Sunday, January 06, 2008

"Japan Isn't Expensive"

Any assertion one makes will be at some point refuted by another. It doesn't matter how obvious or true a statement may be (or appear to be), there's always a naysayer waiting in the wings to "prove" you wrong. As of late, I've run across several instances of foreign folks intent on proving that the cost of living in Japan isn't all that bad despite the world-wide press to the contrary.

In my experiences with such claims, they take approaches which are not valid. Some of them compare the price of goods in "Japan" (meaning whichever city or town they happen to live in) to the price of goods in their home countries. Others add up their personal tabs for living here and subtract it from their salaries to show an impressive remainder. Both of these approaches are flawed though for rather different reasons.

Cost of living is always relative to location, even within the same country. For instance, an annual salary of around $50,000 for a person living in Silicon Valley in California is buying himself about the same lifestyle as a person making $20,000 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In Japan, rural life is cheaper than urban life and life in Tokyo isn't the same as life in Kobe when it comes to costs. You can't compare any given country's average costs for food, rent, etc. to Japan's because cost of living is relative to location domestically and doing so internationally has no relevance whatsoever. Saying a liter of milk costs $1.50 in Japan and a quart of milk in America about $1 doesn't say anything about how expensive either country is because it doesn't look at the cost relative to average salaries, rent, etc.

The approach to gauging the expense of Japan by tallying up all of ones living expenses and subtracting it from one's salary is a more reasonable one but is still flawed. One of the biggest reasons for this is that most foreign folks forget, ignore, or don't pay some expenses that long term residents (and Japanese nationals) have to pay. The gaijin intent on proving his point about how Japan isn't expensive commonly includes rent, utilities, and food in his calculations, but ignores things like the need to buy new clothes and replace durable goods through time. This is because most foreign folks come over here with a suitcase or two full of new clothes and shoes and move into furnished apartments. They tend to go home before things wear out, but a real reflection of the cost of living has to include ongoing expenses of normal people, not just temporary costs. If you start factoring in the costs for shoes, clothes, and the odd replacement appliance here and there, things get a bit pricier on average. After all, that is a part of the cost of living everywhere.

What is more, the foreign people who come over here for a year or who move around a lot often never pay regular expenses that people who stay in one place for more than a year start having to pony up the dough for. Since health insurance is assessed at a very low flat rate the first year (around 1000 yen a month) and calculated on income the second year and ward taxes calculated only after one year of residence in the same ward, people who move after one year to a different ward or just go home never factor in these expenses. Each ward calculates such expenses differently, but they are roughly around 5% for taxes and 10% for health insurance in Tokyo wards.

Here is a rough example: On an income of 250,000 yen a month, that's another 37,5000 yen off the top every single month as you go into your second year. That's a pretty healthy chunk of change to be ponying up and it doesn't go away once it starts. What is more, you're also supposed to pay up for the year you're behind before you leave your ward or go back to your home country. That means there's a combined balloon payment of about 450,000 yen waiting for you before you leave unless you decide to skip out on the bill. Things start to look a lot more expensive in Japan when you start factoring in ward taxes and health insurance payments calculated at their real rates rather than just looking at the cost during the one year calculation period.

What is more, most folks who tally up their monthly costs tend to dismiss certain expenses as "unnecessary" in their attempts to prove how cheap it is to live here. If you mention the cost of cable television or high speed Internet, for instance, they personally see no need for such things and won't factor them into their tallies. In fact, any expense which they personally don't have isn't a valid cost in their eyes even though many people back home and in Japan find monthly expenditures on gym memberships for fitness (which is actually more necessary in Japan because small places don't easily accommodate exercise gear), cable, and Internet quite reasonable parts of their budget. Ironically, some of these optional expenses are actually lower in Japan than some other countries and would help support their points but including them ups the total too much and leaves the remaining salary total at a less impressive number. (Note: I'll list a few of these at the end for the sake of comparison.)

Depending on the rules and regulations of your home country, there is also an opportunity cost for living in Japan. People who settle here permanently pay into the pension system, but few foreign folks plan to be around for 20 years so they can collect on it. Also, frankly, the entire system is a pretty bad deal all around where you end up collecting such a puny return on your investment that it'd take a decade to begin to get back anywhere near what you put into it. At any rate, every year you work in Japan is a year you don't pay into your pension system at home and could be undermining your future retirement fund. You should be factoring in some savings every month to build up a pension fund, but most foreign folks (though not all and certainly not the real long timers) just see that they only pay about 6% federal tax on their pay checks and count their blessings. Japanese folks are losing a lot more than you because they live in the "real" Japan where they have the same sort of responsibilities and tax burdens as you did as a real citizen back home.

The more reasonable approach to viewing how expensive life is would be to compare percentages of your income that various fixed expenses (rent, food, etc.) are consuming. Back in the U.S., people pay an average of 21% of their income on housing. Food costs similarly tend to take up a certain percentage of your income. I can't speak for other areas of Japan as I've not lived all over the place, but I can say that Tokyo rent can take up to 25% or more of a person's income (in most cases). Food has actually been getting cheaper since we first moved here though it is still costing us a greater percentage of our income compared to back home. Unfortunately, costs of food in Japan are going to increase in 2008 after decades of stable or falling prices. Milk prices have already gone up about 10 yen per liter and other prices are set to follow.

All that being said, a lot of the comparisons between life in Japan and life in other western countries that you read about in newspapers or from authoritative sources on economic situations tend to be rather unrealistic as well because they ignore cross-cultural lifestyle issues and attempt to shoehorn western notions of comfort into the Japanese cost of living picture. They look at the costs of a place with a larger footprint than is average, a car, gasoline, etc., but one doesn't really need these things in urban areas in Japan (where life is the most expensive). Life can be (relatively) comfortable here taking public transportation because the system is so much better implemented than in countries where the population density is sparser. However, it's still a huge pain cramming onto crowded trains and schlepping back and forth to stations, especially if you're carrying heavy or bulky items you have shopped for and having to always use public transport does have an element of degrading your quality of life.

Even if you ignore the quality of life issues which tend to inflate comparisons, living in Japan is expensive though what one tends to find is that you get used to scaling back your lifestyle to fit into the economic picture and eventually feel like it isn't so expensive or so much of a problem. Also, since many people come here with notions of outrageous prices, anything less than that seems downright cheap by comparison. It isn't so much that Japan is actually inexpensive to live in but rather that most foreigners learn to adapt to a lifestyle which allows them to live with the higher expense comfortably.


Here are some figures for comparison (note the salaries at the end to consider percentages):

Monthly fixed expenses (in Tokyo in my ward):

ADSL (50 Mbps) Internet access: 400 yen for modem rental, 1250 yen for ISP server space, 2600 yen for service = 4250 yen (~$39)

Cable television: 2600 yen (~$24)

Water = (a bill of about 8100 yen comes every two months) 4050 yen (~$37)

Gym membership: (depends on the plan-early morning plans are cheap, evening and all day plans are expensive) 5,000-10,000 yen (~$46-$92)

Health insurance: 10% of income with a cap of around 530,000 yen ($4700) annually

Ward taxes: 5% of income

(Note: Health insurance premiums were raised on low income folks last year and lowered on higher income folks in our ward so health insurance is 6% if you make around 500,000 yen a month or more and higher (10%) if you make 200,000 yen or less.)

Monthly variable expenses (in Tokyo in my ward) averaged out for comparison:

Electricity: (higher in summer, lower in winter) 7,500 yen (~$69)

Gas: (lower in summer, higher in winter) 6,000 (~$55)

Rent: (higher in my area because of its proximity to major train and subway lines and to central downtown Tokyo) 80,000 - 130,000 yen ($736-$1200)

Usual salaries:

Eikaiwa (English conversation schools): 250,000-350,000 yen ($2300-$3221)

*Office Ladies: 200,000-250,000 yen

*Contract employees: 250,000-400,000 yen (depends greatly on the type of work and skills of the worker)

*Salaried workers: 300,000 yen-600,000 yen (depends greatly on seniority, industry, and experience)

University teachers: 450,000-600,000 yen ($3680-$5522)

*These are not jobs foreign folks tend to do (unless their Japanese is good enough to function in a capacity similar to Japanese workers) but are included for reference. These figures include twice yearly bonus payments which tend to increase the average monthly salaries by about 30% in most cases and about 50% in a few cases.


You may note that there is much more variability in the salaries of positions for Japanese staff than the typical work for foreign workers doing work which requires a university education and that I don't include unskilled labor in this list. In the case of the latter, I don't include it because foreign workers who do unskilled labor generally don't shoulder the burden of their costs of living alone (nor do unskilled Japanese workers, for that matter). Also, I frankly have very little experience with such workers. I can only say that the minimum wage in Tokyo tends to be about 1000 yen an hour but only college and high school kids are expected to take jobs in that pay range. I cannot say for sure, but I believe unskilled (legal) foreign laborers tend to make about 150,000 yen a month in Tokyo. Illegal foreign workers make about 10,000 yen a day.

However, research on the Internet shows that skilled "blue collar" laborers are not so badly paid:









Sheetmetal workers


Structural iron/steel workers


Rates reported in Japanese yen per 8 hour day.
Source: Japan Society of Cost and Project Engineers, November 2004.

Information obtained here.

In fact, if these figures are correct, they are paid more than I was when I worked in a Japanese office (I used to make about 14,000 yen a day).

The main difference between teachers and regular Japanese employees is that teachers and some foreign employees salaries tend to remain flat (or at least be capped at a relatively lower salary) regardless of seniority whereas Japanese staff tend to see consistent upward movement in their salaries. That being said, teachers and foreign employees tend to start at a somewhat higher salary to begin with than a freshman Japanese employee.

And finally, before I get a ton of comments from people saying they know a thousand Japanese people who are making much less than teachers, keep in mind that the average complaining Japanese staff person will indicate their salary to you sans bonus figures (and you don't get the bonuses they do). The vast majority of Japanese staff members get a summer and winter bonus of about 2 months salary (sometimes more, and on rare occasions less). That means that for every 12 paychecks you get, they are actually getting 16 paychecks. They just aren't getting all of their salary on a monthly basis so a person who claims they are poor because they receive 200,000 yen a month actually makes 266,666 yen a month once her bonus is factored in as monthly pay.


Anonymous said...

Good article.

Benjamin Takeyo said...

Hi, can I just be blunt and get to the point?

Do health insurance and ward charges add up to the amount of tax deductions?

And are health insurance and ward charges accounted based on taxable income or just income?

Oh yeah, while we're at it, I would like to ask you about the chance of a medical bioscientist foreigner to work in Japan, if you happen to know something about it.

Thanks! ^_^

Shari said...

anonymous: Thanks. :-)

Benjamin: Considering that most foreigners pay about 6% federal tax and aren't entitled to get any of it back (and indeed rarely file tax returns as they aren't entitled to deductions), the answer would probably be no. Japanese employers (unless foreign staff are company workers and operating the same as Japanese employees) don't charge more than the minimum federal tax on the majority of gaijin workers. Also, some people (unskilled workers mainly) are generally working outside the system in terms of their ward taxes. Their employers often simply do not report them.

Keep in mind that my post is addressing the situation for the average foreigner, not Japanese folks. That means I'm not addressing the tax situation (or health insurance premiums) for Japanese families or those doing sophisticated business accounting which entitles them to make certain deductions. I'm not an expert on taxes and wouldn't pretend to know more than I do.

Also, keep in mind that health insurance rates and ward taxes vary from ward to ward (some wards are more expensive than others). Also, I cannot speak to the local tax situation outside of Tokyo. There are tables sent to the residents of each individual ward outlining how the calculations are made and charges are made per household.

That being said, the system was changed around the middle of last year for more straight ahead calculation. That's where my direct percentage figures come from. It used to use a complex formula but now it's a percent based on gross income (at least for my ward). This change occurred when the federal taxes were lowered and the government ceased making large payments to wards and allowed the wards to decide to collect this money themselves rather than to have the federal government collect it and then funnel a portion of it to local government. Each person's mileage may vary as all wards are different (within reason).

Ward taxes for me have always been based on gross income (not net or after taxes) and health insurance is calculated based on ward taxes. Ward taxes, incidentally, are not the same as federal taxes. We pay about 6% federal (calculated on gross pay) and about 5% to the ward (again, based on gross pay).

The situation gets a little muddier once you step outside of foreign residents because Japanese folks often have their health insurance and pension funds augmented to some extent by their companies. It's not uncommon for 50% of health insurance payments to be covered by one's company if you are a salaried staff person in order to relieve some of that burden.

Heh, I'm sorry, but I have no information whatsoever about medical bioscientist work. I can say that I have spoken with some foreign researchers from China working at Japanese companies so it doesn't sound out of the question, but honestly, I have no idea what the demand is like or what opportunities there might be.

Benjamin Takeyo said...

Shari: Thank you for your response ^_^

I am a bit surprised to find that most foreign workers are only taxed 6% of their gross incomes, since that would mean they would be taxed much less than Japanese or foreigners-treated-as-locals workers, albeit not entitled to tax deductions.

I tried to count what tax a Japanese or foreigner-treated-as-a-local worker would get:

Income Tax

Assuming the worker obtain 3 million yen per annum or 250,000 yen per month...

First, count the tax deduction: 3,000,000 yen - 30% of 3,000,000 yen - 180,000 yen = 1,920,000 yen of taxable income

Now count the income tax based on this taxable income..

National tax = 1,920,000 yen * 5% = 96,000 yen/year

Local tax = 10% of 1,920,000 yen = 192,000 yen/year

Sum national tax and local tax:

192,000 yen + 96,000 yen = 284,000 yen/year

284,000 yen/12 months= 24,000 yen/month of income tax.

I got all informations needed for counting from


However, a gaijin worker of 250,000 yen income per month will be taxed only 6% federal tax which results in income tax of 15,000 yen/month.

Well.. IF health insurance and ward charges are the same for Japanese, foreigners-treated-as-locals and gaijin workers (which is unlikely eh ^_^), then working as a gaijin worker sounds better.

Btw, I forgot to say that thanks for writing the article! I like it. ^_^

Emsk said...

Well, I would have been one of those ones thinking, hey, but I have Japanese friends who earn less than me unless you'd pointed out the bonus scheme. I had no idea about that. I received a bonus when I had finished my first year at my school, a grand sum of Y65 000, which is probably not great, but about average for an eikawa worker (maybe even generous!).

A minor thing perhaps, but one thing I took for granted was buying books when I was at home. In places like Borders there's always a 3 for 2 sale, and seeing as I often read factual books that I like to keep, I was a frequent buyer. Not now! Factor in things like a few days out of town every now and then and things shoot up even more.

I hear you on the local tax business. Had I returned to the U.K. a couple of months ago I could have kept all the money accrued for that, but come May I'll be expected to pay around Y170 000. Sometimes I do think that Japan is a little cheaper than London, but I was living in suburban Kansai for so long. Once you settle down into your second year reality hits.

Shari said...

Benjamin: You are absolutely right that foreigners are taxed much less than Japanese. In fact, one of my husband's students who made about 280,000 yen a month told him that her total deductions brought her net pay down to 180,000 (though she didn't itemize the deductions and they may have encompassed all taxes both local and federal, health insurance payment, unemployment insurance and pension payment).

Keep in mind that we have no extra entitlement if we pay such a low rate. That is, we are not paying into the social security fund and can't collect unemployment if we lose our jobs. We have to save for such things ourselves rather than rely on the government to do it for us. So, on the one hand, some of us take home more of our paychecks, but, on the other hand, we have far less security.

I believe that we pay less also because foreign folks are often in jobs that are pretty much considered short-term workers and there is a different tax assignment for us. When I was working at my former office, I was told the Japanese term for this by our accountant at the time, but have long since forgotten it. At one point, my former boss and I were told we could no longer work under this classification and had to choose a higher tax bracket. I quit before this took effect (this was a coincidence, I didn't quit because of this change). My former boss now pays much more than he used to as he is now considered a "company employee" and pays all the same rates as the Japanese staff.

Personally, I am asked to pay 10% on my part-time wages, but I make so little money that I can file a tax return and get it all back. However, every yen of that refund pays my 10% health insurance premium so it's all a wash.

Thank you for the information and links you provided. It is quite useful!

Shari said...

Emsk: I was in the same mindset as you for a long time. I felt really sorry for my Japanese coworkers who were crying "binbo" (poor) all the time. It wasn't until several years later that I caught on and learned about the twice yearly bonus system. I asked one of my students today (she's an accountant) what the typical bonus is and she said that it is usually two months twice a year but she gets 3 months twice a year (though this can change if the company is doing poorly).

I also used to get a bonus of one month's pay at the end of each contract but I consider that was unusually generous by most gaijin employee standards. In the current environment, I don't think anyone would get that. The difference between our bonuses and that of Japanese employees is that they are solely there to encourage contract completion. Japanese bonuses are not awarded in accord with ending a contract but rather concurrent with the two big holiday seasons.

One thing that happened to me at my former office was that the accountant shared my (Australian) bosses and my salaries with all of the Japanese staff while we weren't told anything about their salaries. This was completely inappropriate and we were resented for having what was perceived to be much higher salaries. Office ladies tended to make 180,000 yen at the time and I made 270,000 yen at that time so they thought I was horribly overpaid relative to them. When bonuses were factored in though, they were making 240,000 yen but they never considered that because they wanted to pity themselves and see the foreign workers as spoiled and overcompensated. Never mind that none of those particular office ladies paid their own rent (they all lived with their parents) and most of their money was used to buy clothes and do recreational activities while I was forking over 110,000 a month to my landlord...

Barry said...

I've always said that Japan is not as expensive as the UK or America (from a gaijin's point of view), and now if someone wishes to ask me why again... then I shall direct them to your blog. Fantastic input and very detailed. Thank you!

Living in Chiba, my monthly rent is only 50,000 and plus there is not soo much stuff going on around, and commercial stuff to be sucked into like Tokyo. So, I can enjoy my life pretty well. But in saying that, the two little bunny rabbits I have suck me dry every week... nappies, oh we love diapers don't we! :D

Shari said...

Barry: Hi and thanks for commenting! My husband and I, despite having high rent, do pretty well, too. We mainly manage this by avoiding the high life and living simply. Mainly, we do better in Japan because we don't have a car, rarely go out to eat or for entertainment, and aren't big consumers.

My students tell me that folks with kids start to really take it on the chin financially once their kids get a bit deeper into the school system because of extra expenses for juku or private schooling. However, I think that there are some breaks out there for parents, particularly in terms of programs to assist with certain expenses when the kids are young. That's what ward taxes are for! ;-)

Keith said...

I've read and re-read this article, and while I agree with several points, I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around a couple mentioned concepts.

For starters, you mention that the difference in living with $50,000 in Silicon Valley Vs. $20,000 in Pittsburgh. This is absolutely true, and a point that is often missed. However, later on, you state that in the US, the average is 21% of your income for housing, while in Tokyo, it's 25%. If you make more money in Tokyo, isn't it quite probable that 75% of a Tokyo salary is greater than 79% of an American salary, therefore leaving one with in the pocket spending cash?

I also find the topic of comfort in cars vs. trains debatable. While it is nice to have room in a car and it gives great freedom, one also has to worry about traffic, accidents, parking, ability to consume alcohol, and all sorts of other driving problems. I, for one, have been very much enjoying riding the trains, as I did when I lived in Boston. Also, the cost of owning and maintaining a car stretches far beyond car payments and gas. I spend less on a month's train pass than I did in insurance alone.

I also find dismissing 'unnecessary' expenses a bit silly, and I have seen some people trying to prove that Japan was cheaper. As a person who has never paid for a gym membership and for the past 5 years hasn't paid for cable, the amount of money I spend in Tokyo is less than the amount of money I spent in Northern California. My apartment is smaller and slightly more expensive, however it is closer to public transportation and shopping, so it's six of one and half-dozen of the other.

I found the information on taxes and the bonus pay quite interesting and something I have never heard about before. Even though I must disagree a bit with your conclusion, as haven't found Japan to be expensive, and I live as comfortably if not more so as I did in America with the same amount of money, you obviously did your research and I learned quite a bit.

Thank you for this article.

Shari said...

Hi, Keith and thank you for reading and commenting.

As regards looking at percentages, I'm not reaching any conclusions per se (though I still believe you cannot say Japan is not expensive, only that it's possible to live here comfortably despite the expense with lifestyle modifications) but saying that's what you have to look at. It is very possible that living in Tokyo can leave you with more leftover at the end than back home if your income is sufficiently small that 50% of your home income ends up being smaller than 10% of your Tokyo income (though that's an unlikely extreme). So, your point is well-taken. I hadn't considered that possibility.

As for taking trains, the main problem comes along if you're shopping a lot and hauling around a lot of stuff or if you're on during rush hour travel times in the city. Those pictures of conductors pushing people onto trains as if they're packing a can of sardines aren't irregular occurrences. They happen every day. My guess is you'd enjoy being on trains a lot less if you had to put up with that sort of thing. That being said, avoiding the hassle of a car is a serious benefit of living in any urban area with good public transport (not just in Japan). When the trains are crowded all the time (and they are a lot of the time on major lines in Tokyo), it's not at all pleasant.

I've been here a long time but I haven't forgotten that life used to be very much easier in many ways and a lot of the lifestyle "reductions" have become so much a part of usual life that I no longer see them as being losses. However, that doesn't mean schlepping on packed trains, hanging laundry out to dry in a time-consuming fashion, and eating the cheapest food I can find (and vastly reducing the quantity and variety of fresh fruit and vegetables I buy because I don't want to spend a fortune on a small package of strawberries or a small melon) doesn't represent a lifestyle reduction as a means of coping with the higher cost of living.

However, it is all relative to what you had before. Like you, I am financially "better off" here than I was back home and actually manage to save quite a bit of money, but I don't do nearly as many things as I used to. If I lived the same lifestyle at home as I did here, I'd be doing OK there as well.

Emsk said...

One more point I noticed about my ex-Japanese co-workers actually. They just didn't get it if you were struggling financially.

A major reason that I came here was to pay off debts and get a bank loan out of the way. I am making good headway, plus I had tax to pay to the UK government from last year's takings. But the attitude that wafted over me when I was skint at the end of each month! My manager once disparagingly asked me if I had a credit card, despite the fact that Japan discourages their use and she wouldn't have dreamt of getting one. While I had come here to be a responsible adult, paying my government for services I will one day use myself, my co-workers probably preferred to think that I'd spent it all in host bars.

I'd like to see their faces if I said I was planning to skip the country to avoid paying the Japanese government their taxes!

Shari said...

Emsk: I'm guessing that your manager figured you were well-compensated and, if you didn't have money at the end of the month, well, you *must* be wasting it on partying.

I attribute this to several factors. I think that there are some gaijins who treat Japan like a big playground and build the image that they're blowing money on booze and partying. There are more of those types in chain eikawiwa than other smaller schools or other sorts of jobs so your manager probably saw more than a few pass her way.

Another reason is that most Japanese folks had their education tab footed in whole or at least in part by their parents and many (the old parasite singles) continue to live with mommy and daddy until they are ready to move on. I still have 30-year-old students who live rent-free at home and whose parents cook, clean, and buy all their food for them. They don't imagine a scenario where someone had to pay for their own education entirely or moved out of the house and took on adult responsibilities and expenses as early as age 18 (and in most cases no later than age 22). They are utterly incapable of understanding that some birds leave the nest and stand on their own two feet well before they can reasonably afford to.

And finally, there's the old self-pity part. They don't want to believe you are poor and there's a good reason because then they can't nurture a seed of resentment at what they want to view as your pampered, overpaid lifestyle as a foreigner who gets a bigger monthly check than them and who doesn't work unpaid overtime. Empathy is something they have no interest in applying to you.

Eikaiwa employees are absolutely the worst about this thing, probably because they see so many people come and go and a lot of them are the party hearty types. They probably develop a cynical view of foreign folks as those who "use" Japan for their enjoyment and then head home when they're bored.

Like you, the first thing I did was pay off all my debts back home. My husband and I had a combined debt of $20,000 when we arrived and incurred a further debt of around $9,000 in start-up costs (mostly the whole apartment thing with key money, first and last, security, and real estate agency fees.) I think it took us two years with both of us working full time but we got it out of our hair a lot faster than we could have back home.

I can very much see why you'd want to work on your debts. It's a real relief to get it out of your life and off your mind ASAP.

Alex said...

So are you saying that Japan is an expensive place to work as imported labor, or in general? Because if you look at the percentage of middle-class citizens in the country, it seems like it's not that expensive at all.

From the standpoint of a single guy working in Japan, it was much better than what I had going on in the States. From the standpoint of a single-income earner providing for a wife who is attending a national university and a 1-year-old daughter who attends a 保育園, our ends are being met with very little savings coming out of it all, but I suspect it would be similar in the States, as well. In fact, it's much cheaper to send her to a Japanese national university than to the average university back in the U.S. So, I'd say it actually is cheaper to live in Japan in our situation.

Shari said...

Alex, I'm saying no more or less than what I'm saying and I think that is a little hard for people to wrap their heads around because they want me to being saying something I'm not so they can more more easily find a posture from which to disagree with me.

You cannot simplistically state that it is not expensive to live here. That conclusion is not in opposition to the fact that a lot of people adapt and do financially pretty well here, but they often do so by changing their lifestyle and growing accustomed to a different quality of life. That doesn't make it cheap, but rather means it's possible to work around the more expensive bits and to forget about some of the things we used to enjoy back home as part of our usual lives (again, fresh food, especially fruit comes to mind, but also living in uncramped spaces, having a lawn or garden, a higher degree of privacy, less noise, space for a pet, each child to have his or her own room, etc.). I don't mention specific concessions intentionally because that will only set off an argument about how such things are unnecessary and people who expect such things are "spoiled" and that argument is beside the point. Adaptation is a wonderful thing when it is successful because you don't live in a state of feeling you're making a sacrifice.

There is a large middle class here, but that middle class manages both because most Japanese folks are paid better than most foreign folks as salaried employees and Japanese people know this lifestyle and no other. I have no idea what your job is so I certainly am in no position to state anything regarding your ability to cope financially here or back home (you may be a salaried worker, some foreign folks are, particularly those that are married to Japanese nationals and become fluent and are here for the long run).

You say that your situation here is better than what you had going on in the States but that depends on what you did back home. One of my friends is a single guy living in one of the most expensive parts of the country and saves between 20-35% of his salary every month and does far better than anyone here that I know despite having been an English major and "only" holding a Bachelor's Degree. It's all relative.

Thanks for reading and for commenting!

mjgolli said...

Japan isn't's priceless!

This is a good article. It is nice to see a real-world comparison between here and Japan. It is nice, too, to see comparisons between different cities in the US based on salary and costs-of-living.

I could move pretty much anywhere and make a lot more money than I do where I work now. I hear that a lot from people that I work with, too. People often don't take into consideration living in other places around the country, especially where jobs are more plentiful, these costs. They may not be able to live as comfortably as they do here.

If you look just at home prices, I researched prices around the country the cost of houses that are the size of mine (820 sq. ft.) and similar features, they vary a LOT based on the area.

Here in suburban Dayton, my house cost $73,000. My payment, with escrow is $700.

In suburban LA...
Encino - $1.649 Million, Payment $10,833
Sun Valley - $525,000, Payment $3,449
Sherman Oaks - $799,000, Payment $5,249

In Chicago...
Niles - $295,000, Payment $1,698
Westmont - $229,900, Payment $1,323
Bellwood - $184,000, Payment $1,059

And these are WITHOUT any escrow amounts! If I, for instance, make $50,000 here in Dayton, I can afford the $700 payment. I'd have to make over $100,000 in Chicagoland, and over $400,000 in LA...and that is just to afford the house, not counting taxes, insurance and pretty much everything else!

Often people don't factor in many of those costs...

Shari said...

mjgolli: For even further comparison, I can tell you my family's home is valued at something around $40,000 and houses in my hometown area and their payments are even smaller than yours. Jobs in the area obviously pay less, but people don't need as much money to live there as, say, San Francisco, so it isn't really an issue for them unless they move.

One of the biggest quality of life issues here is that the cost of a home is pretty much out of the question for most people in urban areas. If you can afford to get a mortgage, it takes about 30-40 years to pay off. Most people can only afford condominiums or homes that are 1-2 hour commutes to their workplaces. The funny thing is that, if you live here long enough, a one-hour commute starts not sounding so bad. :-p To me, the ability to afford a domicile in proximity to your workplace is a huge quality of life issue. Spending two hours a day on a train round trip is a large sacrifice (and an even greater one than spending that time in your car).

You may be able to make more money elsewhere, but I bet you wouldn't be able to afford to buy your own home as you have in Ohio.

Many thanks for your comment!

Wejjie said...

"You can't compare any given country's average costs for food, rent, etc. to Japan's because cost of living is relative to location domestically and doing so internationally has no relevance whatsoever. Saying a liter of milk costs $1.50 in Japan and a quart of milk in America about $1 doesn't say anything about how expensive either country is because it doesn't look at the cost relative to average salaries, rent, etc."

Granted, you might have a problem comparing quarts and litres, given that the former is approx 600ml and the latter 1000ml. That aside, it is perfectly possible to compare the costs of items in different countries - you simply use a common currency, say US dollars, and presto, you are in a position to compare price. This kind of comparison is what cost of living indices were created for:

These indices let you compare prices for various items and also have an overall index. Thus Tokyo can be more expensive than London for rent, but cheaper when it comes to buying a burger.

Your income does not affect price. The dollar of a well paid exec is worth as much as a person just getting by - the former simply has more dollar in his wallet than the latter. There is no causal relationship between how much money you get paid and how expensive something is - the price stays the same - your perspective and ability to pay that price change. This is where the purchasing power index comes in handy - and according to the 2006 figures Tokyo people have pretty good purcasing power:

Shari said...

I may be wrong but I'm pretty sure that the "purchasing power" comment in the article you cite applies to purchasing power "in Asia" and therefore how far your salary takes you outside of Tokyo, not for those living inside. This is absolutely accurate and one of the reasons the Japanese travel abroad and marvel at how cheap things are.

Granted, you can pick up a burger cheaply here, but you can't afford to buy a house, own a car, eat strawberries, melons or grapes frequently, live in proximity to your workplace or a nice verdant park, etc.

Overall, life here allows you more freedom to buy a lot of creature comforts by putting so many of the bigger quality of life purchases so far out of reach that folks give up on them. It's why you see people buying Louis Vuitton bags and designer goods. They can afford those relative to people in other countries because the very notion of buying a better quality of life is completely off the radar so they pay for expensive designer goods rather than making house payments.

In terms of what I'm saying, you actually go some distance to proving my point which is that you can alter your lifestyle to cope here. As you say, an apartment costs more in Tokyo and less in London. You can't avoid the cost of an apartment in either place but you can avoid the more expensive burger rather easily. People in Tokyo learn to avoid the expensive little things but have no escape from the expensive big ones.

However, this does stray somewhat away from what I was saying.

And, btw, I wasn't having a problem doing the math on quarts and liters but making a point that you cannot compare the price of milk in two different places by discussing their price tags alone. You have to look at the cost of living in each place. :-p

Shari said...

P.S. (to Weijie): Your quart to liter calculations are incorrect. One quart is equivalent to .95 liter (or, if you prefer, 1 liter = 1.05 quart).

That makes them almost equivalent to one another and actually a fair comparison of volume.

A Joe said...


After reading your article, I am not sure how you come up with the conclusion that living in Tokyo is more expensive than for example living New York.

For home owners, we generally pay 3% of property's assessed value per year in property taxes. This goes the same throughout U.S. unless you're live in a town without schools. In Tokyo, property taxes are peanuts.

A monthly rent of $1000 (110,000yen) is considered cheap in most major U.S. cities.

Paying a federal tax of 6% plus 10% local tax which includes health care is a dream for most Americans, including me.

Thx for the nice article. I think I'm going to move there.

jonny said...

This is interesting, but I just don't think you can compare your life then with your life now. Time changes all things and a short list of those things includes the value of the dollar and the price of living (food, rent, etc). You say that things are getting more expensive in Japan— well, I'd like to say "welcome to the global economy," things are getting more expensive everywhere. Milk for example is much more expensive than it used to be in the US. ( ). As the demand for oil increases everything that depends on oil (which is everything) will get more expensive. So please don't try to factor in rising cost of X in Japan without factoring in rising cost of X in the US. I don't think that living in Japan is cheap, per se, but I don't think that you've really considered how bad the US economy is doing and what that means for your argument.

Oh, and you're right buying power doesn't shed too much light on this debate. It really indicates an economy's health more than anything.

A Joe said...

I would like to add that living in U.S. has a lot more "hidden" costs than living in Japan.

On top of paying federal, state, and county taxes, property taxes in U.S. is sky high compared to the amount you pay in Tokyo. Mostly thanks to a failed and corrupt public education system. Those costs are not showing up in your county and state taxes because its hidden/deferred to property tax.

Health care is another big issue in U.S. Rising costs of HMOs for employers means they have less to pay in salary and a higher bottom line.

If you're self-employed you must purchase health care yourself at very high costs. Thats about $500 per month per healthy middle aged individuals. To cover your whole family you have to spend about $1200 on a family plan per month. Otherwise, risk going into bankruptcy when you get injured/sick and had extended hospital stay.

Gas in U.S. may appear to be cheaper than Japan, but here we drive cars with bigger engines because we must make longer travels. A car is a total "must" have in United States unless you live in the heart of New York City. Whereas, in Japan there are sprawling metropolis like Tokyo where cars are luxury items.

Thus, my conclusion is living in Japan isn't expensive thanks to a decade of recession (where inflation is a minimum). In fact, living in United States is a lot more expensive.

If you think pension plans suck for foreigners in Tokyo, wait till you hear about Bush's plan to privatize social security.

Anonymous said...

couldn't agree with you more, the foreign media especially like to hype on about expensive things and luxury goods like Yubari Melons

Day to day, Japan for most ordinary people is not more expensive that other world cities