Budget for living in Japan

Having lived in Japan for over one and a half years now, I feel I should document my journey so far. Many people have wondered if they should take the leap of faith and try working in Japan. One of the obstacles, other than language, is budget planning for your new life in Japan.

Here, I will share my monthly budget/expense in Japan during my first year adjustment period. Some background information; I am generally a thrifty person, I eat simply, I dress simply and I don’t spend beyond my means (no credit card usage beyond 30% of my income).

Generally, living expenses can be broken down into several categories:

  1. rental
  2. food
  3. transport
  4. utilities (including phone bill and internet)
  5. entertainment

1. Rental (51,000 yen)

I used to live in Ichikawa city, Chiba prefecture. For the uninitiated, Chiba is the large prefecture to the east of Tokyo city. In general, rental in Tokyo, especially within in the Central 23 wards, is the highest. There are of course variations in price depending on the condition of the house, distance to the nearest station, etc.

For myself, I was paying 50,000 yen per month with a 1000 yen maintenance.  What does this get me, you may ask?

I was living in an apartment about 18 sq metres (in Japan, they measure houses by tatami mats or “jo”). Here is a useful website that converts “jo” to sq metres: https://www.convertunits.com/from/tatami/to/square+meter

This may sound horrific to people used to living in large house, but let me put this into another perspective. Think of this “apartment” as a large hotel room and with your own private toilet, bathroom and kitchenette. Most people have no qualms staying in hotel rooms and this is certainly better than a jail cell.

I found the small apartment rather charming. Cleaning, in particular, was a piece of cake. It takes me less than 15 minutes to vacuum and wipe down the floor of the entire apartment.

Furnishing it was also simple, I had no space, therefore, I didn’t have to spend much money buying furniture for it.

For the longest time, I didn’t even have a microwave and a fridge. I simply had no time to cook (I used to work 15 hour days, welcome to the land of rising overtime). I would just pop by my nearest convenience store, which was open 24 hours a day, and get a hot meal there. Quick. Easy. Tasty.

This segways smoothly into my second topic.

2 Food (30 days x 1500/day = 45,000)

For my first month moving in, I was surviving on discount bentos (ready to eat packed meals) from my nearby supermarket. Usually, supermarkets here will give a discount on items that are near their expiry date. Japan has a strict guideline on food safety. You can be sure that the food that you buy, even though it is near the expiry date, is perfectly safe to eat. The bento do offer quite a variety, and each supermarket chain has its own menu. These usually range from 300 yen to 500 yen depending on the size and the ingredients within.

For those on a budget, do try to stay away from upmarket supermarkets. These are the ones with bentos costing upwards of 600 yen per box. The taste certainly does not merit such a steep price. Do yourself a favor and get one from either a standard supermarket or even from a convenience store.

A pro tip from me: in a pinch, go for the convenience store fried chicken patties. These unassuming morsels pack so much juiciness that they explode in your mouth. Many unsuspecting victims have had their clothing blessed by the juices that spurt from the patty. Pack some tissues just in case. You can get them free anywhere in Japan, people randomly distribute them around stations.

3 Transport (20,000 yen/ 0 if you are lucky)

Speaking of stations, you may find that transport costs in Japan can rack up quickly.

A short trip from Ichikawa to Tokyo station costs about 300 yen. Imagine doing this everyday twice a day and it becomes 18,000.

One way to save on transport is to buy a commuter pass. These work by assigning two stations onto a card and you basically pay one lump sum over a set period of time (1, 3, 6 months). The fee will be calculated based on the distance between the two stations.

The pass will then allow unlimited travel between the two stations and including any stations in between. Because the cost is calculated by distance and tiers. You may find that you are paying the same price for your nearest station and even the next station. In such scenarios, you can make the most of the pass by simply extending the pass to cover the next station.

Some lucky souls can skip this section entirely, as some companies in Japan fully subsidise the transport fee for employees. Now you cannot say that you have no money to go to work, your company is paying for it.

4 Utilities (7000-10,000 water and electricity, 6000-10,000 for phone and internet –> 20,000 total )

For my small house, heating and cooling was never a big issue. Insulation played a bigger role as Japanese houses are not known for their superlative built in insulation. Nevertheless, I generally paid under 10,000 yen for all my utilities.

One caveat, I have never taken a bath in my apartment as it was not my habit to do so. If you enjoy taking baths daily, be prepared for your bills to skyrocket.

My phone bill was mercifully cheap, thanks to the fact that I was recommended an MVNO contract instead of a contract from the big 3 carriers (Softbank, NTT Docomo, AU). This meant a monthly cost of under 4000 instead of 10,000.

Internet, on the other hand, is quite standard. You pay about 4000 yen per month for an optical fibre contract that promises 1GBPS speed in theory (this never happens, you’ll be lucky to get 700MBPS)

5 Entertainment (10,000-….)

Finally, we discuss entertainment and other miscellaneous expenses. I understand that you are not coming to Japan to just work and sleep and eat, therefore, we all need to have a little bit of spare cash at the end to spend on things that should bring us pleasure (or in Marie Kondo’s lingo, spark joy in us)

Generally, a night out at an izakaya(japan’s ubiquitous restaurants selling food and alcohol) should run you about 3000 yen depending on what you order. A pint of beer goes from 150 to 800 yen per pint, the higher prices come especially if you go to places that target foreigners such as “Hub”.

Gaming is relatively cheap here in arcades, with one play starting from 100 yen. If you are into other activities such as VR games, these cost about 1000 yen for one round of gaming.

Budget for the average English teacher

If you are like me, an English teacher that is struggling in one of the many eikaiwa schools here, you will probably have a gross salary ranging from 240,000 to 300,000 per month.

If we generalise and have tax payments at about 20%, that will lead to a net 192,000 to 240,000 yen per month.

Assuming you are doing rather well, deducting all the expenses I have listed –> 240,000 – 51000 – 50,000 – 20,000 – 20,000 – 10,000 = 90,000 yen per month.

You should ideally be left with 90,000 per month to do whatever you want with it. Not an astronomical sum but people working in this line should never be expecting to strike it rich anyway.  Additionally, some lucky souls may have bonuses in addition to their basic pay package, so these people will have even more to spend on travelling round Japan.

So there you have it, a rough budget breakdown for my simple life in Japan.

Let me know if I missed out anything, especially any essential categories that I really should have included in my expenditures list.

Til next time~