Tokyo / Tel-Aviv – Cost of Living

Israel’s Channel Two television ran a 3-part news report series this week, comparing the cost of living in Tokyo and in Tel Aviv. Keren Marziano from the economics desk and Arad Nir from the foreign desk came to Japan and visited schools, supermarkets, restaurants and apartments, in order to assess whether the Japanese middle class is better off than its Israeli counterpart. The series is available online: Chapter 1, Chapter 2 and Chapter 3.

The bottom line (get ready for it, drum roll): it is cheaper to live in Tokyo than in Tel Aviv!

Sounds unbelievable? It is unbelievable. But it’s unbelievable because it’s mostly wrong. There are several international research organizations whose business is to measure cost of living around the world. And guess what? All of them rate Tokyo as more expensive to live in than in Tel Aviv (by about 20-30%). And rightly so.

Unfortunately, this series is a shoddy piece of journalism. It looks like the reporters came to Japan with a certain agenda and a foregone conclusion in mind, and then used anecdotal “evidence” to support their preconceived views.

Tokyo-Tel Aviv

Keren Marziano (right) and Arad Nir at a supermarket in Tokyo

Here are a few examples of this shoddiness. Visiting a supermarket and comparing the price of select items, while neglecting to compare the size of these items (e.g. a 1L Coke bottle in Japan vs. 1.5L in Israel) is shoddy journalism. Comparing teachers’ salaries without taking into consideration social benefits, employer pension contributions, working hours, vacation days, etc. is shoddy journalism. Exclaiming “oohs” and “ahhs” at the efficient Tokyo public transportation system and automated bicycle parking lots (of which only one exists in Tokyo, by the way), with only a cursory mention of the fact that the population is 15 times larger, is shoddy journalism. And these are only some examples.

Is it cheaper to buy lunch in Tokyo than in Tel Aviv? Yes. Are clothes in Uniqlo cheaper and better quality than in comparable shops in Israel. Also yes. But does this mean that it is cheaper overall to live in Tokyo. Absolutely not. Cost of living is not measured by comparing items in a supermarket or a clothing store. Many factors come into play, such as rent, education costs, medical costs and, most notably, long-term purchasing power. When you factor in less quantifiable quality-of-life items such as working hours, commute times, pension benefits, apartment sizes, quality of medical care, etc., the gaps are even larger. And not in Tokyo’s favor.

There are enough problems with Israel’s cost of living without the need to resort to blatantly inaccurate comparisons with Japan. If the intent was to create “dramatic” news coverage to fuel Friday evening living room discussions (=rants) in Israel, then this news series is a huge success. But if the intent was to provide realistic and well-researched data to help further the understanding of Israel’s admittedly worsening economic issues, I’m afraid this series achieved the exact opposite.

(And a footnote. I cringed at Keren Marziano’s style throughout the “interviews” with Japanese. Her loud and combative style, complete with wild hand gestures and table banging (!) may be appropriate behavior in our Middle Eastern environment, but it looked totally out of place in Japan. In this respect, Arad Nir’s mild style was much more respectful of the local culture.)

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One thought on “Tokyo / Tel-Aviv – Cost of Living

  1. I wouldn’t call the comparison “blatantly inaccurate”. Just checked the costs at Numbeo.com (which, based on my experiences, is usually fairly correct) and it’s not that off. It depends on what you compare. Most things in Tel Aviv (groceries, rent) are cheaper, but restaurant prices are much, much higher than in Tokyo. The cost of living index of Tokyo is slightly higher (84 vs 80). What’s most important is that the local purchasing power is higher in Tokyo, by ~18%, which means that a person with the same kind of job and salary will be able to get more in Tokyo. That’s before discussing the quality issues of what you get for your money.

    I haven’t been to Tokyo, but I can compare Tel Aviv (where I used to live) with places I know better. For example, Amsterdam. According to Numbeo, the two are more or less compatible on prices, but local purchasing power in Tel Aviv is about a 1/4 lower. That fits with my experiences.

    Another comparison I can make is with a notoriously expensive city – Zurich – where I lived for several months in the past. Yes, Zurich is more expensive than Tel Aviv. BUT the local purchasing power in Tel Aviv is 50% lower! And the quality of life in Zurich is way higher than in Tel Aviv.

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