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What to Know Before Coming to Japan on Military Orders

While there’s a lot of helpful and reliable information about life in Japan as a foreigner available, military-specific answers are sometimes more elusive.

By 8 min read 19

While there are certain things that are true of everyone who moves to Japan – like discovering the high-tech toilets or rampant politeness – coming here on military orders places you in a special subsect of foreigners whose rules and experiences are unique.

One thing that I think most gaijin do quite a bit, particularly right before and after their move, is research how to do things online. Since moving Yokohama in 2014 with my husband, who is stationed in Yokosuka, I’ve found that while there’s a lot of helpful and reliable information about life in Japan as a foreigner available, military-specific answers are sometimes more elusive.

I remember when I had to open a bank account here. In Japan, you must open an account near your home, and every bank I went to didn’t know how to deal with my military ID because I live far from base, where the rules for military visas are less known.

“Where’s your residence card?” they kept asking. (Military members and families aren’t issued one.)

My non-military friends thought it was hilarious. With a more common visa and residence card, opening a bank account here is pretty straightforward, so my difficulty seemed absurd. I Googled with all my might, but couldn’t find much, and instead spent about a week pleading for an account in my clumsy Japanese at too many banks to count.

(My ultimate solution, in case you’re wondering? Go to the banks near base until one accepts your military ID, tell them your legal address is your FPO address, and then write it as if it were a Japanese address, including the name of the city your base is in.)

One thing that surprised me as a brand-new military spouse is how few people stationed in Japan wanted to come. And, I get it. Even though my husband and I requested Japan and were thrilled to get orders here, I realize that foreigners with military affiliations all share one significant feature: none of us had much control over coming here. Whether you want to or not, if you get orders to Japan, you’re coming. End of story.

I do know plenty of people who, like me, wanted to come here and couldn’t wait to move. But I know more who were already counting down their final days in Japan before even arriving. While I suspect some of the reluctance military families feel stems from lack of control, I think more so, it’s about not knowing what to expect. There’s not a lot of information out there about what life as a military-affiliated foreigner is like, especially for those who have yet to arrive.

So, that’s what I’m here for. I want to answer your questions preemptively and make your transition smoother. Japan is an incredible country, and living here is a great and unique opportunity. Your time here is what you make of it, and if you want it to be, it’s an amazing experience.

I’ll cover topics like finding work and the differences between living on and off base in separate posts, but for now, I’m answering the top questions people have before arriving, based on an informal survey of the military community in Japan:

Should I bring all my furniture, and will it fit in the housing? What about things that are hard to buy in Japan?

Your space and storage depends on which of the many housing options you end up with (more on that in a later article), but in general, you’re looking at less room and storage than you’re used to, especially if you live off base like I do. I took a less-is-more approach when packing for Japan, and still, I feel as if I have too much, particularly as far as dishes and kitchen appliances go.

If you’ll live on base, you can find floorplans of the on-base options online that are specific to which base you’re bound for. Those will give you an idea of how much to bring, but keep in mind: A lot of housing is uncarpeted, so you might want to bring large rugs.

There’s hasn’t been much that I’ve wanted to buy and couldn’t find in Japan, especially with access to the on-base stores, so you shouldn’t worry too much about bringing a three-year supply of anything. While clothing is shorter and smaller in Japan, there are plenty of western stores if the Japanese options don’t work for you. I have big feet for Japan, but I’ve gotten shoes in my size here at Zara and Old Navy. And, there is American clothing (and sizing) available on base, though the selection is limited. If nothing else, you can order online easily.

Can I enroll my children in activities or sports like I can in the US?

Yes. Each base offers youth sports and activities, and to supplement that, there are many people offering private lessons for everything from music to dance. There are off-base options for activities taught in English. To get an idea of the base-sponsored activities, search online for “[Your base’s name] + MWR.”

Can I unlock my American cell phone and buy a SIM card with a Japanese plan?

Not in the way you’re thinking. You could buy portable WiFi and use your American phone that way, but it can get expensive. The Japanese carriers I checked with about unlocked phones won’t use American-made phones. I bought a new phone when I got here, as do most people. I know some people stay away from smartphones, but I think it’s best to get one. Having GPS makes it really easy to navigate the trains and find your way around, even as a newcomer, so that will help you make the most of your time here.

What about Space-A flights? Can I go home for free?

Kind of. You can catch space-available flights to some destinations in Asia, to Hawaii and to some locations on the west coast of the US, so if those places are home for you, congrats! Otherwise, you can catch a connecting flight from one of those places, which is cheaper than buying a flight from Japan. I’ve done it a few times, and as long as you have a flexible schedule (since you won’t know when your flights are), it’s not that bad. But, be prepared: I’ve had to purchase last-minute flights back to Tokyo when I couldn’t get a Space-A flight home in time to go back to work, and it was not cheap. People try to fly the most in the summer, so if you can, save your Space-A pursuits for other seasons to mitigate the risk.

What about the language barrier?

I firmly believe that your experience in Japan improves as you learn more Japanese. True, you can get by without it, but being able to communicate is vital to feeling like a resident of Japan and not a visitor, even if you only know a little. My Japanese is still pretty terrible, but the more I learn, the more connected to Japan I feel. And, people warm up to you fast if they know you’re at least trying.

There are a lot of approaches to learning Japanese. There are free Japanese lessons available on base that cover the basics, but I found attending language school and hiring language tutors to be much more effective if you have the time. I’ll write more on this topic in an upcoming article, but for now, I’ll say this: It’s not as hard as it seems. Japanese can be intimidating, but once you get past the first major hurdle of adjusting to the grammar and writing systems, it becomes easier.

Can I still work?

Yes! There seems to be a myth among military spouses that it’s impossible to find work in Japan. Don’t worry; it’s not. I wasn’t worried about much when moving here, but the work issue was huge. I was a journalist in the US, and moving to a country where I didn’t speak the language didn’t bode well for my writing career. But I wound up finding some fun and rewarding work and still managed to keep writing. I’ll write about finding work here in more detail in a later article.

What’s the most important thing to know?

The best way to enjoy your time in to Japan is to actually spend time in Japan, outside the base walls. Being on base feels a lot like being in a stripped-down version of America, and I can imagine that, if I were always there, it’d be easy to dwell on how I can’t buy my favorite Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor or shop at Target. But, since I spend as much time as possible exploring Japan, meeting new people and eating the food, it’s hard to care (too much). Sure, I miss some things, but I’m so captivated by all the new things that I focus on those. There’s so much history and culture in Japan, and being stationed here makes it very easy (and inexpensive!) to see the rest of Asia. Of all the people I know who were devastated when they learned they were moving here, the ones who changed their minds are the ones who tried new things, ate new food, and viewed their time here as an adventure.

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  • Jaymi says:

    Hi! What should we plan to do with our personal vehicles? Can we ship them over? Do we have to sell them?

  • Masu wesen says:

    Hello everyone. I’m wondering if I don’t have shot records, and I need all the vaccines, which say they must be 6 months apart. My husband is due to move overseas in December so does that mean I have to wait until all vaccines are done??? I don’t want to fly over seas with 3 kids and one of which hasn’t even been born yet.

  • Jordan Thach says:

    What about unmarried couples headed to Japan? Would that make things more difficult to find work and such?

  • Sabrina rameau says:

    We just found out that our family will be pcsing to Yokosuka, Japan in May. This is a big move for us and our kids. I have so many questions, basically because I am an over-planner. One of my main concerns is the wait for housing. I’ve heard it could take a year before we were able to get a house on base (we are also bringing our dog). Most of the people I have heard this from has not been there in 10 years. Is this still true? And what are some things that I should buy and bring with me that I will not be able to purchase or ship in Japan? Any other advise would be greatly appreciated!!

  • Erika says:

    Thank you for this!! I’ve been having trouble opening a Japanese bank account for my new job. Others have stated that the Bank of Yokohama in Yokosuka has worked best for them. Unfortunately mine has to be a Japan Post Bank account. 🙁 We will see how it goes!

  • Sheldon Soileau says:

    My wife and I are trying to go over seas to Japan. We have 7 months before if we get the orders to move out there. We have heard from other people that we will have to spend 4-5 thousand dollars just to ship our cars. We have also done some research and found that the government will pay for one vehicle to be shipped. Well we have to do how much out of pocket will that be do you think?

    We have military housing now that is only 1,100 square footage. So should we be concerned with down sizing or having to sell or furniture?

    We are both trying to find as much information as possible. So any in site that you can provide will be greatly appreciated!

  • Steve says:

    @ Angela
    If you live on the economy, as I do, you will find that things like paying rent and utilities can be a real pain if you don’t have a japanese bank account. The ATMs on base do give yen but the exchange rate is much better off post than on (115yen to 1$ on base vs. 122yen to 1$ off). This may seems a small thing but when your rent is over 200,000 yen that’s a 100$ difference.
    Also the options for drawing yen from ATMs is greatly expanded. I.E. I was in Okinawa a few months ago and could not find a 7-11 and none of the other ATMs I found would take international cards.

  • singinglupines says:

    You can use an unlocked US phone with a Japanese plan. It just needs to be a sim card only plan through a third party carrier like IIJmio. It’s what I’m doing right now and it’s much cheaper. You can check if your phone is compatible beforehand.

    • Yaw Twecolate says:

      Hello, can you please help me find IIJmio sim card? I am stationed at Yokota AB. I tried getting one from BIC camera but they were asking for zairyu card. What did you tell or show them? Thanks.

      • singinglupines says:

        Yes, you need a residence card in order to get a sim card. I had to show mine. You can get temporary visitor sim cards otherwise, that only have data and make your calls via line.

    • Yaw Twecolate says:

      Please can you help me? I need an IIJmio sim card. I am stationed at Yokota AB. Where can I get one, and what do I tell them if they need zairyu card? Thanks.

  • Heather says:

    Why not just use USAA, Navy Fed or another military based bank? We also kept both of our credit union accounts in states open and have never had an issue. Not all military orders are the same. Mainland orders differ much more than Okinawa orders for clothing and work choices, and leaving Okinawa is much easier than coming back on Space A.

  • Angela says:

    Can you explain why you needed a Japanese bank account? We have been in Japan for just a few months but this is the second time I’ve seen it mentioned. Thanks!

  • Steve says:

    The branch of Bank of Yokohama at Yokohama Station know what to do and they have English speaking tellers as well.

  • Jesse says:

    Yeah we ended up going with the Yokosuka branch of Bank of Yokohama. They were the only ones who knew what to do with us.



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