How much does it cost to live in Japan?

"Spend me, spend me..."
Hideyo Noguchi says, “Spend me, spend me…”

How much does it cost to live in Japan? Now that’s a good question. Some people say Japan is expensive, others say it’s inexpensive. Thanks internet, how did we make do before you? After a lot of research, I’ve decided it’s really another question in disguise. I don’t know if you’ll like it or not but I feel it’s my duty to tell you anyway. Hey, that’s me – always looking out for your best interests. So what’s the real question then? Okay, I’ll tell you: The real question is, “how low are your standards?”

Basically, it turns out it can be both cheap and expensive – who’d have thought it? It all comes down to you. The amount it’ll cost is pretty much decided by what you feel that you need, and what those needs add up to. Do you like privacy? Yeah, that’ll cost extra. Want to not have to keep your bed in a cupboard? Muchas dinero, por favor. Oh, and forget about insulation.

I’ve heard people say Japan’s an inflexible society, and sure, I get where they’re coming from, but when it comes to planning your budget, I have to say, there does seem to be quite a lot of flexibility. In Japan, if you don’t want to take a hit to your wallet, hey, you can take the hit to your dignity instead.

Let’s break it down. The major things you’ll need to fork out for are:

  • Rent
  • Food
  • Transportation

I’ll briefly cover each of these items below.

Rent and the price of human dignity

The biggest expense will be rent. There are a lot of things to factor in so I’ll probably do another post on this in the future. Simply put though, this is largely influenced by where you choose to live and how much privacy you need.

If you live in a city, you’re going to have to pay more, with Tokyo being the most expensive. And in general, the farther away you are from the city centre, the cheaper it will be. If you’re prepared to commute, you can save yourself a lot of money and also get a bigger place. Where in the city you might have to live in a box apartment, on the outskirts you might be able to live in a house.

Likewise, there are some big savings to be made sharing a room with someone you don’t know. In fact, the more people you share your housing with, the more you can save. Want to share your bathroom with 20 other people and wait in line to cook your dinner? Definitely worth some consideration. Victor from YouTube channel Gimmeaflakeman suggests you can find this kind of accommodation for ¥20,000 / $120 p/m. Who says you can’t put a price on human dignity?

There are some great real-life example figures of how much you can expect to pay for different setups in different cities on the Go! Go! Nihon website along with an explanation of different types of accommodation, so these are worth checking out too.

Food and drink

Food can be pretty cheap too. Again, it totally depends on what your standards are. If you can live on rice and in-season vegetables and are happy to cook it all yourself, you can get by pretty cheaply. Victor says as little as $100 a month if you really scrimp.

But who wants to live like that? I want to eat tastily and nutritiously. Hey, my body’s a temple. And I like a good tipple too. On second thought, forget the temple thing. Health and good times are often at odds with each other and sometimes abstract things like ‘health’ and ‘liver function’ have to take a back seat.

But for fans of self-imposed austerity, you can go teetotal and never eat out. I don’t know who would want a life like that but who am I to judge? As for me, I’ll have a bourbon on the rocks, please. Heart-shaped rocks – I always have those. They balance out the masculinity of the bourbon with a delicate feminine touch.

Actually it’s probably better not to go teetotal in Japan. I’m not sure if that’s even a thing over there.

Transportation

Having a car is pretty expensive in Japan. If you’re in the city I’d say just forget it. Get a bike instead. Trains and buses can be expensive if you’re coming from the US, but if you’re from the UK like me it’s about the same. The pertinent difference is that the transportation in Japan is actually good. It’s pretty much always on time, so you’ve got that to look forward to.

Be prepared to start walking too. A lot. Walking is like attending work parties in Japan – choice in the matter is an illusion at best. Again, you can save money on your rent if you’re willing to use public transport more, so that’s worth some consideration.

Personally I’m looking forward to riding the shinkansen (Japanese bullet train). It’s pricier than taking the bus cross-country but it’s quicker and most importantly it looks cool. Mind you, I’ve heard seat space is at a premium and that plus-sized folk won’t always fit. But that might have been only 1st class.

Summary

The bottom line is that it’s just like living anywhere else. You can live cheaply if you want to, or you can splash out a bit. It’s not as prohibitively expensive as some people can make it seem. I think it used to be pretty expensive back in the days of the economic boom, but today it’s quite manageable.

There are some great resources out there where people have detailed their budgets and monthly expenses in Japan – you can find these on YouTube. Check out videos by Ryan Boundless and Texan in Tokyo.

The major factor will always be how much you don’t want to live without. If you’re willing to share a room and eat modestly, you can live quite feasibly on a typical English-teacher’s budget, and maybe not even working full-time. If you don’t want to give up any of the creature comforts you’ve got back home, then expect your wallet to answer for that.

I’m going to aim for the middle-of-the-road. I don’t want to live as cheaply as possible – I want my time in Japan to be enjoyable. I don’t want to feel pressured to cut study-time to make money and I want to have time to socialise. But at the same time I don’t want to burn through my savings either. I’ll try to find a balance – hopefully a set up that would let me live there sustainably.

A shared house on the outskirts of Tokyo – that sounds about right. Right next to a kombini. And an izakaya. Yeah, now we’re talking. I’ll have a shochu. And some miso soup. Better line me up another shochu. Huh, what do you mean my wallet’s empty?

Matt Bowen

Matt is a blogger, budoka and software developer. He sold his things, quit his job and moved to Japan to study Japanese and martial arts. Sometimes he writes about it.

2 thoughts on “How much does it cost to live in Japan?

  1. Hey man,

    Those guesthouses arent too bad in my experience. The girlfriend and I shared a room in one for like 6 months. Cheap rent; kitchen utensils provided; internet; fridge, kettle and microwave in our room so no need to even go into the kitchen if I didnt want to; but also it came with built in friends – some Japanese students, some internationals doing all kinds of jobs – and we’d drink and go out with the ones we liked. All that said though, it was a smallish guesthouse – maybe 10 rooms. Those big dorm style places would be crap I rekon.

    With food, we lived of 500 yen a day for the first 3 months because the GFC smashed our savings. Big bag of rice, 4 litres of shochu, some furikake and 2 dozen eggs and boom saving mad money!! And loosing weight! Thats how you fit into skinny Japanese jeans!!

    Oh yeah and the bike thing – I tried to get a second hand bike but thats more hassel than its worth. Just shell out the extra 5000 yen and get a brand spanker – you wont regret it. Changing the registration over is hard – even if you can speak Japanese.

    Dont forget dude, youll need a phone pretty quickly too!!

    tokyocheapo.com has you covered for about everything else (stay away from the happoshu)

    M

    1. Hey Mikey,

      Sounds like those guesthouses aren’t too shabby then. I’m expecting to stay in a shared place too. Thanks for the bike tip – I’m not much of a bike guy but I’ll keep that in mind about the registration.

      4 litres of shochu on the other hand – now you’re talking!

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