Japan’s not expensive—let’s just sweep that 1980’s-era myth right under the rug. Still, if you want to be a baller in one of the world most amazing cities (i.e. Tokyo), you might want to rethink your grand scheme of selling authentic Chinese Rolexes on a Shinjuku street corner.
But okay, Seeroi, just tell me, how much monthly yen do I need to live in Tokyo? I know that’s what you’re saying. That’s called clairvoyance. And fortunately for you, I’ve made every mediocre salary there is to make, so let’s do this:
230,000 yen per month
If you like cold and dark, then this is the wage for you. You’ll be able to experience authentic Japanese living, which includes a ground-floor room the size of a meat locker, a wafer-thin futon, and a view of a machine shop that starts operating at six every morning. Many Japanese people live this lifestyle, dining on such fine cuisine as rice with fried bean sprouts, fried noodles with bean sprouts, and fried rice with noodles and bean sprouts. The possibilities are positively endless. Shake on heaps of fish flakes for flavor and learn to love natto. You can probably afford to run the heater an hour a day and the lights two. Go to bed when the sun goes down and get up when it rises. Hey, back to nature—-Thoreau did it, why not you? It’s just like Walden Pond, only surrounded by miles of concrete. To reach the outside world, you can wander the streets with your foreign cellphone looking for hotspots. That’s called exercise. Think of all the money you’ll save on gym memberships. For weekend entertainment, go to the corner park and sit on the swing-set drinking 100-yen cups of shochu. Forget about dating, unless that guy sleeping in the cardboard box takes a shine to you. And he probably will.
250,000 yen per month
Now you can keep the lights on until bedtime, and perhaps buy a blanket for warmth. You’ll wear many hats. This doesn’t mean you will perform many functions at work. Literally, you’ll wear many hats just to stave off freaking hypothermia. If you haunt the supermarket after 10 p.m., you can pick up 70%-off sushi and enough potatoes and carrots to keep you alive, although scurvy remains a serious concern. Your cell phone will be a flip type from the 1990’s. Treat yourself to a can of malt liquor once a week; you’ve earned it.
270,000 yen per month
If there were a practical poverty line, at least from a Western perspective, this would be it. It also happens to coincide nicely with the average eikaiwa-teacher monthly salary. With this generous renumeration, you can move out of the meat locker and into a walk-in closet. Astound your Facebook friends with pictures of you touching both walls of your apartment at the same time. Your arms are so long! You’ll be able to sit between a pair of space heaters prior to bedtime, absorbing radiation, then dive into your futon, surrounding your body with hot water bottles and praying for dawn to arrive. You’ll spend a lot of evenings in run-down eateries, slumping over steaming bowls of noodles while taking advantage of someone else’s heat and light. If you’re lucky, you might meet a girl or guy willing to turn on the heat in their apartment, and spend some nights defrosting there. You’ll be able to pick up an off-brand smartphone with a 2-year contract. You can afford to drink malt liquor or shochu on occasion, and will probably need it.
Is it Always Winter in Japan?
No, that’s crazy talk. Winter only lasts, what, like five months of the year? Or seven in Hokkaido. But certainly there will be a month where you can open your one frosty window and smell the sweet cherry blossoms over the bite of machine oil. Summer? Well sure, lots of people die annually in their apartments as a result of heat stroke, but not you. If you save up for a fan and buckets of ice, you can remain alive. Plus, your arms will be in great shape from constantly fanning. Remember to stay hydrated. I’m serious. Please don’t die.
When autumn comes, you can enjoy the cool breeze of pollen wafting from distant cedar trees and the yellow dust blowing from China. If you have anything close to allergies you will be constantly blessed through sneezing. Remember that God loves you, even if no one else in this nation does.
300,000 yen per month
Congratulations, you’ve finally made it off Skid Row. Assuming you haven’t maxed out all your foreign credit cards getting to this point, you can begin to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Splurge and buy a mat for under your futon, then some oranges to counteract the scurvy. Run the heat and A/C on weekends. Make it rain, playa. Buy a used bicycle. Go on dates to the park, or sit together overlooking the canal. Hell, save up and go to a restaurant, Rockefeller. Shop at Uniqlo and replace your worn-out clothes. Now you’re on the catwalk.
If you search hard and have connections, you can probably find a decent apartment (it helps if you look “Asian”). You might find a place with a couple of windows and a kitchen where you can balance a dollar-store cutting board on top of a mini fridge and actually cook food featuring exotic ingredients such as meat, fish, and vegetables. You should be able to afford last-year’s iPhone. Begin making the jump from malt liquor to actual beer, or occasionally, wine.
350,000 yen per month
This is more money than many Japanese people will see in their lifetimes. Hey, Tokyo salaries aren’t great. Making this much, you may find an apartment with more than one room, or even a view featuring a tree. You’ll be able to acquire the single most coveted home furnishing in the nation, known locally as “bed.” You are a rock star. Gone are the days of slinking past neon signs and paper lanterns in shame—-now you can go in and enjoy beer and grilled chicken with salarymen on Friday nights. You can talk to actual girls and guys, take them on dates to restaurants with tablecloths, and buy tiny cakes as tokens of your undying affection. You might even partake of the one thing all Japanese people dream of—a trip out of Japan.
For long-term ex-pat life in Japan (and especially Tokyo), this is the minimum acceptable living wage. Japanese folks frequently live on less, partly because they understand how to buy discount train tickets, can spot sales in the newspaper, and have friends and family to grudgingly help with things like moving and getting set up in life. But unless you come to Japan as half of an already-established couple, you’ll have to buy your own refrigerator, washing machine, lamps, pots and pans, everything. And that takes yen. Might be a good time to get a part-time job at Family Mart.
Also, bear in mind that many Japanese adults spend years living with their parents, whom they invariably can’t stand, saving money. Then they move into cramped, alternately freezing and broiling apartments and suffer for years, saving money. Many of the the folks I know personally have stylish clothes and cool haircuts, but live in crushing poverty. In Tokyo, there’s nothing unusual about recycling your bath water for the laundry or turning off the heat at night. That’s called normal. Foreigners think it’s amusing that the toilet seats are heated, but if you had to use the bathroom at two a.m. and your apartment was below freezing, you’d have a different understanding.
400,000 per month
Ah, Lives of the Rich and Famous. Cruising on yachts while sampling wine and caviar. That’s how you’ll feel when you come home to your apartment with one and a half actual rooms and run the heat or A/C as necessary. You’ll still need to turn off lights you’re not using and take reasonably short showers, but overall, you’ll live comfortably. You can eat out at the 100-yen sushi joint five nights a week, and drink proper beer or a bottle of wine regularly. This may or may not be a good thing, but hey, you’re the one who wanted to leave Walden Pond. You can afford a small, boxy used car, cable internet, and a TV, all of which should improve your dating life. Hell, you might even save some money. Retirement? What’s that? Don’t you need a new iPad instead? Of course you do. Surely the Japanese social services will bail you out when the time comes.
Above 400,000 yen per month
Now you’re entering rarified territory. I’ve made this level of coin briefly, but frankly it wasn’t worth the effort required. Which is to say that I’m a lazy bastard who prefers evenings slamming cans of malt liquor watching sunsets over the Arakawa river to sitting at a desk surrounded by dozing salarymen. But my work ethic sucks, to be honest.
It bears mentioning that there are small subsets of people who come to Japan under more fortunate circumstances. Like the aging engineer I met from the States whose company sent him to Tokyo on an extended business trip, set him up in a serviced apartment in Roppongi, and paid for all his meals. He spoke not a word of Japanese and raved about what a great country it was. Or the young Saudia Arabian guy I spent the evening with, also in Roppongi. He had no job, a chauffeured car on call, and his own VIP section in a dance club. He bought everybody drinks and was surrounded by women. Suffice to say these folks have a different perspective of Japan. Not that one’s more valid than another, only that it’s a long way from Compton to Beverly Hills, if you know what I’m saying. Or from Ikebukuro to Aoyama, for that matter.
Can You Afford Japan?
Of course, everyone’s got a different standard of living. If you like cooking at home, hate drinking, appreciate temperature extremes and have no social life, then you’ll live on less than a person who, say, wants to interact with other human beings. There’s a million exciting things to do in Tokyo, and they pretty much all cost money. Living on a tight budget is a lot like paying to get into Disney Land and then not being able to afford the rides or any cotton candy. Well, at least you can get a free drink at the water fountain. That’s healthier anyway.
The big mistake, if there is one, is to avoid saying, Oh, well, 250 thousand yen a month is this much in my nation’s currency, and I can easily live on that. Because somehow, it doesn’t work that way. You’re forgetting about the cost of train tickets, trips to the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker, plus getting your shoes resoled. Not to mention that one-way plane ticket you purchased to the land of your dreams, massive down payment on your apartment, and the first night you went out for karaoke with all your newfound friends and somehow blew two hundred bucks. Maybe it’s not Japan that’s expensive, but you. So how much yen do you need to live here? Ultimately, it depends on how much of a life you need. And Japan may just be the place to put that to the test.