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Friday, June 8, 2012

The Cost Of Living In Japan

I recently found a blog article by Madame RiRi, where she offers an opinion on six things foreigners find expensive, or rather over-priced in Japan.

I am going to present part of her translated article here, and address her points with my own media savvy and wet sarcastic wit. My wit ain't dry.

She correctly points out that many things in Japan are very costly when compared to other countries, and that the same holds true that other countries have their items that are over-priced, too.

It's usually because of supply and demand. However... here in Canada, we demand a lot of fuel for use, and even have a lot of fuel in supply, yet we are paying $1.30 a liter, which is high, in my opinion. It did reach a high of $1.40.1 in April, and yesterday, I saw it for sale at $1.23. Not a lot when compared to most of Europe or Japan, I am sure... but we do have a lot of oil and gas reserves in our country. Certainly more than most other countries! And what could possibly cause a $0.17 shift in pricing? Did they suddenly discover a fresh cache of dinosaurs? Close to half of our costs on a liter are for taxes. Hey... the government has you right where they want you.

Anyhow... lets look at what Madame RiRi had to say via Japan Today which wrote about this on January 12, 2012: 

1. Dining
Madame RiRi: Although there are many restaurants offering reasonable prices due to the prolonged recession, many foreigners still say that food in Japan is expensive. The main gripe is that the servings are too small, so it costs more for people who eat a lot. Furthermore, some foreign people felt that international foods such as peanut butter, tacos, pizza, and so on are fairly expensive.

JIAWR (that's me!): There is a reason why international foods are so expensive. Because they can be. These fast food companies look at a country like Japan and see the costs of other restaurants and then price accordingly—high. As well...  they figure that the Japanese will pay more of a premium just to get their hands on American foods because it is American. To be honest, the same thing is going on here in Toronto. I love to eat Japanese food. Once a week, at lunch, I go to a fast-food Japanese place to get some BBQ eel sushi. There are 12 pieces, and it costs $10.95. It was $18+ after a small box of chocolate Pocky and a can of Coke. I frequently buy a Chinese food lunch with Coke for $7.20, and get far, far more food. I know that eel is rarer than chicken, and that a true sushi master spends 10 years learning how to hold a knife before actually getting to use it... but come on. Here in Toronto, you need to build up the clientele. We are not (excluding myself and hundreds of others), not clamoring for Japanese food. Make it affordable! Hell... a Japanese dinner for myself, wife and six-year-old will cost me $59 (not including 10% tip), which is why we get it to take-out for home consumption. That's for eel on rice, soup and salad (mine), tempura appetizer, tonkatsu, soup and salad (wife), and I believe 12 sushi rolls. My son will eat bits of everything except the eel, which is the best part! Everything gets eaten - no leftovers. Chinese food - even if I overspend on the meals, we have enough for two dinners - and it costs $44. That's $22 for a Chinese food meal for a small family compared to $59. You can say 'fresh' all you like until the frozen tuna thaws, but it's 2.68 times more expensive. So... yeah... companies and restaurants come up will all sorts of reasons as to why their foods cost more. Steak or beef in Japan is high because there is little grazing ground for cows, and thus what few cows there are in Japan - the price is high. As well, cows and or beef is imported from other countries, like Australia, the U.S. and Canada... as long as we aren't shipping over something with Mad Cow Disease, of course... then watch the price of beef spike!
I'll be honest... I don't think I ever heard anyone gripe about the high cost of dining out in Japan. It is what it is, and most foreigners are paid more than their Japanese counterparts anyways (at least those of us in the JET teaching positions). Personally, you will drive yourself nuts if you start comparing prices in Japan to what they are back home. Relax and enjoy the dining experience.
Dining: I was usually dining with a woman. I never really noticed the prices and didn't care. I always (almost always) had two meals to pay for! And, as a horny guy, I didn't whine about it!  

2. Fruit
My excuse? It was 1990.
Madame RiRi: The land of ¥10,000 melons. Foreigners are puzzled as to why so many items of fruit are considered luxury gift items — ¥2,000  for a piece of gift-wrapped fruit in Japan that might cost $2 to $3 in the U.S. Pineapples and bananas are the only cheap fruit, it seems.

JIAWR: Okay, I was taken aback at first by the high cost of fruit in Japan. Then I looked at the size of the fruit - for example the enormous non-pear-shaped pear. Round and larger than a regulation softball. And so bloody juicy and tasty, that you quickly forget that you are paying Cdn/US $25??!! That's freaking nuts! See... I told you not to compare prices between countries. I, who was never a big eater of fruit, would buy a similarly priced apple or pear a week and would eat it over a couple of days. These are something to savor - especially at these prices. Why so expensive? No idea. Supply and demand, we suppose. I went to a pear farm in Sakuyama district of Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, Japan (see photo above). Lots of pears there... but there are not really a lot of fruit farms in Japan. It's mostly a rice-based economy. Still, because the pears and other fruits always seem to sell - and I never saw a non-Japanese pear or apple at a Japanese grocery store - consumers do not have a lot of options. Take it or leave it, we suppose, and right now... no one is leaving it. If they did, perhaps the market would adjust itself like I am doing to my underwear right now - that's better - and we might see prices drop. 

3. Education
Madame RiRi: Japanese education is certainly expensive. For example, many foreign people say that rucksacks (used by Japanese elementary schoolchildren), school fees, examination fees for entering university, and so on, are exorbitant. Japan also has cram schools, which are not very common abroad, and that adds to the cost of a child’s overall education.

JIAWR: If it wasn't for the movie Trading Places, I would have no idea what a rucksack is - it's a backpack. I have bought a cheap Chinese-made backpack for my son for $10. It might last six months... so let's say $20 a year. It is made of some fabric that is nylon-like and may very well be flammable. Inflammable apparently means the same as flammable. Some designer of words is an idiot.
In Japan, the randoseru, used by elementary school kids, is leather, or leather-like - stiff and holds its form. (See photo from Wikimedia to the right.) It costs - well... this one is a top of the line one and apparently costs ¥80,000 (US/Cdn $1,000), which is nice if you are stupidly rich. The average price for a randoseru is between $100 - $330—which is high, but it is well-made and will last for years (grades 1 through 6). Of course, the price for a randoseru will always be high in April before the school year starts - so discounts can be found if one purchases it ahead of time some 10 months earlier in June - not two months later... the kid needs the backpack now! He/she must fit in! It is still over-priced, though.
If you didn't purchase a backpack before arriving in Japan, have one bought and shipped to you  from your home country. It's a one-time purchase and really... it's not that big a deal.
But school is expensive? Okay... how many gaijin (foreigners) are paying education costs in Japan? One hundred? Two, maybe three hundred? Five hundred, tops? The cost of education is not a huge problem for the average foreigner in Japan.

4. Movie tickets
Never heard of this movie - but these women were hot!
Madame RiRi: The average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. is $7.95 (about ¥640). In Japan, you’ll have to shell out at least ¥1,800 (Cdn/US $23).

JIAWR: Are you kidding me? In Canada for the regular Avengers movie we shell out $13 for a ticket or $18 if we want the 3D version. And people wonder why no one goes to the movies anymore. Sure record sales are being recognized - but that also has a lot to do with higher ticket prices.
So... what foreigners are complaining about high movie ticket prices? Americans, perhaps. Excluding India, the US is the number one manufacturer of movies. Though I'm betting there are a lot more Canadian actors in American movies than people realize. 
However... the prices are higher in Japan, but I wouldn't think it's worth noting that foreigners are complaining about it.  
Matthew and I would see a movie often enough in the big city of Utsunomiya. We were so thrilled to see an American movie, that if it was an expensive ticket, I am sure neither he nor I noticed.

5. Alcohol
Madame RiRi: The price of beer in Japan is four times more expensive than in Germany and twice as expensive as in the U.S. Also, wine prices in Japan are four times more expensive than in France. There is (a) saying that German people drink beer like water and French people drink wine like water because they are so cheap.

JIAWR: Uh...  I think the translation mean to say '... because the wine is so cheap." I don't think the French are cheap... it's the Scottish and the Dutch that are cheap. Kidding! Okay... maybe it's just me being a guy... but when I go out drinking, I do even blink when I get the bar tab... my male companions and myself simply start throwing bills onto the table until we think we've over-paid by a lot. And... if the complaint is from foreigners about buying booze for personal consumption at home - really? I was invited to party once a week. I didn't need to buy alcohol for the home. Now... if you are talking about non-Japanese products like rum or vodka... add in shipping and tariffs and other taxes. It might still be high, though.
Wine? I suppose there are a lot of foreigners who are drinking wine... Japan does make wine, though, with the main regions in Hokkaido-ken and Yamanashi-ken, but is the average foreigner-wine drinker wanting to drink Japanese wine? We'll say probably not, but who knows? They might want a wine like they would get at home... that means an extra cost for the wine if it is shipped to Japan.
Despite wine and alcohol being expensive, I hardly think this merits a mention as the top 6 things that foreigners find too expensive in Japan.  

By the way... I was friends with the liquor salesmen who ran a 'convenience' store underneath my apartment. They lived above that shop, on the second floor - directly below my third floor apartment which was known as the high-end place in my city of Ohtawara. If I wanted sake (Japanese rice wine), they were always only too happy to sit down and drink with me and to share a laugh. Afraid of the high cost of booze in Japan? Get out and make friends.  

6. Skin care products
Madame: RiRi: Some foreigners said that skin care products in Japan are three times more expensive than in the U.S. Generally speaking, Japanese people may spend a lot more money on beauty products than people in other countries.

JIAWR: I can believe this to be true. Yes there are a lot of skin care products marketed to Americans/Canadians et al. But the Japanese do like their skin care products. But why so expensive? Shiseido is a Japanese manufacturer of skin care products. In fact, it is the fourth-largest cosmetics company in the world and the longest, continuous-running cosmetics company in the the world, having opened its doors in Tokyo in 1872. People want to look as good as they can. People will pay whatever it takes to look as good as they can. The Japanese are a bit more rampant about such things, so the price is higher and still demand doesn't slow.

Perhaps if Japan knew the comparative price of things they pay for versus say the U.S.... could we cause a revolution? Probably not, but it is worth a try.

I took these results below from It claims that these numbers were last updated in June of 2012.  Looking at the U.S. numbers, Canada is a lot higher! Holy crap! Some Canadian numbers below this wobbly chart I re-typed!

Food                                                               Japan       U.S.           Difference
Restaurants Meal, Inexpensive Restaurant         $10.82      $10.89          +0.64 %
Meal for 2, Mid-range Restaurant, 3course       $47.95      $42.85          -10.64 %
Combo Meal at McDonalds or Similar              $7.85        $6.10            -22.31 %
Domestic Beer (0.5 liter draught)                      $6.27         $3.27           -47.87 %
Imported Beer (0.33 liter bottle)                       $8.04         $4.37           -45.62 %
Cappuccino (regular)                                        $4.66         $3.52           -24.36 %
Coke/Pepsi (0.33 liter bottle)                            $1.82         $1.56           -14.45 %
Water (0.33 liter bottle)                                    $1.55         $1.28            -17.31 %  

Milk (regular), 1 liter                                         $2.38         $1.11            -53.13 %
Loaf of White Bread (500g)                              $2.85         $2.32            -18.87 %
Eggs (12)                                                          $2.77         $2.13            -23.31 %
Cheese (1kg) (variety?)                                     $17.09       $9.51            -44.35 %
Chicken Breasts (Boneless, Skinless), (1kg)       $10.47       $7.25            -30.81 %
Apples (1kg)                                                     $6.99         $3.33            -52.30 %
Oranges (1kg)                                                   $5.58         $3.48            -37.52 %
Potatoes (1kg)                                                  $3.41         $2.18            -35.99 %
Lettuce (1 head)                                                $2.44         $1.53            -37.29 %
Water (1.5 liter bottle)                                       $1.89         $1.71             -9.49 %
Bottle of Wine (Mid-Range)                              $17.20       $12.23           -28.88 %
Domestic Beer (0.5 liter bottle)                          $4.20         $2.34             -44.17 %
Imported Beer (0.33 liter bottle)                        $5.46         $3.40             -37.76 %
Pack of Cigarettes (Marlboro)                           $5.15         $6.06             +17.70 %  

One-way Ticket (local transport)                        $2.49         $1.93            -22.61 %
Monthly Pass                                                     $128.54     $59.45          -53.75 %
Taxi Start (Normal Tariff)                                   $9.00         $2.86            -68.21 %
Taxi 1 km (Normal Tariff)                                   $6.21         $1.44            -76.82 %
Taxi 1 hour Waiting (Normal Tariff)                    $62.66        $27.13          -56.70 %
Gasoline (1 liter)                                                 $1.79          $0.96            -46.36 %
Volkswagen Golf 1.4 90 KW Trendline (Or Equivalent New Car)
                                                                      $27,031.18   $21,013.15      -22.26 %  

Utilities (Monthly)
Basic (Electricity, Gas, Water, Garbage) for 85m2 Apartment
                                                                          $204.61     $199.67        -2.41 %
1 min. of Prepaid Mobile Tariff Local (No Discounts or Plans)
                                                                           $0.83        $ 0.31           -62.26 %
Internet (6 Mbps, Unlimited Data, Cable/ADSL)  $46.19      $42.28          -8.46 %  

Sports And Leisure
Fitness Club, Monthly Fee for 1 Adult                  $103.96     $41.15          -60.42 %
Tennis Court Rent (1 Hour on Weekend)             $37.36        $20.65         -44.73 %
Movies, International Release, 1 Seat                   $21.68        $9.70           -55.27 %

Clothing And Shoes
1 Pair of Levis 501 (Or Equivalent)                       $93.76       $39.56         -57.81 %
1 Summer Dress in a Chain Store (Zara, H&M)    $70.49       $38.39         -45.54 %
1 Pair of Nike Shoes                                             $91.22       $73.42         -19.51 %
1 Pair of Men's Leather Shoes                              $151.82      $80.62         -46.89 %  

Rent Per Month
Apartment (1 bedroom) in City Center                 $1,237.66    $904.65      -26.91 %
Apartment (1 bedroom) Outside of Center           $676.80       $700.58      +3.51 %
Apartment (3 bedrooms) in City Center               $2,225.03    $1,558.01    -29.98 %
Apartment (3 bedrooms) Outside of Center         $1,510.33   $1,225.95      -18.83 %  

Buy Condominium Price
Price per Square Meter to Buy Apartment in City Center
                                                                           $7,517.56     $1,818.48     -75.81 %
Price per Square Meter to Buy Apartment Outside of Center
                                                                           $6,990.92     $1,271.92      -81.81 %

Salaries And Financing
Median Monthly Disposable Salary (After Tax)    $3,061.57     $2,918.45      -4.67 %
Mortgage Interest Rate in %, Yearly                         1.67              4.79           +185.90 %

These numbers are all kind of screwy. I have no idea what those taxi numbers mean. However, in comparison with prices here in Toronto, Canada, 1 liter of homogenized milk cost $3.39. We have cows here! Lots of them. One just drove by and honked his horns at me! No bull! But unfortunately, we have the Dairy Marketing Board, which is a monopoly association so we pay whatever they make us pay.
One loaf of white bread is ~ $2.50 which is about right. Eggs are $2.69... a few cents cheaper than Japan... but, we have chicken farms out the ying-yang!!!And, I'm pretty sure we grow wheat here in Canada!
A pack of smokes is $8.00. Heavy taxes!
I have bought a pair of Levis jeans for $19.99, however.
Fitness club? I was paying $15 a month. Tennis court rental? People pay for this? Not here!
Subway/bus monthly pass is $126.00
Rent? Toronto is stupidly high. You are looking at an easy $1,000 for a 1-bedroom.
Look... the fact that the house I am living in was bought in 1973 by my father for $44,000, and is now valued at around $700,000 will tell you how stupid things are here. Visit Toronto. Don't live here. I have a buddy in Arkansas (US) who bought a 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom house three years ago for $44,000. It is Arkansas, and I wonder what types of jobs are available (certainly few in the writing field like as opposed to the plethora here in Toronto!). 

It makes me realize that Japan isn't so bad price-wise after all. Consider also that as a teacher on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme, I was making more than a Japanese teacher with 20 years experience. I know because my friend Inoue-sensei of Ohtawara Chu Gakko (Ohtawara Junior High School) and I compared salaries. We were told by JET not to 'show-off'' our salaries... but I figure that if someone is going to ask an intelligent question, they will get an intelligent answer.

Anyhow... yeah... compared to the U.S., Japan is quite expensive. But, so is Canada! No wonder I felt that Japan was a second home to myself.

All numbers are for reference only and should not be taken as the only truth. Every place in Canada, the US and Japan has much different prices for the same things. Toronto versus Halifax; New York versus Louisville; Tokyo versus Ohtawara.

Still, this exercise was an eye-opener for myself. Stupid foreigners complain about a lot of stuff being expensive, but really I would say the Top 6 over-priced things in Japan were: 1) steak; 2) gasoline; 3) rental housing; 4) fruit; 5) U.S. fast food;  6) clothing (can you really find clothes that fit you in Japan? They never had my size! 10-1/2 shoes = 30cm. No could find! I had clothes made for me in a day in Thailand and Singapore and stuff sent over from Toronto). That's my top 6.
I went without steak, didn't need gas (but Japan doesn't have any oil or gas reserves - it's not over-priced - it's fair), paid subsidized rent while a JET, bought fruit when I felt like it and didn't grumble, ate U.S. fast food as a treat and loved it regardless of the cost, and didn't buy any clothing while in Japan, except for a kimono as a souvenir. No complaints from this foreigner about the prices in Japan.

I'm sure that the actual cost of things in Japan is higher now, what with its foreign purchasing power hampered by a weak yen. Also, the disaster costs are ripping a hole in the economy... but you know what.. rad my buddy Mike Rogers' blog: Marketing Japan for a better read on the things kicking Japan in the nuts.

Andrew Joseph

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