Saturday, June 4, 2011

Cost of Living in Japan

Japan is widely seen as an expensive place to live. Sure enough, Japan isn't cheap, but so far, Nana and I haven't found life here to be all that expensive.

So why the gap between expectation and reality? I can think of a few reasons off the top of my head, some of them particular to me and Nana, some of them particular to Fukuoka, and some of them general to the experience of picking up and moving somewhere new.

1. Location

When people say Japan, they often mean Tokyo. And Tokyo is expensive. However, outside of the big four (Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya), most cities in Japan are pretty reasonable.

According to these surveys, for instance, only Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya rank in the 150 most expensive cities in the world. That puts most Japanese cities well below moderately expensive American cities like St. Louis and even some reputedly inexpensive cities like, say, Pittsburgh.

Of course, those surveys are specifically geared to measure cost of living for expats, and if you care to click through, they have some serious methodological flaws. But still, when you think of cost of living for a small Japanese city like Fukuoka, it's roughly in the same ballpark as small-to-medium American cities.

2. Lifestyle

Often, when people consider living in another place, they think about what it would cost to replicate the literal trappings of life in their old home. In other words, Americans imagine what it would cost to buy (and own) a three-bedroom detached home, two cars (preferably gas guzzlers), and twenty gallons of gas a week. If they're really digging into the details, they'll also look at the cost of a burger, or a pizza, or a beer.

What they should be asking, however, is how much it would cost to replicate a similar level of comfort. In Japan, for instance, you don't need a car, let alone two, to get where you want to go when you want to go there: the trains and buses are reliable, and if the weather's nice you can just bike. And while an American-style meal will make a dent in your wallet, cheap Japanese food and groceries abound.

3. Healthcare

This one's simple: in Japan, as in almost anywhere else in the world, healthcare is dirt cheap compared to what Americans pay. (Here and in Korea, it's even pretty decent healthcare!) While for privacy reasons I don't want to go into details, my back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that we're paying about 10% of what we paid for similar coverage when we were living in Washington, DC.

4. Taxes

In many countries, foreigners pay taxes at a lower effective rate than locals. I still have yet to figure out why this is. This effect is less pronounced the longer you live in Japan, with an especially big jump around year three, when the residence tax kicks in.

5. Education

Simply put, we don't have to pay to educate a family. You can get your kids a public school education in Japan for next to nothing, but by American standards it's a pretty miserable education. (Seriously. Don't believe what you read about Japanese schools.) Private school, on the other hand, is exorbitantly expensive, with yearly tuition that's often in line with private colleges in America.

6. It's All Relative!

It's actually been a really long time since Nana and I lived anywhere you could consider cheap. We went from college in Connecticut to a year in D.C. to two years in Seoul to a year in Edinburgh. Of all of those places, D. C. was where we had the smallest apartment. Next to that, our little place in Fukuoka seems pretty spacious!

7. Language: The Reverse Foreigner Tax

In Korea, Nana and I often complained about the "foreigner tax," which was our term for the extra money expats had to pay to get stuff done simply because we lacked the language skills to figure out the cheapest, most effective way. (This also covered times when we were flat out ripped off.)

But there's also a kind of reverse foreigner tax at work: you end up spending less because you don't know the language. So many leisure costs are tied to language-based activities. Here, though, we don't really go to the movies, we don't have a TV or a cable subscription, we don't buy a lot of music, and so on. We read, hang out, go to the beach if the weather's nice--all free activities used to replace expensive habits in the States.


Don't let the headlines scare you. Most of Japan is pretty affordable, and the US is a lot more expensive than people like to think.

(PS: I'm interested in hearing readers' thoughts on this. Am I right? Have I missed something? Oversimplified? Let me know what you think!)


  1. Hi,
    My wife (Japanese) was educated in Japan's public school system and takes exception to your comments. We have two children in American public schools and they are very inferior to what Japan offers. Japan concentrates on the three rrr's and America on being politically correct. The National history test just released show's that 12th grade students (48%) in the U.S do not know anything about their country and the average 10th grader in America reads at 4th grade level. Pretty pathetic compared to other countries. Even Costa Rica ranks higher than the U.S in Ed.
    We were recently in Fukuoka and enjoyed the Ramen on canal street and did the Asahi Brewery tour. We plan on moving the Kobe within two years after our son graduates from high school. We enjoyed reading your blog. Rey & Miwa

  2. Anonymous,

    I appreciate your comment. The Japanese school system regularly produces higher standardized test scores than the US school system, but 1) I do not believe that means much, given the poor state of public education in the US, and 2) I do not believe that standardized test scores are a complete measure of success in education.

    I chose my words carefully: while the Japanese education system is able to provide an excellent education to a particular kind of student (at the cost, I must add, of some seriously scary indoctrination with regards to Japanese history), for anyone who doesn't fit that description, a Japanese school can be a miserable place. Every year, our school brings in students who, because of race, learning differences, or even simple emotional sensitivity were harassed, bullied, and sometimes even physically or verbally abused by classmates and by teachers. In my professional opinion as an educator, this high-stress, high-stakes environment is not worth it for the mere sake of higher test scores.

    Thank you again for your comment. Please take my words, not as an endorsement of the US public school system, which is clearly broken, but an indictment of the excessive social and emotional costs of the Japanese system.