Tokyo has a reputation for being the world’s most irrationally expensive city, but once you actually live here, you realize that prices do not live up to the hype. Few individuals in New York City can expect to rent their own apartment for $600 a month — something that is relatively simple in Tokyo as long as you don’t care about square-footage. Cooking at home or a constant diet of Yoshinoya provide ample calories on small budgets. Well-planned transportation schedules can be economical, especially for students buying tsuugaku subway passes.
But if you really want to save money in Japan, the most important thing to do is not have any friends. The Friend Tax (友人税）is where the Japanese economy empties your pockets every month.
Last night was a typical night in the city, where I and the girlfriend went to a goodbye party for a young visiting European scholar. Late leaving my house, we arrived thirty minutes before the nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink) period ended and were greeted by a large group of red-faced revelers and uneaten plates of whale bacon. Drinking warm Asahi Dry in tiny cups, we made merry and met new friends, only to be greeted with what is always the ugly reality to our hedonistic escapism: “The bill will be ¥4200 a person.” Now, this is quite a lot for thirty minutes of minor imbibing, and since I had to pay for my date as well, a lofty sum for my meager government-subsidized living. But despite the gracious apologies from the host, I did not flinch: For I know the reality of the Friend Tax.
Whether it be birthday parties, gigs of friends’ bands, seasonal events, or school-related functions, you will never walk away paying what you would just pay by yourself — even if you had gorged and binged at maximum speed and force. That margin between your expected payment and the actual inflated bill is the dreaded Friend Tax. And the greatest irony is that you will no doubt be drunk, but the more money you drop, the more likely you will still be hungry at the end of the evening.
But it’s not just groups buying into badly-valued meal plans and drink sets. If you go a la carte, you do equal damage to your financial standing. Buying a pitcher and playing darts may be fine, but this is a country of unending formal engagements to mark various occasions. If you are part of an organization, there is only the rare chance to have fun that is not “mandatory.” The only way to avoid the Friend Tax is to have no friends or keep all fraternizing inside your peers’ tiny apartments across the city suburbs.
For those planning on moving to Tokyo, make sure you budget yourself at least ¥10,000 to ¥20,000 per month to deal with the Friend Tax (particularly if you are a student). The National Tax Agency keeps the existence of this tax secret. Perhaps the hikikomori do want to go outside and galavant, but they just can’t afford it.