Living and working as a pilot in Japan

Thinking of flying in the Far East?

Since the very first time I’d visited Japan, I’d harboured a fascination that I might get a chance to live there one day. For me, the appeal lay in the big cities, the great skiing opportunities, the cool car culture and of course the beer. In 2016 that opportunity came along, and I was fortunate enough to spend 4 years flying as an FO in Japan and, towards the end of my stay, work as a recruiter at the airline. COVID forced a return home to Australia in 2020 and until recently, Japanese airlines haven’t been hiring non-Japanese crew. That changed just this year, with Peach Aviation (Japan’s biggest LCC) resuming the intake of A320 type-rated crew. This is a small step but nonetheless a step in the right direction towards a recovery, and hopefully, we will see momentum gather as the vaccine rollout takes effect. COVID will be a catalyst for rapid promotions and lucrative contracts once a pathway to recovery is guaranteed, with Japan being no exception to the rollercoaster of aviation boom and bust. When those opportunities present themselves, it may be worth considering a move. The following questions were the ones I received most as an airline recruiter.  

How hard is the application process? 

The application process for airlines in Japan is no more convoluted than in any other country. It is made significantly easier if you have kept very accurate records of your flying time, and the authorities will accept an electronic logbook, so consider switching to one if you currently use paper. The application process is generally slower in Japan than others I have experienced/heard of so be prepared to wait. 

How hard is the medical?  

The medical is generally passable by most people if you have no restrictions on your Class 1. Even if you have had issues in the past, you’ll still be able to pass your medical in Japan provided your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol are all under control. It is perfectly acceptable to be taking medication to control blood pressure and cholesterol. One issue that will prevent you from gaining a medical is if you take any form of anti-depressants or other prescription psychotic drugs. The Japanese medical authorities are unfortunately quite unprogressive when it comes to mental health issues and it’s highly unlikely you would be issued a medical if you have an active mental health issue. 

How is the language barrier? 

I always found the standard of English in the cockpit to be very good, as well as in the cabin. Comms with ATC were more variable, with the Japanese pilot sometimes having to speak over the radio in Japanese for complex issues. Most companies don’t allow two non-native Japanese speakers to fly together domestically for this reason. For day-to-day life, the level of English in Japan has improved massively in the last five years, so you should have no trouble getting around. However, taking the time to learn some basic Japanese is certainly worthwhile.  

“…taking the time to learn some basic Japanese is certainly worthwhile.”

How high is the tax? 

This is always a difficult question but expect to pay about 35-40% of your total salary back to the government if you are on a residency visa. This figure covers not only your income tax but also contributions to your annuity and the national healthcare scheme. Although it sounds high, you will get most of your contributions to your annuity back when you leave (capped at 36 months’ worth). You will also be able to participate in Japan’s excellent healthcare system. 

Should I commute? 

For many, the choice of which company to work for is driven by the availability of a commuting roster and a ticket home each month. Pre-COVID, the main expat employers in Japan were Air Japan, Peach, Skymark, Jetstar Japan and NCA. Notably, both ANA and Japan Airlines don’t hire expats to their main operations. Air Japan, an ANA subsidiary company, was well known for it’s very generous commuting arrangements but unfortunately for those employed there, was the first to start laying-off it’s expat crew, being heavily exposed to international passenger travel demand. It’s worth considering if your future employer provides you with a visa for the entire length of your contract. As a Japanese resident, you’ll be covered by Japanese labour law which makes it much more difficult for companies to terminate your employment. It is possible to commute with or without a visa, however a visa provides you with significantly more flexibility. Narrow-body operations usually offered 10-day blocks of days off for commuters each month and were less flexible as a commuting option than the wide-body operations. 

“It’s worth considering if your future employer provides you with a visa for the entire length of your contract.”

Which base? 

Going forwards I realistically see base choices in Japan being limited to either Narita (Tokyo) or Kansai (Osaka) for expats. The main option for expats is overwhelmingly Narita, being Tokyo’s main international airport. If you choose a Narita base, expect to live in or close to Narita city as it’s over an hour away from the centre of Tokyo. Tokyo is a realistic option if you’re desperate to live in the big city but be prepared for lengthy and expensive bus or train trips to work. Most who are based in Narita choose to live in Narita city itself, which is a charming small city and has good options for pre-school and elementary-aged children. If you’re moving to Japan with teenagers, consider a Kansai base if it’s an option. Kansai is the name of the region that houses Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe cities. Kansai airport has a friendlier commute than Narita, being significantly closer to Osaka city. Osaka is perhaps a slightly more liveable city than Tokyo, and for those who enjoy a quieter pace of city life Kyoto and Kobe offer excellent options. You can also easily commute to Kansai from Kobe’s centre, Sannomiya. Kyoto is the furthest option but doable if you’re interested in living in Japan’s historic capital.  


As a general rule, Tokyo is home to Japan’s most expensive accommodation and when looking for accommodation in Japan, there are three main factors that drive the price of rent in your city of choice: 

  • Proximity to the closest station (and how many express services stop at that station) 
  • Building age 
  • ‘Mansion’ size (a mansion is the Japanese equivalent of an apartment or flat) 

Don’t expect to be able to rent a free-standing house very easily. Mansions are easily the most common accommodation option unless you want to live a long way from the city. Even then, you will struggle to find a landlord who will be willing to let their house to you. Proximity to the train station really is a big deal in Japan. Most people don’t drive to work, and you’ll find yourself catching the train very often, even if you do own a car. Try and live close to a major station and do some research in advance to see which services will get you into work. If you’re happy to sacrifice a little on building age, then you may find yourself something relatively large and close to a train station. 

I’d highly encourage anyone thinking about a change of scenery to consider Japan as its rich culture, marvellous natural spaces and warm, gracious people make it an incredible place to live regardless of your occupation. However, some things are not for everyone and I would therefore also recommend you carefully consider the decision, to ensure it is the best choice for you and your career objectives.”

Patrick Hunter – Former Jetstar Japan employee

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