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For Japanese, high cost of living 'just the way it is'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TOKYO -- Where do the people in Japan go when they want a bargain?

Elsewhere. Regardless of whether the products are made here or imported from abroad, they all sell for more in Japan. And that's despite the sharp increase in the value of the yen, which theoretically should make imports from nations like the United States cheaper.

In Japan, however, theory and reality part company. A June report by the Fair Trade Commission, the typically somnolent anti-monopoly agency, gave an official government stamp of awareness to what every shopper already knows: last year's run-up in the yen had little impact on prices.

So while tourists tend to blanche over the $10 cup of coffee and $100 steak, they at least can go home. The question they leave behind is how can the Japanese themselves live in their bargainless land.

The answer: "I've given up," said Seiko Atsuji as she placed a small shopping bag in her bicycle basket after shopping at a Western-style Peacock supermarket in Tokyo. "No matter how expensive things are, I buy what I have to buy."

"I think prices are high," said Nishima Chiuchiro, a cab driver outside the Meijiya food store, another upscale food market, "but I live here and think this is just the way it is."

When the Japanese want a good deal, they really do go abroad. Despite the current recession, overseas travel during the big May vacation period was at a record level. Stocking up while away on everything from sheets and towels to Sony radios is common.

No doubt they would buy Japanese-brand televisions, phones, microwaves and vacuum cleaners overseas as well, but like all products requiring a plug, the inexpensive, excellent versions made for export don't, not coincidentally, work on the slightly lower current used in Japan.

The next best thing is mail-order. Even though the appreciation of the yen should have made Japanese products more expensive in the United States, Japanese-made cameras, already 30 percent cheaper in New York than Tokyo, are now a better deal than ever.

And at least some Japanese have discovered the big American catalog companies.

Mail-order sales from Japan make up 70 percent of L.L. Bean's international catalog business. The orders began pouring in about three years ago, prompting the Freeport, Maine, outfitter to create an international division last year.

Sales from Japan totaled $68 million last year -- outpacing sales from former top international customer Canada -- with a bulk of the orders for $16 canvas tote bags, $64 hand-sewn moccasins and $115 flannel-lined, canvas field coats.

For many of the Japanese, surviving in the high-cost environment depends on the active intercession of their employers. Sheltered for years by a web of protective barriers from price competition, many domestic companies reciprocate with benefits rarely found in the United States.

Standard perks include low-rent housing in a company dormitory, company-provided breakfast and lunch, and reimbursements for travel to and from work -- including reimbursements for the occasional late night $200 cab ride from central Tokyo to a home in the suburbs. Vast corporate entertainment budgets, though trimmed recently, continue to send packs of dark-suited businessmen to Ginza, Roppongi and the other night-life districts, for evenings that begin at $500 a person.

Raises tend to come annually based on age, and it is not uncommon for mid-level employees in a major company with about 10 years experience to receive approximately $100,000 a year. The head of one sizable U.S. company says the standard "ex-pat" compensation for a mid-level employee transferred to Japan from America is $300,000 a year.

High salaries are prompting numerous Japanese companies to relocate operations abroad, most notably all the major electronics companies. That, however, is little solace for those in Japan. And with apples and oranges selling for more than $1 a piece and a generic pint of ice cream costing $5.50, lives are constrained at almost any income.

After the yen reached parity with the penny last month, a number of Tokyo residents shopping in local markets were queried about their monthly food bill. Sayori Terashita, a young student, said she pays about $300 a month. Several housewives estimated that for two to three children and a husband home for dinner a few times a week, the bill exceeded $1,000 a month.

Lots of money? It depends. "I am not aware that outside of Japan things are cheaper," said Akiko Matsuzaki, as she purchased vegetables at a Seiyu Store in central Tokyo for her husband and three sons.

Nutrition levels have steadily risen for the Japanese since the war. Still, the typical meals here are not like in the United States. Hamburgers of the quarter pound and larger variety are unusual. ZTC Instead, the hamburger is mixed with numerous ingredients, stretching its use.

Some western meals have become increasingly common. For instance, some Japanese families eat corn flakes for breakfast ($4 for a small box).

But typically, breakfast in Japan is a far cheaper blend of rice and miso soup. The miso often includes other ingredients, such as tofu and seaweed. Rice can cost six times as much in Japan as the United States, but it remains a comparatively cheap source of nourishment. Breakfast for a family of four costs about $3.

A noodle soup, udon or ramen, is common for lunch. Inside are dried fish, mushrooms, and perhaps a bit of chicken. Cost: $8.

Dinner is the big meal of the day for Japanese families. It often features grilled fish, pickles, rice, soup and a vegetable. For a full family, the ingredients could be purchased by a knowledgeable buyer for $30.

Still aghast? Then do without. Eva Syslo married a Japanese man two years ago and came from Poland to live in Tokyo. Since then, she has given up fresh and dried fruits, as well as beef. Veal has recently joined the list. "For foreigners, the food here is too expensive," she says.

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