The Cost of Living in Japan

The problem with life is that it’s not a thousand years long. I mean, they say Japanese men live to be 80. That’s not actually that lengthy, at least compared to eternity. So I plan on staying here until the morning of my 80th birthday, then moving to Korea. Pure genius. It’s kind of like if you’re in an elevator crash, but jump up right before it hits the ground. Saaaaafe. A friend of mine’s buddy did that, and he was fine. Heh, and people say I’m simple. We’ll see who’s laughing when I move back a week later. Suckers.

The other thing people say is that Japan has high prices. So to help dispel yet another myth of the Far East, the fine folks over at Tokyo Weekender were kind enough to publish

Is Japan Expensive?

in which I explain that No, it isn’t. Guess I really shouldn’t have just given the answer, since now you don’t actually need to read it. Oh well. I’ll probably oversleep on my 80th birthday too, and die. Man, remind me to buy an alarm clock before then.

The High Cost of Japan

So although Japan is actually inexpensive, it still comes at a cost. That’s because if you spend ten years of your life here, that’s one-eighth of your total time, which is like 25 percent. Well, I’m not really good with the metric system. Anyway, it’s still a lot. Hey, blame America, not me. Two liter bottle, my ass. That’s actually 68 ounces—you’re not fooling anyone with your fancy decimals. Anyway, where was I? Oh right. Ten years is a long time to be away, no matter what.

The Hidden Cost

Because while you’re whiling away your life enjoying cold Japanese beer and sashimi on ice, life goes on without you, miles away, back home. Your friends get married. They have babies. The babies grow up. The parents die. Pets die. Which reminds me that my cat Bufu died, back in the States. That was just his nickname, of course. I normally called him by his formal name, which was a little longer and ended in “-er.” Hey, it was a sign of affection.

Anyway, I was in an izakaya, eating some really nice engawa sashimi when I got the email. Of course, I’m not some dude who cries into his beer just because some stupid cat died. I’m just saying it was a tiny bit sad to hear little Bufu had gone to Kitty Heaven while I was slamming a pint of Asahi. I never realized just how light and delicious it was until that moment. Ah, good ol’ Asahi, so soft and fluffy; promise you’ll never leave me. Ah, but why didn’t I just move you here with me? I mean you the cat, just to clarify, not the beer. There’s plenty of beer here. Time just slipped away. Jeez, you were so playful when I left; just a boy. How come I didn’t at least set the alarm on my iPhone? Then you’d have lived to be 80. Sorry I never got to say goodbye. Ah jeez, I knew I should’ve ordered a 40-ounce bottle. Then I could at least pour out a little for my homey. Damn small Japanese pints. So few milliliters.

At the Temple, in the Evening

After dinner, as I do sometimes and particularly when drunk, I went to the temple and prayed to Japanese God. I prayed in Japanese, just to be on the safe side, although I’m pretty sure Japanese God understands English, even if he can’t speak it. And I prayed for my mom, and my relatives, who are all getting older, and my friends who are getting married and having kids, and for dear sweet Bufu, whom I’ll never see again. And I looked at the sky and the moon was out and it was raining. And Japanese God said, Seeroi, for such a genius dude, you sure don’t notice a lot of stuff. And then I went to the Lawson, picked up one more bargain Asahi, and knew He was right. I was so busy converting yen into ounces that I forgot about the real cost of living in Japan. But as I walked back out under the foggy moon I thought, well, at least the engawa was good and cheap. You just can’t beat four bucks a plate. He would have loved some. My cat, I mean, not Japanese God. I assume He gets all the sashimi He wants. I just hope He gives some to little Bufu. At least that’s what I prayed for.

38 Replies to “The Cost of Living in Japan”

  1. Though doused with jokes, this post is rather sad and touching. I sometimes feel melancholy about the mortality of my loved ones – particularly my parents – as well.

    As for my cats, they seem pretty oblivious of life. I can rest assured they’ll be oblivious of death, too.

    Anyway, off to Tokyo Weekender to read your guest post!

    1. It’s certainly not easy to deal with life-and-death issues, and living on the opposite side of the earth complicates matters, to say the least. You really don’t want to be away from home when people die.

      It’s easy to glamorize living abroad, but being apart from your loved ones for years isn’t something to take lightly. But at least now I’m prepared for space travel, so that’s one good thing. Bring on that mission to Mars.

  2. So Sorry for your loss Ken! I know it hurts a compassionate and caring person such as yourself when a loved pet passes on. I have the ashes of my two pets displayed on my mantle in my den in a makeshift shrine I made, and it was a long time before I could pretend it didn’t bother me that they were no longer there. I’m sure that Bufu-sama was a special comfort to you when you came home after imbibing Asahis at one of your favorite Izakayas and I hope that he may rest in peace! I’m thinking that your Japanese cat enRICHed your life in ways that it’s hard to put words to. And though it might be cheap to stay in Tokyo, you are a richer person for taking care of Bufu. You know, Homer Hickam also has a great love for his cats too and when one of his dies, he is always profoundly sad for a while. He has written parts in his books for many of those cats to honor their contributions to his sanity and well being. I’m sure that your cat was no different, so why not write about him in your book too… that is when you finally get around to writing it (Bang Bang)!

    1. Thanks, Bud, I appreciate your condolences. But to clarify, Bufu was my cat in the U.S., whom I left behind. (I made an edit to the story to clarify that.) Anyway, that’s why it was so hard to hear the news.

      But yeah, maybe I just need a Japanese cat with a crazy twisty tail, then all will be right in the world. Good idea.

  3. I’m so sorry to hear about Bufu. I had two cats, but one got sick 3 years ago and I had to put her down. I still have the other, but she is turning 15 next month and has her own health issues. You get so attached to the little buggers and then they go and die on you. 🙁

    Completely agree about Japan being inexpensive. On both my trips to Tokyo, I had the most amazing and cheapest food. And cheap doesn’t mean bad. I had bento boxes from Family Mart that tasted better than what I get at restaurants here. If you eat what the locals eat and avoid the tourist traps and expensive Michelin-starred restaurants, you can totally eat like royalty without breaking the bank. Hotels, same thing.

    Hey Ken, as an aside, have you thought about working for the US or Canadian embassy? I check the Canadian embassy every once in a while, and they have some interesting job postings… all of which require fluency in Japanese and for you to be in Japan at the time of your application. Definitely not for me right now, but I think it would be really neat.

    1. You know, every once in a while somebody brings that up. I haven’t looked into it yet, but I like the sound of working in Japan without having to deal with Japanese people. It’s almost too good to be true, like fat-free cake or Diet Coke, both of which I understand they serve at the Embassy cafeteria. Heaven.

  4. Sorry about Bufu, Ken! Maybe he’s having Asahi too, now that he’s up there. Actually I don’t know if it’s legal for Japanese cats to drink beer…

    One of these days you should compile a list of cheap places for your audience! Like that all-you-can-eat crab legs, etc. It’s amazing how many visitors in japan don’t know that 7-11 food is delicious! And bentos are cheap on sale after lunch rush is gone.

    This guy is also helpful,, check him out.

    1. Yeah, I’d second that about 7-11, or any convenience store actually.

      I’ve yet to find a single sushi restaurant in the U.S. that beats convenience store sushi, at any price. And I’ve eaten at hundreds.

      Pasta’s darn good too.

  5. oh man sorry about your cat dude, that sux.

    I totes agree with you about the price of stuff in Tokyo – its not the 80s anymore man. The 1000 yen bottles of Balantines are what did me in ha ha.

    I love the way you write about Japanese God. I imagine this chilled out Chiba surfy dude, hanging with Jesus and Buddha in the manga Saint Oniisan in Mitaka or whereever they live.

    The bittersweet nostalgia of this post made me miss my tiny flat in Tokyo bro – tre bon.


    Ps: on what Palidor said – the English embassy has been looking for lotsa staff lately too (double public holidays woooo!!)

    1. Well, I just signed on for a new job, so we’ll see how that works out. If it doesn’t, then maybe it’s the Embassy for me after all. I’m on like my 20th job in this country. I basically run my life like a slot machine, and just keep pulling the handle until something pays out. Come on triple lemons.

  6. Are the Japanese as pet crazy as we are? I was talking to someone the other day about how Americans and the English seem to love dogs and cats more than most other cultures. Almost to a crazy degree.

    and off topic but I just watched “Black Rain” with Michael Douglas again last night. I love movies about modern Japan.

    1. The Japanese approach to animals is very different from that of, say, the U.S.

      Of course, there’s some fawning over pets, particularly among young girls, who go all googley-eyed at the sight of a puppy, and start incessantly repeating kawaii! kawaii!

      But in more practical terms, dogs are kept on a short leash, literally, by their owners, and often treated rather harshly. Which, when you look at how strict the Japanese are with each other, should come as no surprise. Cats in Japan are typically strays, and many are fairly beaten up and far from cute.

      Perhaps most heartbreaking of all is the Japanese custom of simply abandoning pets. They’ll put a litter of cats or dogs into a box and leave it by the river or in front of a school. There are signs throughout the cities imploring people not to “discard” pets, but it still happens all the time. It’s sad.

  7. Hey Ken,

    That was an interesting take on the Cost of Living in Japan. I guess what you highlighted in this article is the main reason I came back to Australia (just made it back today, woo!).

    I read your other article, about the other Cost of Living. I totally agree; when people say that Japan is really expensive I can’t understand them. I mean, you can eat well for $10 with excellent service. I guess as you said, you’ve gotta stop looking for the Western in Japan and embrace the Japanese culture! Well, Japan’s cheaper than Australia anyway so maybe I’m biased since my country truly is expensive. But then the wages are decent, so…

    1. Congratulations on making it out! I’ve often noted that most people who can leave Japan eventually do.

      I think it’s a good country to live in, off and on. I know a few people, including one Australian, who manage to balance their time between two countries, and that seems like a good goal. I’m vaguely aspiring towards that myself, but we’ll see what happens in the future.

  8. I’ve experienced “the real cost of Japan” as well. Life goes on without you back “home” and it became especially obvious when I visited last Christmas. My friends are all married or are about to get married. People have died. Just so many things have happened and it felt like I was a stranger, just sitting there, but not really belonging into this “picture”. Very weird experience.
    It was home, it were my family and friends, but still something felt wrong.

    That’s certainly something people need to consider if they plan moving to Japan for a longer time.

    1. Yeah, that’s really it. Particularly if you assimilate into the culture here, and start to identify with the Japanese mindset, going “back home” becomes increasingly difficult. I suppose that’s common among expats the world over.

      For anyone thinking of relocating, it’s certainly something to consider. If you’re coming for more than a couple of years, Japan can be very costly indeed.

  9. Hi Ken,

    I’m a longtime lurker. I’ve read everything here at least twice. Love your writing style, the subject matter, the insights. Write the damn book already.

    This particular post really struck a chord. I’m from Belgium originally but I’ve been living in Canada for the past seven years. At least once a week the cost of living here, in your sense of the term, has me wondering what I’m doing so far from home. (Not that I’ll ever go back there permanently. I’ve probably changed too much, and wouldn’t even want to go back, to be honest. There really is no place like home anymore, as you put it elsewhere).

    Just a few days ago my mom returned to Europe after a three-week visit to Canada — it’s certainly made those feelings a lot more acute. Friends’ lives (kids, marriages) don’t affect me all that much. But no-one’s getting any younger. Not me, and certainly not my mom… Anyway, I’m not trying to regurgitate your post — you did a much better job conveying the sentiment. But there’s a lot of comfort in knowing we’re all in the same boat. So thanks for the post.

    Unrelated: is there a practical age limit to the teaching gig? Would a guy who’s just turned 40, say (and who is most definitely not having a mid-life crisis), have issues landing a language teaching job in Japan when applying from abroad? Hope you don’t mind me asking — I know you get a lot of this in the comments.

    1. No, that’s a really good question. For teaching, I don’t believe there is any practical age limit. I know a few dudes in their 50s who have no problems getting work. In some ways, it looks like being older is an advantage over somebody who’s just out of college. But it probably depends on what flavor of English you’re teaching. A twenty year-old might look like a better fit for kindergarten classes that Business English.

      That being said, I don’t know what happens as you approach sixty, which is the age at which Japanese people start thinking about retirement. I suspect regular employment might be hard to secure at that age, although I’d bet you could still get contract positions.

      And yeah, as you get older, being away from home doesn’t get any easier. It’s all just a game when your twenty, but it’s playing for keeps as the years go by.

  10. Good to know, thanks. I’m trying to decide where to go next, hence the question. I’m giving myself a year or so to figure it out. One tempting option is to use that year to learn some basic Japanese (or Korean, or …) and move to Asia for a while. As far as Japan is concerned, the salaryman option does not appeal — that much is clear from your blog. I’ve been a programmer for 15 years. Never was my dream job to begin with. It has taken me places (quite literally) but I certainly wouldn’t want to do that kind of work in that 12+ hours a day setting… Anyway, your blog’s been a great resource (not to mention entertaining), so thanks again.

    1. Well, I started out as a programmer years ago, so I know what that life is like too. I must say, I’d have a hard time going back to it, in any country. I’ve spent enough years getting exercise by moving a mouse back and forth.

      I think you could come to Japan for a year, do just about anything (the less work, the better, of course) and have a pretty fantastic time. Just don’t plan on moving here long-term, and don’t learn too much Japanese. Because that changes the game.

      1. That last sentence almost sounds regretful… But I know what you mean.

        The programmer job: I decided fairly early on to milk the universal nature of the job. You can program computers anywhere, so I have (well, to a point — haven’t done anything that impressive). That aspect’s been great. The job itself… It certainly could be fun, again. If I’d want to make that happen.

        If I do end up in Japan, it’d definitely be open-ended. No plans. I know how big a change moving from Europe to Canada was, and that was comparatively easy. No language issues, similar culture. I wouldn’t presume to know what Japan would do to me, or if I’d be able to cope. I’m also very aware of the frustration of not being able to express yourself properly. Even in English (never that much of a problem) I used to get annoyed by the lack of nuance in the way I ‘feel’ the language compared to my native tongue, Dutch. So having to regress to the level of a five-year-old… Scary. But then I wouldn’t be going there to discuss philosophy.

        It has to be feasible to stay ‘Western’ enough to preserve my sanity, without becoming an inconsiderate tourist jerk who banks on other’s forgiveness. Be respectful and considerate of the culture without trying to Be Japanese. That’d be the goal, anyway.

        Anyway, it’s all still hypothetical at this point. I seem to be using these comments to crystallize my own thoughts on the subject. Maybe I should just open notepad instead.

        Look forward to your next post. Thanks again for the helpful replies.

  11. Hi Ken, good articles on Japan. Very insightful and true…. feel a bit like grpy cat myself: “I studied Japanese and lived in Tokyo once….. wish I hadn’t.” :=) But of course, tha is not the truth either. Mandy

    1. Heh, “wish I hadn’t.” Yeah, sometimes I wonder what my life would’ve been like if I hadn’t come to Japan. Or if I’d come here and just lived the typical gaijin life.

      In all, I’m grateful for having had the experience, but it’s come at a cost as well.

  12. This post is light with a hint of sadness. I feel the same way whenever I see what my friends and family do back home- getting married and all that stuff. I wish I was there but I’m also glad to be in Japan. I feel like passes me by but at the same time, it seems I’m okay with my life. Japan is confusing me, really.

    1. It’s confusing with a hint of melancholy and smokey overtones. Which is to say that you can’t gain something without losing something else. Ah, maybe that’s just how life’s set up.

      I would’ve thought traveling would solve the problem, but it doesn’t. Even when I go “home” to America, it doesn’t feel like my country any more. All those gaijin, and you can’t buy a rice ball anywhere. I don’t know how people there eat lunch. You’d think they’d be skinnier. Yep, it’s confusing for sure.

  13. Hey Ken,

    I read this article by Debito Arudou

    I think it picks up where you left off with yours. Of course it has his ‘doom and gloom’ viewpoint but I think its a relatable experience. He seems to ask ‘as foreigners, what are we?’.

    I have a job interview on Monday for a good job in Sydney. But I wonder too, what are the hidden and long term costs of living there?


    1. Mikey,

      Thanks for that link Mang!! Good read!! It would certainly seem that Ken might have many similar beliefs as Debito does, but Ken still seems quite “anesthetized” by Japan (though he shows signs of awakening). Still, it would be nice to see Ken write the “Gaijin Decoded” Bible for all of those “NJs” out there thinking about falling in love with the Nippon cultural honey trap, since Debito has no sense of humor or satire and probably couldn’t write a humorous commercially successful book for the masses (he writes far too seriously). I think if Ken could get that type of book successfully written, he might not have to go through near as much pain and angst to have a truly successful career (one with a more upwardly mobile life-style) with more options to enjoy life while still expanding his horizons and broadening his experience base (versus ending up in a dead end job teaching English in Japan). Yes, Bang bang!!

      Here’s an idea Ken: work with Jasmine of Zooming fame to write that “Gaijin Decoded” Bible, since it should be focused at tourists and visitors as the target market (J has the inside track on tourism) and use Jasmine’s fantastic knowledge of Japan (with her incredible eye for photography), her wonderful organizational skills – combined with your sagacity, satire, humor and wit to make a commercially successful book – one that could be marketed in Japan, Australia, Canada, the US or Germany and all of Europe. That way you could get the most out of the beautiful Japanese culture and sights to seduce those that are mesmerized by Japanese society (that would include me) into buying your book. I could even think this book could become a required staple for tourists and be updated every few years to include things like special sight seeing locations (the castles) sports (Sumo), entertainment (the Kabuki theater) or even hobbies (cosplay) and games (like Karuta) that are unique to Japan. You could include sections on Japanese legends (like the 47 Ronin) and religious practices (Temples and Shrines), as well as lists of “What not to do”. Much of what you both have already done on your web sites could become the beginning basis for such a book.

      I believe that this is a possible way for both of you to live and experience those things you seem to like to do (all as deductible business expenses) for writing a new volume of “Gaijin Decoded”. You could live wherever you wanted and travel to Japan whenever you needed to. I just feel that you two are so well matched talent-wise that I really wanted you to consider – “What if we collaborated?”. Why not try to come up with an outline of such a book between the two of you and see what both of you can provide to the other? Talk to a publisher about the idea of such a book even. I’m sure most of the people that read this blog and Zooming’s would love to see something come of this and probably encourage, support or possibly help make it happen, so please think about it before one or both of you decide to leave Japan for good. It would be sad to see all that talent and experience not get realized into something useful for all of humanity – that’s RIGHT, you could help bring about WORLD PEACE… I see you one day doing this in Korea (to unite their country) and China (to help them become democratic)… cough cough. Hmmm lets see, Yes, maybe even win the Nobel Peace Prize one day! OK OK, I lost it there, but I really think it would be nice if you two had more to look forward to and could work together. Sorry if I went too far, I just like you two very much and want good things to fall your way.

      OMG, I’m so full of it,… Oh Well, that’s no surprise!

      1. Well, you pretty much wrote enough for both of us, so I’ll just add, tangentially, that I finally saw 47 Ronin on Japanese TV (dubbed into Japanese). It’s like they took a perfectly good movie, remade it with a bunch of CGI, and dropped a white guy into the middle of it for no reason. I thought it would be pretty hard to screw up that legendary tale, but for the first time ever, I was wrong.

        On the plus side, I got a new flat-screen TV. Bring on the quality programming.

    2. I guess I see two things happening in that article by Debito Arudou. One is that he really wants to dispel the myth of Japan as a sugary Candy Land. I don’t think that feeling is uncommon among immigrants—no place is delicious forever. I know some Japanese people in the States who moved there thinking it was fabulous, and after a few years they sound just like the ex-pats here. It’s not easy to be a perpetual outsider, unless that’s the gig you’re looking for.

      The other thing that seems to be going on is that he’s getting older (unlike some of us), and that compounds the problem. Japan would probably be a lot more fun if you were perpetually twenty. But anywhere would be. At some point, you’re gonna look silly setting down your cane to do a keg-stand.

      So growing older in a land where everyone wants you to be a young, funny gaijin. Yeah, you’d need to come to terms with that. Probably won’t be as big a challenge in Australia.

  14. Hi Ken! Love your blog 🙂
    Just wanted to say that you totally hit the nail on the head in that last paragraph with the comment about the real cost of living in Japan: it’s missing out on the good stuff back home.
    Sometimes it feels like a bit of an effort to keep up with what’s happening a world away; but I always end up feeling happy after catching up with friends and family on the phone or whatever.
    Cheers mate!

  15. It seems expensive to live in Japan . Is it expensive to live there while your going to to a university ?

    1. That I don’t know. But I will say that, compared to the U.S., Japan is incredibly cheap on a number of levels. So tuition and textbooks aside, I’d wager that you could have a higher standard of living here for less money.

  16. Ken,

    I’ve been lurking around your blog for the past few weeks.
    I can’t quite remember how I found it, but I was needing some sarcasm and realism at the time.
    Your blogs were perfect.

    This one, however, was almost poignant. I guess it’s just the timing.
    I lost my mother very recently, and I remember writing the same kind of thing in my blog,
    though I phrased it more like “Japan robbed me of so many things.”

    But, yes, life happens, and the people or places you once knew change.
    Home doesn’t feel like home.
    Yet, there’s that heavy feeling when you can’t be there, physically, for your loved ones.

    Thank you for your honest approach.
    It’s very hard to find blogs/articles that paint a well-balanced picture of life here.
    It’s either:
    This place is eating my soul, why can’t it just sink into Pacific already?!?!

    I look forward to reading more of your articles.
    Keep writing and best of luck with everything from here on forward.

    1. Ah thanks much. Sorry about your mother. We definitely made a choice by coming to live overseas. It’s just not always easy to be happy with that choice.

      As for Japan, easily the most amazing thing about the country is the gap between how it’s portrayed online, and what’s really happening here. For example, I read something recently about how important levels of politeness were when speaking Japanese. Does it occur to nobody that the same is true for English? And probably a lot of languages that I’m not aware of. Screw up the levels of politeness when speaking to an American and I promise you’ll know about it.

      There are some things that are unique and even weird about Japan, but too often they get lost in the noise.

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