Ria is an avid writer who is currently teaching English in southwest Japan. She loves helping new teachers and expats get settled in.
With the Tokyo 2020/2021 Olympics fast approaching, Japan will eventually get a fresh wave of tourists. Although Japan is usually very safe, there may be more problems than usual, as stressed-out travelers try to make their way around the crowded city.
Law enforcement will likely be more vigilant than usual, so make sure to stay out of trouble. Here are the biggest problems international tourists usually face in Tokyo and the rest of Japan.
Carry Appropriate ID
First and foremost, all foreigners need to be able to demonstrate that they are in the country legally at all times. For people on a tourist visa, this means your passport; for residents, this means your residence card. If you don’t carry this on you at all times, the police can detain you on suspicion of illegal immigration. A photocopy of these documents is not sufficient, so invest in a secure backpack or pouch for carrying your documents. Of course, make a copy of your passport and keep it in your hotel room or somewhere safe in your luggage just in case something happens to the original.
Hotels and AirBnBs are required by law to take a copy of your passport or residence card before allowing you to stay there, so please comply when they ask for your passport, and properly fill out any forms they give you. Some bars and internet cafes also ask to see this before allowing admission, and they may be stricter about it when dealing with the crowds before and after the Olympics.
Don't Bring Anything Illegal or Restricted
Be careful about what medications you bring into the country. While most prescription medications are okay in small quantities, some drugs that are legal in the US are banned in Japan. Sudafed and many types of inhalers are illegal, and attempting to bring them into the country will result in interrogation at a minimum and fines and imprisonment at worst. Check out this list of pointers from the Japanese Consulate in Seattle, and don’t be afraid to contact your nearest Japanese consulate and ask questions if needed. If you need to bring over a month’s supply of prescription medication, get a Yakkan Shoumei form authorizing the prescription. Your local embassy or consulate can walk you through getting your doctor to sign this form.
Of course, drugs that are illegal in the US are generally illegal in Japan as well, and the penalties for violating the law are stiff. A marijuana offense that could result in a fine in some parts of America can result in jail time and deportation in Japan, so don’t fool around!
Like many countries, Japan has restrictions on bringing in fruits, vegetables, meats, and animals. While it's possible to get some products into the country, it may be more of a hassle than it's worth, and the list of restrictions changes periodically. Animals in particular can be difficult, due to Japan's strict quarantine process to prevent rabies from being imported. Unless you're moving to Japan for more than a year or two, it may be better to leave your furry friends with a relative.
Nightlife and Crime
Additionally, while escort services are common in some parts of Japan, full-on prostitution is technically illegal. It’s best to stay away from red-light districts, like Kabukicho in Tokyo, especially if you don’t speak Japanese well enough to know what you’re getting into. These areas can also be hotspots for trouble, including gangs and violent drunks. Whatever you do, don’t attempt to carry pepper spray or a knife, as this falls into a legal gray area that could land you in a lot of trouble.
If someone approaches you and tries to invite you to their bar, it's best to decline. Aggressive attempts to invite you in can indicate a bar with exorbitant cover fees, which you may be on the hook for as soon as you walk through the door. These cover fees aren't technically illegal, so the police won't help you if you get in over your head.
Finally, keep your hands to yourself. Being accused of a sexual crime, including groping, can land you in jail for up to 21 days while the police investigate. In many countries, a wayward hand will rarely get you more than a slap on the face or a one-way ticket out of the bar, but you better wait for an invitation before touching anyone in Japan!
If You Need Help
Police boxes are your first line of defense in case of missing wallets or other common problems that require in-person support. For other problems, you can use the Japan Helpline, a 24-hour toll-free center with English help. Their website includes commonly used phone numbers for counseling centers and other resources as well.
If you find yourself confronted by police, remember that you have rights. It’s not unheard of for police impersonators to harass travelers, or even for actual police to ignore your rights. Check out this list of tips for handling police interactions safely and diplomatically.
Once Japan reopens to visitors, you may still need to seek medical attention if you show symptoms of COVID-19. Japan's government measures may change frequently during and after the coronavirus pandemic, but you can always call the Japan Helpline for the latest information on where to go to seek treatment.
Liz Westwood from UK on October 24, 2018:
There are some good tips here which can be applied to travel worldwide.
Poppy from Enoshima, Japan on October 24, 2018:
Good article! I've been living in Japan for five years and love it. It was tough when I was studying in Tokyo because I was 19 and the drinking age was 20.