Big in Japan: The Myth About Money

Let’s start off by dispelling a common myth – are you ready for this?

(I know you’re not going to believe me, but just bare with me for a few moments).

Japan is not astronomically expensive. There – I said it. In fact, compared with most major cities in North America and Europe, I’d argue that it’s a bargain.

Are you still reading this? I fear that I may have already lost most of my audience with such a seemingly absurd statement, but if you’re still reading this post, let me explain.

In March of 2007, the Worldwide Cost of Living survey released by the Economist Group lists Tokyo and Osaka as the 5th and 6th most expensive cities in the world. Truth be told, this year was a marked departure from previous lists in that Tokyo and Osaka weren’t entrenched in the number one and two spots. According to experts (who know way more about economics than I do), this year’s chart topping cities of Oslo, Paris and Copenhagen were given a boost thanks to a strengthening euro and the declining dollar.

So what’s going on here? How can I, in the face of experts, still argue that Japan is a bargain? Bear with me for a few more paragraphs – I’m almost there.

The biggest expense that most Japanese contend with is the soaring price of real estate, which is made all the more absurd by the total lack of developable land. The term ‘shoebox apartment’ has a whole different meaning in Japan, where 100 sq ft is arguably a palace. Indeed, when my Japanese friends first came to the states to stay with my family at our modest – by American standards – house in suburban New Jersey, they seriously thought we were oil moguls.

Assuming you can get over the lack of space, it’s possible to live in a shared apartment in central Tokyo for only a few hundred dollars a month, which pales in comparison to the money my friends pay in New York City, London and San Francisco. Sure, a lot of the buildings in Tokyo are asylum-esque concrete monstrosities built in the 1950s and 1960s (hardly the Golden Age of architectural achievement). But, it’s possible to find some great places out here if you know where to look.

Case in point – I’m currently renting a room in a two-story traditional Japanese house just a few minutes from Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s most fashionable entertainment districts. My room has wooden floors and picture windows, and enough space to put on my writer’s cap on and hammer out this column.

(Next week I’ll go into detail about apartment hunting, and give you some tips on what to look for).

Of course, I haven’t even touched on how affordable it is to eat out in Japan, particularly if you know how to avoid the expensive spots. One of the themes of this feature column is going to be Japan’s unique (to say the least) cuisine, so we’ll return to this issue several times in the near future. And finally, with the world’s best public transportation system, and a bike-riding culture to boot, you don’t need a car to live in Japan, which is a significant savings if you’re moving here from North America.

Are you sold yet? If not, tune in next week for a posting about apartment hunting in Tokyo. And don’t worry – there will be plenty of time to delve into the full culinary spectrum of Japan!