Japan, and in particular Tokyo, has a reputation for being one of the most expensive places on Earth and while it’s certainly not as cheap as it’s other eastern neighbours (Japanese people absolutely love visiting Thailand), it’s nowhere near as expensive as somewhere like Paris or London. As I mentioned last time, getting by day to day is actually remarkably cheap here, particularly in regards to food. Utility bills frequently come in below the 5,000 yen mark (35 euro), and thanks to izakayas like Kin no Kura and Toriki, even socializing doesn’t have to break the bank. Which all leads me to wondering where the hell all money has gone at the end of every pay-month.
Curiously, I frequently find myself counting my ten yen coins in the days nearing payday, and considering how much I’ve gone on in the past about how inexpensive this place is, it’s definitely phenomena worth looking into. The conclusion I’ve come to is equal parts reassuring and saddening, and I’m sure most of you with any aspirations of living here (or even just visiting) might feel the same.
Japanese people love cheap stuff. Shops like Don Quixote and Daiso are nearly always packed with enough people and products to sustain a small independent colony, but when it comes to anything slightly off the beaten track, anything remotely related to a hobby or extra-curricular interest, Japanese people also have absolutely no problem paying through the nose for stuff that may or, as in most cases, may not be actually worth what they’re shelling out for it.
Take for example, figures. Any otaku worth their salt knows about the joys of collecting characters, in the vain hopes of somehow possessing a tangible, physical expression of the emotions they evoked in you when you first encountered them. It’s intoxicating, enjoyable, surprisingly addictive, and, if you want to stay current, obnoxiously expensive. Depending on the figure, and the time of its release, the more expensive, elaborate ones can cost anywhere between 20,000 – 50, 000 yen (150 – 300 euro) on release and they don’t usually come very far down from there as they get older, some in fact gain value as they become difficult to find. Even the smaller ones, if they happen to be particularly sought after or from a specific company (I’m looking at you KyoAni), can retail for 10,000-30,000 yen. Thank god there are secondhand options, because otherwise my shelves would be bare.
Even something more universal, like music, is restrictive in bizarre ways. For example, guitar strings, cases other assorted paraphernalia are remarkably cheap at even the mid to high quality levels, but try to buy an actual guitar and you’ll find yourself slapped with a bill upwards of 100,000 (750 euro) yen at least. That might not seem so bad, but we’re talking low brand here. It only goes up from there. Again, there are secondhand options that ease that pain slightly, but when you realize that rehearsal time, recording time, promotion, video, marketing, and anything else that you might happen to need as an aspiring musician are going to bankrupt you, you start feeling like you’d be better off just putting that secondhand firebird back on the rack.
It’s disappointingly typical of Japanese culture really. Not only is it fitting that Japanese people seldom feel comfortable enough to haggle, they’re far too polite, there’s also huge emphasis on work here, more than I’ve ever seen anywhere else. Finding a job is literally the most important thing in the world for some people, because for some people their job will also be their only social hub and their only source of activity in their day-to-day lives. By that logic, if you happen to have a hobby, that’s great, but don’t expect balancing it with work to be easy, work comes first. Until you can turn your hobby into a job and rip off someone else to maintain the eco-system.
For a country with such a rich, creative history and a culture full of chaotic creativity any day of the week, this is one aspect of Japanese society that I really don’t like. Thankfully, the flipside of this is that artists who do manage to make it can make a good living doing what they love, and hopefully enough of them will see a changing tide in Japan’s priorities. Japan, after all, is a fantastic place to live, but it can be a tough place to live.