Living in Japan: The Essentials

By Mark Ellis

Living in Japan:  The Essentials

Tokyo is without a doubt an exciting place to live.  Nowhere on earth can one find quite the same blend of modernism, traditional culture, avant-garde youth movements, excitement, and tranquility in one bustling metropolis. The fact that Tokyo is ultra convenient, clean, and relatively crime free makes it a true wonder to behold.  Still, even in a city like Tokyo emergencies can happen.  When they do the hardship can be infinitely compounded by not knowing where to go to get the help you need in a language you can understand.So, in order to help make your life in Tokyo as stress free as possible, I have compiled a helpful list of places you can contact to get help when you need it.

Police & Ambulance

As I mentioned above Tokyo has a very low crime rate.  Compared to other megacities around the world, theft and violent crime are almost non-existent.  No matter how safe Tokyo is it is not an accident free zone.  Fate does favorthe prepared so knowing the following numbers will come in handy if you need an ambulance, the fire department, or the police.

Police: 110
Ambulance and Fire Department: 119

Ambulance services in Japan are free of charge.  Of course, these numbers are intended for emergency use only.   Both 110 and 119 can be dialed from a regular phone, public phone, or cell phone.
Tokyo is infamous for its hard-to-figure-out addressing system.  If you have to call one of the above emergency numbers but you don’t know the address you should try, if possible, to call from a public payphone. All calls from public payphones are traced automatically.  To make an emergency call from a payphone just pick up the receiver, press the red emergency button and dial 110 or 119.

Natural Disasters

The two biggest natural disasters residents of Tokyo have to consider are earthquakes and typhoons.  Don’t worry. Hollywood and the media make both of these seem more monstrous than they really are.  By taking the proper action you can greatly improve your ability to insure your own safety.


Earthquakes happen on a regular basis.  The vast majority of them are extremely mild and of no cause for concern.  If a major earthquake were to happen the first and most important thing you should do is remain calm.  Blind panic will put you at greater risk.  Stay safe by keeping your wits about you.
  1. Do not try to go outside until the shaking has stopped.  Power lines and other falling objects are infinitely more dangerous than the shaking building.
  2. If you have a strong table get under it and hold on to one of the table legsuntil the shaking has stopped.
  3. If there is no table available kneel down next to an interior wall (walls on the inside of the house that do not face outside.  Cover your head and neck with your hands and wait for the shaking to stop.
  4. If you are in bed the best thing to do is cover your head with a pillow and stay there.  Studies have shown that more injuries occurred to people who jumped out of bed and tried to make a run for it.
  5. DO NOT RUN OUTSIDE during the quake.
  6. DO NOT STAND IN A DOORWAY.  This advice goes against the well-known myth that the doorway is the safest place during an earthquake.  However, in modern buildings, doorways are no stronger than any other part of the house, and the doorway does not protect you from falling objects or flying debris. You are safer under a table or bracing yourself against an interior wall.
Remember, in an earthquake, falling objects is the biggest danger to your safety.  The three key words to remember are drop, cover, and hold on.
Once the earthquake has stopped be sure to switch off the main gas valve and the circuit breakers before leaving the building.


Typhoons usually hit between July and October.   In the heart of Tokyo, flooding is not as much of a concern as flying debris.  Street signs, roof tiles, and broken branches can pose a serious risk.  The best way to protect yourself during a typhoon is to stay indoors.  Other common sense precautions include staying away from rivers, lakes, and oceans.  If you try to surf a gnarly wave during a typhoon it may be the last wave you will ever see.  Don’t laugh.  It actually happened once.  Unfortunately things didn’t end well for the surfer.


No matter how much fun you are having in Tokyo, there might come a time when you have to take your body in for some maintenance work.  Visiting hospitals and clinics in a foreign country can be a daunting experience, especially if you don’t speak the language.  Below is a list of phone numbers and a website that can help make that experience a little less hectic.

Tokyo Metropolitan Health and Medical Information Center

Tel: 03-5285-8080 or 03-5285-8181                            
Hours: 9:00am-8:00pm everyday

Languages: English/Chinese/Korean/Thai/Spanish

Information about treatment centers as well as the Japanese health insurance system.

Emergency Medical Translation Services

Hours: Weekdays5:00pm-8:00pm / Weekends &Holidays9:00am-8:00pm

Languages: English/Chinese/Korean/Thai/Spanish

Interpretation service through phone is available for foreign patients if their treatment is not going smoothly because of language difficulty. This service is only to be used for medically relevant translation.

Web Link To Medical Facilities

The New Zealand Embassy has compiled a wonderful list of medical facilities where English is spoken.
A list of medical facilities

If you visit a hospital or clinic make sure you take your health insurance.  If you do not show your health insurance card or if you do not have health insurance, you will be required to pay the full amount for treatment.  That can be extremely expensive.  You should also take your passport for identification purposes. If you are taking any medication at the time, takethat with you as well.   Be aware that some private clinics, especially those run by foreign doctors, are not part of the national health care system.  If cost is a concern for you then you could save yourself from having an unpleasant surprise by calling ahead to confirm.
If you live in Japan, you are required to have some kind of public health insurance. There are two types of health insurance in Japan: Employees Health Insurance, which is offered to employees working at companies and factories, and National Health Insurance, which covers self-employed or unemployed people. If you are enrolled in public health insurance, you are generally required to pay only 30% of the medical expenses.  This rate is standard for the whole country.


The Tokyo International Communication Committee has compiled a wonderful list of government run facilities where foreign residents can go to get consultation on various issues related to living in Japan. When the need arises why not visit their website or contact one of the offices nearest you to find out if they can help find a solution to your problem. 
The Tokyo International Communication Committee
For more information on the essentials of living in Japan visit one of the websites below.
Tokyo International Communication Committee
Ministry of Foreign Affairs (downloadable PDF)
Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Guide To Japanese Visas