All About Japanese Money, and Why Rent in Tokyo Isn't Outrageously Expensive

The other day I read an article that discussed why Tokyo, one of the world’s premier cities, didn’t have sky-high rents like San Francisco, London and New York. I smiled, remembering my pleasant surprise at finding how reasonable rents were in Tokyo when my son started university there three years ago: around $750 for a small 1LDK (er, one main bedroom with an attached living-dining-kitchen), or perhaps around $1800 for something with three bedrooms. While Tokyo’s rents have stayed reasonable in part because construction of residential construction has remained high while the population has dipped slightly, the other reason has to do with the huge economic crash that happened in 1991, many times worse than what we experienced in 2008, which brought on the “lost economic decades” that are arguably still going on, keeping prices and salaries stagnant. Except for imported oil and (lately) hotel rooms, almost nothing gets more expensive in Japan, though as land prices finally start to tick up in anticipation of Tokyo 2020, this might slowly be starting to change.

The currency of Japan is the yen, a word that means “circle.” (The Chinese yuan and Korean won both mean the same thing, all having originated from the same character.) While there are many different denominations of paper bills used in the U.S., Japan has just three, for 1000, 5000 and 10,000 yen. The current face on the 1000 yen note is Noguchi Hideyo, a researcher who helped isolate yellow fever before dying of, er, yellow fever, while the 5000 yen note carries the face of Higuchi Ichiyo, a female novelist from the Meiji Era. The all-important 10,000 yen note, the symbol of Japan’s economic power in the world, is reserved for Fukuzawa Yukichi, one of the “Founding Fathers” of modern Japan. He was one of the first Japanese to travel to America and Europe in 1860, and he wrote the first books explaining Western institutions to his countrymen — making him a kind of Professor of Muggle Studies — before founding Keio University, which today is the Yale of Japan.

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