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5 Costs You Can Expect as a Foreigner in Japan

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Formerly an economics and humanities student at UCLA, Oe Kaori is now an intern for the United Nations.

You can cut corners easily in America when you are on a budget, but if you are a foreigner, you may be unsure where to shop or look to save money in Japan.

You can cut corners easily in America when you are on a budget, but if you are a foreigner, you may be unsure where to shop or look to save money in Japan.

Japan's High Cost May Scare People Away

I had a very personal conversation with one of my former classmates at UCLA about the cost of living in Japan. She had always dreamed of living in Asia, and somehow she ended up in Japan. She’s moved around quite a lot, going from Tokyo to Kyoto and Fukuoka. It seemed that no matter where she lived, she couldn’t save money. After spending four years in Japan, she decided her next move would be to Busan, South Korea.

She told me the cost of living in South Korea helped her save money compared to Japan. Sadly, this is true.

For foreigners, it’s a challenge to actually save money when living in Japan. Either one of two things is happening:

  1. the area where they are employed has a high cost of living, or
  2. they are unaware of how to cut corners in Japan.

You can cut corners easily in America when you are on a budget, but if you are a foreigner, you may be unsure where to shop or look to save money in Japan.

Don't worry about that. I will give a breakdown of where to look and what to buy and provide some examples and ideas to help along the way. Hopefully, anyone moving to Japan will find this article helpful.

A Cost Analysis of a Typical Japanese Budget

How much do foreigners actually live on every month while in Japan?

According to a 2018 survey of 7,000 private-funded foreign students, the national average monthly living expenses in Japan are as follows.

  • Rent: $500 to $800
  • Commuting expenses: $50
  • Food Expenses: $255
  • Utilities such as gas, water, and electric: $80
  • Health Insurance: $40
  • Hobbies Entertainment: $60
  • Mobile Phone: $50 to $60
  • Other: $80

Based on a foreigner's salary of $1700 a month, one would have $275 left over in the bank at the highest rent or $575 after paying the lowest amount in rent.

What my former classmate failed to mention is that when she moved to Korea, half of these expenses were covered by her job. This will not be the case in Japan. Gone are the days when companies in Japan cover your housing.

South Korea Budget (for Comparison)

Now let’s look at the figures if you were to move to South Korea (eliminating some that were paid by my friend's employer):

  • XRent: $500 to $800
  • XCommuting expenses $50
  • Food Expenses: $255
  • Utilities such as gas, water, electric, etc.: $80
  • Health Insurance: $40
  • Hobbies Entertainment: $60
  • Mobile Phone: $50 to $60
  • Other: $80

Left over from her salary: $1,125 (Her company covered her transportation cost and rent)

This is only an example, but she found a job teaching in South Korea and loves it. Now let’s delve into a little more about the cost of living for foreigners in Japan.

Standard Japanese apartment

Standard Japanese apartment

1. Appliances and Furniture

In Japan, some rental properties, such as Leo Palace 21, sharehouses, and student dormitories have all kinds of home appliances and furniture, but if you rent a house other than that, you have to buy them yourself.

You can buy refrigerators, washing machines, and microwave ovens for at least 50,000 ($500) yen in total at electronics retailers such as Bic Camera and Yamada Denki. Let's say you want to buy TVs, vacuum cleaners, rice cookers, fans, and so on; let's put an additional 20,000 to 30,000 ($200 to $300) yen into your budget.

Some coin laundry places operate locally in the neighborhood; you don't need to buy a washing machine because you can use it for around 600 ($6) yen each time.

If you stay in Japan for one to three months, you can also rent home appliances. Rental companies such as Kashite Komu offer a three-piece set of refrigerators, washing machines, and microwave ovens for less than 30,000 ($30) yen per day, or 40,000 ($400) yen per year, which is easier than buying.

Nitori and IKEA are well known for selling low-cost furniture in Japan. In Nitori, bedframes range from 10000 ($100) yen, and low tables range from 2000 ($20) yen. If you want to get used appliances and furniture in Japan, one way is to use personal trading sites like Craigslist.

However, the disadvantage of transactions on Craigslist is that you have to carry the goods by yourself, so after you have decided on your residence, you may want to look at the local used store and buy additional items if you have any. It seems like a hassle but it’s worth the savings, I guess.

Japan's most beloved dollar discount store Daiso

Japan's most beloved dollar discount store Daiso

2. Cost of Household Goods

If you don't want special quality household items such as tableware, kitchen tools, clothes, scissors, towels, and shower curtains, it's a smart way to use the 100-yen shop.

As the name suggests, you can get most daily necessities at a surprisingly low price of 100 yen plus consumption tax. The 100-yen shops are located in various locations throughout Japan, including shopping districts and shopping malls.

Large pots and curtains that you can't buy at 100-yen shops are relatively inexpensive at major supermarkets that operate nationwide, such as Seiyu and Aeon. Don’t forget Daiso as well, since this is a well-known cheap Japanese goods store.

3. Cost of Food and Eating Out

Compared to other countries, Japan has many restaurants where you can enjoy delicious food at low prices.

There are fast food chains such as McDonald's, convenience store chains such as Yoshinoya and udon chains, ramen shops in the city, and family restaurants where you can eat for less than 1000 yen ($10). However, from a global perspective, Japan is a country where you can enjoy delicious food at a reasonable price. It might be interesting to talk about that with foreign guests about the food. Here is the problem with this, though—Americans don’t come to Japan to live on Mcdonald’s. Most that are serious about living and working here want to experience real cultural food that’s inexpensive. Anyhow, McDonald’s anywhere around the globe is pretty yummy and cheap.

Here is a sample list of common staples a foreign guest might buy at a grocery store.

  • Rice (11 lbs): $20
  • Milk (1 liter): $3
  • Pasta (2 cups dry): $4
  • Loaf of bread: $3
  • Beef (4 oz): $3
  • Chicken (4 oz): $1.50
  • Onion: 60 cents
  • Apple: 95 cents

Prices vary, of course, depending on the season, but food prices in Japan are generally lower than in Europe and the U.S.

If you increase your chances of cooking at home as opposed to eating out, it is possible to keep your monthly food expenses within 20,000 yen ($200). If you are too tired to make lunch, you can also take advantage of attractive options such as a lunch box for 500 ($4) yen, a side dish of bread for 150 ($2) yen, and a rice ball for 100 ($1) yen.

The best food I can suggest to survive on in hard times or on budgets is Curry Rice. Buy yourself a few ounces of beef, a few potatoes, and carrots along with the Vermont Curry cubes. This makes a good meal and is very inexpensive. Many of us Japanese survive on Curry Rice in hard times or on a budget. Funny enough, we don’t get tired of it either.

If you work in Japan or contract for real estate, it is necessary to have a Japanese phone number.

If you work in Japan or contract for real estate, it is necessary to have a Japanese phone number.

4. Internet and Cell Phone Bills

The mobile phone plans, which are easy for foreigners to use in Japan, are 3,000-7,000 ($30 to $70) yen per month, including internet and phone calls. Charges vary depending on the amount of data required and the number of hours of free calls. If you work in Japan or contract for real estate, it is necessary to have a Japanese phone number.

If you live alone, you need to sign up for an Internet connection for your home. It may be included in the rent of apartments or apartments, but if you pay separately, let's assume that it will be 5,000 to 9,000 yen ($60 to $100).

Bullet Train

Bullet Train

5. Transportation Costs

In some cases, the company pays round-trip transportation expenses for commuting in Japan. If you take a train at one or three stations, it's less than 200 yen each way, but when you take a long-distance train such as a bullet train, you need to compare it with the ticket price of the plane. In particular, during the New Year's holidays in January, Golden Week in May, and Obon in August, the number of people going out on long trips can increase, resulting in relatively high fares for both Shinkansen and airplanes.

Route buses are a cheap and convenient means of transportation. Fares on the Toei bus operated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government can be discounted by paying 210 ($2) yen for one ride or by using a transportation IC card such as PASMO. If you take a taxi, the first ride (about one kilometer) in Tokyo's 23 wards is 410 ($5) yen. However, the concept of Hatsunori differs depending on the region; for example, in Osaka, Hatsunori costs 680 ($7) yen for two kilometers. All of them are displayed on the taxi body.

Is It Worth It?

I hope this information was very helpful. Don’t let this deter you from moving to Japan. Opting to go to Korea is nice, but Japan is just as beautiful. Of course, I am going to be a little biased because I am Japanese!

In any case, here’s what I recommend if you decide to come here for work. Try to avoid Tokyo at all costs. As much as Tokyo is the face of Japan, it doesn’t encompass everything that is Japanese. It’s the first thing people think of when coming to Japan. I would recommend Kyoto or even Hokkaido if you can withstand harsh, beautiful winters.

Overall give Japan a try. As for my friend in South Korea, she’s still having a blast, and I can’t blame her. Did you know you can get a bowl of noodles, soup, kimchi, fruit, hot tea, and grilled meat for $4 at a small Korean mom-and-pop shop? Yeah, I can see the allure of South Korea.

Happy travels to everyone, and stay safe.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Oe Kaori


Oe Kaori (author) from Yokohama Japan on October 16, 2020:

It's easy to budget in Japan because you have the opportunity to shop at many local home good stores and 100 yen stores. It's not as expensive as you think.

Oe Kaori (author) from Yokohama Japan on October 12, 2020:

I hope you can visit one day it's not as expensive as people think it is

Kalpana Iyer from India on October 12, 2020:

I would love to visit Japan one day. I think this holds true for a lot of places - as long as you know where to buy things on a budget, you will be fine.

Liz Westwood from UK on October 11, 2020:

This is a helpful and well-structured article for anyone considering relocating to Japan.