Stefanos Antypas, 34, a social media business consultant from Greece, long held the dream of visiting Japan.
Having grown up watching films by Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi and eventually being exposed to anime and Japanese food culture, it was always at the top of his list.
So when he came to Japan for the first time this October as part of a monthlong event inviting digital nomads to Fukuoka Prefecture, he quickly decided he’d be back — not just for a quick visit or holiday, but possibly for a few years.
“Since week two, it was so easy to make this decision,” Antypas said.
But now comes the hard part: the visa.
If Japan, like many other countries, had a visa for digital nomads — a term for people who work remotely while on short- to medium-term stays in a country of their choosing — he would have hopped on a plane home and easily returned for a longer stay.
Instead, Antypas is considering getting a student visa, which would allow him to do some work and study, or a startup visa, which would allow him to eventually set up a media company in Japan.
Japan, which boasts a low crime rate and world-famous tourist attractions, food and pop culture, is fast becoming a hot spot for digital nomads, who are also drawn to the country's lower cost of living compared to many Western countries as well as the weak yen.
In response to this trend, the government is working on a new visa for digital nomads with the hope that their influx will boost the tourism industry. An outline will likely be out by the end of December.
Tokyo: The fastest-growing hub
Nomadlist.com — a website tracking tens of thousands of digital nomads — estimates there are around 35 million digital nomads around the world, with the majority of them coming from North America and Europe. The only Asian countries represented in the list of 30 nations are India, Japan and South Korea — in that order.
Argentina, Costa Rica, Mexico, the Philippines and Hungary are just some of the countries that offer visas specifically for digital nomads, while others, such as Japan, have alternatives that can be used by digital nomads — like the working holiday visa and tourist visa — but nothing specifically geared toward such workers.
More notably, Tokyo is the fastest-growing remote work hub according to Nomadlist.com, with the spike coinciding with Japan's reopening to foreign tourists in the past year.
Akina Shu, who has visited around 50 countries as a speaker and ambassador on the digital nomad lifestyle since 2020, has seen growing interest in Japan firsthand.
“Everywhere I go, when I tell (digital nomads) I’m from Japan, the country is always on their top-priority list to visit,” said Shu, who is ethnically Chinese but was born and raised in Japan.
Shu, who founded the Nomad University website and podcast, spoke from the engawa (wooden porch) of a historic, traditional Japanese home in rural Kyoto that was remodeled into a coworking space in 2019. There, she co-hosted a weeklong program called “Colive Kyoto.”
This program followed “Colive Fukuoka,” Japan's first public-private joint initiative involving organizations like Nomad University, the city of Fukuoka and the Fukuoka Convention & Visitors Bureau. Altogether, the program welcomed 49 digital nomads from 24 countries predominantly on tourist visas, said Shu.
While physical attendance for the two events was capped, roughly 350 people have already joined the “Colive Japan” online community she created in June to publicize digital nomad life in Japan and give information on future Colive events.
The government’s push
To tap into the growing market, the government is drafting measures to offer a digital nomad visa, which could be available as early as April next year, according to the Immigration Services Agency (ISA) — one of nine ministries and agencies tasked with the work.
This is one of the policies that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration revealed in May, aimed at boosting inbound tourism in the post-COVID era. The plan involves the possible expansion of an existing category or the creation of a new system, including visa and residential status for digital nomads, by the end of this fiscal year through March.
The government is researching similar visas offered by other countries and working on features like how taxes will be determined and whether the visa-holders would be covered under the nation’s health care program.
The ISA is well aware that digital nomads might already be working in Japan on tourism visas or other visas, but a digital nomad visa would allow them to stay for longer periods of six months or a year, a government official said on condition of anonymity because details are still in the works.
In the meantime, there are also several grassroots digital nomad cooperatives in Japan, such as the Japan Digital Nomad Association and the Japan Workcation Association, ready to pitch in support. The two organizations and others are jointly urging the government to create a policy panel specifically on the topic and to allow their groups, alongside municipalities, tourism groups and ministries, to be involved in the discussions to create an effective visa.
Copywriter and marketing consultant Michelle Elyza Gallero, 29, considers Rizal, some 16 kilometers east of Manila, to be her home base, but she says a digital nomad visa for Japan created with diversity in mind could be a huge benefit for people like her.
She and her husband, who both work remotely, love to travel as digital nomads domestically with their kids because it’s more affordable, with no need to worry about visas. They hope to soon take their travels abroad though, and Japan is at the top of her list.
“As a family, we really don’t travel to (other) countries as tourists. We go to really explore the richness of the culture, the way of living,” she said.
Gallero, who once worked as a remote English tutor for Japanese students, recently visited Kyoto and Osaka for a week after being approved for a visa but hopes to one day bring her family and stay longer while she and her husband work remotely.
“I know the Japanese people are really hardworking and the kindness that the Japanese people showed me, especially my students, was special, so I am really curious about their way of life,” she said.
She hopes the Japanese government will consider developing a visa that is accessible to a diverse range of digital nomads, as well as those with families.
Shu shared similar concerns. Depending on how Japan molds its digital nomad visa, it runs the risk of catering mostly to wealthy, Western digital nomads, such as those earning a salary in U.S dollars., which would sideline those from developing countries, she said.
While Shu works to attract a variety of digital nomads to Japan, as an Asian digital nomad herself running her work with the motto “diversity through stories,” she hopes to encourage more digital nomads from across Asia to set up in Japan.
And just having a new visa category for digital nomads won’t be enough, Shu added.
“We definitely need the local community and local people to be able to accept them and receive them,” she said, adding that collaboration and engagement with the local community are a big part of her Colive programs.
The draw of Japan
Briton David Cook, who spent the last year living in Yokohama while working his remote IT job on a working holiday visa, said Japan's vastly different culture from the West and it being a safe, friendly and welcoming place was what lured him to the country.
“Like many expats I’ve met, we’ve read the same authors such as (Mieko) Kawakami and (Haruki) Murakami, grew up with anime and other Japanese media and all that leads to a glimmer of insight of what it might be like to live in the country and a kind of cultural magnetism drawing us in,” the
“If there was a digital nomad visa, I would have jumped at the chance,” he said.
For Antypas, who was initially drawn to Japan via culture and cinema, his time in Fukuoka engaging with locals, including public officials interested in better understanding the value of remote work, made him determined to return for more.
His mind is already brimming with ideas for when he is able to return — hopefully with a digital nomad visa — creating content to draw digital nomads and remote workers to places such as Fukuoka.
Antypas feels that digital nomads like him could bring in fresh perspectives, while boosting Japan's economy and, for example, potentially helping increase English language proficiency in Japan.
“We (foreign digital nomads) can penetrate society in ways that locals cannot and at the same time on an individual level, we can learn a lot from the locals,” he said. “We can become better humans.”