Living and working in Tokyo

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From towering skyscrapers to flashing neon signs and futuristic urban fashions, Tokyo conjures up a wealth of images. And for the most part it delivers on all that it promises.

The city is not the world's most beautiful. Compared with the scenic boulevards of Paris or the glittering view across the harbour in Hong Kong, the grey buildings and nondescript alleys that make up Tokyo's urban sprawl can seem positively drab.

But Tokyo is not so much about historic sights or beautiful architecture as about sheer energy. Even now, after 10 years in the economic doldrums, the jostling crowds and frenetic sounds of the Japanese capital pack a dizzying punch that most cities never come close to matching.

Metropolitan Tokyo, perched on Tokyo Bay and at the edge of the Kanto plain in central Japan, is home to about 12 million people. But it is difficult to say exactly where the city ends and where the suburbs begin.

The lack of space and the high cost of housing have forced many would-be Tokyoites to live in surrounding boroughs and even neighbouring cities. The result is that five million people descend upon the city every working day, transforming the centre into a flood of business suits, school uniforms, and trendy clothes sported by day-trippers.

Financial district

In the southeast of the city, nestled around Tokyo station on the Yamanote railway line and Otemachi station on the subway network, lies Tokyo's main financial district.

Here you will find the Stock Exchange, the Bank of Japan, and the headquarters of major commercial bodies such as the Keidanren (Japan Federation of Economic Organizations). Most Japanese financial companies, including such international powerhouses as Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi and Nomura Securities, have their head offices in or around this area.

The district is mostly concrete high-rises and office blocks, making it one of the least attractive parts of the city. There are also few upscale restaurants or bars in the area, as Japanese rarely do business or meet associates over a working lunch.

Instead, at lunchtime office workers pour out on to the streets in search of a bento - a traditional boxed lunch, usually of rice, fish or meat, and vegetables. Lingering over lunch is rare, and drinking wine or any other alcohol with the meal virtually unheard of. While socialising and entertaining do play a major role in business in Japan, they are reserved almost exclusively for the evening.

Many foreign financial companies, however, are based in the more trendy western side of the city in areas such as Akasaka and Ebisu.

The job market for foreign financial professionals in Tokyo is healthy. Deregulation has allowed foreign banks and securities companies to increase their share of newly opened markets. Many have also snapped up assets of weak local firms - the prime example being Merrill Lynch's purchase of the remains of Yamaichi Securities, which collapsed in dramatic fashion in 1998.

Meanwhile unemployment among Japanese financial professionals is rising at an alarming rate. Many Japanese firms have succumbed to consolidation, acquisitions, or bankruptcy.

Corporate culture

Business relationships, like all relationships in Japan, are guided by a complex code of etiquette. Business cards, for example, known as meishi, are religiously exchanged at first meetings. They carry much more weight than they do in the West.

Status is very important and a business card instantly reveals a person's standing within their company. The proper way to greet a first-time business associate is to introduce yourself and offer them your meishi with both hands. After accepting their card, you should briefly examine it before putting it in your wallet. Instead of shaking hands, it is customary to bow after the exchange.

The depth of a bow is an index of status: when bowing to your boss, for example, your bow should be the deeper of the two.

Do not panic if all of this sounds a bit too rigid - what corporate Tokyo lacks in terms of frills during the working hours of the day, it makes up for in the evening.

Few business deals are sealed without both sides heading into the streets of downtown Tokyo for a meal and a drinking session that may last into the early hours of the morning. For most Japanese, alcohol is a social lubricant like no other, allowing them to set aside the rigid social mores that bind their daily lives.

This is the time to tell your business partner what you really think about that deal you just signed. Rest assuredóeverything, including that drunken karaoke number you just belted out, will be forgotten in the morning.

Housing and transport

Foreign residents are likely to find themselves living on the western side of the city. Housing almost invariably means a flat and prices are among the highest in the world. You would be lucky to find even a studio at under Y80,000 (730 euros) per month.

Prices for a two- or three-bedroom flat can range from Y250,000 per month to the astronomical.

Unless your company is leasing the property, you will also have to pay the equivalent of six months rent up front before moving in óincluding two months &quotkey money&quot that will go to the landlord and will not be returned.

Once you have settled on a flat, getting around is easy. You will never be far from a subway or train station. These charge according to distance travelled and run from about 5am until slightly past midnight.

The system is highly efficient, operating to a strict timetable. Unsettling as it may be, the most common cause of delay is when people commit suicide by throwing themselves in front of a train.

If you are at all tempted to do this, beware - Tokyo's rail authority charges the victim's family for every minute that trains are held up as a result of a suicide. In Tokyo, not even death is cheap.


Tokyo has few parks to speak of. Weekends are more likely to include a stroll through the shopping districts and dinner in a restaurant than a jog through nature. But when it comes to café culture, shopping, dining, and clubbing, Tokyo can compete with anywhere.

Among the most vibrant areas are Shibuya, Shinjuku, Roppongi, and Aoyama, which offer restaurants with cuisine from all over the world.

Tokyo is also one of the world's leading centres for the arts and fashion. Museums and galleries showcase everything from traditional Japanese art to modern Western masters. The streets of Omotesando in western Tokyo, meanwhile, are lined with the boutiques of world-famous designers such as Issey Miyake and Hanae Mori.

And when it comes to outlandish street fashions, the roads of Shibuya and the back streets of Harajuku are packed with funky teenagers.

Taxes and work permits

Foreigners are taxed at about 20% of their income, regardless of their earnings. In a large company, national pension and insurance contributions may also be subtracted from your paycheck. You can, however, get these back when you finally leave the country.

Work permits are easy to come by, particularly if you are in the financial sector or any other professional field. You must find a company that wants to employ you, but unlike in Europe or the United States, it does not usually need to prove that you have skills it could not find locally.

Once your application is approved, you will need to leave Japan and reenter to activate you permit. The entire process should take about one month.