Japan is a unique country with a rich and distinct culture, and its capital, Tokyo, is a popular tourist destination that attracts millions from around the globe each year. Not surprisingly, it’s even on many people’s bucket lists.
However, when it comes to living in Tokyo, there seems to be a common misconception about the cost.
People like to mention how expensive it is to live in Tokyo, but is it really true, or is it merely an outdated fact that just caught on?
As hiring from abroad becomes the norm, and many engineers consider moving to Japan for a better career and living conditions, I often get questions regarding the cost of living in Tokyo vs. San Francisco and Silicon Valley in general.
This is why I decided to write a post comparing the two in terms of general living expenses. I’ll also get into the specifics of basic living costs in both cities.
Let’s start by comparing the overall cost of living in Tokyo vs. San Francisco.
Tokyo vs. San Francisco: An Overview
Due to the large number of opportunities for software and tech in general, both Tokyo and San Francisco are great cities for software engineers.
But which one is better suited for living? Let’s take a look.
If we’re going solely by numbers, according to Numbeo, you would need approximately 4,931 USD in Tokyo to live on the same standards you would live with 8,700 USD in San Francisco.
According to another source, the cost of living in San Francisco is 101% more expensive compared to the cost of living in Tokyo.
Judging by this info, it seems like Tokyo is the clear winner in terms of being affordable to live in. However, in truth, things might not be as black and white.
If the numbers I shared above were true, San Francisco would rank higher on every “most expensive city to live” list, but that’s not the case at all.
In fact, according to Forbes’ global cities with the highest cost of living list, Tokyo ranks in the top 10 with the 9th spot, while San Francisco is way below, sitting at number 19.
So, what’s the truth?
Things to Consider
As I mentioned in my post on the real cost of living in Japan, even though Tokyo may be an expensive city to live in, there are plenty of ways you can save money and reduce your cost of living if you’re in the know.
But then again, as cutting costs can look different to everyone, it would be impossible to take these into consideration. One person might be okay with cutting down on gas costs and giving up driving, while public transportation might be a non-negotiable for another.
The truth is, lists like the one I mentioned above don’t really consider these facts, and they go solely by numbers.
Additionally, another common oversight here is not considering how much people earn on average vs. how much people have to spend.
A city might be expensive to live in compared to another, but if the average earnings are higher than the other city as well, it’s really up in the air which city is truly the more affordable or “cheaper” one.
While viewing any list or article that compares cities in terms of costs, it’s important to remember these points and make a judgment accordingly. Also, it’s always better to judge by specific costs rather than overall, which is what we’ll do now.
As one of the most basic living expenses is probably housing or accommodation costs, let’s start with this one.
Currently, in Tokyo, the average rent per month for a one-bedroom apartment in the city center is around 1,178 USD, which is 153,194 yen, but I’ll continue with the USD amounts for both cities for the rest of the article for comparison’s sake.
In San Francisco, on the other hand, the average rent for a central one-bedroom apartment is around 3,282 USD monthly.
While the rent costs are significantly higher in central SF compared to Tokyo, the difference is even more jarring when we compare the prices outside the city center.
According to the same source, while the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in outer San Francisco is 2,579 USD, it’s only 684 USD in Tokyo.
These numbers make accommodation in San Francisco 64% more expensive than in Tokyo in the city center and a whopping 73% more expensive outside the city center.
While these numbers are facts, and they might make Tokyo look like the clear winner, I also recommend taking the size of the apartments into consideration here.
The comparison in rent prices makes it seem like San Francisco is outrageously expensive compared to Tokyo, but the sizes of apartments/houses are considerably smaller in Tokyo. Therefore, if you compare the price per square footage, the difference may not be as huge.
I talked about the average rent prices and apartment sizes in Tokyo and which districts are more affordable in more detail in my post on the average rent in Tokyo, which you might find useful.
Food or grocery store expenses can vary greatly depending on the person, but I’ll take the average numbers as it would be impossible to compare otherwise.
For groceries overall, San Francisco is about 34% more expensive than Tokyo. If we look at some basic specific items, however, things change a little bit.
While it’s true that basic items like bread, eggs, and chicken are much cheaper in Tokyo, fruit is usually more expensive. It still doesn’t change the fact that San Francisco is clearly the more expensive option, though.
While these are according to Numbeo’s stats, another source also claims that the overall food expenses in Tokyo are around 450 USD monthly, while it’s around 690 USD in San Francisco, which corresponds with the information above.
All these numbers mean that unless you have an extreme vegan diet where you exclusively eat fruit, grocery shopping in Tokyo is much cheaper than in San Francisco overall.
But of course, while cooking at home and buying groceries is arguably the healthiest option, you may still want to eat out from time to time. So, let’s now take a quick look at what eating at a restaurant costs in both cities.
For eating at a restaurant, Tokyo seems to be — once again — the more affordable option.
While a simple meal at an inexpensive restaurant costs around 7.5 dollars in Tokyo, the average in San Francisco is a whopping 25 dollars.
This difference becomes much clearer if we compare something that’s universal, like McDonald’s. According to the statistics, a regular meal with a regular-size burger, fries, and soda costs 11 USD on average in San Francisco, while it costs 5.3 USD in Tokyo.
If it didn’t hit you yet, that’s 111% more in San Francisco than in Tokyo, which is more than twice the difference!
Another point of consideration when it comes to restaurant costs is the tip. As I mentioned in my post on Tipping in Japan, you never have to tip when eating out at a restaurant in Japan.
Therefore, considering the bonus of no tipping and the price difference, Tokyo is clearly the more affordable city, especially if you’re the type who likes to eat out often.
Much like eating habits, one’s fashion choices and standards can also vary a great deal. I’ll go by the prices of most basic items, which should give us a general idea.
Once again, Numbeo's stats show that a simple pair of jeans cost the equivalent of about 45 US dollars in Tokyo, whereas in San Francisco, the price is around 63 USD.
Just as we did in the eating out section, if we compare the prices of a global chain store like H&M or Zara, a casual dress costs about 5 dollars — or 12% — more in SF. A regular running shoe from Adidas or Nike, on the other hand, costs 12 USD — or 18% — more in San Francisco on average.
Of course, while these numbers show that San Francisco is the more expensive city for clothes shopping, this isn’t to say that you can’t find better deals in the States.
If we disregard the regular retail prices and focus on the best deals, I’m sure you can find plenty in the U.S. too, especially in outlet malls on Black Friday. But this wouldn’t be an effective comparison as deals change and are not really reliable.
Driving just might be one of the only categories in this post where Tokyo is significantly at a disadvantage. However, gas prices aren’t exactly to blame here. Let’s look at the numbers first.
According to Numbeo, the price of a liter of gas in Tokyo costs about 1.28 USD, and in San Francisco, you can buy the same amount of gas for 1.62 USD, which makes a 20% difference.
However, an important point to consider here is the fact that Tokyo is a very dense city, and parking is usually a problem. Therefore, you’ll have to use the underground parking spaces under your apartment building or elsewhere, which is usually costly.
While the main reason for the expensive parking prices is that space is very limited, another reason is that having a car isn’t that common in Tokyo. It’s usually not recommended to get a car in Tokyo because of the constant traffic and narrow roads. Unless, of course, you have to commute to another city every day.
Besides, considering that your employer will also cover your transportation costs to and from work, things get even cheaper if you opt for public transport.
Either way, if you were set on buying a car, it would still be cheaper in Tokyo. Again, looking at the numbers, a new Volkswagen Golf car or equivalent costs about 20,000 USD in Japan, while it costs about 28,000 USD in the United States.
As I said, this price difference still doesn’t make buying a car a viable option if you’re living and working in Tokyo. The city is very dense, and you can pretty much get to anywhere you want with great ease using the robust public transportation system.
Speaking of which…
We already implied that the public transportation system in Tokyo is so efficient that most people find it unnecessary to even buy a car. This is why it’s best to compare the public transportation prices instead of the gas prices unless you’re dead set on driving and dare to take on the Tokyo traffic during rush hours.
A one-way ticket for local transport in San Francisco costs about 2.85 USD on average, while the same type of ticket costs the equivalent of 1.54 USD in Tokyo, which is 46% cheaper. As for the monthly passes, there isn’t that big of a difference, but a monthly Tokyo ticket still is 13% cheaper.
As for taxis, San Francisco easily takes the cake, as cab fares in Tokyo are very expensive due to the efficiency and availability of public transport. On average, a standard 1 km fare costs 1.95 USD in San Francisco, whereas it’s 65% more expensive in Tokyo at 3.23 USD.
When comparing two cities in terms of cost, another big point of consideration is education. Let’s first talk about primary schools and high schools, and then I’ll also talk about college tuition.
As most foreign people who live abroad prefer international schools for their kids, I’ll base my comparisons according to this.
If we make a direct comparison between the international schools in Tokyo vs. San Francisco, at first glance, Tokyo seems to be much cheaper, with 16,750 USD on average. The same type of school costs around 33,000 USD yearly.
However, if you were to live in San Francisco, you would have plenty of other private school options that aren’t international schools. This is why this comparison is actually not fair.
In general, Tokyo international schools are known to be extremely expensive with not many alternatives, but you could very well find something more affordable. After all, the average for private schools in the state of California is 16,088 USD. Therefore, San Francisco provides much more affordable options in terms of elementary-level education.
On the other hand, college tuition fees in the U.S. are notoriously high. While the yearly tuition fee at the University of Tokyo is around 5,000 USD yearly, the yearly tuition at the University of San Francisco is 54,980 USD, according to the official USFCA website.
While the above comparisons can give you a good idea, it still doesn’t mean much if you don’t know how much an engineer makes in Tokyo vs. San Francisco on average. So, let’s see how it compares before I finish up here.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of living in Tokyo as a software engineer is the opportunity to earn very high salaries in relation to the expenditures you’d have. According to Levels, the average salary of a software engineer in Tokyo is around 65,000 USD, whereas, in the San Francisco Bay Area, the average is a whopping 231,000 USD. That’s a huge difference.
Of course, as you can tell from the information I gave above, living in San Francisco is considerably more expensive, which affects the average salary greatly.
Companies like the ones we feature on the Japan Dev company list make the utmost effort to bring things up to the world standards in Japan, and that involves salaries too. However, as the rest of the industry is still underpaying their software engineers, this brings the overall salary average down significantly, which is an important point to consider here.
In addition, it makes the average mentioned above irrelevant for foreign software engineers that get hired by international companies.
I talked about this topic to a great extent in my post on software engineer salaries in Japan, which you can check out to find out more.
Between the two cities, Tokyo seems to be the more affordable option in almost every aspect. However, as I mentioned, it all depends on personal preference and what your standards are in the end.
If you want to live in a big house, Tokyo’s cheaper rent prices aren't going to entice you. Similarly, unless you’re into driving, you won’t have a better time getting from point A to point B in San Francisco than in Tokyo. It’s all relative.
One thing that can actually help you decide, however, is the work culture. This is why as I finish this post, I’d like to leave a couple of resources.
The first one is a post I wrote about the work culture in Japan, which is essential if you’re moving there for work. The second one is all about navigating the workplace in Japan, which should give you a good idea of workplace culture in Japan.