5 things to prepare you for life in Japan : Part 2

Hopefully, you found the first three offerings in last weeks ‘part one’ informative and you’d had ample time to calm your nerves and research a new country to emigrate to. So without further hesitation, lets complete the list:

  • 4. Opening a bank account

This. Nearly. Killed us. First or second day in Tokyo I needed to open a bank account so I could actually receive my wages from work. This is bastard-hard to do as a foreigner; very few banks have English speaking staff and those that do have a labyrinth of admin and regulation you must navigate through or the answer will ALWAYS be a resounding no.

Some banks will not let you open an account without ownership of an Inkan(sometimes called a Hanko) which is a small, personalized stamp that stands in for a signature in Japan, being used to sign documents and prove you are who you say you are. Signatures are worth diddly-squat here, I have tried to pay my rent and my phone bill in Japan with a signature-authorized standing order (always a paper form, no online system in sight) and every time it has been rejected. It also takes at least two months to authorize if you want to even try…

Soooo, no Inkan, no account. We tried the next place…and thenext…and the next after that. After many weary rejections, we finally found one; Shinsei bank. Sadly, even they wouldn’t give me an account without a phone number. I walked out of the bank well and truly at the end of my tether and called my company for assistance. Their advice? Lie.

I instantly saw the flaw here; I had just told the bank staff that I had no phone yet, now I was expected to waltz back in there having magically pulled a one out of my arse. With this reservation thrown aside out of sheer desperation, I attempted to deceive my new native hosts. Did they buy it? Not for a split second. I cobbled together an explanation that this number (Fraser’s) was in fact mine and it would be ‘activated’ the following morning. I was descended upon by staff and managers alike and GRILLED. Warm welcome expired and a noticeable change in temperature in the room I noticed Fraser slowly backing out of the room with his young son behind him, like a scene from Jurassic Park. I do believe I held my end up but unfortunately, even the best bullshit will simply break against cool logic, ‘if your phone is being activated tomorrow, come back then’. Bugger.

It’s a vicious cycle, you cannot get a phone without a bank account and you cannot get a bank account without a phone.

However, as it turns out, you can go somewhere like Softbank (a large-ish network provider in Japan) and beg them to let you have a pre-paid phone account. This is essentially pay-as-you-go, you can buy a basic flip phone for around 5,000 yen (30 quid) and then charge your account. Its painfully minimal (phone calls only, no texting) and very expensive at over 100 yen a minute but it gets the job done. Japanese phone companies make next to no profit from pre-paid contracts, so understandably, they don’t like giving them out to foreign devils.

Get one; give the number to the bank clerk and in about 20minutes you’ll have a new bank account. As I did…the following morning.

  • 5. Getting a decent phone

If like me, you start to get fed up of not being able to check Facebook every few seconds or actually communicate with all the awesome new friends you’re making, you might want to upgrade to a smartphone at some point. This is very hard, but by no means impossible.

Again, technicalities tend to get in the way and it’s always the same old stuff; visa length, lack of a credit card and the inability to set up a direct debit with your bank…

Most places rejected me. I sat in a Softbank shop for an hour going through options with the long-suffering store clerk when we finally made a deal and signed the paperwork, my card would not work in the machine. I have a cash card here like most people…the Japanese work in cash. Lack of a chip means you need a credit card to pay for things, I didn’t have this so I had to leave with nothing to show for my trouble. Except for a pissed off clerk.

In my fourth month without a smartphone and bloody determined, I went to Docomo and the guy there just tried to ignore me. Then I used Google translate to get his attention and he told me (through atrociously translated written text) that my visa was not long enough for a two-year contract. As I was mid-rebuttal,  the phone rang and I think he saw this as a getaway vehicle; when I asked him if there were any other options he spent an inordinate amount of time on the phone, walking around the store and occasionally pointing to the same phrase on the laptop screen, ‘visa no length enough, I cannot help you’.


Now good and ready to blow my brains out I staggered into an AUstore. Salvation! A store clerk that could speak English! Things were looking up. Quite the failure veteran now I made all the potential pitfalls clear; I had no Inkan, no credit card and my visa was only a year long. Oddly, this seemed to be no issue so we went ahead with the sales pitch. I picked an Android phone and got completely buggered with the add-ons, the reason seemed to be ‘you’re foreign so you can either like it or…like it’.

When we got to the end, around two hours later she pulled out the card machine, and I was nearly sick on the desk. She must have seen my change in pallor because she recommended we just try it but I promised her it wouldn’t work. Luckily for me, after a few phone calls to superiors, it transpired that I could, in fact, set up a cash payment system by paying my phone bill in a convenience store once a month. I signed (sacrilege!), thanked my unbelievably helpful clerk and left the store with a brand new phone and the option to cancel the contract whenever I wanted.

I. Fucking. Won.

So there you go, I recommend going to an AU store explaining what you lack and how long your visa is and you should be able to get a cancel-able contract for about 7,000 yen a month. Not exactly cheap but you get all the internet you can eat. Its the Izakaya of phone contracts.

That’s it then, a regaling of the most difficult things I’ve had to procure so far. I’ve only been here for five months so I’m sure there’s a lot more to come. This may be helpful for you if you’re thinking of heading out here or you could just laugh at my incompetence if you aren’t. Just a few things I highly recommend if you are attempting any of this;

  • 1. Take a friend who speaks at least some Japanese, its indescribably helpful.
  • 2. Allow at least three times longer than you think it will take for each task. It always takes a lot longer due to translation issues and an archaic record system (everything also has to be translated into Kanji).
  • 3. Don’t give up. There are times that you swear they are doing this on purpose because you’re not Japanese. Just remember that it isn’t personal and Japansretailing and business structures are still a good 15-20 years behind the western world. The staff really do want to help you, their hands are just tied.

Be strong, be smart and Japan becomes your Sea-Urchin. If you’ve been at all put off by my experiences though, you should keep in mind that bad shit happening is a rite of passage in life and, most importantly, when you have gone through all of this you will feel like you own the place…and have a great anecdote or two.

Go have fun.