Whether you’re repatriating or heading off to explore another country, leaving Japan for good is a daunting endeavor. And we’re not talking about the emotional processing, reverse culture shock, job hunting and all of that other fun stuff that awaits. There is a ton of adulting/admin to take care of before you pack your suitcase, and here we break down the big to-do list. It may sound obvious, but the sooner you start the better. Seriously! It took this writer a good four months to get everything organized. Oh, and, a word of warning—leaving Japan is not cheap.
1. Pack and ship your boxes
The order of the tasks is not set in stone, but we do recommend starting with the stuff you want to take out of Japan. Pack the clothes you won’t need immediately, as well as crockery, books, curtains and bits and bobs into sturdy cardboard boxes (it’s best to buy them new at your local post office—they cost a few hundred yen each) and send them to your home address via surface mail (sea mail, or funabin). Depending on where they’re going, your goods should arrive in one to three months (maximum six, if there’s a delay). If you time it right, your stuff will be there shortly after you.
I shipped about 10 boxes from Tokyo all the way to South Africa, with each costing between 5,000 and 8,000 yen. I sent them as I packed them, and they arrived in order, with everything intact. In my case, I was restricted to 10kg per box, but weight limits vary by country, so ask the post office for the specifics for your destination. Some expat websites recommend sending your stuff with an international mover, or paying for space in a container, but all of the quotes I got for that sort of thing were in the region of 100,000 yen for just four boxes. Being a cheapo, sea mail made a whole lot more sense to me.
2. Recycle or dispose of your stuff
To get rid of the furniture, appliances and other household items that you will no longer need, we recommend holding a sayonara sale and advertising it on social networks. You can try and recoup some of your expenses, but it’s better to adopt the attitude of “everything must go, and if no one takes it, I’ll have to pay for its disposal”. Whatever is left over will have to be handed over to recycling shops (you can call them to arrange for a quote, there will no doubt be flyers in your postbox) or thrown out as big trash (sodaigomi). Recycling shops will sometimes charge you to take your stuff, so don’t expect to make big monies there.
In most wards, you’ll be required to wait for the correct trash collection day (which may be as infrequent as once a month) and pay a small fee for the disposal of your sodaigomi. To work out the amount, you call or go into your local city hall and tell them what you’re chucking out, and they let you know the fees. You then buy the corresponding trash disposal stickers from a convenience store and put them on your goods before they go out. Don’t be tempted to toss and run; that’s just not nice. Here’s a guide we wrote on how to recycle your stuff cheaply.
3. If you have pets, buy their tickets home
We’re no experts on moving out of Japan with kids in tow (though these nomads know a thing or two), but we can talk about shipping your fur babies to their new home. If you have pets and are taking them with you (and we really hope that you are), you’ll need to get their paperwork and flights booked before you take care of your own. This means looking up the animal import requirements for your destination country and arranging an import certificate and so on. I had initially contacted animal travel agencies to assist me with the whole process, but they wanted to charge upwards of 400,000 yen, so I elected to do it on my own.
To bring my Osaka-born cat to South Africa with me, I had to contact the South African animal import authorities and get papers couriered from them, then take Mr Sir to the vet to make sure his vaccinations were up to date and get a bunch of those aforementioned papers filled out and signed. It was fairly straightforward and inexpensive.
I had to arrange an “export check” at the Narita Animal Quarantine Service (the animal section of the airport) for early in the morning of the day my feline flew; the whole procedure took about 15 minutes and was surprisingly simple. The staff speak English and are extremely helpful and efficient. The important thing to do is contact them a couple of months ahead of the “export”; they will check (via email) that all your paperwork is okay to avoid any delays or issues on the big day.
I booked a ticket for my cat with Cathay Pacific Cargo and they made sure the fleabag got to South Africa safe and sound, and in under 24 hours. Some countries, like South Africa, require pets to be sent as manifest cargo; I know it’s easier for those going to the US as a few carriers allow pets to travel on regular planes. My cat was not put into quarantine upon arrival in South Africa because all of his shots had been sorted in advance, but I was charged tax (!!) because I’d carelessly listed his “value” as 10,000 yen (even though I got him off the street for 0 yen). Note: do not list your animal as having an economic value unless they’re a pedigree breed!
4. Appoint a tax representative, and pay your residence tax
Taxes have a nasty habit of following you around the world, all your life (and sometimes even into the afterlife, at least for your family, anyway). So, best to sort them out in full and on time, we reckon. Before leaving Japan, you need to designate someone as your tax representative. This person will be doing two things for you: filling in and submitting a tax return for you after your pension refund (see below) comes through, so that you can get your cheapo mitts on the 20% that is withheld, and paying your final residence taxes if you leave at an awkward time of year for your local tax office (anytime other than June or July, pretty much).
It goes without saying that you need to nominate someone trustworthy; colleagues and good friends are our recommendation, though you can pay a tax lawyer to do it if you have cash to spare and everyone else you know seems like a con artist. Anyone can do it for you—the only requirement is that they are a resident of Japan and not some rogue tourist. Oh, and they need to be fluent in the vernacular. If possible, ask your tax representative to accompany you to the local tax office, where they will be given a nōzei kanrinin todokesho form to fill out and stamp with their hanko (you’ll need to fill in part of the form too). It’s not as difficult as it sounds, and since you’re making efforts to pay your taxes, the staff should be more than willing to help you.
The office can give you a rough estimate of the residence tax that will be due, so that you can put the money aside and give it to your tax representative before you leave Japan. The amount is calculated based on your income from the previous year, and is paid to the ward that you resided in on January 1st of the current year, no matter where you live now. The tax office will send the bill directly to your tax representative in June or July, and they can pay it at a convenience store. Ask them to mail you the receipt for your records—this is important if you plan on moving back to Japan some day.
5. Check your visa
If your visa is due to expire before you jet out of Japan, you’ll need to pop into your nearest immigration office to apply for a Temporary Visitor visa. If you get to the airport and the immigration officials find that your visa expired even a few days prior, you can get yourself into some seriously hot water and be permanently barred from re-entering Japan, at the very least.
6. Tell your city hall that you’re leaving Japan
When you moved into your city, you had to trot down to the city hall/ward office and notify them of it. When you leave, you need to do the same thing. Go in and ask for a tenshutsu todoke (moving out form) and fill it in on the spot. It takes five minutes and is necessary for tax, pension refund and future visa purposes. I did this about three weeks before I left the country, but you can do it closer to your departure date.
7. Cancel your lease and get your deposit back
Give your landlord as much notice as is required by your lease (usually at least a month, sometimes just two weeks) and arrange a date for a moving-out inspection. They’ll send someone round to assess the damage and determine how much of your deposit you’ll get back. Wear and tear is not something you generally have to pay for, but any big scratches, stains and so on will be for your account. You can expect to pay a cleaning fee of about 20,000 yen too—this is standard.
I rented with UR who, unlike many landlords I’ve heard of, were very reasonable about everything and refunded my deposit in full. It took about a week to process, and because my bank account was due to be closed, they allowed me to collect the money in cash from one of their offices. If your landlord gives you trouble, you can try and take it up with a lawyer. These official guidelines (in Japanese) may be of use. Don’t expect your key money or any of those other hidden fees you paid when you signed the lease to be refunded, though.
8. Close your gas, electricity, internet and water accounts
Call the utilities and tell them that you are leaving Japan, and arrange for your accounts to be closed the day you move out of your apartment. They might allow you to settle your final bills when they come around that same day (my gas provider did that for me), or ask for an address where they can send them. You can leave some money with a friend and have them pay these last bills at a convenience store. You can usually get the exact amount in advance, to make matters easier.
In the case of your internet, you may need to cancel your contract a little further in advance (2-4 weeks before you move out of your place), and you’ll need to return the modem and any other equipment you were renting. They usually send a self-addressed, postage-paid box for you to do this.
9. Give the post office a forwarding address
You can’t get your mail forwarded to a foreign address, but you can get it redirected to a friend in Japan if you like. Simply go to your local post office or the JP Post website and fill out a tenkyo todoke form. It’s free, and your post will be rerouted for up to 12 months.
10. Close your bank accounts
Leave this as late as possible, to make sure that you receive your final salary and can have your last batch of debit orders go off before you fly out. I closed my bank account the day before I left Japan (it was a weekday, luckily). There are a bunch of papers you’ll need to sign, and if you have a credit card the bank will likely want to cut it up. They will give you your balance in cash and make a note on your passbook. If you don’t pay bank fees, you could in theory leave your account open (in case you come back), but this isn’t recommended, officially.
11. Hand over your health insurance card
Another one to leave for the last minute, as without your card, you don’t have affordable access to the medical system in Japan. Return your health insurance card to your employer or ward office/city hall (depending on where you received the card from) and switch to travel insurance if you are going to be doing some domestic travel before leaving Japan.
Note: You can get three to six months’ worth of chronic medication before you go, if you explain to your GP that you are moving out of Japan. Just be sure to get the prescriptions printed out and translated, to avoid any issues at your destination. Do this before handing over your health insurance card, obviously.
12. Cancel your cellphone contract
You can do this the day before or even the day of your departure from Japan. If you have been on a contract with a major provider like SoftBank, you can even cancel your contract at their airport outlets. Brace yourself for a cancellation fee (about 10,000 yen), as well as your final bill. You can usually pay it in cash or by putting it onto a foreign credit card. It can take 30-60 minutes for your last bill to be calculated.
13. Say goodbye and board that plane
Assuming that you’ve remembered to book your ticket, get yourself on board the plane and weep/sleep/eat away your moving blues. On your way out at the airport, hand over your resident’s card so that the immigration official can punch a hole through the corner. When I told them I was leaving Japan permanently, they asked me if I was sure a few times, and then eventually shrugged and made the hole. I had just received a five-year visa, so the confusion was understandable.
14. Get your pension refund
There’s one piece of leaving-Japan admin that you need to do when you get back, and it’s a profitable one. Send your blue pension booklet, together with this Japanese pension refund form, a copy of your passport showing your personal details, visa and departure stamp, and documents confirming your local bank account details, to the Japan Pension Service in Tokyo. I recommend couriering everything if you can afford it, to give you peace of mind that it will get there. If all is in order, you can expect a lump sum to land in your account in 6-24 months. If you’re lucky (and very organized), you might even receive it sooner.
When you get your refund, send the receipt (it’ll come in the mail) to your tax representative and ask them to submit your tax returns. The tax office will transfer the 20% that was withheld from your pension payout to the tax representative directly, and they can then wire the money to you.
On a work note: You’ll also want to get reference letters from your employer before you leave. Allow two months for this. And when you resign, try to give two to three months’ notice—Japanese companies aren’t super keen on the one-month notice period that’s probably standard in your home country.
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