There’s a lot of things you need to think about before moving to Japan, like how you’re going to find an apartment, how to set up a bank account, how to get your first cell phone plan, and so on. But there are other things that are pretty important that you might not even think about until you’re actually over here.
For me, just a few days after arriving, I pulled up one of my video streaming apps and got the dreaded “Not Available in Your Region” for the first time.
VRV is a video service that I used pretty heavily in America, as it combined a whole bunch of streaming apps I was already using into one service. It had basically all of the anime I watched, along with exclusive videos from YouTubers I like, and even classic cartoons if I was in the mood. Now in a new country with not much to do but sit in my empty apartment and wait for my first day of work as an English teacher, one of my main sources of entertainment had vanished.
Vanished for… perhaps around 15 minutes. Around 15 minutes was the time it took for me to find a cheap VPN, sign up, complete payment, and be back to watching.
What is a VPN?
If you don’t know, VPN stands for virtual private network, and it’s a technology that changes your IP address to look like you’re in a different country. Using that I made VRV think I was in America, and voila! Access. And even better, I could use the service on my computer or phone!
If you are not already subscribed to a VPN service, I would really recommend it, even if you aren’t in Japan already. On top of being able to access content from other countries, it hides your IP address which can be great for keeping your data secure. There’s so many of them available these days, so my best advice to pick one would be to go to your favorite YouTuber, and see if they have a deal for a VPN. There’s a pretty high chance they do, and you can save money and support them at the same time. It’s a win/win.
A few caveats to using a VPN
That being said, a VPN isn’t quite a magical “solve all your media problems” button. There are three major problems you should prepare for.
The first is that using a VPN slows down your connection. In order for the VPN to make your connection look like it’s coming from America, it actually has to connect to a server in America and re-direct your data. What that essentially means is that the further you physically are from where you’re connecting to, the more your connection slows down.
If you have a decently fast connection this shouldn’t be enough of a problem to discourage you though. In fact, depending on what exactly you’re doing, your speed might improve. When I’m doing a video call with friends in America for example, picture quality/connection speed more drastically improve if I switch to a VPN server physically closer to where they are. That aspect of VPN’s has also proven to be a lifesaver when I thought my internet was too poor to do a proper online nomikai (drinking party).
Doesn’t work for everything
The second thing you should prepare for is that VPN’s do not always work for everything. In particular, there is one BIG service that has given me problems in the past. Netflix apparently has some sort of workaround for VPN’s that sometimes prevents them from connecting. Whatever this workaround is, I am sure it cost them a lot of money, because the only other company I’ve seen able to get this working is Disney for Disney+.
Your mileage may vary with getting a VPN to work on Netflix and there are a lot of them that brag about how they can get you connected no issue. With my current VPN (the same one I’ve been using since I’ve moved here, although honestly I could probably find a better one if I wasn’t lazy) I can watch American Netflix on my phone, but have occasional trouble on my computer. It’s honestly a bit finicky, so before purchasing a specific VPN definitely Google whether or not it works with Netflix if that matters to you at all.
If you’re a gamer
The last issue I would like to bring up that may not be as relevant to everyone is gaming. VPN’s can allow you to get around certain region blocks on game (sometimes even just to buy them for a cheaper price), but if you’re playing an online game, you’ll likely be playing with a sub-optimal connection. In my frustration, I tried searching for a solution and actually managed to find one: ExitLag.
While the above issues show there’s no perfect VPN, once you have one it’s really hard to live without.
Aside from media-related issues above, you might have trouble connecting to certain services from Japan as well. One really annoying issue I had when first moving here is that Venmo, a cash transfer app commonly used to pay friends back for McDonald’s they bought you, did not work in Japan at all.
A friend of mine sent me some money to give me my portion of an old apartment deposit, and I was completely locked out of that money. I was eventually able to get into contact with their support team and have the money sent back, but it was a lot more of a hassle than I realized. There are still a lot of times where friends from America will say to me, “Hey I’ll Venmo you for this thing you bought me” and I have to scream “NO! NOT VENMO!” before that money is sent to the void.
Saving money on video games
You can also save money on online services by paying from a country with a cheaper price. In particular this applies to a lot of video games, as games in Japan tend to be way more expensive. You can save a ton of money just connecting to a VPN and buying them on an American e-shop as opposed to a Japanese one.
I could really go on and on about VPN’s and their benefits, but if you use one I’m sure you’ll find even more than I haven’t listed. While you can definitely get by without one, I promise that it will improve your life. These days although I’ve pretty strongly assimilated into using Japanese media as opposed to American media, there’s still a lot of random situations where a VPN has saved me both time and money.
Nathan works for the GaijinPot Housing Service, helping foreigners find their home in Japan. He’s American and has lived in Japan for about three years. Read Nathan’s self-intro to find out what brought him here!