The cheap beef bowl of doom

As your correspondent has written on this blog before, Tokyo isn’t nearly as expensive as it’s made out to be. You can live largish here on the cheap.  One reason? Deflation.

“Deflation?” you interject for the sake of narrative. “Awesome! Everything is cheap!”.  Actually, it’s not quite so awesome as that.

The Economics 101 class you mostly slept through taught you about price/wage spirals. One version goes like this.  For some reason – say, the end of a massive Japanese bubble economy in the 80’s – demand for goods falls, so prices get cheaper to attract customers. Manufacturers can’t achieve the same profits, so the amount of labour they can support falls. Competition for fewer jobs among workers increases, so workers are prepared to accept lower wages. With lower wages, consumers can’t buy as many goods, so demand for goods falls. Prices get cheaper, so manufacturers can’t achieve the same profits… and so on.

So what does this mean? Cheap beef bowls! The prices at Yoshinoya, the ubiquitous beef bowl chain, are a sign of the times.  By way of introduction, Yoshinoya is a great after-work dining choice for the illiterate and terminally single. Buy a ticket from a vending machine, hand it wordlessly to the attendant.  Inside a minute, he sets a tray in front of you with a steaming bowl of fried beef on a heaping of rice, along with pickles and miso soup. You eat it under a blanket of silence broken only by the dreary muzak.  You finish your complementary water, sitting alongside the clientele of exclusively male salarymen mournfully eating beside you.  You leave after the ten minutes it takes you to bolt it all down.  Utility eating at its finest.

Back to economics. When I came to Japan almost four years ago, you could buy the lonely set meal described above in Yoshinoya for about 580 yen (about $7 AUD). Now, the same set goes for about 500 yen ($6 AUD).  In the menu below, one of the bowls by itself starts at a very cheap $3.30 AUD.

The set below – a spicy Korean beef bowl plus vegetable miso soup and water – costs a grand total of 400 yen.  That’s around $4.80 AUD for a complete, filling meal, which is cheaper and nutritionally superior to what you can get at McDonalds.

Using the staple beef bowl as a price index is widely used as an informal economic indicator in Japan. If you want to read more about this exact topic, the New York Times has a feature which likely involves actual research and editing.

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Renting in Japan

I’ve been planning to write a piece comparing Japanese and Australian real estate for quite a while now.  This piece titled “Are renters trashy?” in the SMH resonated enough to get me going:

But this blog is a bit of a rant about THOSE perceptions of renters as perhaps being a little less than homeowners. The view seems to permeate society to the point that even the people spouting it out don’t realise what they are saying.

Perhaps it’s got to do with the mantra that renting is “wasted money” and only fools would do it. But that view ignores the reasons people rent – maybe they’re new to the city (like us), have moved temporarily for work, have fallen on hard times, opt to invest in other assets and rent, or just plain don’t believe the oft-repeated story that buying a property is the way to go.

Finally, a voice for trashy renters!  As a renter throughout my adult life, I’m happy to see an article from a renter’s side of view, rather than the countless articles pushing home ownership.  Reading through the inevitably heated and voluminous comments following any real estate article on Australian web sites, some seem to have the opinion that renters are like sewer rats.  I’d like to disagree.  Here then, is an attempt to inject some perspective by comparing it with some completely unscientific polling I’ve done in Japan.

Renting

I’ve rented various places in Australia and one in Japan, and here’s what I’ve noticed.

My renting experiences have generally not come with a whole lot of respect in Australia.  The first time I walked into a real estate agent was with three uni mates, taking the exciting step of moving out of home.  Before we could even say “Hello, we’re looking for…”, we were instantly waved away to the photocopied pile of “for rent” properties, with the sharply given advice that we’d have absolutely no chance of finding anywhere without a rental history.  Welcome to the world of renting!

Later, there was the owner of a different property who once docked us points in an inspection for having rubbish in the rubbish bin(!), and used his strong negotiating position to coerce us into improving the property beyond what it was when we moved in.  Eventually, we went to the RTA and he backed down.

My point is that renting in Australia is not a pleasant process to start with, and when you compare it with Japan, it’s even less pleasant.  Here are some points to compare:

  • Australia: standard six-month leases, at the end of which, the landlord might turf you out to sell the property or up the rent faster.
    Japan: two year leases, with many stable rental properties.
  • Australia: if you break your lease, you must pay the rent until the landlord finds a new tenant, resulting in you paying two lots of rent.
    Japan: my landlord told me I’d need to pay a penalty if I moved out before the end of two years.  “Oh yes?”, I asked.  $40.
  • Australia: inspections every six months, where the house needs to be clean to showroom perfection.
    Japan: no inspections.  In fact, most Japanese are aghast when I tell them that your landlord or agent comes through your house with a white glove on a regular basis.
  • Australia: when looking for a place, borrow the keys from the landlord (after paying a deposit) and show yourself out to each property, with little assistance from the agent.
    Japan: the agent will take the time to sit with you, find what you want, then will drive you out to each property to show you around.
  • Australia: if you accidentally miss a rent payment, you’ll likely be served with a sternly-worded, official warning – the warning you get before they evict you.
    Japan: you miss a rent payment, they’ll ask you pretty please if you could pay it.  I’ve heard that it’s so difficult to evict tenants here, they sometimes employ local goons to sit outside the bad tenants property to make their life miserable enough that they’ll want to leave.

Tenants generally hold a much stronger hand than they do in Australia.  I don’t want to paint the picture that Japan is perfect for renters, though.  They still have a tradition called “key money”, a one or two month rent “present” to the landlord which you’ll never get back.  At the end of a two year contract, you’ll sometimes be required to pay it again.  Pre-paid rent, deposit, and key money add up to a sizable  amount of money to move house: in total, three to five months of rent.  Some places don’t charge key money, but refusing to pay severely narrows your choices.

Also, if you’re a foreigner, bad news: you’re going to be rejected outright from at least half the properties you want to view.  Stated reason: being foreign.  I was a little upset at first, but someone clued me in on it.  Foreigners are seen as a flight risk, and are also seen as less respectful of rental properties, neither of which I can really argue against.  Still, to be told that you’re being denied even a look at the property just because you’re foreign is extremely jarring the first few times you hear it.  It’s blatant discrimination – though perversely honest.

Those points aside, renters in Japan are given a lot more respect than in Australia, and certainly my life as a tenant here has been a much happier one.

Buying

I can’t say that I have any personal experience with buying property in either country, but here are some impressions I’ve gathered.

Buying a house in Australia is seen as a shining beacon of aspiration.  If you look at the last ten years, property has been rocketing up, ever upwards.  Look further back, however, and the average returns flatten out significantly.  Plenty of ink has already been spilled on the bubbliness of the Australian market  – Adam Schwab at Crikey is one of the louder critics – so I won’t say too much more on the bubble debate.

However, of people I know who have bought, most said one reason they did so because they were just sick of renting and enduring most of the points I’ve listed above.  So, in a Japan where renting seems to be a much more pleasant experience, what are attitudes to buying like?

Well, the first thing you need to know about Japan is the history of real estate prices.  In the chart below, Australia is blue, Japan is red, the vertical scale is real house price index (i.e. house prices as a percentage, adjusted for inflation):

Australian real estate now costs 250% (adjusted for inflation) of what it did 25 years ago, while Japanese property costs about 70%. If only the data went back a little further, I have a feeling that the peak for Japan would be more pronounced.  At any rate, the red-hot Japanese housing market burst in the early nineties, and largely thanks to bungled government policy, the market has spent the last twenty years not just plateauing, but declining.  Official interest rates have been under 1% for a long time now, showing that not even super-cheap loans will get people buying again.

Faced with this situation, there are people in Japan who are not big on buying property.  When renting is acceptable, why not?  Though the graph above shows declining price ratios, buying a house in Tokyo is still expensive.  If you’re thinking about a detached house, start thinking a million dollars and up.  Dreaming of a house and backyard is futile for many Tokyoites.  Apartments, though, are somewhat affordable.  In my not-overly-fashionable area, they start at north of 300k AUD.

Looking at that graph, though, if you’re looking for a good capital gain in Japan, real estate is currently not the place to be doing it.

Will the Australian market follow the Japanese market?

Who knows?  The problem with trying to talk rationally about real estate is that you’re in one of two camps: those with property and those without property.  Those with property would like to see prices double year on year for eternity; those without would like to see them tank to approximately zero tomorrow.  There’s really no middle ground as with shares, since we all need a place to live.  You can’t escape the real estate market in some form even if you want to.

So, can we look to the Japanese market for Australia’s future?  Probably not – every market is unique in its regulations, which end up having huge impacts.  However, I feel like there’s something broken when the dense, 12-million-people-strong Tokyo has rents and apartment prices comparable to Australian capital cities.  To give an idea, I currently pay about $240 per week in rent for an apartment in good condition, a five minute walk from the train station and surrounded by restaurants and shops.  A quick look at an Australian real estate site shows a similar rental budget in Brisbane not buying you very much at the moment.

As I remain incredulous about the Australian property market, renting in the ever-deflating Tokyo market seems like a better proposition every day to wait out the storm – assuming I can pass for a local, of course.