How expensive is Tokyo, REALLY?
December 14, 2013 11:16 AM   Subscribe

What's a reasonable cost of living wage increase when being transferred from Toronto to Tokyo?

I work for a small Canadian company that has recently opened a Tokyo office. So far the office is staffed by local hires, with Canadian managers trading off a couple of weeks at a time in Tokyo. I have been offered the opportunity to be the first full time transfer from the Toronto office to the Tokyo office. I have accepted and am excited.

The new position will come with a base wage increase (~5%) due to increased responsibilities, but will also come with a cost of living increase on top of that (which will presumably be retracted if I later transfer back to Toronto). As the first employee making this transition, I have been tasked with presenting what I think to be a "fair" rate for this increase reflecting the actual expense of living in Tokyo. I'd like to find a number I can back up with evidence, I'd like to err on the high side (but not by much) to give room for negotiation (though I think they're likely to accept my estimate if it seems reasonable) but, more importantly, to give some breathing room for unexpected expenses.

So, help? Bear in mind that Toronto is already one of the world's most expensive cities to live in. Expatistan says that Tokyo is 13% more expensive than Toronto, but I'm a little unsure of their breakdown.

So my question is, what's a fair and justifiable amount to ask for that also provides a small buffer against the unexpected? I'm think 15%, but is that too low?


1. We want to live in a house, not a high-rise. We currently have an 1200 sq. ft. 3-bedroom with a huge yard on the outskirts of Toronto-proper for which we pay about $1250 (CAD) per month. I know that we lucked out; that's surprisingly cheap for Toronto. I know we'll have to sacrifice the yard, and I'm certainly expecting to move into a smaller place square footage-wise, but we still definitely want a 3-bed in a house that's easily accessible to downtown Tokyo by transit. I know such neighbourhoods and houses exist in Tokyo, but does the expatistan estimate of +39% (122,000 yen per month) reflect the expense of such a place? Also, I understand that most Japanese rentals don't include basic appliances, is the cost of appliance leasing included in this estimate?

2. We have two small children, who will be 4 y.o. and 6 m.o. at the time we move. The four year old is currently in part-time day-care and we would like, for social reasons, to keep her in some sort of part time activity program. How expensive are those compared to Toronto?

3. We currently have a car and a motorcycle, which we will be selling. We aren't planning to buy a vehicle in Tokyo, provided we can live somewhere very close to transit. So that will save us a few hundred dollars a month on insurance/gas.

4. Health insurance. Canada has fully socialized health care, Japan has partially socialized health care (which we may not qualify for?). How much will insurance that would offer us the same basic standard of care we are used to in Canada cost for a family of four.

5. Neither my wife nor I have ever been to Japan before, so there are certainly expenses we aren't even aware of...

BONUS: The company is also paying relocation expenses, including return airfare for the family, an immigration lawyer to handle visas, shipping our non-furniture possessions, and paying for a relocation service to help me find a house, get my utilities connected, etc. What other major relocation expenses might I want to request be included?

Oh and please, for the sake of this question, let's focus on the monetary issue, not the many other aspects of moving to Japan like language barriers, culture shock, etc. Those are other questions!
posted by 256 to Travel & Transportation around Tokyo, Japan (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I hope you won't take this as a tangent, but I used to work on the other end of relocation services (that is, Japanese employees coming to California). They got language tutoring as part of the relocation package, so it's definitely worth asking about!
posted by wintersweet at 11:28 AM on December 14, 2013

Is your company working with a corporate relocation firm to help you out? Most companies that send employees abroad will retain the services of an external corporate relocation firm to help their employees with all the particulars about international moves.
posted by dfriedman at 11:45 AM on December 14, 2013

Response by poster: Is your company working with a corporate relocation firm to help you out? Most companies that send employees abroad will retain the services of an external corporate relocation firm to help their employees with all the particulars about international moves.

Yes, and they are also paying for language training. This question is about the overall increase in cost-of-living, not the particulars of securing insurance, etc. The relocation firm will help with that stuff. I suppose I could ask the relocation firm to recommend a fair cost of living wage increase, but I would still like to be armed with my own estimate as well.
posted by 256 at 11:48 AM on December 14, 2013

Would you be alright with a terraced house (townhouse)? What's a reasonable commute for you? How picky are you about the state of the house - are you looking for something with double glazed windows and a nice kitchen, or are you okay with something shabbier? Japanese buildings age surprisingly fast (the building's age is usually listed alongside other basic information such as the size and rent of a place), and older places are cheaper but might come with a bit of mold and a few extra roaches. Do you have a preference for how close to the station you live? Most rental sites will allow you to narrow your search by how many minutes walk you are to the nearest station - the further away the cheaper.

Doing a super quick search to get an idea of what's out there, I looked at 3LDKs (3 rooms + living/dining/kitchen area) in Mitaka, which is about 15 minutes from Shunjuku by fast train. There are only about a third as many houses as there are apartments of that size, and while they do start at about 130K, those places might be a bit dodgy for whatever reason. 190K seems about average, and then prices go all the way up to 300K.

Half an hour from Shinjuku, in randomly chosen Tachigawa, prices are a bit lower, but still around 150K for something nice. And that's excluding key money, deposit, commission, utilities and also possibly a monthly "maintenance" bill that you can't escape but that they leave out of the rent total.

I didn't see any furnished houses at all on offer, but they may exist. Furnished in general is much rarer than unfurnished - and when they "unfurnish" a place in Japan we're talking down to the bones. Sometimes down to the light fixtures and a/c unit!

Depending on how long you're planning on staying, there are companies that lease appliances and such. Yodobashi camera (big electronics & appliance store) has a smallish two-door fridge for anything between 30-60K, washers start at 20K and just keep going (the cheap ones will not have dryers). Ovens are very nearly unheard of. (You can also get appliances cheaper from second hand shops, but that might require bringing a friendly translator along.)

Oh, and a lot of houses will have at least one room with tatami mats, so depending on how you feel about not being able to use western furniture (heavy stuff like beds would damage it) everywhere you might need someplace with more rooms to sleep everyone. (Though I totally recommend the futon on tatami mat way of doing things - super comfy for sleep, and you can roll the futon up and stash it in the futon cupboard during the day to make more space for other activities.)
posted by harujion at 1:12 PM on December 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

The US Department of State seems to think Toronto (50% COLA) is more expensive than Tokyo (35% COLA). (Unless you live IN the city of Tokyo, which is also 50%)
posted by ctmf at 1:17 PM on December 14, 2013

(The housing allowance from US DoS is about 1.7 x higher than for Toronto.)
posted by ctmf at 1:21 PM on December 14, 2013

Well, the US Department of State has the central 23 wards of Tokyo at 50%, which is pretty much everything within a reasonable distance of downtown Tokyo. The 35% seems to be for Tokyo-to, which is all of Tokyo prefecture. So it's kind of like NYC and New York state. Considering Osaka-Kobe are listed at 50%, I would definitely look at that rather than the far more rural 35%.
posted by harujion at 1:32 PM on December 14, 2013

I would consider adding airfare home at least once a year in addition to the return ticket they're offering you.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 3:15 PM on December 14, 2013

The housing is going to be the tough part. People in Tokyo just live in smaller spaces.

Mitaka is a good suggestion. Try Kichijoji too. Both offer great train access and are far enough out of inner Tokyo that you could save some money on housing.

The kids are a tricky thing. The American School in Japan has a preK campus in Roppongi, but it's main campus is way out past Mitaka in Chofu-shi. So after one year, unless you want to send your older kid to a gender segregated catholic school (ISSH or St. Mary's), you may need to be in a spot where the ASIJ busses pick up. (Nishimachi is in Azabu, I went to kindergarten there, and I endorse it strongly. But the last time I checked, no busses, you'll have to bring the kid to and from yourself, which may necessitate a car).

Pretty sure you don't qualify for Japanese health care. I could be wrong.

Really the tricky part here is the kids and the length of stay. If your kid is going to be in kindergarten while your there, plan your housing around that.

Honestly, if I was you, I'd email the people at ASIJ and Nishimachi who do intake and ask as many questions as you can. Tokyo is HUGE and if you don't locate yourself based on where your kids are going to school, you could set yourself up for serious transportation hassles. When I was a kid there, I had classmates who had 90 minute commutes EACH WAY. Mine was 60 minutes each way, and I was one of the lucky ones because I lived in a spot where the bus was available.

Here's the upside: the education your kid can get, even at the kindergarten level, at ASIJ or St. Marys or ISSH or Nishimachi... it's world class, wonderful, and will give gifts of experience you just can't get anywhere else.
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 7:27 PM on December 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

also: public transportation is not cheap. You can get discounted monthly or even six month passes, but even then, because the rail lines are run by a few separate entities, you may need multiple passes for a commute.
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 7:32 PM on December 14, 2013

I'd highly recommend reading the how-to's on Surviving in Japan: Although it's not for Tokyo specifically, I think they would be a lot of help for someone moving to Japan.

Same goes for the website Japan Guide. In general you may also want to have a look at Sunny Pages,, and perhaps Metropolis.

There are hospitals in Tokyo where people speak English and a lot of expats go, but that might be more expensive.

If you want to have a look at houses, try Gaijin pot apartments as a reference, although I think your company should help you with this. I've heard various stories about how housing has less insulation than in Canada and the US. From what I understand, housing generally does not come with central heating. (Although some apartments and houses have floor heating.) This means you have to buy your own heating -- there's a how-to on Surviving in Japan for that.

I've never heard of leasing appliances in Tokyo -- many people choose to buy used (Japanese appliances are generally very well taken care of) or get them from people who are leaving by going to what's called sayonara sales.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 11:30 AM on December 15, 2013

You didn't bring this up as an option, but what if you had compensation structured so that you get a separate housing allowance or live in company-paid housing? That could take a lot of your personal budgetary guesswork out of the equation, though I suppose you would still need to get an estimate for how much that housing would be.
posted by polexa at 8:08 PM on December 15, 2013

The United Nations International Civil Service Commission publishes Post Adjustment rates for all UN duty stations. Post Adjustment is a baseline salary increase depending on the cost of living at the duty station. The latest rates are 73.6% for Toronto and 97.7% for Japan, which means that a UN employee would get a net salary increase of 13.9% if moving from Toronto to Tokyo. This seems to support your 13-15% range well.

Congrats on the job, by the way!
posted by brokkr at 2:18 AM on December 16, 2013

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