Japan has a reputation for having an exorbitantly high cost of living, but it's important to remember that Japanese salaries are also lucrative. This makes it entirely possible to live a good life in Japan without breaking the bank. The average Japanese standard of living ranks among the best in the world.

The vast majority of Japan's expats live in Tokyo, Osaka or Nagoya. These are the three largest urban areas. Tokyo is by far the most expensive Japanese city, ranking 49th in Mercer's Cost of Living Survey for 2024. Osaka ranked 146th, while Nagoya and Yokohama ranked 154th and 161st out of 226 expat destinations surveyed.

Cost of accommodation in Japan

The most significant expense an expat will have in Japan is accommodation. The housing market offers a wide range of options, from apartments in high-rise buildings to traditional Japanese houses.

In urban centres like Tokyo and Osaka, apartments are the most common housing type. They range from compact single-room units, often called studio apartments, to larger, multiple-bedroom options. Expats should keep in mind that space is at a premium in these cities, and even smaller spaces can come with a hefty price tag.

On the outskirts and in less densely populated areas, expats may find detached houses, frequently featuring traditional Japanese architectural elements. Prices here can be more affordable. No matter the location or housing type, competition is fierce in the housing market, so it's advisable to start the housing hunt well in advance.

Cost of transport in Japan

While public transport in Japan is expensive compared to other Asian countries, its efficiency and convenience are unparalleled, making it the easiest way to navigate the country. Japan's train system is extensive, punctual and high quality, with the Shinkansen, or bullet train, connecting major cities at remarkable speeds. In urban areas, metro systems are the primary mode of transport, offering affordable and frequent service. Buses fill in the gaps and provide connectivity in areas not served by trains.

Most expats opt not to purchase a vehicle, as driving in bustling Japanese cities tends to be more hassle than it's worth, with steep costs associated with parking, tolls and fuel. Instead, bicycles are a popular choice for short-distance travel, providing a cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternative.

Cost of food and groceries in Japan

It's easy to find good deals on meals in Japan thanks to fierce competition between restaurants. Eating out can even work out cheaper than cooking at home if expats don't mind a frequent diet of noodles. It's also worthwhile to check out the basement floors of most department stores, where there are food courts selling goods at highly reasonable prices.

Japan is a haven for food enthusiasts, offering everything from sushi bars and traditional tea houses to international fast food and street stalls and catering to all tastes and budgets. The absence of a tipping culture in Japan can also make dining out more affordable than in other countries. Japan's convenience stores also offer a surprisingly diverse selection of affordable, ready-to-eat meals, making them a fantastic option for a quick cheap bite.

While vegetables and fruit might seem rather expensive initially, expats should remember that they are always top quality, fresh and usually locally grown. Seafood is relatively cheap, and most supermarkets offer evening discounts to get rid of that day's stock (fresh foods are rarely kept for sale the next day).

Cost of entertainment and nightlife in Japan

Japan's entertainment spectrum spans from traditional theatres and sumo matches to modern cinemas, nightclubs and amusement parks. With careful planning, expats can access these affordably, using discounts or drink-inclusive cover charges.

Japan also hosts numerous cultural festivals throughout the year, which are often free. These events, featuring traditional music, dance and food, offer a cost-effective and unique opportunity to appreciate Japan's rich cultural heritage.

Izakayas, Japanese-style pubs, offer affordable options and are favoured by locals and expats alike. They regularly have nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink) and tabehoudai (all-you-can-eat) deals, which can be an economical way to enjoy a night out.

Cost of education in Japan

Expats relocating to Japan with children will need to factor in the cost of schooling. Most foreigners send their children to international schools that follow a non-Japanese curriculum, typically that of the expat family's home country.

International school fees in Japan can be pricey, but these schools also usually have excellent facilities and teaching standards. Parents should also note that extra costs, such as uniforms, stationery and field trips, frequently aren't included in the tuition fees, so parents will need to account for these as well.

Cost of healthcare in Japan

Japan has universal public healthcare. All Japanese citizens have public health insurance, while companies must often also provide additional insurance to their employees. This means that, for expats, healthcare costs can be relatively low. In some cases, private care and insurance are necessary, such as for expats staying in Japan for only a short term.

The standard of care in both public and private hospitals is high, as Japan's healthcare system is one of the best in the world. Researching the different public and private options available is still a good idea.

Cost of living in Japan chart

Note that prices may vary depending on the product and service provider. The list below shows the average prices for Tokyo in July 2024.

Accommodation (monthly rent)
Three-bedroom apartment in the city centreJPY 450,000
Three-bedroom apartment outside the city centreJPY 197,500
One-bedroom apartment in the city centreJPY 169,500
One-bedroom apartment outside the city centreJPY 97,500
Food and drink
Dozen eggsJPY 345
Milk (1 litre)JPY 230
Rice (1kg)JPY 585
Loaf of white breadJPY 265
Chicken breasts (1kg)JPY 545
Pack of cigarettes (Marlboro)JPY 615
Eating out
Three-course meal for two at a mid-range restaurantJPY 7,100
Big Mac MealJPY 820
Coca-Cola (330ml)JPY 180
CappuccinoJPY 525
Bottle of beer (local)JPY 335
Mobile call rate (per minute – mobile to mobile)JPY 55
Internet (uncapped ADSL or cable – average per month)JPY 4,850
Basic utilities (average per month for a standard household)JPY 22,500
Taxi rate/kmJPY 455
City-centre public transport fareJPY 230
Gasoline/Petrol (per litre)JPY 170

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