Amazing Salary Stretching: a Minimalist’s Guide to Working in Japan
I couldn’t believe it: Japan is supposed to be hideously expensive [at a current exchange rate of about $1=¥100], yet the Mini Mini and ABC real estate offices of these two well-known Japanese chain operations I visited here have real apartments that rent for as little as about $270 a month (¥ 27,000) on a standard 2-year lease—perfect for a working budget-conscious expat with minimalist tastes.
[But be forewarned: As I will explain in the sequel to this article, affordability is just one hurdle to embarking on a career in your personal Shangrila—the bizarre law of what I call the "inverse law of work-life balance" being among the most formidable, i.e., the vexing irony of finding the perfect locale, only to also find only awful job opportunities.]
Unthinkable at Home
That rent, unthinkable in Vancouver—even for a residential closet, is for an older en suite, private, clean, safe, compact city apartment in one of the world’s most charming, friendly, cultural, historic and aesthetic smaller urban centers—Nagasaki (which I now rank among my personal “Top 5″ among the cities of the 50+ countries I’ve been in).
[Note: Exactly the same low rents are, as I have since discovered, elsewhere in Japan, e.g., in the bustling, international port city of Kobe—and in pleasant, conveniently situated neighborhoods.]
In itemizing the entailed expenses, Kenji Matsuda, the branch manager at one of the four Mini Mini offices in Nagasaki, noted that, given average consumption, gas, water and electricity add about another $100 on top of some modest initial one-time fees.
These include $150-$200 for two years of mandatory fire insurance, depending on the real estate service used. But these and the other upfront expenses are hardly crippling deal-breakers.
The flyer he handed me itemized all such initial, one-time expenses, payable before moving in: cleaning and disinfecting, 24-hour support, key fee, fire extinguisher set and the $150 (¥ 15,000) fire insurance fee.
The total, approximately $800, prorated over the 2-year lease adds $33/month to the base rent, irrespective of the size and rent for the apartment. So, a $270 rental becomes $300.
If you are willing to spend more on rent, $500 to $600 will get you substantially more legroom, as compared to one of the smallest micro-apartments I saw listed, which was 15.75 square meters or 161 square feet.
In the centrally-located property (shown here, in each of the apartment photos), $550 (¥ 55,000) gets you a balcony, an ocean and mountain panorama, mixed tatami and hardwood floors, and about 512 square feet.
(Note: Viewing the apartments in-person is, understandably, a privilege reserved for prospective renters. So, I was unable to see any firsthand or firstfoot, and therefore cannot add any onsite observations.)
The Numbeo International Cost-of-Living Tool
When contemplating an expat job or an overseas business trip, check out www.numbeo.com –a site that provides a very useful trove of data for expats and travelers, comprising comprehensive cost of living data and comparisons for most countries in the world.
Although no data for Nagasaki are available on the site, its cost of living data for Japan are illuminating and surprising, e.g., on average, an apartment outside city centers is about $583 per month.
That compares favorably with a Numbeo-reported national average disposable income for the Japanese of about $2,850 per month.
But it’s not just the rents. Commuting to work on a charming tram (shown above) will cost you $1.20 one-way, from one end of the cross-city line to the other. A standard McDonald’s burger in Nagasaki, at the regular price of ¥ 100 ($1), costs less than in Vancouver.
The budget-friendly Nagasaki Yoshinoya-franchise “gyudon” beef, rice, miso soup, corn and cabbage salad set shown above with unlimited green tea costs $4.30 (¥430).
The omnipresent 24-hour “konbiniya”—convenience stores, such as 7-11, Family Mart and Lawsons, catering to single workers and students, offer cheap alternatives to restaurants, competitive in some respects to the supermarkets: a pack of frozen spinach—less than $1, natto (fermented soy bean) 3-pack for 73 cents (vs. $3 plus back home), take-out box lunches for around $3, 2-liter bottle of mineral water—less than $1, 1/4 pound of breaded, cooked, crispy shrimp—less than $3, bananas—5 for less than $1.
Then there are the Japanese versions of our dollar stores—a.k.a. ¥ 100 shops, e.g., a bulging pack of dried fruit—$1.The six plump mandarin oranges I bought at the grocery store across the street were also $1 (on special and shown here, with a ¥ 100 coin as size and cost reference).
Japan Work-Life Balance on the Cheap
If you are a savvy, budgeter and (aspiring) minimalist, you can work and live in Nagasaki for about $1,500 or less per month, while easily earning double, and possibly triple or more—depending on your work skills, sponsorship, qualifications and language ability (with about $2,000 per month being the government minimum required for a work visa).
I’m currently only a tourist, but am getting by spending approximately that amount per month (because I found a friendly, cozy, clean, air conditioned central hotel for $30 per night).
Budgeting for an Urban Shangrila
My estimate of total costs for a resident, employed expat and agile visitor here perfectly matched the feedback I got from several locals: $1,500-$2,000 per month should cover everything (car not included), unless you have upscale tastes and habits, or otherwise love to party in bars and clubs.
This is perfectly aligned with the government requirement of ¥ 200,000 ($2,000) per month as the minimum for work-visa eligibility.
Nagasaki Job Prospects and Global Jinzai Management
Mitsubishi is a primary employer here, and there are several colleges and universities; so, if you have the right skill set and gumption, check Nagasaki out.
It may even be worthwhile checking out working remotely here for a Japanese company, e.g., as a translator, writer, editor or independent consultant (although I have no hard data regarding this.)
Otherwise, regarding job hunting in Japan in general, that’s a topic I’ll be dealing with separately, in a subsequent article.
Now, it`s true that the days when it was easier to make $10,000 a month or $200/hour are gone, buried by Japan’s protracted recession, but Japan remains a land of opportunity, and not just jobwise, given the cultural, historic and visual charms and internationalization of the economy and society.
However, one encouraging consideration is that the Japanese have, for some time, been pushing the idea of “Global Jinzai Management“—global human resource/asset management, with an emphasis on importing, exporting and training internationalized talent, in order to keep Japan competitive on the global economic stage, especially in light of the meteoric economic rise and market penetration of China and other Asian countries.
Japan’s JET (Japanese English Teachers) program, dating from the 1980s, which has brought thousands of English teachers to Japan, was one of the earliest manifestations of this policy and recruitment shift.
Hence, whether you feel pushed by the lack of the right job opportunities at home or pulled by the allure of Japan, it may be worth your while to vet Japan—or at least Nagasaki—as a springboard or at least as a potential plank in your career.
Other Important Considerations
But before doing that or taking any other steps toward becoming a working expat in Japan, you`ll probably need or want to consider the following:
Reluctant landlords: Renting an apartment anywhere in Japan, including Nagasaki, can be a real challenge for an expat—and, according to Hiroshi Mine, an adviser at the Nagasaki ABC Real Estate branch I visited, the likelihood of succeeding is virtually zero if that’s how much Japanese you speak and understand, and don’t have a strong sponsor.
However, he added that, with a respected sponsor, who will assume legal and financial liability for you, while serving as an intermediary when necessary, and some Japanese-language ability on your part, the probability of being accepted by the landlord as a tenant can be as high as 80%.
What is called “self-sponsorship” is possible, e.g., for self-employed expats, but that makes acceptance by the landlord less likely, since there is no intermediary between the prospective tenant and the landlord.
Radiation concerns: Because of Fukushima, concerns about radiation in Japan are widespread—at least overseas. Some may even have concerns about residual radiation from the 1945 atomic bombing. Now, I`m no radiation expert, but I am a very cautious traveler.
So, I brought with me my Radex 1212 radiation detector that I had been planning to take on a now-canceled trip to Ukraine (which translates into “Chernobyl”) and Russia.
At ground zero in Nagasaki (shown here), the radiation levels of no more than 0.13 microsieverts my device detected were less than the radiation emitted by a banana—the banana`s contribution to background radiation being an informal international standard of low levels.
(One reason for this is that the atomic bomb detonation over Nagasaki was an air burst, which dissipated the radiation in the atmosphere, rather than sweeping up and contaminating tons of soil.) Moreover, Nagasaki is just about as far in Japan as one can get away from Fukushima and its cross-Pacific winds.
To put this in perspective, in-cabin radiation levels during various legs of my flight from Vancouver and at about 37,000 feet were almost 25 times as high (3.18 microsieverts/hour).
Furnishings: As is the case anywhere else, furnished apartments cost more. It should be noted that “unfurnished” is likely to mean no stove, refrigerator, washing machine or dryer.
But, if like me, you’re fine with an electric skillet, a mini-fridge and handwashed laundry, you’ll not only survive, but also reduce your utilities’ charges, such as gas and water. (As for microwave ovens, you’d have to revisit and investigate radiation concerns, if you have any, about food or personal exposure.)
To succeed as an expat minimalist in Japan, you’ll have to be adaptable and agile or have great support and buffers, in the form of corporate or personal helpers and handlers.
Yes, the expat package described here is Spartan in many respects; yet it isn’t as alien to the Japanese workers who live within its constraints as you are likely to be to them.
Note: Mini Mini does have an English website and English-speaking staff serving Tokyo and Saitama, Kanagawa and Nagano prefectures, with both furnished and unfurnished listings; however detailed online search results appear in Japanese only.
Property photos: courtesy of ABC Real Estate, Nagasaki Station branch.