It’s now June, 2017, which means that those of you who applied for the JET Programme have been accepted and received your placements.
For those of you who’ve made it in and will be heading to Japan soon, congratulations. I was a JET from 2013 and stayed on the program until 2016, so I know what a great opportunity it is and how excited you must be.
I also know how many questions you have, because I was in the exact same boat. Moving to the other side of the world is a big change, and if you’re anything like me, you want to be as prepared as possible before you get on the plane.
So with that said, I wanted to put together this post to address what I think is the MOST important thing you should be focusing on before your arrival.
Here it is. My number one tip for new JET’s is…
Bring as much as you can. That should be your number one priority between now and when you arrive in Tokyo.
A ton of newbies get caught up focusing on the small things before they leave.
Things like what to pack.
Or trying to learn as much Japanese as they can.
Or obsessively stalking the Facebook groups once they find out what prefecture they’re going to.
I can tell you as someone who’s been there that the importance of all those things pails in comparison to getting your money together before you leave. Learning Kanji is great, but it won’t mean shit when you have to fork $2500 down your first week on an apartment.
Why You Need To Save As Much As Possible
Having cash is critical when you first come over to Japan because, unlike moving to a lot of Asian countries, there are a ton of startup costs here.
These include the major expenses like apartments and (possibly) cars that you probably know about, but they include a lot of other expenses that you may not have thought of (which I’ll be covering in this article).
So, that said, if you haven’t already started, get going. Start hoarding cash, and start hoarding it NOW.
How Can I Plan My Budget?
While it’s really difficult know EXACTLY how much you need, there are a few guidelines.
When I first flew over in 2013, JET Canada was advising us to take between 400,000-500,000 yen (about $4000-$5000). While I personally only ended up dropping 220,000 yen, I’d advise you to shoot for the number JET recommends.
How much you need depends on a few factors:
a.) Your Living Classification: JET classifies your living situation in Japan as either “rural”, “semi-rural” or “urban”. It should go without saying, but as an urban JET, your cost of living, and therefore your startup costs, are probably going to be higher.
b.) Your Major Expenses (Apartment And Car): These are far and away the biggest hit to your wallet, and we’ll be covering what you can expect to pay for these in this article.
c.) When You’ll Receive Your First Paycheck: I arrived in Japan on August 4, 2013, and received my first paycheck by August 20. However, I’ve heard stories of other JET’s who didn’t get their first paycheck until later in September. It all depends on the Board of Education you’re working for.
So, with all that out of the way, let’s talk about these expenses.
I’ll break them down into two categories- big ticket expenses (basically apartment and car), and then smaller expenses plus your living costs until that first paycheque arrives.
I’ll give you a range of what you can reasonably expect. I’ll also tell you what I personally spent when I first arrived as an urban JET (I lived in Kanazawa)
Why All The Variation?
If you’ve spent any time perusing the JET forums, you’ve likely come across the expression ESID, or “Every Situation Is Different” (if not, prepare to hear it over and over for the next few months), and it certainly applies to your expenses.
For example, if you end up getting placed in an urban location, your start-up costs for transportation will be minimal since you most likely won’t need a car.
By contrast, if you’re a rural JET, you’ll probably need to buy or lease a car, but you may find that the cost of your apartment is substantially lower than it would be in a city.
But as you’ll see from this list, if your particular situation ticks even a few of these boxes, you’re going to end up forking up some serious cash. And you’ll most likely be doing it in your first week in the country.
Big Ticket Expenses
Apartment: 100,000-400,000 yen
If you’ve done any research at all thus far, you likely know that getting an apartment in Japan is a lot different than getting an apartment back home. You also likely know that there’s a lot of obnoxious deposits and fees, so let’s go ahead and break them down one by one.
Rent (20,000-80,000 yen/month)
Similar to back home, you’ll likely have to pay the first month’s rent up front. The reason there’s so much variation in the cost of rent has to do with your specific location.
It may seem obvious, but people who get caught up in the whole “Japan’s soooo expensive” thing tend to forget this.
If you live in a rural area, your rent will be significantly cheaper (this is true in any country you go to). Urban JET’s pay the most.
The good news is as a JET, the vast majority of you won’t be living somewhere like central Tokyo or Osaka, where the cost of living is astronomical.
Key Money (1-5 months rent)
One of the little quirks of living in Japan. “Key Money” originated after the end of the second world war when the Japanese government, concerned about providing affordable housing for its citizens who’d had their livelihoods destroyed, implemented rent caps.
These caps were so strict that many landlords found it impossible to run profitable business, and thus worked around these limits by forcing new tenets to hand over “gift” money in exchange for renting with them.
Since old habits die hard in Japan, this little system has remained in place, and unfortunately, gaijin aren’t immune.
The actual amount you’ll pay will vary from apartment to apartment. In general, the lower the rent (relative to the area you live in), the higher the key money up front.
Security Deposit (1 months rent)
This is similar to a damage deposit you’d pay back home. Usually about 1 months rent.
What I Paid
165,000 yen. 55,000 for the first months rent, 55,000 for key money, and 55,000 for a security deposit. I lived in an urban city (about half a million people), and my apartment was in the suburbs about 10 minutes from downtown.
The apartment itself was old, but based on what other JET’s in the city were paying, 40,000-60,000 yen/month was pretty standard. That said, my key money was a bit lower than others.
Car: 0-400,000 yen
I’ve actually never bought or leased a car in Japan(although I do have a Japanese drivers licence). Since I’m not a huge fan of talking about things I don’t have first hand experience with, check out this detailed post over Surviving In Japan.
That said, from what friends have told me, you can actually get a fairly decent used car for quite a fair price.
What I Paid
Nothing. Kanazawa has decent public transportation, so I never felt the need. Plus, I only worked at one school, which was a 10 minute walk from my apartment, so I didn’t do a whole lot of commuting.
Living And Other Upfront Costs (Until Your First Paycheck): 40,000-200,000 yen
This reflects the general amount of money you’ll spend in Japan until your first paycheque, and it includes food, entertainment, transportation (train/bus/gas) and “miscellaneous expenses”.
Most of the information I’ve come across for new JET’s deals with the big ticket expenses, but a lot of people gloss over these living costs. Which is a mistake, because they can seriously add up.
This category also depends largely on your particular situation. Some Jet’s arrive in late July in “Group A”, while others come in early August in “Group B”.
Some BOE’s will pay your first pay check in August, while others won’t until September (so they can pay you for a full month).
However, even if you do get paid a few weeks after you arrive, a lot of these costs will have to be covered before that (often in your first week), so it’s important to prepare for them and have enough cash on hand.
Food (30,000-100,000 yen)
This varies depending on both your eating habits and how long you go before that first paycheque.
I personally found that the cost of food at the grocery store was comparable to Canada, while eating out in a restaurant was less expensive- but I know that a lot of American JET’s found it to be more expensive though, so it really depends where you’re from.
Transportation (10,000-40,000 yen): Varies depending on location and your work situation. I lived a 10 minute walk from the one and only high school I taught at. I know others who had to drive or take the train to different schools throughout the week.
And even if you live in a city like I did, unless you want to spend the first few weeks cooped up in your apartment, you’ll be spending at least some money on buses to get around.
In addition to Tokyo Orientation, you’ll also have a 2 or 3 day Prefectural Orientation within the first few weeks.
I was lucky in that I lived in the same city the Orientation was held in, but in a lot of cases you’ll have to commute (and possibly stay overnight depending how far it is). You may get reimbursed for these, but you will need to pay for them upfront and out of pocket.
What I Paid
60,000-80,000 yen between food, drinking and going out (more on that later), and transportation.
I can’t remember the exact amount, but I do remember it being somewhere in that neighbourhood. I arrived in Japan on August 4th 2013, and received my first paycheque on August 21 (I was paid out for the full month even though I arrived on August 4th).
Phone (6000-60, 000 yen)
You have two options here- bring an unlocked phone from home and get a SIM card, or get a Japanese phone. When I arrived in Japan, rules and regulations made it next to impossible to use an unlocked phone with a local SIM, but fortunately for you, things have relaxed considerably since 2014.
I’ve never tried to use an unlocked non-Japanese phone, but I do have experience in getting my hands on a Japanese iPhone and contract. One option was to buy the phone outright and then set up a contract. Obviously going this route is pricy.
The other was to pay the phone off in instalments each month.
What I Paid
I went with the latter, but the only reason I was able to do it as a foreigner is because I was willing to have my monthly bill charged to my Canadian credit card.
Either way, I think I left SoftBank that day 12000 yen poorer because of all of the obnoxious start-up fees.
Internet (5000-10,000 yen)
If you move into a new place, you’ll likely have to get internet setup with NTT.
What I Paid
It cost me about 8000 yen to get the process started. And here’s a pro tip- do start the process as soon as you can, because it takes FOREVER.
Posting Your Luggage (10,000 yen)
After Tokyo Orientation, you’ll head to whatever prefecture you’ll be living in for the next year. Since your supervisor will most likely be picking you up at the airport, your BOE will often ask you to ship your luggage directly from Tokyo to your new home to save room in the car.
What I Paid
Furnishing Your Apartment (0-50,000 yen)
A lot of JET’s get set up in a new apartment that’s literally empty when they arrive.
You’ll need to spend at least a few hundred dollars to buy what you need to live- a bed (or futon), sheets and pillows, kitchen utensils, pots and pans, and a refrigerator.
What I Paid
Nothing. I was extremely lucky when I arrived, because I moved into an apartment that had been used to by ALT’s for the past 15 years (there was even an old Nintendo 64 left behind). All the furniture, bedding, kitchen utensils and appliances I could possibly want were waiting for me.
My biggest problem was throwing shit out.
Not everyone is that lucky though.
A Note On Surprise Expenses
These are the little things that you won’t really know about until you arrive.
When I got to Kanazawa after Tokyo Orientation, I discovered that one of the first things I’d be doing as an ALT is helping out at an English camp…an hour out of town. Getting there involved paying about 4000 yen in transportation fees, as well as another 4000 yen for the camp facilities.
Of course I got reimbursed for all that on my first paycheck, but nonetheless, I had to cover it up front.
Another example is surprise repairs. During my first week in Japan, the air conditioning broke down in my apartment…which is really shitty timing considering it was August and probably the hottest day of the year.
Fortunately my landlord covered the cost of repairing it, but you might not be so lucky.
The point is, these are things that you can’t really plan for, but you need to make sure you have cash on hand if and when they do pop up.
This last one deserves it’s own section.
Think of the first few weeks of JET just like the first few weeks of college. Everyone’s new, nobody knows anyone, and they’re all excited to be in Japan and eager to meet people.
That first month of August is really when friends get made for the rest of the year (or two or three) and social circles get established. Most ALT’s don’t start actually start classes until September, and it’s one of the few times of the year where you can go out almost every night and not have to worry about teaching the next morning (although you will have to show up and “warm your desk”).
It’s also a fantastic opportunity to explore your new corner of Japan, because everyone else will be wanting to do the same thing.
Nothing would suck more than missing this window and staying cooped up in your apartment until September because you’re too broke to go out for a beer.
And while we’re on the topic, I would highly encourage you to take full advantage of those initial few weeks, whether you feel like it or not.
I’m speaking to the introverts here. I’m a pretty introverted dude myself, and the last I wanted to do when I first moved to Japan was to go out drinking. What I really wanted was get into my new apartment, sleep off the jet lag, explore Kanazawa by myself…and then once I was settled, start going out and meeting people.
But I knew full well that if I did that, it would be really hard to make up for it later…so I basically just sucked it up and went out.
And I’m glad I did, because if I hadn’t, I may not have ended up with the awesome friends I spent those 3 years with.
The Stress Factor
In terms of foreign countries you could be visiting, most newbies don’t find Japan particularly stressful. The country is beyond safe, it’s clean, it’s efficent, and everything is nice and orderly.
That said, there are things you need to adapt and get used to. Add in jet lag, the language barrier and a new job into the mix, and the first few weeks can be a bit rough. This is especially true for the majority of JET participants who have just finished university and don’t have any experience living abroad.
No, you don’t have to worry about walking around at night and getting robbed like you would in Manilla (in the 3 years I lived in Japan, I don’t think I even locked my door once).
Basically, what most people find in the first few weeks is more like a bunch of little, minor inconveniences piling up.
You’ll have to figure out how the train system works here.
You’ll have a mountain of paperwork waiting for your at your job (all in Japanese).
You’ll discover that the vast majority of employees at the bank, post office and city hall don’t speak a lick of English.
You’ll find yourself at the grocery store trying to buy food without being able to read any of the labels.
You’ll realize what a cluster fuck your teaching schedule is…and how it’s likely to change 5 minutes before class starts.
Get the point? It’s a million little things all happening at once. The last thing you want to do is add one more thing on top of it and start worrying about if you have enough money to get you through until pay day.
Moving to a new country is stressful enough as it is. By making sure you have your cash handled, you’ll not only have one less thing to worry about, you’ll be prepared for all of the inevitable bumps in the road.