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Why Are These Things So Expensive in Japan?

Movies, pizza, bullet trains and mobile phones seem more expensive in Japan than elsewhere. Here's how you can save.

By 8 min read

One of the benefits of Japan’s relatively static economy is that prices for everyday items have, as I have observed directly, remained more or less the same in the 13 years since I first arrived (give or take a few percentage points of the consumption tax increase).

Over my decade or so here, however, I have noticed that some items seem particularly expensive in Japan compared to other countries. I wondered: Why do these cost so much? So I did a little digging on four items that foreigners regularly consider too pricey: movie tickets, pizza, shinkansen (bullet train) travel and mobile phone contracts.

Here’s what I came up with on four popular items we pay too much for in Japan, why we do so and — as a bonus — some ways to help negate the costs and limit the damage to your wallet.

1. Movies

In my current period of post-surgical convalescence, I found myself going to the cinema multiple times during the recent 10-day “Platinum Week” holidays.

However, at ¥1,800 (US$16.50) per ticket, a trip to the movies is definitely not the cheapest option for date night. So why is going to the cinema so expensive here? Well, I’ve heard multiple explanations for this down the years.

First, there’s the issue of expectation and tradition. Research will tell you that the history of movie theaters in Japan goes back more than 100 years, predating the modern notion of the “blockbuster popcorn flick,” which wasn’t really a thing until the likes of Jaws and Star Wars became massive international hits in the 1970s.

For decades, a trip to the cinema here was held in similar prestige as a visit to the theater or a major sporting event and the higher price point reflects this.

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Also, there is the argument that cinemas — like those I attended back in Scotland and perhaps in your own home countries, too — keep their ticket prices artificially low by severely overcharging at their concession stands for food and drinks.

Japanese movie theaters, for the most part, don’t indulge in such greed. Prices are around the same or perhaps just slightly more expensive than those of a typical convenience store. As an example, on a recent trip to catch a flick, my partner and I paid ¥1,000 for two large drinks and two large servings of popcorn. Also, unlike most foodstuffs in Japan, the portion sizes at the multiplexes are definitely modeled on American notions of size. This adds to the idea of good value for money.

There are numerous ways to bring the cost of tickets down to a more manageable level. For example, Toho offers discount tickets on the first day of each month. I went to see Avengers Endgame on May 1 for only ¥1,300. Bear in mind, this price was for the regular screening. The 3D or IMAX screenings will cost more than this.

There are also numerous promotions on designated days for women, men, couples, and children. Also, if one of you is over 50, both members of a couple will receive the over 50 discount!

Certain mobile phone carriers such as Docomo and AU also offer tie-in discounts with certain cinemas. It’s best to check with your provider for more details.

2. Pizza

Depending on the size, choice of toppings and even the time of day that you order, a single pizza in Japan can cost anything from around ¥1,000 up to more than ¥4,000 yen.

Compare this to the ¥1,400 or so I was used to paying for a regular pizza from Domino’s back in Scotland and you can see why I think pizza is a tad overpriced here. What really compounds this is that sizes in Japan seem to be a bit off. What we would probably call a “small” pizza back home, is called a “medium” here and likewise a “medium” size pizza back home is considered a “large” here — there is no “small” option.

So why is this?

Well, until recently, I bought into the notion that this was because specialist ingredients — such as herbs, spiced meats and mozzarella cheese — were costly to import to Japan.

However, in researching this article, I have found this to be nonsense. It’s true that these items may not always be available in your local supermarket, but where you are able to find them, the prices are comparable to those of North America and Europe.

In the last couple of years, a number of cheap pizza places have emerged across Japan. Many of them sell what is known as the “one coin pizza” — a pie that only costs ¥500. Of course, more expensive gourmet options are also available.

Yet the likes of Pizza Hut, Domino’s and their domestic rivals such as Pizza-La refuse to lower their prices in what seems to be a form of brand snobbery.

If you do insist on getting a “big brand” pizza, like those mentioned, then be sure to register at the restaurant’s website. They will send you coupons and update their sites with new promotions and discounts almost every day. If you’re clever about it and order at the right time, you could get two pizzas for the price of one, get a half-price deal, or maybe some free extras — like chicken wings or cola.

3. Shinkansen

I have to admit, I feel conflicted writing this as the shinkansen is far and away my favorite mode of transport.

That being said, in this day and age, the now 50-year-old bullet train simply isn’t good value for money anymore.

The emergence of low-cost carriers (LCCs) has brought airplane ticket prices crashing down and added competition has created a similar price war in the coach and night bus market. There hasn’t been any such push for Japan Rail (JR) to moderate its prices.

The Japan Rail Pass, which allows heavily discounted travel for foreign tourists visiting Japan, is also subsidized by you and I overpaying for our domestic comutes.

However, much like the case of cinema tickets, there are still some ways those of us resident in Japan can benefit from discounts.

Getting Around

First, there is the Kodama shinkansen, which runs the main line between Tokyo and Hakata (Fukuoka). This train is a lot slower than the Nozomi or Hikari shinkansen trains, but if you book a week ahead, you can make significant savings on travel costs. Just be sure to factor in the extra time you will need to get to your destination.

For example, the fastest Nozomi train will get you from Tokyo to Osaka in a little under three hours. The Kodama will take about 4 hours and 30 minutes to cover the same distance.

There are also seasonal discounts and passes you can buy throughout the year — though these may not be permitted on every train, so be sure to read the exact limitations before you buy. One such example is the discount offered by the travel agency KNT that allows you to travel from Osaka to Hakata (Fukuoka) for a reduced fare of only ¥7,300 yen. This must be booked at least four days in advance, though.

For more information visit your local Japan travel center (most larger train stations have one). I wouldn’t recommend the JR website, as it often doesn’t show all the offers currently available and much of it is only available in Japanese. If you can, try bundling your hotel with your shinkansen tickets via sites like JTB to take advantage of further savings.

4. Mobile phones

This is a long-running bugbear of mine. Cellphones and their accompanying contracts here in Japan are grossly overpriced.

This was, until recently, in large part due to two factors:

  1. The almost total market control shared between SoftBank, Docomo and AU — and the none-too-subtle collusion between the three — meant there was little if any incentive to offer better deals, as we consumers had no choice but to go with one of them.
  2. The resistance among many Japanese people to buying second-hand goods, particularly where electronics are concerned. Basically many feel that it’s unsafe to buy items that aren’t new.

It’s quite frustrating to watch my girlfriend spend about ¥40,000 to ¥50,000 more than she needs on a new phone simply because she “doesn’t trust second-hand dealers.”

Thankfully, in 2015, new legislation forced these carriers to open the market up to new competition.

How to Get a Smartphone

To avoid the price fixing of AU, SoftBank and Docomo, simply don’t do business with them.

Find a decent handset online (as an example, I bought a Huawei P9 for ¥15,000 on Amazon) and then get your own sim card and contract with an MVNO provider. I know some of you may want to keep your old number, and this can be done, but it is quite problematic to do so with an MVNO, so if possible I recommend just getting a brand new number when you switch providers. It’s sure way to prevent annoying sales calls from your previous network too!

I previously paid ¥10,000 per month to AU for 7 gigabytes of data per month. I now pay between 3 and 4000 yen per month to my MVNO provider (OCN) for 10 Gbs of data per month.

For more details, have a read at this article on cellphone contracts here in Japan.

It’s a sad fact that as time goes on, inflation means that everything seems more expensive than it used to be. Thankfully, prices here in Japan haven’t moved that much at all since I first came here back in 2006.

What has evolved though, is a whole new economy in seeking out bargains via apps, internet discounts, and online pre-booking. The savings are there, you just need to know where to find them.

What are your tips for saving money in Japan? Got any special offers you think we should know about? Leave a comment and tell us your thoughts.

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