Americans living in Japan pay dearly for yen's rise A cup of coffee now goes for $6

August 18, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- American business may like the rise of the yen, but Americans living here are paying a heavy price for it.

Consider, for example, Tokyo's infamous $5 cup of coffee. As of yesterday, with the dollar worth just about 100 yen, that cup of coffee has gone up to $6 since January.

Never mind that the cost of the cup of coffee obviously has less to do with the cost of the bean than it does with the cost of serving it up in one of the world's most expensive cities. Six hundred yen is 600 yen.

And if the economists are right it may not be long before that's $6.50, maybe even $7 as the dollar becomes worth as little as 90 or even 80 yen by the end of the year.

For expatriates living on foreign-currency incomes, and for travelers to Japan, the painful trend has been under way for a few years and turned into a free fall at the beginning of the year. For them, the dreaded parity between the yen and the cent actually occurred several days ago because they get a few points less than the rates quoted in newspaper stories.

The cost of most things has skyrocketed.

* $100 for eight painstakingly wrapped peaches, boxed for presentation as a hostess gift. The same gift, at a slightly lower price in yen, cost $65 last summer.

* $30 table charge at one of Tokyo's cheapest and best jazz clubs. The same 3,000-yen fee converted to $24 in January.

* $285 a night, plus service and taxes, for a rather cramped single room at the posh Hotel Okura, across the street from the U.S. Embassy and a favorite haunt of visiting Americans. The same 28,500-yen rate converted to $228 seven months ago.

* $18 for a ticket to a first-run movie in Tokyo. The same 1,800-yen price converted to $14.40 in January.

* And most groceries are up: A pound of boneless chicken that cost $4.25 in February costs $5.30 now. A quart of milk that cost $1.40 in February now costs $1.75. A head of lettuce that was $3.60 six months ago now costs $4.50.

Small consolation, under the circumstances, that the yen-dollar rate along with some loosened import controls has made imported beef a lot cheaper than Japanese beef.

Now you can get U.S. or Australian sirloin steak at downtown supermarkets for a mere $16 a pound. In the case next to it, visibly superior Japanese sirloin languishes at $23 a pound.

The biggest cost most foreigners have to worry about is residential rents. Japan's soft economy has forced even Tokyo landlords to stop jacking up rents the way they did throughout the 1980s.

But after two two-year renewals at only modest increases in yen terms, a two-bedroom apartment in downtown Tokyo that cost about $4,000 a month in the fall of 1988 now costs about $6,000.

To W. K. Nichoson, who started as a businessman here in 1953 after a tour as an electronics specialist on a U.S. spy plane, the yen-dollar exchange rate has been an ever-changing presence for four decades.

"My first job was for a company that imported American scrap metals to Japan. I got 50,000 yen a month, the equivalent of $139 at the exchange rate then, which was 360 to the dollar," he said.

"It didn't sound like much even then, but a typical Japanese was making about 10,000 yen. At $139 a month, I wanted for nothing -- I ate all the best Japanese steak I wanted and drank the best imported scotch."

Even the idea that buying American here is cheaper, which is the purpose of the whole exercise, runs into another expensive problem.

Cal O'Brien, an American insurance man, might be able to afford to buy an American-made car he had in mind, but he can't afford to park it.

"Sure, it's a 20-percent discount off where the price was only eight months ago," he says.

"But now I can't afford to park it. You have to prove you have a parking space first, and rent for a Tokyo space costs as much over a year or two as the price of a new Pontiac Grand Am. So at 100 yen to the dollar, and assuming I'm here three more years, the parking space has actually gone up even more than the car itself went down.

"I still can't do it," he said, "and I'm damned if I'll buy anything from Nissan or Toyota."

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