Cost of living in Japan (and elsewhere)

Published: Apr 24, 2014 by Joe Larabell

I’ve just discovered a web site called Numbeo ( It was created by a guy who used to work for Google Ireland. The idea is to have regular people from around the world submit prices in their areas for certain common commodities and services and to use the results to compare the cost-of-living among various cities. Since I am often asked what it costs to live in Tokyo, I’ve bookmarked this page as my new standard answer.

I compared Tokyo to San Francisco and learned that housing prices here (Tokyo) are significantly lower than over there. That wasn’t a surprise to me – I’m in the tech industry and I have a lot of friends who live in and around that area and I know what’s been happening recently. But there are still many people who assume that Tokyo is one of the most expensive places to live in the world. Of course, whether any particular person would find living here “expensive” depends a lot on where they were living before. Someone from New York City, London, Sydney, or San Francisco wouldn’t find it all that expensive (those are all cities which Numbeo classifies as on-par or more expensive than Tokyo. Someone coming from Wichita, Kansas, on the other hand, might be astounded to find that rents in Tokyo are more than double what they’re used to back home.

Another thing that fuels common belief is stories told by tourists and authors of travel books. Most people in that category stay in high-class hotels, eat at the hotel restaurants (because they don’t know where else to go), shop in boutiques, and entertain themselves by going to Disneyland or Universal Studios (two of the champions of high-price attractions). The general opinion they convey about Tokyo, and about Japan in general, is that it’s an expensive place to visit. Probably so… but so is New York City or London if you only follow the tourist path. Regular people don’t eat in hotel restaurants unless they’re out on a date and trying to impress their partner.

Overall, Tokyo isn’t any more expensive than most other large cities. If you buy commodities at the grocery store and eat in small local shops when you eat out, it’s not all that bad. If possible, live outside the city center to save as much as 50% on rent (it doesn’t have to be all that far, either). Rents are on-par with major US cities but the space you get for your money is smaller. But, then again, unless you bring a houseful of US-size furniture, you soon get used to the difference (this is where people from the UK might have an advantage – my experience is that UK housing and furniture is much smaller than the US equivalent).

The one thing that did stick out in the numbers was energy cost. That kinds makes sense. Whatever Japan can’t generate itself has to be imported. Since 2011, most of the nuclear plants have been closed down and Japan is importing coal to power the annoyingly noisy Pachinko parlors and other large neon signs. So the electric bill is bound to be a bit of a shock at first (pun intended). Taxes, in my case, are slightly lower (coming from California, which has a significant State Income Tax). Health insurance is slightly higher. Public transportation costs more but not if you factor in the savings from not owning a car (driving in Tokyo is more of a hassle than a convenience – the same can’t be said if you happen to live in the boonies).

Coming back to the subject of Numbeo for a second… the site seems destined for fame because it’s both easy-to-use and, in those cases where I have some personal experience, it seems to be fairly accurate. There is some risk in the crowd-sourcing model but the creator of the site acknowledges that in one of his blog posts (which in itself is interesting if you happen to like talking about numbers). Given enough time and data to tweak the model, and given enough interest on the part of the people who gather and input new data, this should prove to be one of the more useful applications of crowd sourcing. After all, who better to tell you what things cost in a given city than someone who actually lives there?

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