Where is the best place to live in Japan as a foreign resident?
Naturally, what matters most of all is what you value personally. For exactly that reason, it’s essential to look beyond Tokyo alone.
I decided to use hard data to investigate which Japanese cities are best for immigrants and expats alike. For this exercise, existing Japanese livability rankings won’t be of much help. Desirability rankings are typically topped by Yokohama and Sapporo. But measuring how desirable a location is has little to do with how good that place is to actually live in. Measures of satisfaction are more reliable. Still, even these offer no explanation of why cities like Ashiya in Hyogo and Ikoma in Osaka come out on top. And the most prominent comprehensive rankings of Japanese cities, topped by places such as Nagakute in Aichi and Chuo Ward in Tokyo, put a lot of emphasis on factors that arguably don’t affect livability, like wealth and birth rate.
Above all else, the factors that appeal to the average Japanese citizen are very different from those that satisfy the average immigrant.
Using data to find answers
Every city appeals to every person for different reasons. For the purposes of this ranking, I compiled hard data to serve as a baseline measure of how attractive a city is for a foreign resident.
In order to do so, I assembled public data from 120 large cities in Japan, including at least one from all 47 prefectures, and all 23 Tokyo wards. You can read more about my full methodology at the end of the article. Heavily weighted factors include foreign population ratio, English language capability (although it is worth noting that many immigrants may not know English), cost of housing and living, and local amenities like parks and hospitals. Other factors include availability of jobs, public transportation infrastructure, sightseeing spots, and international schools. These factors tend to be basic essentials that most foreign residents would deem as attractive for their city.
As a result, the cities topping these rankings are low-to-medium cost cities. They have a high proportion of international residents, great access to jobs, and attractive amenities. That sounds like a solid baseline for measuring what makes a great city to me. And perhaps it’s surprising, or perhaps not—but when you weigh all of these factors, Tokyo is not the winner.
So what is? Without any further ado…the top 10 best cities in Japan for immigrants! (Note: Tokyo’s wards all scored near the top of this ranking and will be discussed separately.)
1. Hachioji (Tokyo)
Hachioji is a large city on the outskirts of the Tokyo metro area with access to Shinjuku in 45 minutes on the Chuo line. While it may be considered a ‘rural’ city close to the mountains, Hachioji is nonetheless large enough to have plenty of its own amenities. Hachioji scored strongly on most of the important factors in this ranking. It’s a diverse city for Japan with solid English infrastructure, access to Tokyo for jobs, schools, and sightseeing activities, good parks and green space, and a low cost of housing for the Tokyo area. A worthy #1 on this list.
2. Kobe (Hyogo)
There are four cities that beat out Tokyo proper, and the Kansai region’s trendy port city wins out on the factors that matter most in this ranking. It has access to superb amenities in Osaka and Kyoto, beautiful waterfront scenery and mountainous parks, good English language infrastructure, and above-average diversity. That was enough for Kobe to overcome Osaka and Kyoto as a place to live for foreign residents.
T3. Machida (Tokyo)
Machida is another large city on the outskirts of Tokyo, a mere 30 minutes from Shinjuku via express train, that shares many of the pros of Hachioji in terms of balancing infrastructure and access with cost of living.
T3. Nagoya (Aichi)
Nagoya takes out a surprising win over trendier regional cities like Fukuoka and Sapporo. This is thanks largely to its diversity and superb employment environment, tied with Osaka for the best jobs’ hub for immigrants outside of Tokyo. Nagoya also offers cheap housing and cost of living and superlative access to the rest of the country with its central location in between Kansai, Kanto, and the Japanese Alps.
5. Tokyo (Tokyo)
The nation’s capital made it to fifth on the list, just a few points short of the #1 crown. Tokyo obviously won huge points for its top-ranked English language infrastructure, diversity, employment and educational environment, and attractive amenities. But the score was dragged down by incredibly expensive housing and lack of accessible green space.
6. Ota (Gunma)
A big surprise comes in at #6, with a score nearly matching Tokyo, and even surpassing the scores of several Tokyo wards. This medium-sized regional city two hours from Tokyo outshot other cities largely thanks to its high diversity score due to the large number of foreign laborers in the area. However, diversity isn’t enough to win a place in the top ten. Ota also won merit on the basis of its excellent green space, natural setting, and incredibly cheap costs of housing and living.
T7. Matsumoto (Nagano Prefecture)
Scoring a few points higher than its more prestigious cousin, Nagano City, Matsumoto climbed into the top ten. It combines a cheap cost of living with solid infrastructure. Then there’s its idyllic natural setting, surrounded by national parks, regional parks, outdoor activities, and sightseeing spots in the heart of the mountains.
T7. Toyohashi (Aichi)
Toyohashi, like Ota, is an industrial immigrant hub, with superb diversity and strong job opportunities. It also scored well off of its cheap cost of living and solid parks and green space. This didn’t factor into its score, but it gets bonus cool from its role as the major surfing hub of the Chubu region.
T9. Fuchu (Tokyo)
While more central than Machida or Hachioji, Fuchu is a correspondingly much more expensive housing market. Nonetheless, it scores well in English infrastructure, diversity, jobs, and amenities.
T9. Kasugai (Aichi Prefecture)
The top ten is rounded out by another Nagoya regional city. Kasugai is notable for its access to high-income employment opportunities in Nagoya while maintaining a cheap cost of living.
Now let’s take a look at how a few other notable cities scored.
Osaka: T-#11 overall, #2 Kansai
Osaka earned points on the basis of its employment opportunities, diversity, and cheap housing. But relatively poor infrastructure in terms of parks and hospitals held it back just enough to keep it out of the top ten.
Fukuoka: T-#17 overall, #2 Chugoku/Kyushu
Fukuoka offers cheap housing and living costs relative to its solid infrastructure and amenities. If the lifestyle attraction of Hakata ramen was factored into this list, perhaps Fukuoka would place higher.
Kyoto: T-#31 overall, #6 Kansai
The cities’ scores get denser further down the list, and Kyoto clocks in at #31 despite scoring just three points worse than Fukuoka. Kyoto was held back the most by its lack of resident diversity, although it benefitted from a solid English language infrastructure via the tourism industry.
Sapporo: T-#43 overall, #5 Tohoku/Hokkaido
Sapporo is a relatively un-diverse city like Kyoto, but without the English language structure. Still, there’s no overstating Sapporo’s cheap housing and incredible access to sightseeing and nature. Sapporo also lost points due to its poor access to the rest of Japan.
Yokohama: T-#43 overall, #14 Kanto
Possibly the biggest surprise was Yokohama’s relatively low placement on this ranking. While Yokohama didn’t have any glaring weaknesses, it scored worse than Tokyo in almost every major category: diversity, English infrastructure, physical infrastructure, and amenities. It also has a high cost of living. Nonetheless, its scores in almost every area were average or above-average. Having no major weaknesses is a special appeal in and of itself.
What are the best Tokyo wards to live in?
In this ranking, Tokyo’s wards tended to score very closely together. That’s because not all of the data points used were differentiated at the ward level.
Still, all 23 wards scored near the top. Top-ranked Koto, Edogawa, Adachi, and Katsushika matched Machida and Nagoya’s third-place score, and Chiyoda and Taito came in just behind. Meanwhile, bottom-ranked Meguro, Setagaya, and Nakano came in alongside Matsumoto and Toyohashi at an impressive #7 on the overall cities list.
The biggest differentiating factors between the wards were foreign resident ratio, housing costs, and green space. If those aren’t your major concerns, take this specific differentiation between wards with a grain of salt.
Tottori, Wakayama, and Kochi
Poor Tottori, Wakayama, and Kochi came in at the very bottom. They just don’t have the sufficient access to jobs and infrastructure, nor the diversity or English language support, to score well on this list. They very well still might be wonderful places to live, but they’re not likely to be the easiest of places for immigrants.
Notes on methodology
I compiled data for 121 large Japanese cities and Tokyo’s 23 wards from public sources on sixteen factors. These included: foreign resident population rate, English proficiency rate, English speakers, English-language schools, job listings, cost of housing, cost of living, income, transportation access to the rest of the country, park space per resident, hospital beds per 10,000 residents, national and regional parks, and local and regional sightseeing locations. Scores were assigned on the basis of a 50% weighted-score (the top 10% of values received a score of 10, the second 10% a score of 9, etcetera) and 50% value-score (if values ranged from 1 to 10, values of ten were assigned a score of 10, values of 9 a score of 9, etcetera). The maximum score was 85.
I am not a statistician and this is not scientific. Nonetheless, it’s a solid way to see the cities that have the best basic support for immigrants.