so with the highest level of diplomacy and respect.

There is also a strict hierarchy within research teams that is determined by age and position, with post-docs and PhDs commanding more seniority than Masters students who, in turn, are considered as seniors to undergraduate students. As such you may find that discussions within a research teams are generally top down rather than on an equal footing.

You may think you know a lot about Japan, especially as Japanese art, cuisine and cinema is becoming much more accessible around the world but something that you will have to learn is Japanese etiquette. There is nothing that a little common sense and respect for other cultures won’t sort out, but it is advisable to familiarise yourself with the basics such as taking your shoes off when entering a house (and which slippers to wear to go to the bathroom), how to eat, sitting techniques, greetings. . .

Accommodation and living costs for Masters students in Japan

Japan is often considered an expensive country to live in and this can be true if you want to continue to live and eat as you do back home. Your monthly budget will depend on your lifestyle and also on where you decide to study.

Tokyo is the most expensive but Kyushu and Tohoku can as much as 30% cheaper. When it comes to living expenses, accommodation and bills are likely to make up the bulk of your expenses, although here again there is wide variation.

Food and everyday life

Japanese food is a delight for those who love fresh ingredients, although in some cases you'll need adventurous taste buds. Supermarkets are an experience in themselves but there is nothing like trial and error to find out what is on offer.

Food is much more affordable if you get used to the basic Japanese menu (noodles, rice, miso soup, cabbage). Fruit and dairy products can be expensive. JASSO, the Japan Student Services Organisation, has a list of indicative prices for food and other everyday items. University cafeteria and vending machines are a good option if you are on a budget or in a hurry.

Eating out does not have to be an expensive affair and there are plenty of affordable options such as ramen noddle or tempura fast food shops. In traditional restaurants, you will have to kneel or sit cross-legged at the table (and remove your shoes).

University accommodation

Most universities in Japan will have a stock of rooms and flats reserved for international students. Rents are lower but availability can be limited. Graduate students will often have access to accommodation that is reserved for international students and (visiting) researchers, which can be great for networking.

Or, you may find yourself in residences where Japanese and international students live side-by-side, a great way to find out more about Japanese culture. Whatever your university, make sure that you apply as soon as possible (and before the deadline).

  • Monthly rent is between ¥25,000 and ¥50,000 (USD $228-455) depending on the type of room (the lowest being for dormitory-type accommodation) and your university.
  • En-suite or shared facilities are available. Accommodation for couples can be found in some of the largest universities such as Tokyo but university accommodation for families is rare.
  • There will be additional costs to take into account such as cleaning charges (¥9,000 / USD $82 – a one-off fee), internet access and utilities (around ¥10,000 / USD $91 per month).
  • Residency is generally limited to one year so you will have to look at other options for the second year of your Masters.

Private sector accommodation

Private accommodation means private student accommodation, guesthouses, shared flats or renting on your own. Each type of accommodation will offer different packages to suit your own preferences.

When renting through an estate agent, you will be required to have a guarantor, a person who takes financial and moral responsibility for you and the payment of your rent. If you do not know anyone in Japan, then your international office may provide a guarantor system (generally the head of the international office).

In turn, they may require that you have a renter’s insurance such as the Comprehensive Renters’ Insurance for Foreign Students Studying in Japan, provided by the Japan Educational Exchanges and Services (JEES) to cover risks such as fires and other damages. A deposit of up to five times your monthly rent may also be required by estate agents.

  • Private student accommodation – Rental costs are often higher than for university-owned accommodation but they can include everything (even meals) so aren't always a bad option. Rent is between ¥30,000 and ¥90,000 (USD $272-818) per month (depending on whether this is on a full-board basis or not). Some student accommodation companies also offer a housemate service to help you find other people to live with in shared apartments.
  • Guesthouses – These are an inexpensive option for long-term stays. Most guesthouses are managed by individual owners, although there are companies operating in this area (with some having a foreigner-only policy). Guesthouses are fully furnished and generally ready to move into, although they may not be the most modern or well-equipped. The traditional guesthouses come as shared accommodation (where kitchen and bathroom are shared) but more and more are available as private flats. The average monthly rent is between ¥20,000-¥100,000 (USD $182-910), sometimes inclusive of utilities. They are a good way to experience Japanese everyday life.
  • Renting on your own – This is the most variable option and also one that will require a guarantor. Rents will be between ¥15,000 and ¥100,000 (USD $136-910) (exclusive of other charges and utilities) but flats are often unfurnished.

Working while studying a Masters in Japan

The “College Student” status of residence is granted by a Japanese visa for the sole purpose of studying and as such does not automatically permit you to work while studying a Masters in Japan.

If you would like to work part-time you must apply for “Permission to Engage in Activities other than that Permitted under the Status of Residence Previously Granted” through your Regional Immigration Bureau (the exception being if you are working as a research assistant or teaching assistant at your university, activities regarded as part of your studies).

Through this permit, international students can work a maximum of 28 hours a week. Realistically, it would be difficult to do more than a few hours of part-time work a week without compromising your studies. If it is a financial imperative, make sure you speak to your programme director or international office who may be able to suggest on-campus alternatives.

Other useful information for Masters students in Japan

The above information should help you get started as you prepare for life as an international student studying a Masters in Japan. You'll be ready to set up a budget for living costs, find accommodation and get ready to experience all Japan has to offer. There are a few other things you may want to read up on before you set off for Japan though.

Banking

Foreigners in Japan can open an account in most Japanese banks. All you need is your passport and your residency card. You may also be asked to show evidence that you are enrolled at a Japanese institution. The main things to know about banking in Japan are as follows:

  • On opening an account you will receive an account booklet where all your banking transactions will be recorded. Japanese banks do not send statements. You can check your balance online or by updating your booklet at automatic bank tellers (where you can also do bank transfers).
  • After opening an account you will receive a bank card which may only allow withdrawals at cash dispensers (ATM machines) of your bank.
  • Banks are normally open from 9.00am-3.00pm and closed at the weekend. Cash dispensers may only be accessible at set times (not necessarily 24 hours) so make sure you know the opening times. In large cities, it should be relatively easy to find a cash dispenser.

Travel and transport

In cities with a metro system, buses can be useful but are secondary means of transportation. In smaller cities, however, buses are the main transport system.

If you want to travel around Japan, you’re in luck – it has one of the best and most efficient train systems in the world. For long distances, the bullet trains (Shinkansen in Japanese) are fantastic, although they can be pricey. Ferries are available between the islands but flying is the most efficient way to island-hop.

If you intend to drive in Japan, you will have to have your driving licence translated (at a cost) by the embassy of the country where your licence was issued (i.e. at the Australian embassy for an Australian licence). You then have to go to a driving centre to have your licence converted to a Japanese one. The cost is on average ¥5,000 (USD $45) and you will have to take an eye test. For a motorbike licence, you will have to do a practical test.

Discovering Japan

Japan has a wealth of sites to visit, from temples and castles to museums and aquariums. Not so well known is that Japan is a great place to ski (two hours from Tokyo and you are on the slopes). Other attractions are wineries (where sake is made) and hot springs. Parks are plentiful and you will be able to indulge in most sports outdoors and indoors. Make sure you’re around for the cherry blossom festival, across the country between April and May.

Health insurance

As an international student you will be asked to subscribe to a student health insurance scheme at enrolment in your university. You should then show your National Insurance Card when receiving treatment in hospital or other healthcare providers, and you need only pay 30% of the total cost of treatment imposed by the Health Insurance Act. This is the same for prescription medication at pharmacies.

Seismic activity and alerts

The meteorological agency (JMA) provides alerts in case of predicted earthquakes. As soon as seismic activity is detected, alerts are issued along with safety advice. You can access these through the Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) or 緊急地震速報 (Kinkyu Jishin Sokuho) in Japanese on the radio or the television. You can also register for mobile phone alerts.

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Last updated - 04/04/2018

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