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The "I'm interested in moving to Japan" FAQ/AMA

I hosted an AMA somewhere else and it got more responses than I thought it would.
I did some searching on reddit, but found a post that was about 3 years old, and one that was from someone at a start up. Thought I could contribute from a large company perspective.
start up AMA: https://www.reddit.com/japanlife/comments/50ewvi_am_a_software_engineer_web_mobile_for_a/
a few years old AMA: https://www.reddit.com/japan/comments/34j2y3/software_engineers_of_japan_whats_it_like/
I'm going to leave some FAQs here, but feel free to ask away.
I am an American engineer at AmaAppGooBookSoft in Japan.
(Amazon or Apple or Google or Facebook or Microsoft). I transferred here from the US after working a year or so there. At the time of this writing, I have been in Tokyo for about 3 years.
Answers from OP with regards to things related to work will be in the context of these kinds of big software companies.
I would encourage others who live in Japan that are qualified to answer questions to do so! Wish I had this info before I transferred.
Q: How is the pay, hours?
A: Hours are super normal like they were in the US. Wfh, etc is like the US...but might vary by manager. I knew a designer whose Japanese boss was not on the wfh boat. Pay is terrible. Entry level engineer initial offer was 7.5M yen w/5k USD stock per year. I negotiated up to 8.25M base pay. Currently mid-level engieer and at about 9.5M yen and 15k USD/year (~105k USD total?). This is offset somewhat by affordable housing. Think 1.5k USD for a decent apartment, but smaller. Also health insurance is part of taxes, so you don't need to pay extra for it. Train commute is paid for by company. Don't need a car, either. It's a very livable salary, tbh.
Q: How is the dating scene for internationals? Are Japanese people open to dating people from other races? What about LGBTQ?
A: I'd say definitely. I met my wife here. If you are particularly looking for a date, dating apps and goukon (group dating) is a good way to go. As far as LGBTQ, yeah, for sure! Shinjuku ni cho me is the place for you (and also dating apps). (新宿二丁目)
Q: Do you like cost of living better in Tokyo than the states?
A: Yes! My total taxes are about 25% of my gross monthly salary and that includes health insurance. Clinics are insanely cheap because the government regulates the cost of medicine and pays 70% of your medical bills. I was once in the hospital for a week in a private room and it costed about 2500 USD. I opted for the fancy private room, though. My wife gave birth and it costed 2k or so. She had a private room in a hospital with amazing food for a week. I was allowed to stay in the room as well and got food. Rent is reasonable (1.5k or so) for a 700sqft place. Things that annoy me: Albums are like, 30 bucks. New release 4k Blu Ray movies range from 60-85 bucks. Old non-4k Blu Ray movies cost about 35-40 bucks. Groceries are a bit more expensive, but the quality is worth it. Our monthly food budget for 2 adults is about 800 bucks a month. Restaurants are very cheap. Like, 8-10 bucks for lunch. Usually under 1000 yen.
Q: I heard Japanese can be racists towards non Japanese living in Japan. True?
A: True! To some degree. I had the best resume a realtor had ever seen: N1 fluency in Japanese. I studied at the "Harvard of Japan" for a year. 5 year visa (longest duration). High paying job at a huge company. Stable work history. 5/6 landlords didn't give a shit. "no gaijin". You will also not receive service at probably 95% of "adult... services", if you're into that. When I was in college, a few part time jobs I applied to straight up told me they didn't hire foreigners. But once you're settled in, it's not that noticeable. Your average encounter will be pretty friendly. I'd say it's more rare to experience it.
Q: Do you know any Japanese? How essential is it in your wok and your daily life?
A: I am N1 level fluent. But I was dismayed that all that studying didn't mean anything for work, haha. Most engineers are foreigners. Everyone speaks English at the office and they have to know it because the code base is in English. Daily life, I use it all the time. My wife doesn't speak English as well as I speak Japanese. I also know several people who don't speak at all, and they seem to get by. Companies will often pay for Japanese classes as well, and let you attend during work hours.
Q: Did you just apply for Tokyo positions? How did the visa work?
A: Yup! I just applied. Visa was taken care of by a company hired by my employer. Mine was tricky because I didn't major in CS. There is a law that a work visa applicant must have a degree related to the field of work, or have 10 years experience. Since I majored in Japanese, they added "required to translate Japanese in addition to coding" to the job description, and boom. Visa. (I ended up doing semi-voluntary stuff like office hours in addition to my engineering work, where I needed to use Japanese) They'll figure it out, whatever the case is.
Q: Did you start working in Japan after graduation or moved from the US? Is it easy to get permanent residence if you wanted?
A: I transferred internally after a year or so in the US. PR is very attainable under certain circumstances. There is a point system. You get points for age (younger is better), salary, work experience, and Japanese ability. 80 points means that you only have to live in Japan for a year to get PR. 70 points, 3 years.
Look at the Excel sheet and find the tab for regular workers (not researchers or business owners).
Q: How comfortable is your life there compared to the US? Does money go further?
A: Very comfortable. If you buy a place (and have permanent residence), you're looking at interest rates as low as 0.495% (mine). I have a 500k USD condo and I pay about 1300/month. 33 year loan. Plus about 350/month in maintenance for the building. Groceries are a bit more expensive, but worth it. Restaurants are much cheaper. Like, 800-1000 yen for lunch. Monthly grocery budget for 2 adults is about 800 bucks (my situation, not counting baby expenses). Convenience stores are AMAZING and have great food (for a convenience store). I regularly get a crispy lettuce sandwich, onigiri and can Coffee for breakfast at the shop outside work. Spending power is pretty low, though. Most consumer goods are really expensive. New release 4k Blu Ray is about 65-80 bucks. Old Blu Rays (Disney and marvel as examples) are 35-40 bucks. But Netflix and Hulu are here and have American and some Japanese content. Internet speed is awesome. Gigabit in most places. But apps and Japanese webforms are fucking terrible. Most things feel like the state of the internet 10 or 15 years ago. One of my banks prevents you from using special characters for your password. Swear to God. A lot of foreigners find it difficult to get a credit card. Especially if you are under 30. Just got to UFJ Mitsubishi. Open an account and you can get a debit card you can use online. All in all, I love it here (aside from work - projects I don't want to work on and a low salary compared to the US). We live 5 minutes from a major train station, which means 5 minutes to dozens of restaurants, a handful of grocery stores, some pharmacies, a few clinics, and a mall.
Q: I heard it was easy to internally transfer to Japan (or anywhere with the pay cut) but extremely hard to transfer back to the US so people might get stuck overseas. Is this true? Oh and supposedly transferring to tends to be a promotion +1 level or potentially 2 whereas from leads to a demotion?
A: I don't think this is true at all. I know a few people who have gone back.
I also did not go up when I came to Japan, and I know people who moved to the US and they did not move down.
Q: Is there any American things you miss while in Japan?
A: American internet. God, Japan is so technologically behind it drives me nuts sometimes. It's like the internet from 10-15 years ago. Apps suck. Japanese websites suck. Internet banking and apps suck. One of my banks *prevents* you from using special characters in your password. Streaming services exist, but they're not anywhere near as ubiquitous as they are in the US. I also miss how cheap Blu-rays are. 35 bucks for Zootopia? Come on.
Internet is shitty, but FAST, though. Gigabit everywhere.
Q: The idea of working abroad is pretty novel. Sounds like you have no regrets about the time you spent there?
A: Yes!! I'd definitely do it again, but I might have waited until I had been mid-level engineer for a year or more. The 2 rounds of paycuts was rough. First was base pay, then a surprise paycut when my US stock grants fully vested. Went from expected value of 30k/year to new grants at expected value of 5k. There is a lot to love about Tokyo. The positives far outweigh the negatives.
Q: Visiting Japan soon, what do you recommend doing at night that is friendly to gaijins in Tokyo/Shibuya? I’ve heard a lot of bars/clubs are no gaijins.
A: I would say that's probably rarer. Shinjuku has a good bar scene where you can do some serious bar hopping. If you are super concerned about getting turned away (a really terrible experience. It's really a shitty feeling), then stick to Roppongi! You may also find some ladies (or men) there that are very into foreigners. Shibuya also has quite a few clubs that are foreigner friendly. There's even a soapland that caters specifically to foreigners, if you want that experience. It's in Kawasaki, I think it's called paradise inn. The most tourist-ey thing is "robot restaurant" (also in Shinjuku). I took my American boss there on a business trip (before I moved here) and he fucking loved it. Sky tree or Tokyo tower are also great at night.
Q: Do you have any take on how big the cryptocurrency craze is or was there compared to United States? Do you own any bitcoin personally?
A: I haven't been into the crypto scene. But I think it's more known here. There's even a few big name stores that accept bitcoin. Don't remember which ones, but they charge like, 20% more if you pay in BC. I don't own any, though.
Q: Is AmaAppGooBookSoft japan mostly for SDEs? Or is there place for us non engineering muggles?
A: Lol, Muggles. Yes!! There are TPMs, SDMs, UX designers, etc. But the more you get into the business side (vendor managers, TAM, site merchandiser, etc), the more you will probably be required to speak and be literate in Japanese.
Q: What made you move to japan for an engineering role? Never heard that before.
A: I've wanted to live in Japan since I was a teenager. Spent a year there in University and 2 exchanges in highschool. Originally I just wanted to live in Japan. So after I graduated, I did a few interviews for English teaching. After one of the interviews, they asked me to prepare a lesson plan. My immediate reaction was, "I don't care about a lesson plan, I just want to live in Japan!" Then I realized I needed to calm the fuck down and get there by doing something that I like, and with a marketable skill. I just didn't know what that skill would be...I landed a shit temp job testing Japanese games. Ended up getting an automatable task and googled how to automate it. Then found what I wanted to do. Got into AmaAppGooBookSoft as a contractor, interviewed and got FTE, then made my way to Japan internally.
Q: I speak 0 japanese will this be a huge issue? Also if I am a mid-level engineer in usa how much equivalent jp total compensation should I be looking for?
A: Not an issue at all for work. Most of the engineers are foreigners. You'll also be able to get by out in the real world. But I'd suggest taking Japanese classes. Company will pay for it here. That would probably equate to maybe 9.5M-110M yen and about 15-20k in RSUs per year? I have zero knowledge of the pay bands here, but I believe 200k is just above middle for US? I make about 9.5, but I have no idea where that is in the pay band. Whatever they offer you, negotiate for more. Always negotiate. It is plenty to live on. You can get a nice place for 150,000/month and a nicer place for 200,000/month. If you want to live further from work or get a smaller place you could get rent as low as 80,000/month, with a 30 minute train ride. Restaurants are very cheap for lunch. Maybe 700-1100 for lunch? Very cheap compared to the states. Company will pay for your daily commute fees. Spending power is low, though. Media is really expensive. Do some searches on Amazon Japan for common stuff to get an idea. FYI, my take home is about 600,000/month to give you an idea about taxes. No need to pay for health insurance plans. The government has you covered. In a month, I spend 144,000 on mortgage, 36,000 on maintenance, about 15,000 on electric + gas (total), about 3,000 on water, about 5,000 on internet, about 80,000 on food for 2 adults, 60,000 for "allowance" for myself and wife, 3,000 on phone (LINE mobile!!! If you go through SoftBank or docomo, or other big players, expect 10,000/month), about 150,000 on miscellaneous stuff, and try to save the rest. Let me know if I'm missing anything expense you are thinking of.
Q: 1. Do you know if unvested stocks earned in the US keep vesting in the US? 2. Understand that salary is lower, but are savings about the same in terms of dollars?
A: 1. GREAT question!! Yes!! Stock that was granted in the states continues to vest at the agreed to schedule. It will still be 100% taxed by the US, but you'll get some of it back. Taxes are such that the fraction of time spent in a country during a vest will determine how much tax goes to that country. Example: you have a 2 year vest and transfer with the last year vesting while you are in Japan. Once it vests, US takes the usual tax rate, but should return about half of that back because half of it was "earned" in Japan. Japan will then apply their tax rate to the other half. 2. No, savings is still less. Because cost of living isn't toooo drastically different, but you make a lot less,you really end up taking a bath on savings. Like, currently for my family of 3, we end up saving about 700 USD a month in cash. In the states, it would be about the same (after 3k rent and a 1k car payment...Tesla, baby), we would end up saving about the same in cash (except we'd also pad our "allowance" by an additional total of 700 bucks). Then you look at stock. 15k gross value in the RSUs in Japan vs 30-50k in the US. Pretty big difference, IMO.
Q: So if you don't speak any Japanese, could you still make it in terms of acquiring a visa? If so, how long would it take to acquire intermediate level proficiency in Japanese you think?
A: Yes, but you'll need a degree from the sciences, probably. Or 10 years experience. Intermediate level is maybe 1200 hours of study?
Q: How do you feel about "Cool Biz" campaign and what is the general public opinion about it?
A: Hard to tell because I work at a US company. I'm shielded from a lot of stuff like that. 28 C is a terribly hot temperature, though, Jesus. I don't really hear it being brought up that much on the morning talk shows, but I don't watch every day. Wish I could be of more help. It's definitely not 28 degrees in my office. We absolutely have AC because we don't want our employees to needlessly suffer in order to scrape a bit off of our electric bill.
Q: Why did you wanna go to Japan in the first place?
A: It started with martial arts when I was in elementary school. Always liked Japanese food, and in high school, anime, judo, and Japanese language. But when I started studying the language, I got super into it. I've been aiming to live here since I was a teenager been 10 times before moving including a few study abroads (1 year in college, 2 weeks, and another 2 weeks in HS). I've always liked the craftsmanship that is in Japan. Watch Jiro dreams of sushi. Perfectly captures the "shokunin" spirit. That guy is like 90 and he still chases perfection. There are LOTS of examples of this, but I love that about Japan. And Tokyo is just super convenient. Trains go everywhere in the country. Don't need a car. I live 5 minutes from Meguro station. So 5 minutes away from 5 grocery stores, 2 or 3 clinics, a few dentists, a mall, transportation of course, and dozens of restaurants. Love the convenience here.
Q: How do the taxes work for US citizen? Do US citizens pay taxes twice for income earned in Japan (once in Japan and again in US)?
A: Taxes are relatively simple. You pay taxes to Japan, you report income to the US. I think once your income exceeds a certain amount (100 some odd thousand), you will be taxed on the difference of that minus taxes to Japan. So, like if the amount was 100k and you made 110k, they'd tax you if the taxes you paid to Japan on that 10k were less than the US would have taxed. But it's the diff. So if the US would have taken 3k of that 10k, but Japan took 2k, you'd owe the US 1k. So it's not that bad. Stock is way more complicated because it depends on where you were for the duration of the vest and where it was granted. For example, I had a 4 year vest and moved to Japan in year 3. The third year, I had "earned" that 2 years in the US and 1 in Japan. So the US took more taxes. I mean, the second it vests, the US takes their full tax rate, but they'll give a bunch back at tax season. And Japan will take some of that. You usually come out on top somehow. Like, last year, I had 60k or something vesting. I got back 12k from the US and had to pay Japan 5k. The US had initially taken about 16k of that 60k. The percentage of tax paid depends on how long you were in a given country during the vest. Negotiate a tax accountant into your contract. My employer uses another company and I don't have calculate all this shit. I only know it because I want to know how it works, so I ask my accountants a bunch of annoying questions. Once you start getting grants in Japan, no money is taken at vest, and you pay Japan for taxes on the vest value in January.
Q: My wife and Iove Japan very much, we’ve always talked about “living there for some years”. However we have 2 kids (less than 3 years) and I’m concerned it would be hard for them. Since you mentioned that your kid, do you think moving there is a bad idea ?
A: It depends. If you are already doing parenting on hard mode instead of support network mode, I think it won't be much different. I know someone who went from Tokyo back to the US, but moved back for the same reason: lack of support. I think it would be harder on you than them. Just make sure you bring English books and media. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon have a decent amount of kids programming here that is in English as well.
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