Posts Tagged ‘dollar’

12 Reasons Japan is so Expensive

March 11, 2009

Just released: Tokyo is once again the most expensive city in the world, followed by Osaka.

When people ask about visiting or living in Japan, one thing they don’t fully understand is how extremely expensive it is. It’s expensive in ways you didn’t even think of. So I present 12 reasons why Japan is so expensive, besides the strength of the yen.

#1 Things cost more.

Japan is an island, and most everything is imported. Small watermelons you can palm in your hand are $10 (US). Mangoes are packaged in special gift boxes and sold at $100 for a set of two.

Whatever the average cost of a gallon of gas is in the U.S. right now, add about $2 per gallon for Japan.

#2 Nothing is free, complimentary, or included.
I sit down for a nice meal at an Italian restaurant. The waiter brings a basket of fresh bread. Complementary, right? Wrong. When you’re done, they count how many rolls are left, and charge you individually for each one you ate. Just a few dimes, but it’s the principle. Free samples are rare, even in nice grocery stores.

#3 Portions are smaller. Not that that’s a bad thing. Most Americans could survive with fewer calories. But $10 for a pizza smaller than my hand isn’t my idea of lunch. The one saving grace is you don’t have to tip in Japan.
hand pizza

#4 It’s crowded. Japan has about half the population of the U.S. squished together onto an island the size of Montana. Which means anything that takes up floor space is at a premium. Theaters, for instance. It’s about $20 to see a movie at the theater, and there’s no such thing as a matinee.

Hotels are another space hog. A bare-bones hotel costs about $100 per night per person. Yep, they charge by the person, not by the room. If your hotel has a Jacuzzi, fitness room, business center, or pool, each of these incur a separate, additional fee. That’s why Japan has its famous capsule hotels – they’re the only ones with somewhat reasonable prices. But you don’t want to stay in one of them. Let’s just say capsule hotels are for businessmen who have not been home in a long time, and usually feature vending machines with dirty DVDs.

#5 Komakaii (or, How I got thrown out of Starbucks) I went to a Starbucks in the middle of a new mall in Osaka, bought a mocha, plugged my laptop into the wall and started working, just like I have many times in the U.S., where many coffee shops (albeit not Starbucks) also offer free wireless Internet. I had just logged on when a barista came by, pointed at the plug, and made the universal “no-no” sign. I gave a blank look and pretended not to understand. Five minutes later, another barista came by, who knew some English, and struggled to explain that tapping into their electrical current is forbidden. I didn’t let him know that I had understood the first time. I offered to buy another coffee if it would help justify my outrageous electricity usage. No good. He stood there and watched until I unplugged it. So I left. It seems to me that Starbucks would want to keep customers happy rather than spare a few yen of electricity.

Then there was the kid who was arrested for plugging his cell phone in to a vending machine outlet for a recharge. The list goes on…

“Komakaii hito ” is the Japanese word for meticulous bean counter, and there’s plenty of them in Japan. The cumulative accounting staff time of an entire country that fusses over three-sevenths of a cent can add up.

#6 Shakken, not stirred. Americans visiting Japan often remark at how clean and well-kept the cars are. You never see a car with red electrical tape serving as a tail light. Of course, there is a reason for this. Roughly every two years, you have to take your car in for a complete bumper-to-bumper inspection, called shakken. The inspection itself can cost between $1000 and $1500, even if nothing is wrong with your car. If you have so much as a small rip in the interior, this must be repaired immediately (see “komakaii”, above). Vehicles that do not pass inspection are not allowed to be driven on public roads. As vehicles get older, maintaining them at the standards required by the shakken can become prohibitively expensive. As a result, many Japanese used vehicles are exported to other nations right before or after their shakken is due. Despite the legendary durability and reliability of Japanese-made cars, it is rare to see a car older than six years on the road in Japan.

Did I mention that a driver’s license costs $3,000?

#7 All the highways are toll roads. And traffic jams are common and long. People in the eastern U.S. are used to this, though. Don’t think you can avoid the tolls by riding in a bus, either. They collect the toll from each passenger. That’s why people in Japan generally ride trains and bicycles. Even then— no kidding— you often have to pay to park your bicycle.

#8 World-class product quality. Japan had a very prosperous economy for many years. It’s been more than a decade since the bubble burst, but Japanese consumers still have very discriminating tastes – which drives product quality through the roof. But you’ve got to pay for that.

Take fingernail clippers. In the U.S., this is an extremely simple device – three pieces of steel connected on a pivot. Sells for about $3 at Walgreens.

But you ought to see the fingernail clippers they have in Japan. Tiny masterpieces of design, engineering, and marketing. Metal guards are attached to both sides so your fingernail doesn’t go flying when you cut it. The bottom lip of the blade sticks out just a little farther than the top so that you can’t stick your finger in too far and cut the quick. Some even have decorations of your favorite Disney character for extra cuteness. Comes with a matching case. It’s the most deluxe pair of fingernail clippers you’ve ever seen. But they’re $30 each.

That’s great, and if you want to own the world’s most amazing pair of fingernail clippers, Japan is definitely the place to buy them. Considering the world-class quality, $30 isn’t bad, actually. The problem is, they don’t sell a simple pair of cheap-o U.S.-style fingernail clippers anywhere. The deluxe model is the only model you can find. Don’t get me wrong – I like nice things. But I also like to have the option of spending $3 for a pair of clippers if I want to. That option is difficult to find in Japan.

That’s just one silly example, but the same can be said for many Japanese products.

#9 Flea markets, garage sales, or secondhand stores. Japan has them, called recycle stores, but they’re not as popular as in the U.S. There are two big sales each year, in January and July. Other than that, expect to pay a high price for necessities. On the bright side, Japan has many dollar stores with some really nice stuff.

#10 Prada and Gucci and Bvlgari. Oh my! Significantly more Japanese people buy designer clothes than Americans. In some cases, buying designer brand names isn’t just a matter of keeping up with the Joneses or being a fashionista. In some places, it’s hard to find somebody wearing a suit or a necktie that’s not Gucci.

#11 Gift-giving culture. In the U.S., you spend a day seeing the Grand Canyon, and at the end of the tour, you might browse through the gift shop for some souvenirs. In Japan, the gift shop is the attraction. Visit Kiyomizudera, a temple still standing in Kyoto that was built in 798 using only wood – no nails. Touring the temple takes about five minutes, but there’s about a mile of gift shops you have to walk through before you even get to the temple. Many Japanese tourists go there for the gift shops only, visiting the temple itself only if they have time. After all, if you go on vacation, you must bring back souvenirs for everyone. Omiyage is not just fun, it’s required.

Basic social interactions in Japan are almost always punctuated with a gift. Visit someone’s house? Bring a little gift (and if they’ve given you a gift recently, you have to match or beat the price). Go on a job interview? Bring a gift for your potential employer. And if you really want the job, it better be expensive. If you have more than one friend, this can turn into a complex gift-giving competition all year round.

#12 No J-DIY. Changing the oil in your car, or something as simple as repairing a chip in the wall usually means hiring a professional.

Now, for the top reasons America is expensive? Healthcare. One visit to an American hospital and everything’s about equal.