Moving to Japan with Children

Neat rows of desks with green plastic chairs in a bright and airy classroom.

Takanawadai Elementary School in Tokyo. Photo © scarletgreen, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

If you are taking your family with you to Japan on a student or work visa, each member will need to obtain a dependent visa at a Japanese consulate office outside Japan in order to enter the country. A spouse or child of someone residing in Japan with the visa status of professor, researcher, or cultural activities is eligible for dependent resident status. Normally the period of stay for dependents is three months, six months, one year, or three years. If your dependent plans to stay in Japan for more than 90 days, he or she must also apply for a resident card.


Making the Adjustment

Children face their own challenges when moving to a new country. Make sure to provide plenty of support—familiar books, toys, music, photographs of extended family and close friends, and some favorite foods. Allow them time to get adjusted to their new surroundings, and try not to push them to play with children they don’t know. If your children are old enough, help them write a postcard or email to a friend back home. Above all, as a parent, give them your time and emotional support, even though you may be busy with the many tasks of setting up house in a new culture. When your children are ready, plan ways to learn Japanese together, go shopping, or take outings. But I recommend starting slowly—riding a subway may be a big enough activity by itself. Don’t fill up the schedule too much. For helpful information on moving to Japan with children, visit this online resource: Tokyo With Kids.

How does a young child experience a move to a new country? I can share my personal experience of moving from Japan, where I was born, to North America for the first time at age four. My missionary parents took a one-year break from Hokkaido and moved back to Indiana. I found myself in a strange place filled with new tastes, a new language, and relatives I’d only seen in pictures. I was too young to go to school, so I stayed home and played with buttons from my grandmother’s sewing basket. After a year, we went back to our home in Japan.

I don’t think the transition was very difficult at that age, but when we moved again to the United States when I was in the sixth grade, it was a harder adjustment. I was used to my local Japanese elementary school and had never experienced school in English. I knew English well, but my vocabulary was somewhat limited, and I sometimes got laughed at for not knowing slang or the latest popular tune or TV show. A preteen or adolescent needs someone who understands what they’re going through (which is true when moving within the same country, as well).

Your child will face some challenges living in Japan or going to a Japanese school, but rest assured it will be an enriching experience, an opportunity of a lifetime. To ease the transition to a new school, enlist the help of the home-room teacher and find a buddy who can help your child learn the ropes and ease the transition. Keep in close touch with the school and teachers, and also try to get to know some parents.

For preschoolers, there are many good Japanese hoikuen (government-supported day cares) and yochien (kindergartens for ages 3–5).


Moving as a Single Parent

There are some challenges to being a single parent in an unfamiliar culture.

Rhae Washington, a single mom who moved to Japan with her two-year-old, said:
I loved the education my son got in his hoikuen—they were so loving and yet taught him a lot about discipline. I loved the beach and swimming and the flowers and the temples…the aesthetic qualities of Kamakura [south of Tokyo] were extraordinary. Going to visit Daibutsu [Great Buddha] was one of our favorite things to do; we called him “our friend.” I enjoyed the food very much, and learning the language, and being exposed to cultural opportunities.

On the other hand, I was also very isolated—I had only a few friends, and they weren’t really friends I could count on for help or support. I made one Japanese friend by responding to an ad she’d posted seeking foreigner friends. She had a child my son’s age, and she would come over for dinner and drinks a few times a month. We had a good time together, and so did the kids; we still keep in touch. She is a very nontraditional Japanese woman, though, as she’s traveled extensively. Many Japanese women that I met were too shy to really engage with me, either because they were self-conscious about their English or because they found me strange—usually both, it seemed to me. I did interact socially with a couple of my students’ parents, but that was not in an intimate, friendly way, but more in a very polite, business kind of way. I was very self-conscious, going to their houses, and thus didn’t really enjoy myself.

In retrospect, I don’t think Japan is the best place for a single parent. There just really aren’t enough resources in the smaller towns. Perhaps in Tokyo one would be OK, especially with good Japanese. My advice would be to learn the language as much as possible—hiragana, katakana, and a lot of vocabulary. Try to build a support system (of foreigners, if necessary) before moving, through the websites designed for foreigners, such as www.japan-guide.com, or by contacting friends of friends—most people, Japanese and foreigners alike, will be happy to help. I would also warn anyone moving there that they will almost necessarily feel isolated, at least at the beginning. They will have to ask for help a lot—which is why it’s so important to have friends to count on. But the kids will benefit! And it’s one of the safest countries in the world, which is a wonderful feeling when you have kids, and also as a woman. It was the first time in my life I didn’t feel the need to watch my back. My son did pick up the language easily, especially in his Japanese school, and we still use it sometimes.


Despite some challenges and the need for patience during the initial adjustment period, I strongly believe that the benefits of growing up in two cultures far outweigh the challenges. Because our brain capacity increases through mapping multiple sets of vocabularies and grammars, learning two or more languages in early childhood has been shown to stimulate and develop brain cells. In an increasingly interdependent world, knowing more than one language and culture gives children—and adults—a broader worldview and empathy for people from other places. Home is no longer limited to one country as we extend the concept of “one nation, indivisible” to “one earth, indivisible.” There are practical advantages as well—being bilingual and bicultural will be an advantage when your child establishes a career. You as a parent can give your family that priceless opportunity when you move to Japan.


Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Japan.

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1 Comment

  1. hayato nakamura says:

    Ruthy,

    I stumbled on your post today as I searched for articles relating to foreigners moving to Japan. I am a Japanese believer and MK raised in Papua New Guinea and intend to move my American wife and daughter to Tokyo from Los Angeles this year for job related reasons. Thanks for the insight!

    HN