Living in Japan with Little to No Japanese
Moving to Japan without knowing any Japanese may seem like a fool's errand, but we assure you that you're not alone! While we highly suggest you spend some time learning Japanese to enrich your life here, we're here to show you how easy it is to survive in Japan with little to no Japanese.
A Place to Call Home
Let's begin with something that you should try to arrange before you even arrive in Japan: housing. Ideally, if you're moving to Japan for work, your company will help out with this endeavor. If not, moving on your own can feel like a daunting challenge in any country, even without a language barrier. Never fear: finding accommodation in Japan can be done easily using English-speaking real estate agencies!
Some agencies like Suumo and Century 21 are quite foreigner friendly, though you may have to jump through a few more hoops than Japanese citizens. Xenophobia in the real estate realm isn't exactly uncommon in Japan, as agencies fear foreigners might up and run without fulfilling their financial obligations.
In this regard, it is highly recommended that you bring a Japanese friend or colleague when house hunting. This has the double benefit of both putting the agency and landlord at ease, as well as having an advocate who can vouch for your character and seriousness as a renter. Renters rights are pretty strong in Japan, so landlords can be incredibly choosy, especially in the bigger cities.
When entering into a housing agreement, it's very common for landlords or agencies to require a guarantor. Often times your company is willing to act as a guarantor. But if they won't (or you'd prefer they didn't), there are also third-party agencies that you can hire to act as a guarantor on your behalf. The fees are fairly reasonable, and having a guarantor will (again) put your landlord at ease.
Finally, if you have any contacts who teach or have taught in Japan, they'll almost definitely be able to introduce you to Leopalace21, a nationwide chain of affordable housing. As the company has expansive experience with welcoming foreigners, you'll surely receive lots of assistance. There are also sharehouses in most major cities, which can be a great way to find affordable, short or long-term housing and broaden your social circle at the same time. As the name would apply, a sharehouse is kind of like a dorm, where each tenant has their own bedroom, but shares common spaces with other tenants.
If you're looking for a job in Japan with a limited command of Japanese, there are many options out there. Though the majority of them are related to teaching English, there are some places that will hire you with a limited-to-non-existent command of Japanese. Working as a model or actor in Japan, for example, doesn't generally require Japanese (though you'll certainly get in front of more casting directors if you can be charismatic in Japanese), and many jobs in technical fields prioritize experience and expertise over language ability (although it may give you priority over other candidates if you have it).
Another place to look are bars and restaurants in expat areas like Roppongi. The places will sometimes hire English speakers to give their lounge an international feel. The catch, however, is that these kinds of jobs are usually gained through personal networking and are rarely posted online. If you don't have a social circle to ask for tips, you'll have to hit up job boards and websites. Two popular examples of job websites are Gaijin Pot and Jobs in Japan. There are also international job search sites like Indeed, which has gained a lot of traction in Japan recently and can be a great way to find opportunities in your chosen field.
Bills, Bills, Bills
Like anywhere else, while living in Japan you'll be using water, gas, electricity, a phone and internet (otherwise, you couldn't read our helpful guide). Usually the hardest part is setting up utilities without Japanese (though this is something that both your company and your realtor/agency can help you with). Once it comes time to pay up it's a breeze, and you can actually take care of monthly bills without even opening your mouth!
One of the best things about Japan is the sheer convenience of their aptly named convenience stores. Not only can you get snacks and drinks at any time of day or night, but you can also keep the lights on at home by paying your bills there. It goes beyond simple utilities, as even your residence tax can be settled at your preferred chain. Best of all, you don't have to say a word! If your bill is payable at a convenience store, there will be a barcode on the front and a list of the stores on the back that can handle the transaction. The big names like Family Mart, Seven Eleven and Lawson will surely accept your standard bills, including health insurance and residence taxes. The only thing to be aware of is if you're living in a smaller town or more rural area with local chains. Be sure to check the back of the bill and confirm that they offer the same service.
If the store can accept your bill, the cashier will scan the barcode of your bill (or stack of bills) and ask you to press the OK button on the register's touch screen (the same one used when buying age-restricted items like alcohol or tobacco). You don't even have to separate your bills from your late night ice cream purchase, they can all be paid at the same time—though the cashier might ask you if they should be paid together (issho) or separately (betsu).
Of course there are other options to pay your bills, including bank transfers and automatic monthly payments. To set up autopay, you'll likely need the help of a coworker or friend, as they often require a paper application to be filled out and can take a month or more to process. You'll have to continue paying the analog way until it's completed.
To Your Health
Going to a doctor can be harrowing, and adding a language barrier certainly doesn't help. Luckily, there are lots of doctors and nurses in Japan that can speak English to varying degrees. The procedure is pretty simple. When you get to the hospital or clinic, you'll hand over your residence and health insurance cards. In return, you'll be given a form to fill out. If the form doesn't have an English version, you may need to ask around for help. If you're especially worried and they're available, bring a coworker or friend to help you out. If you're living in the Tokyo area, a quick search of your embassy website can point out some English-speaking facilities in the area.
Filling out the form requires you to explain your health history, current medications, allergies, smoking and drinking habits, as well as any other pertinent information. I've found that having a very elementary level of Japanese really helps here as the doctor or nurse might ask you simple questions. Some important words or phrases to keep in mind in this situation are:
・Yoyaku wa arimasu ka: Do you have an appointment?
・Koko ga itai desu: It hurts here (point to the area).
・Itai: It hurts/Ouch!
・Odaiji ni: Get better soon!
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, even these few simple phrases can make the overall interaction go smoother. We also have a plethora of articles that can help navigate the perplexing world of medicine, health and wellness in Japan.
Let's Talk Shop
Doing your daily shopping in Japan might be a little jarring at first, as the majority of products you'll find across the country have labels that are only in Japanese. However, English has always been a bit trendy in the nation and many goods in your local grocery store might have a little English to let you know what's inside. But for those labels you can't read (and moments you really need to know), the Google Translator app can be a real life saver (on iPhone and Android). This app will use your camera to translate real-world text just by hovering over it. While this doesn't work flawlessly on long sentences, it's perfect for food items or lists of ingredients.
If you're homesick for Western brands or feel more comfortable with English on the package, Kaldi Coffee Farm is a national chain of import shops that are affordable and full of tantalizing treats from all over the globe. If you're planning to have a Tex-Mex party or want to make delicious Thai food, do yourself a favor and find your nearest Kaldi! Seijo Ishii is another chain that carries a wide selection of international snacks, as well as an expansive selection of wines. Next, if you have a huge event coming up and you need snacks in bulk, the American wholesaler Costco has got you covered. Finally, coming in as a more expensive option are luxury supermarkets like Kinokuniya or Motomachi Union. The markup for goods here is palpable, but you'll be able to shop without the stress you'll find when surrounded by only Japanese labels. There are also online shops like The Meat Guy and (vegetarian-friendly) Tengu Natural Foods, which can be very useful for hard to find items when the craving hits!
Last (but certainly not least) is making friends, which is easier than ever thanks to the internet and social media sites helping to connect those with shared interests. Interestingly, Japan was very slow to get on the Facebook or Instagram bandwagon (since there were similar sites in existence around the country), but these days it's harder to survive without Facebook than it is without knowing the local language! If you aren't able to make interpersonal connections with coworkers, get online and find groups with like-minded folks. Into craft beer brewing? There's an English-speaking group for that. Want to go trekking? You'll easily find other outdoor aficionados online.
Perhaps a little contrary to the article's title, but language learning groups can be a great way to make international and foreign friends. This is especially true if you live in localized areas removed from some of Japan's larger cities. Meeting people who are in the same boat as you can blossom into lifelong friendships. Coming from my own first-hand knowledge, even though you can survive in Japan without Japanese, if you're staying long-term and want to thrive, you'll eventually need to dive in and give the language a try.