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Sunday, January 21, 2018

Living On ¥300,000 A Month And Surviving And Thriving

My buddy Vinnie threw me yet another bone, pointing me to a fairly interesting blog HERE, that asks if one can survive on ¥100,000 yen a month in Japan.

The simple answer is no.

The more complex answer is no you can’t, silly gaijin.

The long answer is what follows.I should note that I was an assistant English teacher on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme, and we had all kinds of perks, along with a decent salary, whereas the writer of the blog above was writing from the perspective of an AET NOT on the the Programme.

I highly recommend people looking to come to Japan to work as an English teacher do so on JET... if only because you have someone to help look after you, the money is good, and you don't have to worry about surviving Japan on ¥100,000 a month.

¥100,000 = US$899.53 = CDN$1,118.07.The rest of you, sorry.. try currency converter

Back in 1990 when I was in Japan, it was impossible then to survive on ¥100,000/month, but I’m sure there are some Bohemians out there who will say they have done it.

Look, one can survive on 0 yen a month in Japan. Go punch a policeman. Or maybe just go on a hunger strike.

But can you live in Japan on ¥100,000 a month? No. At least not on your own.

You could mooch off friends, stay at their place, eat their food, smoke their smokes, whatever… if you wanna be “that” guy.

Five people from Toronto came to visit me at various times. One other from the other end of Japan.

Each capably paid their way across the country. I never asked for money, but they were all staying a few days to a week - so what. Each bought me dinner or something. Fair trade… they should have saved their money for travel.

Using my place was just as a ways to save money on a hotel. I’m good with that.

So… as an AET (assistant English teacher) on the JET (Japan Exchange &Teaching) Programme, I made ¥3.6 million a year. That's right, in Japan I was a multi-millionaire. That’s ¥300,000 a month.

Back then, the equivalence was ¥300,000 = US$3,000… so I made US$36,000/year… which was and is decent coin for someone right out of school.

Now… unlike many an AET in Japan, I did not have any student loans that needed repayment. I lived at home through five years of university and two years of college. I had summer jobs to pay for tuition and books, and in my two years of college also taught piano and clarinet after school to pay for my incredible comic book habit.

Sadly, I’m not kidding about the comic books.

So… ¥300,000 a month. I was one of the very few AETs who survived without an issue - I had friends who might have needed a loan here or there, but that’s fine.

Me? I lived the life of Reilly.

My rent was ¥30,000 a month. (The LEGO diorama above is a fairly accurate depiction of my living space. Yes, I built the diorama.) That's $300 a month for a three bedroom LDK with two balconies, western facilities, washer-dryer, shower, toilet, stove, microwave, mini fridge, carpeting in all rooms except the linoleum bathroom area and the tatami mat main bedroom. Sofa, chair, kotatsu table, dining room set for two, writing desk and chair, cutlery, pots and pans, cooking implements.

The place needed AC/heat, which I had installed out of the JET allowance. No one was really sure back then about how much money each Board of Education/Prefectural board (for the high school teachers) could spent on an AET in a single year, but I believe it was up to ¥100,000 = $1,000.

So… if you really needed something, they could buy you a bilingual TV/VCR combo hoping you will use it to learn their language, or new tatami mats after you let the other ones rot because you were too dumb to air out your futon everyday like they told you to, or because of that issue with the tatami mats, they buy you a used Queen-sized bed with a new mattress to avoid the whole rotted tatami mat thing. Also, because you might be too stupid to use a kerosene heater with a door open that lets in as much cold icy wind as it purports to heat in your apartment, and by doing so you could die of kerosene poisoning… and that’s when they buy you the brand new central heating and AC unit and have someone cut a hole the wall for venting—just so that you don’t die of gas poisoning

All of those are true relevant to me. They love me. They really love me.

While I am sure there are some Japanese place with large fridges and possibly even a separate horizontal freezer, 99.9% of the people don't have them and will shop accordingly.

Japan is still kind of a throwback society in that people often simply purchase what they need from the grocer on a as-need basis. With a mini-fridge, however, that purchasing of food products still might be every day, up to once every three days - at least by my own personal reckoning.

How much one spends on food is up to the individual, of course.

At the beginning, with no idea how to shop (or cook), even though I was told to buy one week's food, I tended to purchase more than I needed.

When I saw apples and pears there, those suckers are bigger than a softball... and even though I only bought one each, I couldn't eat a whole one in one sitting. They were sweet and tasty, but dammit there was a lot of flesh.

They were about ¥900 apiece... $9... I don't know why I bought them... I didn't eat much fruit when I was in Canada, but what the heck... new surroundings means a new start.

I bought cereal I recognized, milk, orange juice, cans of beans (still there when I left), baked beans, eggs and bacon... so I had breakfast completely locked in, figuring I could eat bacon and eggs/beans for dinner too.

After that... I was screwed. I didn't know how to cook... but that changed when I discovered that one of the grocery stores had pre-cooked meals that were still warm and required little to know reheating. Sushi, pork kontatsu, and even smoked duck and a turkey leg. I even found some deli meat, peanut butter and raspberry jam and bread, and there was Coca-Cola - I live again.

But that was all I used to buy until such time that I tried to cook chilli... making it from then on once a week for three years, knowing that each huge pot I made could feed me three days, Ashley twice and Matthew once. So six meals... at least. Spaghetti and meatballs, was something Ashley made - not me. Chili and lasagna.

Anyhow... even if I spent ¥5,000 ($50 a shop)... maybe ¥10,000 a week... that's what I spent. That equates out to a maximum of ¥40,000/month on food and drink.

I didn't go out to bars much until Matthew hooked Ashley and I up at the 4C... and then it was ¥10,000+ for me and her (I paid)... maybe once a week. Later when we weren't a couple, I'd be at the place twice - maybe three times a week... and maybe I'd spend ¥10,000 in total. People would buy me drinks, or I'd be there sucking on one drink until some sexy young Ohtawara woman would come up to bravely strike a conversation... and sooner rather than later we were back at my place.

Guys... they would buy me a drink and I'd sit and we do English lessons or just talk crap like guys do... talking sports and women.

  • Rent: ¥30,000
  • Food: ¥40,000
  • Booze: ¥40,000
That's ¥110,000... now... not everyone is going spend ¥40,000 on booze... I did more, more than likely in my second and third years... first year, too...

Then there's Restaurants... fast food... on Wednesday night Ashley and I had kyudo (Japanese archery) lessons, so we'd eat a Mosburger... so maybe ¥8,000 a month. Matthew and I might hit a restaurant... maybe once or twice a month... so say ¥10,000...

I never shopped for Clothes - nothing would fit me in Japan. Not even a t-shirt.

Film and Film Development was a big cost, plus photo albums. I might spend about ¥5,000 a month on film and development ($50).

Entertainment: While I would receive VCR tapes from home with recorded American TV shows, and would pass them around to other AETs when done, there was no cost there. But eventually, Matthew hooked me onto a bookstore that would rent movies. I think it was ¥300 a flick, and I'd do three a night usually. I was up over 500 films by the time I left... so ¥150,000 - $1,500 in total.

I had a Newspaper delivered every morning... but I think that was paid by my Board of Education office. I had a yearly tax I paid for TV, as well as one for living in Ohtawara... no big deal... $50 here, $150 there...

Telephone... I had to pay a monthly charge for national and international calls... which was no biggie... this was before the Internet, e-mail, texting, IM, et al. So, talking to sexy women 500 kilometers away (Kristine) in Shiga-ken was almost as good as sex, and then calling home to Toronto to get the latest baseball and hockey scores. I frickin' missed the Toronto Blue Jays first World Series victory because I was in Japan. I would wear a Toronto Maple Leafs T-shirt under my suit and tie when they were playing in the play-offs.

Heating and Electrical was taken care of by the rent. By the way... my rent of only ¥30,000 was just a partial cost of what the actual rent was. I lived in the tallest apartment complex (at that time) in the heart of the rural city... a place so fancy they called it Zuiko Mansion, though it;s official name was Zuiko Haitsu... which might be a bastardization of Zuiko Heights. I'm not sure. Probably.

The place had three bedrooms... so it was generally speaking a place for a family of four - all for me. And Ashley or whomever came after her.

The real rent was, I think, ¥100,000 ($1,000) a month. Which was expensive, just not something I had to worry about.

You'll note that my expensive JET rent  - which was then amongst the highest of the JETs on the programme back then, was still pretty damn cheap. Compare that to what the guy in the blog column says he had to pay... ¥50,000. Yeesh. I guess he weren't no JET. Hee-haw!

While the Board of Education offices takes care of such things as Key Money - where one pays 3x to 5x the monthly rent just to be able to rent the place - others not in the JET Programme are going to have to pay for that privilege. It's not exactly legal, but it's not exactly illegal.

There was also the odd bit of Travel. Initially it was a once a month jaunt to Tokyo with Matthew (and Ashley sometimes), and then Ashley and I found Nikko, and I go there once a month to go antique shopping and sight-seeing.

The city of Nikko is in my prefecture, and while it's a 40-minute trip as the crows fly, I'm not a crow and neither is the train system. We'd have to ride our bikes to Nishinasuno-eki, catch a local train down to the capital city of Utsunomiya, transfer trains to head northwest to Nikko. It was 20-minutes biking +40 minutes to Utsunomiya, wait usually 30 minutes for a train, plus a 45 minute ride to Nikko.

That was about ¥2,000 ($20)- plus you have to buy a couple of Cokes and some lunch... it all adds up.
I had purchased a string of 100 ¥1 yen coins minted 400 years ago - but the rope finally disintegrated. As a coin collector, I bought a few oldies that interested me. You can see a price tag of ¥16,000 ($160) for the silver rectangle coin, with the gold one beside it costing  ¥10,000 ($100) - both purchased while I was on vacation in Kagoshima. Throwing money around, I was, which is why I could never have survived on ¥100,000 ($1,000)/month.
At Nikko, we'd usually shop at one store we knew and liked where I would purchase ukiyo-e art. I'd spend around ¥15,000 ($150) a shot there buying then-120-year-old pieces of art. But not every month.

There's also seeing the Sights and International Travel. When in Japan, you should probably travel around and see the place. I usually traveled around Japan with ¥50,000 or more in my wallet... plus a Visa credit card.

I didn't like the ryokan (traditional hotels), preferring the more international (American) ones... for which I might pay more, but I knew there was never going to be guess work about what sort of accommodations I would be getting. I hate futons.

Ashley wanted to do our trips about Japan on the cheap, using youth hostels... and while she was younger than me by a few years, I was a soft bugger who hates camping because why else would man have crawled out from the caves to build homes that have insulated walls and central effing heating?! I'm on vacation... why the fug do I want to rough it?

I know many people like camping and roughing it. More power to you. I like comfort. I'm already walking for hours looking at the sights, the sounds, the smells of a vacation spot.

I've been to dumps trying to save money, and not only were the travelers at hostels kindda stinky, but at crappy hotels I saw cockroaches sitting on the toilet, or large flying ones on the wall, and another time where the carpet was moving - until I realized it wasn't a carpet. No. Fug that. Give me a frickin' Hilton any day!

Ashley understood. She organized our trips (I love her for that), but dammit, I was always ready for an upgrade in my accommodations, and gladly payed for that myself. My treat.

I was on vacation while living in Japan... I wanted a bit of a vacation away from Japan even though I was traveling around Japan.

Along with hotel costs, and food, you also pay for entrance into places... temples and such... and then you have to buy tourist stuff, postcards, omiyage (presents for the bosses)... the latter I never did, but should have. But by the time you remember, you usually run out of money... and besides... who do you get stuff for? Individuals or groups? I never learned the correct protocol while I was there.

Then there's international travel. Japan can be a stepping stone towards other countries. I visited Saipan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and even traveled back to Toronto one summer.

Shipping... and when it's time to go home after your contract is up, the Board gives you money to purchase a plane ticket or buys you the plane ticket, but heck... I had to ship all my souvenirs home... so I hired packers, and paid for actually shipping via a ship's cargo containers... plus taxes.

If you stay longer than a year, you'll have to pay for a new visa, or like me a new passport... Yup... there's me... in Detroit trying to get back to Toronto... with hair almost to my waist, wearing blue, purple and black vertically striped jeans, a beard... and having a Brown complexion. I don't look like I could be an Andrew Joseph who was born in England and is a Canadian citizen with a passport issued in Japan... but there I was... going over there while border security checked me out.

It's cool. I have nothing to disclose or hide - and they couldn't believe that - but since I didn't, what the heck do I care if they check me out?

So... there are costs for traveling to the airport, for the tickets, and for whatever you are going to do when there. Lots of money. You ain't going to make it anywhere if you don't have money.

Anyhow, the point of all this is that yeah, you could easily survive Japan on ¥300,000 a month, but if you did cut out all the nonsense like I did you could survive on ¥100,000 a month... but you wouldn't have any fun.

Andrew Joseph
PS: I had actually written a lot more, but it was lost when the site froze, and I'll be damned if I try and write it all again. I'm the kindda guy who writes stream of consciousness and then has Vinnie correct my mistakes after it's published. So... generally speaking, when you read an article here and it's perfect - thank Vinnie. 


  1. It definitely helps to have housing subsidized so you could have more discretionary money. When I was a JET, I didn't save a penny (except my tax refund when I left). There were some months it was close, but I never felt destitute and I had an amazing time and travelled quite a bit.

    1. I didn't save a penny until the last six months - saved US$10,000 by teaching on the side more. I could have saved more, but I was trying to woo Noboko.

    2. Does your blog post factor in the value of money overtime? I took the salary of ¥3.6 million and converted it to dollars based upon a figure of ¥138 to one dollar as of September 1990. I then did a historical can version over time ( and in today’s money, that would be about $49,000.

  2. Does your Currency conversion in the blog factor in the year as well? I did a check of 3.6 million yen to dollars in 1990 and pegged it to ¥138 to the dollar as of September, 1990. That comes out to roughly an annual salary of $27,000 back then. I put that amount in to a historical concert currency converter page ( and it comes out to about $49,000 in today’s money.

    1. I do that sometimes when I only have to do one or two conversions.
      But I recall back in 1990 before we left that the embassy told us what the exchange rate was. Your US$27,000 would have been CDN $36,000.
      That 1990 money converted to 2018 money is fine..., it's still however WORTH CDN $36,000... in the old days, you could have bought US49,000 worth of stuff with it... I think that's how that works.