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Location Situation: Can an English Teacher Afford to Live in Tokyo?

There is a continual debate over what locations in Japan offer English teachers the best earnings versus savings potential so we break down some facts and figures to come up with our No. 1 choice.

By 6 min read

In the years I have lived in Japan, I have changed from more rural (southern Chiba and Okayama) living and working locations in Japan to the urban (Tokyo and Osaka) when it comes to my teaching career.

One thing that has never changed, though, is the raging debate on precisely which locales offer the better income-to-savings potential.

While it’s undeniable that housing costs drop significantly once you venture outside of the big cities, in many cases salaries tend to drop, too. This creates a quandary for anyone hoping to save some money through their time teaching English in Japan.

In short, which is better: a higher-paying urban job with more expensive living costs or a rural one that offsets lower salaries with increased savings on rent and other items?

Statistics on the average monthly rent for apartments by prefecture across Japan show a clear gulf in costs not so much between the cities and the countryside, but between Tokyo and everywhere else.

According to the most recent stats, the average rent for a 1K/1DK apartment (a single room apartment incorporating a small bath, shower, toilet and kitchen) was ¥78,000 per month in Tokyo, by far the highest in Japan.

In contrast, the cheapest was Miyazaki Prefecture in Kyushu where the average rent for this type of apartment was only ¥34,000. So if you go rural, you can save more than half your rent money.

Seems like a pretty open and shut case doesn’t it?

Crowded Yamanote line train in Tokyo.

Well, not really. You see, salaries for teaching in areas like Miyazaki are also significantly lower. A reasonable teaching job in or near Tokyo will pay something in the range of ¥270,000 to ¥290,000 a month. Even entry level jobs will pay at least ¥250,000 per month. In Miyazaki, such jobs typically pay in the ¥220,000 to ¥250,000 range and in some cases even lower.

Suddenly, that path to financial fortitude doesn’t seem so clear, does it?

There’s also the factor of larger apartments, too. While a 1K or 1DK is fine as a starter home for your first few months in Japan, ultimately, if you want to build a comfortable life here in the long term, you’ll need something bigger.

When we look at the prefecture by prefecture average price breakdown for larger apartments (1LDK, 2DK, 2LDK) things change up a little.

And with this change Yamagata, on the Sea of Japan coast, is now the cheapest region in Japan. At ¥45,000 per month on average, it comes in ¥3,000 cheaper than Miyazaki. Interestingly, average English teacher wages in Yamagata (based on recent job searches) come in a little higher than Miyazaki, at ¥240,000 to ¥250,000 per month.

Once you move onto bigger apartments though, the gulf between Tokyo and the rest of Japan expands considerably. The average rent for an apartment of this size in Tokyo is a whopping ¥123,000 per month — about 30 percent higher than second place Kanagawa Prefecture. In short, you’ll pay almost triple the rent if you choose a place of this size in Tokyo compared to Yamagata. One thing is for sure: English teaching jobs in Tokyo don’t pay triple the salary of those in Yamagata!

I would argue that living in Tokyo isn’t viable in the medium- to long-term, however, working there is.

So, this raises another crucial question: is Tokyo even viable for English teachers anymore? I would argue that living in Tokyo isn’t viable in the medium- to long-term, however, working there is.

Aerial photograph of Miyazaki City in Miyazaki Prefecture.

Given its central location, Tokyo is surrounded by neighboring prefectures on all sides: Chiba to the east, Saitama to the north and Kanagawa to the southwest. All of these prefectures offer commutes of less than an hour to Tokyo and offer significant savings on rent and other costs.

For example, with a little searching on Gaijinpot Apartments I was able to find more than 100 rental options in Chiba of 1LDK and bigger for less than ¥80,000 per month. If you don’t mind being a little away from the train station — about 15 to 20 minutes walk — this drops as low as ¥55,000 per month for a 2LDK.

Saitama yields similar results. As a sample, a 2DK apartment in Saitama City (about 40 minutes from Tokyo by train) would only cost ¥58,000 per month.

Of course, prices go even lower if you don’t mind downsizing or moving further from the station.

Kanagawa, home to Japan’s second largest city, Yokohama, is the most expensive of the three locales popular with Tokyo’s overspill. However, it’s also the most convenient of the three, with express rail links taking you from Yokohama to Tokyo in around 40 minutes.

Yokohama offers all the trappings of a large city but with a significant cost saving compared to Tokyo.

Yokohama offers all the trappings of a large city but with a significant cost saving compared to Tokyo. It’s still expensive compared to other cities in Japan, but again if you shop around and don’t mind a bit of walking to and from the train station then there are a number of 2K and 2DK places available in the ¥50,000 to ¥70,000 per month range. Yokohama teaching jobs also fall almost exactly in line with those in Tokyo, with an average pay of around ¥280,000 per month.

Yokohama city skyline.

Bear in mind, however, that when renting an apartment in Japan, you will need to factor in about ¥200,000 to ¥300,000 for the initial rent, deposit, reikin (key money — an arbitrary gift of one or two months rent to the landlord purely to thank them for the privilege of allowing you to give them your money every month) plus a few other fees. Thankfully, with each year these fees are reducing and more and more apartments are being made available without the dreaded key money and in some cases without even a deposit. As time goes on, this trend will continue.

In short, you’ll make the most money by working in Tokyo but you’ll save the most by living outside Tokyo and commuting there each day. Yes, the hour long train ride each way can be a major chore, but honestly it’s worth it, provided that your company reimburses travel. In Japan, most companies will reimburse travel costs up to a reasonable amount — but generally speaking, taking the shinkansen (bullet train) from Yokohama into Tokyo (¥2,760 one way from Shin-Yokohama to Tokyo station in 18 minutes) every day is a no-no!

By living outside the 23 special wards that comprise Tokyo-to, not only will you save money, but from my own experience, as time goes on you will really feel the benefit of being able to escape the worst of the urban sprawl and unwind a little on the weekends. You, your school and your students will all be better for it.

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Have you experienced living and working in Japan as an English teacher either a rural or urban assignment (or both)? Which location do you prefere and why? Let us know in the comments!

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