Japan for Digital Nomads and Bootstrappers

I’ve been interested in Japan and Japanese culture for some time now.

I wouldn’t call myself a Japanophile: I’ve never read manga, don’t particularly like video games and speak approximately 10 words of Japanese.

But there’s something totally fascinating about the place. After spending time travelling through Asia, Europe and South America, I hold the opinion that Japan is the strangest and most culturally perplexing country for Westerners in the world.

I was inspired to write about my experiences in Japan after travelling there on two separate occasions. The reason for my inspiration was twofold: firstly because I think Japan is vastly underrated as a potential hotspot for digital nomads. More importantly, I wanted to dispel the somewhat undeserved reputation of Japan as being a place that is simply too expensive for long-term travellers.

Why Japan?

But first up, the motivation. Why should you consider Japan as a place for long-term travel?

Corey Walking in Shibuya

There are obvious benefits to living in Japan. The infrastructure, food and living standards are all mind-blowingly good. What I find more interesting, though, are the opportunities for personal growth. Japan is just so different: you can’t help but have your beliefs challenged and comfort zone expanded on a daily basis.

Some aspects of the country are just blatantly foreign when viewed from the perspective of a Westerner. The permeation of politeness through all interpersonal interactions, reverence for tradition and rejection of individualism come to mind as obvious and jarring differences.

What I find equally interesting, however, are the subtle differences. Especially the concepts, technologies and cultural items that have been imported from the West, but have all been passed through a “Japanese filter,” highlighting and accentuating aspects which resonate with Japanese ideals. I’ve heard it described as “viewing Western culture through a funhouse mirror.”

The Japanese have an incredible ability to borrow things from other cultures, change them slightly, somehow improving them in the process. Tom Downey explores this phenomena in his article “How Japan Copied American Culture and Made It Better” for Smithsonian Magazine. He says:

There’s something about the perspective of the Japanese that allows them to home in on the essential elements of foreign cultures and then perfectly recreate them at home…

…the best examples of Japanese Americana don’t just replicate our culture. They strike out, on their own, into levels of appreciation and refinement rarely found in America. They give us an opportunity to consider our culture as refracted through a foreign and clarifying prism.

But perhaps the most fascinating things about the country are the contradictions.

Osaka by Night

For example, despite the order and cleanliness exhibited on every street corner, you can’t walk a block in many of the main business districts without being exposed to the sex-industry (love hotels, brothels, strip clubs), thinly veiled in a veneer of innocence and decency.

And although respect, courtesy and hospitality are some of the most highly regarded virtues in Japanese culture, walking through megalopolises in Japan is often an isolating and alienating experience.

Japan is pretty much as culturally different from the West as it gets. This is what keeps me coming back: I’m addicted to the intriguing customs, sprawling cities and pure culture shock.

The Cost of Living in Japan

But Japan is “just too expensive” for long-term travellers and digital nomads… right?

This is a common (and somewhat) valid concern that I hear from people all the time when the topic of Japan comes up. And if you base your analysis solely off the cost-of-living indexes for Tokyo, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that you need to sell your soul (and perhaps some body parts) to afford to live in the country longterm.

While these metrics do tell partial truths, bootstrappers, digital nomads and budget travellers will be happy to hear that these claims have been vastly over exaggerated.

Living in Japan longterm without becoming a salaryman or eating into your savings account is totally possible.

The Secret to Affordable Slow-travel in Japan

Let’s get this one out of the way first. Yes, rent is expensive… especially in Tokyo.

But it isn’t that expensive, especially if you’re willing to make some concessions. An emerging trend in Japan is the concept of sharehouses.

Sharehouses are basically a dormitory set-up, where you live with 5-10 other people, typically students and/or expats. Admittedly you won’t be living in luxury: it’s likely your room will be very small, you’ll have to share a bathroom and will need to live by the house rules (sorry, no impromptu open-invite keg parties).

Hanging out in a sharehouse in Japan

But if you’re willing to live within these limitations, sharehouses are a great, affordable way to experience Japan. I’d even argue that sharehouses are a better way to experience the country than going solo. You’ll instantly score a small network of friends that are probably also living away from home and willing to explore the city with you. Many sharehouses end up functioning like small families; cooking, eating and hanging out together.

Realistically, you can rent a room in a centrally located sharehouse in a major city (Tokyo, Osaka, etc.) for a pittance.

A friend in Osaka pays around ¥ 40000-60000 (approximately $400-600 USD) per month including all utilities to live 10 minutes from the centre of the city. A slightly higher budget (¥ 70000-80000) will land you in the middle of Tokyo (Shibuya or Shinjuku area).

Check out Sakura House Real Estate to get an indication of what’s available.

Eating in Japan

Coming from a Western country (Australia), I’m still surprised by how cheaply you can eat-out all through Asia, and Japan is no exception.

You can easily find local restaurants that serve basic (but tasty) meals in the ¥ 400-600 ($4-6 USD) range. In this price bracket we’re talking about ramen and rice bowls; think basic staples, not gourmet dining experiences. If you’re after sashimi or Western fare, you’re going to pay at least 3 to 4 times that amount.

Pre-made meals from convenience stores and supermarkets (sushi, rice-balls, sandwiches, basic salads) are also an option in this price range. If you’re really on a budget, you could also buy simple ingredients from the supermarket and cook your own meals… although I never bothered to try this.

Accessing the Internet

This was probably the most surprising thing for me in Japan – it’s hard to find free, easily accessible wifi.

Coming from Ho Chi Minh, a city in a developing country that STILL manages to offer free wifi in practically every restaurant and café, it was surprising to find that I was pretty much limited to Starbucks if I wanted to access the internet. The problem isn’t that wifi is not ubiquitous in the city. The problem is that you need a contract with a local phone company in order to use most of the free wifi options.

This isn’t a problem if you’re staying in Japan longterm: you simply need to sign up to a phone contract. This will depend on the carrier and your usage plan, but you can cover this for ¥ 1500 ($15 USD) per week (slow, but unlimited data transfer). The best thing about having a phone contract is that it enables you to use any of the wifi access points throughout the country operated by that carrier.

Transportation

I can only comment on Tokyo and Osaka, but for these two cities, transport is fast and reliable. The rail networks are extensive and reasonably priced.

If you live just outside of the city centre, you’re probably looking at ¥ 200-300 ($2 -3 USD) in either direction.

The “local” option is to get around the city via bicycle, which is what I would recommend. Japanese cities are remarkably easy to navigate on a bike, being well equipped with dedicated cycle lanes and bike parking. Osaka and Tokyo are relatively flat as well, so easy on the calf muscles.

You can purchase a cheap bike for around ¥ 10000-20000 ($100 – 200 USD). Rental is also an option, around ¥ 2000-3000 ($20-30 USD) per month.

Monthly Breakdown

Now that we’ve considered different areas of expenses, let’s put it all together to see what we’re looking at in terms of combined monthly expenses.

  • Rent: ¥ 70000 ($700 USD) for a centrally located sharehouse, including utilities and (fast) Internet.
  • Food: ¥ 50000 ($500 USD), eating out most days, occasionally cooking at home.
  • Transport: ¥ 20000 ($200 USD) to either ride the metro every day or rent a bike and occasionally ride the metro.
  • Mobile phone: ¥ 6000 ($60 USD) for slow but unlimited data.
  • Coffee: ¥ 15000 ($150 USD) to cover your daily caffeine fix.
  • Entertainment: ¥ 20000 ($200 USD) for incidental entertainment costs.

So in total, we’re looking at around ¥ 180000, or $1800 USD per month. Note that this is to live comfortably. If you lived outside of the city and spent conservatively (ate out less, drank less expensive lattes, forwent expensive entertainment options) you could easily get this under $1500 USD per month.

Not so fast…

Hopefully you should be convinced by now that living in Japan is an affordable proposition… so should you jump on the next flight to Tokyo?

Before buying that one-way ticket, there are a couple of things you should consider. The first (and possibly most important) question you need to confront is whether or not you’re ready for life in a traditional and insular society where you’re (by and large) always going to be seen as an outsider. I’ve neither experienced nor am worried about experiencing discrimination in Japan, but I can understand how certain personality types may find the life of a Gaijin slightly lonely and/or alienating.

Shibuya square during the daytime

Also, if you’re planning on spending any serious amount of time in the country, you’re also probably going to need to make a decent attempt at learning the language. Despite the typical local having decent written English skills, spoken English is notoriously absent in the country. And while it is possible to get by exclusively speaking English, you’re going to be seriously limited in the things you can do and the relationships you can build while living in Japan.

Another primary concern for location independent entrepreneurs considering relocating to Japan is the likelihood of a large disconnect between their own personal values and the values of the society surrounding them. The Japanese are traditionally very risk averse, and this trend appears only to be getting stronger with recent generations. As a result, it’s likely that most locals will not be particularly supportive of your entrepreneurial aspirations.

Personally I find these challenges interesting parts of the Japanese experience rather than critical flaws. You’ll need to decide for yourself how you feel about them.

The Consensus

With all that said, what are the key benefits and drawbacks of living in Japan as a digital nomad? Let’s start with the benefits:

  • Culturally intriguing. Great opportunities for personal growth, expanding your worldview and questioning your own personal beliefs.
  • Hyper-modern. Extremely high standard of living and (beyond) first-world infrastructure.
  • Incredibly safe. Crime is practically unheard of in Japan.
  • Food. Plenty of delicious and reasonably priced options.

And now the negatives:

  • Cost. Despite the fact you can live cheaply in Japan, you get significantly less bang-for-buck when compared with other digital nomad hotspots (Saigon, Taipei, Bangkok / Chiang Mai).
  • Entrepreneurial climate. The Japanese are highly risk averse. Being a location independent entrepreneur in the land of the rising sun can be (at times) a lonely proposition.
  • The foreigner effect. Japanese society can be isolating, especially for foreigners.

In a sentence: if your primary concern is saving money and living in an environment that’s going to make building a business easier, don’t go to Japan. It’s comparatively expensive and not particularly welcoming to entrepreneurs.

On the other hand, if you enjoy experiencing culture shock, being outside of your comfort zone and testing your open-mindedness, Japan is a great location, and one that won’t (necessarily) break the bank.

  • http://davidhehenberger.com/ davidhme

    Hey Corey,

    Thanks for this great write-up. I’m amazed by your cost of living breakdown – $1800/mo seems ridiculously for Tokyo.

    That being said, Japanese salaries seem surprisingly low: According to this post [http://www.world104.com/blog/tokyoinsider/?p=6889], Males aged 20-24 make on average $27,000/year in Japan which is not much more than 2k/mo.

    Sounds like many locals don’t spend more than 2k/mo either.

    • http://coreymcmahon.com/ Corey McMahon

      Thanks for the feedback 🙂

      I also had to double ( / triple) check the numbers on the living expenses breakdown. Japan has such a bad reputation for living expenses, it’s quite surprising you can live (reasonably) well for under $2000 a month. I guess the caveat here is that you can also blow it out pretty easily in Japan. You CAN eat ramen and rice for ~$5… or you can go to the restaurant next door and spend $50+ on fresh sashimi.

      Those are interesting stats on average salaries in Japan; based on how the average Japanese person dresses I would’ve guessed much more than that!

    • http://jetsetcitizen.com/ John Bardos – JetSetCitizen

      Hi David,

      I think those figures are missing the bonuses Japanese typically get. Almost all full-time employees get bonuses twice a year which are often 3 to 6 months salary. This might be changing in recent years, but bonuses often increase total salary by 50% or more.

      • http://davidhehenberger.com/ davidhme

        Ah ok, that makes sense. These salaries seemed kinda low. Thanks!

  • TJ

    The cost breakdown is accurate and feasible even for digital nomads. I would add one note of caution that if you start a business in Japan the local market is so large that there is a tendency for companies to focus only on that and not go global at all. If your business is not Japan-centric and you are just looking for runway it wouldn’t make much sense. The government is working on free tourist wifi for 2016 (http://www.ubergizmo.com/2014/05/japan-planning-free-wifi-access-for-tourists/) You can also rent portable LTE hotspot devices at the airport for a reasonable amount.

  • Hitoshi Noguchi

    One thing you shouldn’t forget. The cost of medical care in Japan is about one tenth of what it costs in the US. In some cases even less. That when most of the cost of living in both countries are equivalent.

    • Sasquatchiscool

      You are correct. I went to the emergency room, ambulance, doctor, X-rays and medicine and it cost me 90 USD. No insurance. In the US that visit would have cost me 15,000 with no insurance.

  • Jonny Cook

    Hey, I was wondering. If I’m visiting Japan on a tourist visa, am I still allowed to work for my own company that I started in the US? Like if I’m a web developer and all my clients are from the US. Can I still work for them? Or would I have to get a working visa. I’ve tried to find the answer to this myself, but all the information I’ve found about working visa seems to specifically be about getting a job in Japan.

    Thanks!

    • http://coreymcmahon.com/ Corey McMahon

      Jury’s still out on this one. Tax laws in most countries are completely archaic and not set-up to handle the shifts in working habits and economies that have happened in the past 5-10 years. With that said, as a digital nomad you technically aren’t classified as “working” while in the country because you aren’t interacting with local business entities (e.g.: you aren’t deriving any income from the Japanese economy). If you’re going to Japan and touching the Japanese economy in some way (contracting for Japanese companies or getting a job in the country) then you most definitely DO need a work visa. On the other hand, if you’re not touching the Japanese economy (it sounds like you aren’t) a tourist visa should be fine. It only starts to get messy if/when you want to work with Japanese companies, so I’d suggest avoiding that. And obviously report earnings correctly in the US and pay any associated income taxes.

      • Jonny Cook

        Thanks for the response! Yeah, I wouldn’t be working for anyone based in Japan, all of my money would be coming soley from the US. As far as I can see, there really isn’t any difference between this, and living off of savings that I made while I was working the US, which of course is legal. But I can’t assume that the law is going to make sense…

  • http://chicvoyagetravel.com/ Greg

    Good article thanks. I was wondering about other cities in Japan like Okinawa and Kobe. If you’re looking for an alternative Taipei is cheaper, but offers a lot of benefits. http://chicvoyagetravel.com/digital-nomad-in-taiwan/