Breaking the Myth: Japan is not that Expensive

Shibuya crossing Japan

Photo by Sprengben on Flickr

I was in a conversation today about the cost of living in different cities of the world. The general consensus was that most statistics we see about how expensive cities are can be way off the mark. Especially for people who actually live there.

Here’s my take on why I believe Japan is not nearly as expensive as we are led to believe.

What’s wrong with statistics

Mark Twain popularized my favorite phrase describing the power of statistics – “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Too often statistics are taken as the complete and whole truth when the reality is that statistics can be molded and massaged to fit almost any opinion.

For example, Tokyo and Osaka have been among the top 10 most expensive cities in the world for several years. From statistics alone one would assume that it is nearly impossible to live there without dropping a ton of cash.

Top 10 most expensive cities in the world

On the other hand, cities like Sydney and Melbourne Australia are listed as low as #14 and #21 on Mercer’s Cost of Living survey. But how reliable are those numbers? As one forum member pointed out:

I don’t think those people who do those surveys go out much, if they did Sydney would be much higher up the list. – Zava Design

Here I have to agree wholeheartedly. While we were in Melbourne we found the cost of eating out to be prohibitively expensive. On the other hand, we found Osaka to be much more affordable than we were expecting.

While it’s true you can dump a wheel barrel full of cash on a fancy meal in Japan, we found the average price of meals in Australia to be much higher than what were were paying in Japan.

When talking with our Australian friends we were surprised when the topic turned to the price of food and they couldn’t understand that we thought it was expensive to eat there. This is were perception plays an important part and where statistics start to break down.

Where statistics and surveys fail

I’m not a economist or even play one on T.V., but I feel surveys are a poor way of getting accurate information about the cost of living. For example, Mercer’s Cost of Living survey compares 200 items in each location, including housing, transport, food, clothing, household goods and entertainment. These items are then compared against the base city New York. Now I could be wrong in guessing how these numbers come together, but I guarantee that the cost of a hamburger in Tokyo is going to be a lot higher than one in New York.

But here’s the rub – who is eating a hamburger in Tokyo?

MacDonalds Japan

Photo by Stephen Cannon on Flickr

It’s hard to tell how far these surveys and statistics incorporate local food and living costs. Sure it costs a lot more to live in a loft apartment in Tokyo or Osaka, but does that mean that anyone who attempts to live in Japan has to rent a loft apartment overlooking Shibuya crossing?

Don’t live your life like a tourist

It’s true that one bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Osaka nearly put me into the poor house, but I learned quite quickly that eating like a tourist in Japan was a bad way to live.

We quickly discovered that eating and living like a local was the only way to enjoy Japan to its fullest. We found delightful local izakaya restaurants where food was cheap and the chu-hi specials were even cheaper. Not only did this mean we ate cheaper but we also got to enjoy local hospitality and experiences that you tend to miss out on if you keep your nose stuck in a tour guide.

Our favorite izakaya close to were we lived in Osaka

Our favorite izakaya close to were we lived in Osaka

And maybe that’s the key problem with these surveys. I’m not going to ask an expat where the best sushi in town is, I’m going to ask a local. So why do we base our perceptions on surveys like the ECA International that only cover the cost of living for expatriates?

All I can tell you, from our experience, we had a lot more money in our pocket after coming back from Japan than we thought we would.

And that is all the statistics I need.

6 Responses to “Breaking the Myth: Japan is not that Expensive”

  1. sixmats  on September 17th, 2011

    You’re not taking the strong yen into account here, are you?

    The high prices are more for rent.

  2. Travis  on September 17th, 2011

    Even with a higher yen I think Japan gets a bad rap. The yen fluctuated up and down but I still found it affordable. Even the rent was OK.

    When I recently went looking to rent in Hong Kong I was blown away by the prices. We have smaller cities in Canada that charge higher rent on average than some of my friends were paying in Osaka.

  3. Dustin  on September 19th, 2011

    Hong Kong rents are at an all-time high now. Even the “cheap” places… not so cheap anymore. Excellent post too! So much of that statistical data is irrelevant when your shoes meet the road.

    However, surprisingly in Hong Kong.. Mcdonalds is cheaper than in the US/Canada.. go figure.

  4. Travis  on September 19th, 2011

    Ahh that’s good to know. I’d been kicking around the idea of a month in a fully-furnished place in Hong Kong. The prices I came across so far were rather alarming.

  5. John (TentBlogger)  on October 21st, 2011

    i agree. i lived there for four years and we did quite well. each year we were able to save more money as we discovered the places to go for cheaper goods, etc.

    And definitely don’t live like a tourist. for sure.

  6. RC  on September 9th, 2012

    I’ve been in Japan for a three weeks holiday and I found it not expensive but very doable. Of course it is more expensive than countries like Indonesia or Laos but it can certainly compete with Western-Europe or the US when it comes to prices.

    Food in restaurants is cheap if you eat where the Japanese eat and it is good quality. My most expensive meal was in a ryokan, it costed 2500 yen and it consisted of many side dishes. Beef is expensive but there is plenty of other yummy stuff.

    The Shinkansen (high speed train) is expensive but you can buy a JR railpass. Tourists can, the Japanese themselves can’t.

    You can also save time and money by flying to Osaka (KIX airport) and leaving from Tokyo (Narita) or vice versa.

    And most important: it is a very fascinating country with a fascinating culture. It is worth it.

    Of ocurse being a tourist and being an expat is something different.

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