Thursday, November 11, 2010

Taiwan overtakes Japan in living standards

Fascinating article from The Economist on living standards. I agree with it for the most part. The Japanese make more, but thanks to high prices they can afford less. Neighborhoods look nicer (and are so clean you could eat off the streets) but living spaces are tiny and housing prices are so high as to make Taipei's somewhat shabbier neighborhoods* be a far better deal at a fraction of the cost...for more space.

And it's true that if you go out for a good meal in Taipei, even for Japanese food, you're looking at maybe $10 USD per person, possibly $15. The grand total for a bill for 3 is $30-$45. (We're talking a "good meal", not a "super expensive hotel buffet" meal, which isn't even all that good most of the time.) You'll spend that per person in Japan on a good meal, and get less food.

But I disagree with the swipe at stinky tofu. I love sushi but come on. Stinky tofu is WHERE IT'S AT. What-ever, Economist. You just don't know good food when you try it. The more like ripe gym socks it smells, the better it tastes. End of debate.

Also, sushi is not the main food staple there. Duh - most people eat noodles, rice-based dishes, seaweed, cooked salmon and tuna dishes, plus egg. Sushi is a special occasion food in Japan, so comparing proletarian stinky tofu to patrician sushi is ridiculous.

A few notes on comparisons between life in Japan and Taiwan, with a focus on the lives of female expats, if only because I'll be comparing myself and a female expat friend who lives in Japan.

Living Space
It can't be denied - Taipei residents, as much as they complain about high real estate prices, can afford more space than the average Japanese urbanite. We're talking mostly about urban life here because most Japanese now live in towns and cities and really, what is Western Taiwan but one giant unfurled length of urban areas, connected by skeins of towns and settlements? Both countries have rural areas, but urban life is the default for most residents of both countries, as is fitting for developed nations.

I live in an older apartment in a sixth-floor walkup (which I am fairly sure is illegal - shhh). It's not a "pretty" apartment although we've decorated it well. Look under the sisal rugs and you see peeling linoleum better suited to a 1950s elementary school. Look past the big rice paper lantern lights and you can see where we installed them with electrical tape, and how the ceiling above is plastic. The bedroom is quaint until you realize that it's an add-on; what was one big room was converted to a one-bedroom with, basically, painted plywood. Our kitchen is huge but is just as outdoors as in (don't ask). We did our best with the paint, using epoxy primer on tough spots, and still got wall cancer (wall cancer is that thing you see in Taiwan where humidity makes the paint and stucco bubble and flake like tumors).

My friend's apartment is comparatively nice, with a tatami floor bedroom, sturdier walls and a kitchen that can be confidently described as "indoors". She's said that, compared to most apartments in the Tokyo area, however, it's crap. It's old and ugly (I think it looks fine; clearly Japan has a different threshhold for "old and ugly").

That said, hands-down I have more space. My living room alone is easily the size of her entire apartment. In her own words, "I live in a shoebox. It drives me nuts". Plastic ceilings, ugly floors and all, my apartment doesn't drive me nuts (usually). There is more than enough space for me, Brendan and the cat. I am not sure a cat could survive in my friend's place - not that they can have one.

Her rent is stratospheric compared to Taipei rent - for all that extra space we spend a grand combined total of US $400 per month. I'm not sure that would pay for my friend's living room in Kawasaki.

I live within a one-minute walk of Jingmei MRT station in Taipei. She's a 20-minute walk from the nearest subway station in Kawasaki, outside Tokyo.

We both have convenience on our side - she doesn't have to walk up six flights of stairs, but restaurants, convenience stores and other shops abound in her neighborhood as they do in mine. I have a night market naaa.

Her neighborhood is better looking, though.

I can't compare real estate because I've never looked into it in either country, but it is safe to say that Tokyo real estate dwarfs Taipei real estate in price.

Not much to say here, and it's hard to compare as she's just finished grad school and that cost a pretty penny.

She makes more. Depending on the month (I work on contract, see) she makes between 30% and 50% more than I do.

I, however, can afford more. We don't worry about price so much when we go shopping. We don't come back from a day in Taipei wondering where all our money went, clutching a tiny bag of barely anything (ah, Japan, the great Money Suck). The article is just right here - prices are absolutely punishing in Tokyo. My salary is lower but prices, in general, are an order or two of magnitude lower than that, giving me higher purchasing power overall.

You can see it in our travels, though this is not really a fair comparison: we specifically work and save to travel, and she worked and saved to go to graduate school. We jet off to the Philippines or Hong Kong because we *can*, and she's admitted that traveling just for the sake of it isn't so much her thing; she likes to live in different places and experience them in-depth.

That said, this is not a fair comparison at all. She did just work her way through graduate school at Columbia's Tokyo campus. Regardless of relative salaries and PPP she'd have less money after that - I've had no such major expense.

Quality/Price of Goods
There is a misconception out there that women are bad with money, that we're out-of-control shoppers who need to be told how to manage our finances.

My friend and I, as well as any independent expat women out there who managed to get themselves abroad and manage their finances well enough to maintain life abroad with regular visits home are a slap in the face to this theory - as for us two, neither of us overspend on "stuff" - including clothes and makeup.

I recently bought a pile of new, high-end makeup for my wedding, but with that I learned how to use it and do use it for work. My friend doesn't wear makeup. Neither of us buys clothes in bulk; neither of us can, really. I have far too many curves to ever fit into clothes typically sold in Taiwan for slender-boned, boyish-framed girls here. My friend isn't quite as voluptuous but she is tall - taller than me, in fact, and I'm no shorty. Buying clothes in Japan is just as hard for her, doubly so because everything is that much more expensive.

So, given the fact that neither of us is a big spender, we've got a lot of cred for accurate reviewing when we do buy something.

In department stores, prices are almost the same, especially when it comes to high end goods that are popular with upper middle class women in both countries. Designer items are particularly expensive in Taiwan due to import duties. Outside department stores it's a different story.

Thanks to shoddy but cheap products from China flooding the market here, stuff is dirt cheap. When I wanted to buy a coffeemaker, I went out and bought one. It wasn't the best quality but hey, if it ever breaks I can buy a new one (not good for the environment, I know, but even the expensive ones here seem shoddy). When I need new clothes, I can go out and shop carefully, and if I find something I like I'll generally buy it without too much worry as to the price.

If I lived in Japan I wouldn't do any of these things - partly because stuff would last longer, and partly because "not worrying about price" is a recipe for disaster in Tokyo. You may as well drop your pants and bend over. I'd have to be very circumspect about what I bought and how much I spent.

So all in all - her stuff is of better quality and is longer-lasting. Mine is easy to come by and I have more leverage to buy it, but it won't last that long because it's all Made in China.


It's hard to compare transportation in Taipei and Tokyo, as both have their upsides. Tokyo is awash in transportation, with a web-like system of subways and trains that covers virtually every inch of the metro area. Public transit in the countryside and smaller cities is similarly good. Even in Shizuoka town I never had to worry about how to navigate without a car. In Taiwan, traveling to the countryside carries the question "once we're in the town, how will we get around?" You can get a bus to almost anywhere (with some notable exceptions), but once there it can be very hard to do anything. Ever tried to explore Taidong without a car? There ya go.

Transit in Taipei is cheaper though - I can afford to ride the MRT and buses because they don't cost a mint. It's easier to figure out with more English help and signage and is more logically organized in one clear system. Even the buses, which are run by different companies, are integrated. In Tokyo, without a SUICA card, you're at the mercy of the different private subway line companies. It's impossible to figure out and I've screwed up more than once trying to deal with the subways there.

There's also the fact that in Taiwan, taxis are exceedingly affordable. If the transit connection between buses or trains is too much to bother, you miss the last train for the night or you're running late, a taxi is a real option that won't break the bank. I wouldn't even try to take taxis in Tokyo because I like to not be poor.

This is the most painfully apparent in airport transit. Getting into town from Tokyo Narita costs easily $12 US per person. Getting into town from Taipei Taoyuan costs...$4 per person. For the cost of the train in Tokyo, you could get a taxi from the airport in Taipei. Lower salaries or not, this means that Taiwanese can afford to see Japan's offerings and go one better.

The cost of transportation in Japan is one of the main prohibitors for traveling around the country. Our high speed rail is half the cost of theirs. Our trains and subways, too. Our buses leave theirs in the dust cost-wise, and if we need a car, chartering a car and driver is within our budget in a way that doing so in Japan could never be, even with a higher salary.

Rural Life

As little as I can focus on rural folks in this post, it is true that the average rural Taiwanese person is still poorer on a very real level than the average rural Japanese.

Food and Nightlife

Hands-down cheaper in Taiwan, and just as good. It's silly to compare sushi with stinky tofu, but you can compare one of our favorite pub cafes (Zabu in Shida) with the little izikaya we had dinner at the last time we went to Japan.

The food at the izikaya was spectacular (except for the weird mayo-relish-caramelized onion chicken thing) and we each had three glasses of sake/umeshu. We tried chicken sushi for the first time - yes, that's raw chicken. The bill came to about $35 USD per person. In Japan that's not bad. In Taiwan we could have enjoyed the entire meal with alcohol for that. At Zabu we regularly get a selection of good food (I particularly like the salmon flake citrus rice balls) and 2 high end imported beers each, and spend maybe $30 USD in total. With food and drink that much cheaper, it's no wonder that Taiwanese can go out more.

Anyway, there ya go. With a strong bias towards Taiwan as I'm writing this and not my friend, but that's my comparison of observed expat life in Tokyo as opposed to Taipei, keeping Purchasing Power Parity in mind.

*I don't mean that Taipei looks shabby. It's just that compared to Japan, if you don't have a shiny silver robot and hovercar, you look shabby. Next to Japan, America looks shabby.


J said...

There is one thing that in Japan is far better: mass transit.

Protocol Snow said...

The stinky tofu and sushi comparison is awfully ignorant (and condescending).

J: Taipei's mass transit is on equal with the best of Japan's, but I agree with you when comparing Taiwan as a whole.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

I'm planning to expand this post tomorrow, by the way.

Anyway, Taiwan's public transit is kind of sad outside Taipei, though better than the USA's, which is so bad that I don't even want to live there (I have a license but hate driving). Japan's is better in that regard.

Tokyo's subway serves more of their (admittedly larger) city than the MRT and buses do for Taipei, but Taipei's system is easier, more logical and not as impossible to untangle and figure out. Tokyo's subway gives me headaches, and even though it's extensive, it takes FOREVER to go anywhere. The MRT and buses in Taipei are much faster.

Oh yeah. It isn't fair of me to say this because I get paid to take taxis for work, but taxis here are cheap. If public transit is too slow, inconvenient or closed at night, taking a taxi is financially feasible in Taipei. In Tokyo, taxis are prohibitively expensive so you have to rely on public transit to go anywhere.

Anyway. More tomorrow.

Kath said...

Great post! Interesting comparisons too. I agree that Japan may be more aesthetically pleasing but Taiwan has the easier (financially etc) lifestyle.

And yes. The more it smells like old gym shoes the better it tastes. Long live Stinky Tofu!! (I wonder if the writer had tried natto?)