Japan offers modern living, a (mostly) affordable lifestyle and an abundance of job opportunities for those willing to pass on their native language to the locals. Even if you arrive for recreation, there’s a good chance that a sense of hopeless romanticism—or just a quick opportunity—will keep you here much longer than you’d anticipated. Making the leap from temporary tripper to registered resident means you’ll have to tick a few boxes or book your flight home.
At the beginning it seems like there’s nothing to do but wander in consecutive circles, systematically learning your surroundings as you quietly lament that everything looks so similar. Go old-school: use a paper map and your common sense. You’d be amazed how much easier it is to get around with a rudimentary scribble of what to look for. You might feel like a bit of a tourist, but in the early days, that’s precisely what you are.
You can do nothing without registering your residence card, so you need to go to your local Ward Office—your local one. If you go anywhere else, the staff will send you home and you’ll be no closer to your goal.
The good news is that most Ward Offices do have some rudimentary English skills, and as with most things, a mixture of broken phrases and crying usually gets the job done. Take a ticket, give them your card, and the rest is just nodding. Allow at least an hour.
Stash Your Cash
You need to open a bank account so you can actually receive wages. But very few banks have English-speaking staff—and those that do have a labyrinth of administration to navigate. Most banks won’t let you open an account without an inkan, or hanko stamp. In formal settings, signatures are worthless here; you might as well try to certify a document by licking the page.
This leads to the next problem: a Japanese phone number. It seems you can’t get a bank account without a phone—and you can’t get a phone without a bank account. The solution? Go somewhere like Softbank and beg for a prepaid phone. It’s painfully Spartan (phone calls only) and the rates are rough, but it gets the job done. Give the number to the bank clerk and in 20 minutes you’ll have a new bank account. And don’t do what I did and try to pass off somebody else’s number as your own. They’ll see through it and you’ll just have to come back with a real number anyway.
If you get fed up with your inability to check Facebook on the go or communicate with all the new friends you’re making, you might want to upgrade to a smartphone. Again, technicalities tend to get in the way: visa length, lack of a credit card and haphazard direct debit setup are all problematic.
I sat in a Softbank shop for an hour miming through options with the long-suffering store clerk before we finally agreed on a package. But they wanted me to use my credit card to pay for things and I didn’t have one. So I had to leave with nothing to show for my efforts except a frustrated staff member.
I then got completely ignored at Docomo but an English-speaking clerk at AU was more forgiving. Having learned from my mistakes, I made all my potential pitfalls clear from the outset—and oddly enough, there was no issue at all, so I went ahead. Then, a full two hours later, the clerk pulled out the card machine, triggering my gag reflex. But after a few phone calls to her superiors, it transpired that I could, in fact, pay my phone bill at a convenience store. I signed, thanked my unbelievably helpful new friend and left the store with a shiny phone. I’d won.
Phone in hand, I now find myself registered, bank-accounted and navigating Tokyo’s winding streets with increasing ease and confidence. Next up: Bring on the mortgage application!