cost of living in Japan

I recently returned from a vacation in Japan. It was ridiculously expensive, but this seems to have been largely due to the exchange rate, which is currently the worst it’s been in a very long time: since 1999 it’s bounced between 105 and 130 yen per dollar, but for the past couple of weeks it’s been between 80 and 83, making things about 50% more expensive for American tourists than they were just four years ago.

Because my wealth was initially in dollars, the exchange rate hugely influenced my cost for being in Japan, but the same is not true for a Japanese wage earner. Which brings me to my question:

How expensive is it to live and work in Japan, where my salary would be paid in yen?

As a Ph.D. mechanical engineer, my salary here in the US affords me a certain standard of living: I can comfortably afford certain foods, cars, entertainment, and housing. If I were to move to Japan and land a comparable job with a salary typically paid to someone of my experience and education, would I be able to achieve the same standard of living? or (for example) would a loaf of bread (or a king-size mattress, or a flat-screen TV) eat up a larger fraction of my annual salary?

just been to a 2.5 week business trip to Japan and investigating living there next year.

So its difficult to directly compare. If you want a US sized apartment or house and a car you will need to earn a VERY large salary to live in Japan. But that pretty much makes no sense, why go to Japan to live like you do in the US?

So if you can accept living in a small apartment and using bicycles, public transport or a motor scooter to get around then I think Japan is not that unreasonable. I’ve been looking at housing 1 hour outside Tokyo and the rent is cheaper than the equivalent distance outside Sydney, Australia. Rent even in the center of Tokyo seems about the same as Sydney (although the apartments are smaller a 2 bedroom unit in Tokyo is about the same as a 2 bedroom in Sydney).

Food is cheap, even in Tokyo you can eat good meals for $6-$8 US dollars in cheap cafes, if you go to ones which don’t have english menus (I just pointed at things when I wasn’t with japanese friends). The convenience stores also have good healthy food (rice balls and sushi) for just a few bucks. Alcohol is cheap, large 500ml Kirin or Asahi from vending machines for $2 or $3. Public transport is cheap, the subway is very reasonable and if you take the slower trains, limited express or local rather than Shinkansen it’s also very cheap to travel outside Tokyo. I’ve been told that fresh vegtables and meat are expensive in supermarkets. Luckily for me I can live happily on completely Japanese food.

So if you can cope with a small apartment and no car and don’t need to eat western food every meal then I think you can have a great standard of living in Japan. For me those things are no big deal, it’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make.

As coremelt says, you can eat out cheaply in Japan. You can get a meal in a noodle shop for a few hundred yen (a few dollars). Lots of chain restaurants would have meals for less than $10. Fresh food in supermarkets (especially fruit and vegetables) is a bit more expensive than you or I would be used to. On the other hand, you can get freshly prepared food to bring home and heat up (boiled rice, salads, deep-fried vegetables, chicken-on-a-stick, cooked fish, sushi…) very cheaply.
Cars seem very cheap to me (but that’s partly because they are so expensive here in Ireland).

Public transport is good but fairly expensive in my opinion. A single subway ride would be maybe Y250, an all-day ticket maybe Y850.

Housing is cheap by Irish standards. Whether you consider it cheap depends on whether your baseline for comparison is Manhattan or a sleepy rural town.

BTW the list here shows average monthly incomes for different professions in Japan:

I would guess you might be in the researcher category: Average Salary in Japan for 2023

365,000 yen per month = $4266USD per month.
A furnished studio apartment near Shinjuku (very central) seems to be around 130,000 yen ($1500) per month according to Sakura House website.

Of course going through a local website, and living further out you’ll find much cheaper than that. If you work for a large company or university in Tokyo apparently you also get a fairly large percentage of your rent paid by the company and it’s tax free.