What makes Japan a unique country to travel to?
Japan is a stable, highly developed parliamentary democracy with a modern economy. Tourist facilities are widely available, except in coastal areas of Northeast Japan still recovering from the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.
The general crime rate in Japan is well below the U.S. national average. Crimes against U.S. citizens in Japan usually involve personal disputes, theft, or vandalism. Violent crime is rare, but it does exist. Sexual assaults are not often reported, but they do occur, and females may be randomly targeted. Hate-related violent crimes rarely occur, although some U.S. citizens have reported being the target of comments or actions because of their nationality or their race. U.S. citizens have reported incidents of pick pocketing in crowded shopping areas, on trains, and at airports. Every year, a number of U.S. citizens report their passports lost or stolen at international airports, especially passports that were carried in their pockets. Robberies committed after a victim has been drugged or “drink spiked” are increasing (see below).
Some U.S. citizens report that Japanese police procedures appear to be less sensitive and responsive to a victim's concerns compared to the procedures in the United States, particularly in cases of domestic violence or sexual assault, or when both the victim and the perpetrator are foreigners. Few victim's assistance resources or battered women's shelters exist in major urban areas, and they are generally unavailable in rural areas. Investigations of sexual assault crimes are often conducted without female police officers present, and police typically ask about the victim's sexual history and previous relationships. The quality of Japanese-English interpretation services can vary, and for some U.S. citizen victims, this has caused a problem.
Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are such goods illegal in the United States, if you purchase them you may also be breaking local law.
Concerns Regarding Roppongi and other Entertainment and Nightlife Districts in Tokyo:
Roppongi is an entertainment district in Tokyo that caters to foreign clientele and is considered a high-risk area for crime, particularly misappropriation of credit card information in bars to make fraudulent credit card charges. Other high-risk areas for crime in the Tokyo area include Shinjuku (especially the area of Kabuki-cho), Shibuya, and Ikebukuro. However, you should use caution in all entertainment and nightlife districts throughout Japan. Incidents involving U.S. citizens in these areas include physical and sexual assaults, drug overdoses, theft of purses, wallets, cash and credit cards at bars or clubs, and drugs allegedly slipped into drinks.
Drink-spiking at bars and entertainment venues, especially in areas such as Roppongi and Kabuki-cho, near Shinjuku, has routinely led to robbery and has also resulted in physical and sexual assaults. In most drink-spiking reports, the victim unknowingly drinks a beverage that has been mixed with a drug that makes the victim unconscious or dazed for several hours, during which time the victim’s credit card is used for large purchases or the card is stolen. Some victims regain consciousness in the bar or club; other victims may awaken on the street or in other unknown locations. Several U.S. citizens have also reported being charged exorbitant bar tabs in some bars and clubs in Roppongi and other entertainment and nightlife districts. Although firearms and brandishing knives in public are illegal in Japan, there have been reports by U.S. citizens of being threatened with gun or knife violence in such venues in order to force them to pay bar tabs or withdraw money. There have also been reports of beatings of U.S. citizens who have refused to pay or hand over money.
There have been recent reports of U.S. citizens being forcibly taken to ATM machines and robbed, or to withdraw funds after being unable to pay exhorbitant bar tabs. Please be aware that Roppongi and other entertainment and nightlife districts have also been the scenes of violence between criminal syndicates in the past. In 2012, a member of a Japanese criminal organization was beaten to death in a bar in Roppongi by several masked men.
We urge you to keep these incidents in mind and use caution in all entertainment areas and nightlife districts. Some travelers have reported that their credit cards have been unreasonably over-charged without their knowledge in these areas. If you believe that you are a victim of crime, you must file a police report at the nearest police station before you leave Japan. The Japanese police do not provide you a copy of the police report, but rather issue a report number. You can provide this report number to your credit card company in order to confirm the incident with the police. The Japanese police cannot accept reports filed from overseas by phone or email.
While you are traveling in another country, you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different than our own. In Japan, you may be taken in for questioning if you don’t have your passport or Japanese residence card to show your identity and visa status. Driving under the influence could also land you immediately in jail. If you violate Japanese law, even unknowingly, you may be arrested, imprisoned, or deported. If you are arrested in Japan, even for a minor offense, you may be held in detention without bail for several months or more during the investigation and legal proceedings. A list of English-speaking lawyers located throughout Japan is available on our website. There are also some things that might be legal in the country you visit, but still illegal in the United States, and you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods or purchase child pornography. While you are overseas, U.S. laws don’t apply. If you do something illegal in your host country, you are subject to the laws of the country even though you are a U.S. citizen. It’s very important to know what’s legal and what’s not wherever you go.
Illegal Drugs: Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking in illegal drugs, including marijuana, are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and fines. In most drug cases, suspects are detained and barred from receiving visitors or corresponding with anyone other than a lawyer or a U.S. consular officer until after the first hearing, which at times has taken a year to take place. Solitary confinement is common.
You could be convicted of drug use based on positive blood or urine tests alone, and several U.S. citizens are now serving time in Japanese prisons as the result of sting operations that used informants. The Japanese police routinely share information on drug arrests with Interpol, assuring that notification of the arrest will reach U.S. law enforcement agencies. The majority of all U.S. citizens now in prison in Japan are incarcerated for drug-related crimes. In recent months, there have been arrests of individuals selling and possessing synthetic drug – like substances, such as the synthetic marijuana called "spice."
Japanese authorities aggressively pursue drug smugglers with sophisticated detection equipment, "sniffing" dogs, and other methods. When entering Japan, you and your luggage will be screened at ports of entry. Incoming and outgoing mail, as well as international packages sent via DHL or FedEx, is also checked carefully. The Japanese police make arrests for even the smallest amounts of illegal drugs. Several U.S. citizens have been arrested, tried, and convicted after having mailed illegal drugs to themselves from other countries, or for having tried to bring drugs into Japan as paid couriers working out of Southeast Asia or Europe. In 2013, several U.S. citizens were arrested at Japanese airports for smuggling illegal drugs on flights originating in India. All claim that they did not realize they were carrying drugs. When traveling to Japan, never transport packages which do not belong to you and keep immediate control your luggage at all times.
Knives: Possession of a knife with a locking blade, or a folding blade that is longer than 5.5 cm (a little more than two inches), is illegal in Japan. U.S. citizens and U.S. military personnel have been arrested and detained for more than 10 days for carrying pocket knives that are legal in the United States but illegal in Japan.
Immigration Penalties: Japanese work visas are not transferable and are issued outside of Japan for a specific job with a specific employer at a specific place of employment. It is illegal for you to work in Japan while in tourist or visa-waiver status. Japanese authorities do not allow foreigners to change their immigration status from visa-waiver status to work status while in Japan. Japanese immigration officers may deny you entry if you appear to have no visible means of support. Please contact the Japanese Embassy or nearest Japanese consulate in the United States for information on what is considered enough financial support. If you work in Japan without a work visa, you may be subject to arrest, which can involve several weeks or months of incarceration, followed by conviction and imprisonment or deportation. If you are deported, you will have to pay the cost of deportation, including legal expenses and airfare.
Overstaying your visa or working illegally may lead to fines of several thousands of dollars, and in some cases, re-entry bans can be as long as ten years or indefinitely for drug offenders. For additional information please see Japan’s Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act.
Arrest notifications in Japan: Generally, when you are arrested in Japan, the police will ask if you would like the U.S. embassy or consulate to be notified of your arrest. To ensure that the United States is aware of your circumstances, request that the police and prison officials notify the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate as soon as you are arrested or detained overseas.
Consular Access: You must carry your U.S. passport or Japanese Residence Card (Zairyu Kado) with you at all times so that if questioned by local officials, you can prove your identity, citizenship, and immigration status. Under Japanese law, the police may stop any person on the street at any time and demand to see identification. If you do not have with you either a passport or valid Japanese Residence Card, you are subject to arrest. In accordance with the U.S.-Japan Consular Convention, U.S. consular officers are generally notified within 24 hours of the arrest of a U.S. citizen, if the U.S. citizen requests consular notification.
Conditions at Prisons and Detention Facilities: Japanese prisons and detention facilities maintain internal order through a regime of very strict discipline. U.S. citizen prisoners often complain of stark, austere living conditions and psychological isolation. No one arrested in Japan is allowed access to personal medication of any type, often causing problems and health risks to those arrested with medical conditions, as substitute medication provided by prison medical officials is seldom the same in effect or strength. As a prisoner, you can become eligible for parole only after having served approximately 60-70% of your sentence. Early parole is not allowed for any reason -- humanitarian, medical, or otherwise. Access to interpreters is not always required under Japanese criminal law. Additional information on arrests in Japan is available on our embassy website. Japan acceded to the Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons on June 1, 2003.
Japanese is the official language. The Japanese place great value on nonverbal language or communication. For example, much can be said with a proper bow. In fact, one is often expected to sense another person’s feelings on a subject without verbal communication. Westerners often misinterpret this as a Japanese desire to be vague or incomplete. The Japanese may consider a person’s inability to interpret feelings through body language as insensitivity.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
While medical care in Japan is good, English-speaking physicians and medical facilities that cater to U.S. citizens’ expectations are expensive and not widespread. Japan has a national health insurance system which is available only to those foreigners with long-term visas for Japan. National health insurance does not pay for medical evacuation. Medical caregivers in Japan require payment in full at the time of treatment or concrete proof of ability to pay before they will treat a foreigner who is not a member of the national health insurance plan.
U.S.-style and standard psychiatric care can be difficult to locate in major urban centers in Japan and generally is not available outside of Japan's major cities. Extended psychiatric care for foreigners in Japan is difficult to obtain at any price.
U.S. prescriptions are not honored in Japan, so if you need ongoing prescription medicine you should arrive with a sufficient supply for your stay in Japan or enough until you are able to see a local care provider. Certain medications, including some commonly prescribed for depression and Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), are not widely available.
Safety and Security
There have been no major terrorist incidents in Japan since 1995. However, you should be aware of the potential risks and take these into consideration when making travel plans.
The Government of Japan maintains heightened security measures at key facilities and ports of entry as antiterrorism precautions. At times, these security measures may increase because of regional tensions. The Government of Japan is vigilant in tracking terrorist threat indicators and remains at a high state of alert. You can contact local police substations (koban) and police emergency dispatchers (tel. 110) to report any suspicious activity.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in a foreign country, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Japan is provided for general reference only, and it may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.
Driving in Japan is quite complicated and expensive. Traffic moves on the left side of the road. Those who cannot read the language will have trouble understanding road signs. Highway tolls can be as high as $1 (U.S.) or more per mile. City traffic is often very congested. A 20-mile trip in the Tokyo area may take two hours. There is virtually no legal roadside parking, however, traffic is commonly blocked or partially-blocked by those illegally parked curbside. In mountainous areas, roads are often closed during the winter, and cars should be equipped with tire chains. Roads in Japan are much narrower than those in the United States. Japanese compulsory insurance (JCI) is mandatory for all automobile owners and drivers in Japan. Most short-term visitors choose not to drive in Japan. Other than a few exceptions, turning on red lights is generally not permitted.
Japanese law provides that all drivers in Japan are held liable in the event of an accident, and assesses fault in an accident on all parties. Japan has a national zero percent blood-alcohol level standard for driving, and drivers stopped for driving under the influence of intoxicants will have their licenses confiscated. If you’re found guilty of "drunken, speeding, or blatantly careless driving resulting in injury" you are subject to up to 15 years in prison.
All passengers are required to fasten their seat belts.
The National Police Agency (NPA) oversees the administration and enforcement of traffic laws in Japan.
Emergency Assistance: Within Japan, please dial 110 for police, and 119 for ambulance. For roadside assistance, please contact the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) at 03-5730-0111 in Tokyo, 072-645-0111 in Osaka, 011-857-8139 in Sapporo, 092-841-5000 in Fukuoka, or 098-877-9163 in Okinawa.
For specific information concerning Japanese driving permits, vehicle inspection, road tax and mandatory insurance, please refer to the Japan National Tourist Organization website for locations in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco. In addition, information about roadside assistance, rules of the road, and obtaining a Japanese driver's license is available in English from the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) web site.
International Driving Permits (IDPs): An international driving permit (IDP) issued in the United States by the American Automobile Association (AAA) or the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA) is required of short-term visitors who drive in Japan. You must obtain an IDP issued in your country of residence prior to arriving in Japan. The U.S. Embassy or its consulates do not issue IDPs. IDPs issued via the Internet and/or by other organizations are not valid in Japan.
"Residents" – the exact definition is unclear - must convert to or obtain a Japanese driver’s license. Residents in Japan who use an international driver’s license may be fined or arrested. In practice, the term “resident” involves more than simply visa status or length of stay in Japan and is determined by the police. In short, an international license is not a substitute for a valid Japanese license. See our website for more information on driving in Japan.