Reflections on a Frugal Japanese Life

It is no secret that Americans are not good at saving.  

In fact, before the economic downturn, Americans were only saving 1% of their income according to The Atlantic.

Compare that to the Japanese, who save 25% of their income, down from a high of 30 to 35% according to Maki, the Japanese woman behind the blog Just Hungry.

My husband was born in Japan and lived there the first 25 years of his life, so I asked him about his experience growing up.  He was at first hesitant to share because he is nearly 40, so he doesn’t feel his family is representative of the way things may now be in Japan.  Still, this is his family’s experience, which I find to be in stark contrast to many American households, even 30 years ago.

His Parents’ Backgrounds

His parents each have modest educations and careers.

His dad, Shoji, only has a high school degree; he worked for the local government and did not move into a management position until he was nearly 50.  He worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week.  Even on Saturday and Sunday he went to the office and worked 10 hours or more.

My husband has memories of his dad not coming home some nights until 9 or 10 p.m.  Shoji also lived several hours away for a few years when work required it and only came home sporadically on weekends.

His mom, Yuki, has a two year degree and worked at the local preschool.  She worked nine hour days Monday through Friday and a seven hour day on Saturday.  Sunday was her only day off.

Societal Structure Helped Them to Save

japanese frugal life

What do you think of the Japanese frugal values in this article? Possible today?

In Japan, tradition dictates that the oldest son and his wife care for his parents in their old age.

Per this societal expectation, Shoji and Yuki moved in with Shoji’s parents as soon as they were married.  While this arrangement can be personally taxing for some, it does offer significant financial benefits.  They never had to pay rent or take out a loan to buy a home; when my husband’s grandparents died, his parents took over the house.  Likewise, Shoji and Yuki did not have to pay for daycare for my husband and his sister while they worked; the grandparents took care of them.

Because Shoji’s dad developed Alzheimer’s disease, he did eventually require more care than the family could give, so he lived in an assisted living facility.  All members of the family chipped in to pay for his care.

Implementing Frugal Behaviors Allowed Them to Save Prodigiously

My husband had a long list of frugal behaviors his parents implemented to allow them to grow their savings with their modest careers.  Here are a few of them:

– Grew their own garden to save on the cost of vegetables;

– Went on vacation just once every three or four years, and then the “vacation” was simply an overnight trip or a two day trip, often at a facility the local government owned so their stay was free;

– Went out to eat only once or twice a year;

– Used cash only, not credit cards;

– Rarely bought their kids’ clothes (besides the uniforms required for school); instead they dressed in hand-me-downs from their older cousins;

– Ate basic, low cost but healthy foods such as fish, rice, miso soup, and other Japanese staples;

– Bought the smallest cars they could that would comfortably fit their family of four so they could save on the price of the car itself as well as gas over the years;

– Kept each of their cars for at least 10 years;

– Never had cable tv;

– Put any extra money they made immediately into savings.

How Their Children Benefitted from Their Frugality

Education is very important to Shoji and Yuki.

Because of their strong work ethic and dedication to long hours at work as well as their frugal lifestyle, they were able to pay for my husband’s three year education in Tokyo (one of the most expensive cities in the world), as well as his 3 month exchange trip to London, and his three years of education in the United States.

They also paid for four years of my husband’s sister’s education and living expenses.  They paid for all of these educational expenses outright, without loans.

In addition, because my husband is living in the United States, his sister took over the traditional role of caring for her parents (though they don’t need to be cared for yet and are in fact still working even though they call themselves retired).  In return, rather than living with them, Shoji and Yuki built her and her family a large two story house right next to their house and bought her a new car.

Again, they were able to afford this thanks to their prodigious savings.

Despite these expenses, they still have plenty left for retirement and are enjoying their pseudo-retirement and spending time with their grandkids.


As Americans, many of us feel that luxuries (though we may not see them as such) are our right such as the latest electronic gadgets, a home as large as we can afford, a new car every few years, dinner out several times a week, and vacations to exotic locales, to name a few.

My husband’s parents’ example seems to prove that it is good to work for the things you really want, in this case their children’s education, but you can’t have everything you want.

To grow your own wealth, you must put a priority on the one or two things that are very important to you and let the others fall by the wayside.

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Published or updated October 24, 2012.


  1. Not to be harsh, but their frugality was only one tiny part of this. The major component seemed to be working 70+ and 50+ hours a week, while caring for your aging parents and basically ignoring your children (“came home sporadically on weekends,” “not coming home some nights until 9 or 10”) . If the is the message meant by “a priority on the one or two things that are very important to you,” not only do I not think most people could do it, I don’t think it’s all that admirable.

  2. Jade–The number of hours many Japanese people work is one aspect of Japanese culture that my husband disliked and is part of the reason he moved to the U.S. Now, he works a 9 to 5 job and is able to spend evenings and weekends with our kids. I agree the dedication to work is a huge sacrifice that many are not willing to make (and should not necessarily make).

  3. Respectfully, I’m not sure that you are comparing apples to apples. I agree that frugality is a virtue, but we need to take a closer look as to why the two cultures differ with respect to saving.

    The Japanese have had huge incentives to save the last several decades. Their population is imploding, and along with it they have experienced chronic deflation. This has meant that their financial resources will generally go farther in the future compared with today.

    Contrast this with the American economy and our situation of chronic inflation. A dollar today is consistently worth less tomorrow. This has created huge incentives to buy buy buy, promoting our consumerist culture. Accumulated savings lose value over time.

    I don’t think we will see a real return to savings (and personal financial responsibility) in this country until we return to a sound monetary policy. We have too much of an incentive to buy up resources that will ride inflationary bubbles and consumer goods that will inevitably cost more.

  4. GREAT post and true! We do feel quite entitled and like it’s our “right” to eat out and get new electronic doo-dads, etc. It’s actually ridiculous, really ridiculous. It would take quite a mind change for AMericans to think more like the Japanese in this article.

  5. Savings has always been a priority for me. I think I learned it from my parents who lived through The Great Depression. I find that savings provide choices and insure our future. It gave me the opportunity to invest in income property and became quite successful.

  6. mike crosby says:

    It’s amazing to see first generation families come from their country and what they accomplish here in US.

    My wife’s family is Cuban and the father tells me the story of him walking alone outdoors crying because he had no money, job or language.

    My wife became a lawyer and the brother a doctor. Even mom went on to get her master’s degree and became a professor.

    • Nunzio Bruno says:

      Wow that’s so awesome! First off this was a great post about frugality and while there is a bit of a cultural disconnect I still think the impact and message were definitely there.

      Mike – I am totally with you in your comment. I was born in the states but my parents immigrated from Italy. Both my parents bust their chops daily to provide and save for themselves. It was because of what they wanted for me and my brothers that they pushed us to get the best educations we could. I am a professor too! I teach mostly econ and finance and my youngest brother just finished his master’s in applied mathematics – so I can say that I am a direct result of similar efforts. 🙂

  7. Carl Lassegue says:

    It all depends on how you look at it. There is a lot of differences in the Japanese and American cultures but there are a lessons we can learn from them. Ex. Our children’s education should be a priority and it will require sacrifices.
    Even though 10 hrs a day every day is a little extreme, I have to admire your father in law’s work ethic.

  8. I think it’s healthy to learn about the way others live. It’s very easy to get caught up in the norms and trappings of your own social circle without taking the time for thoughtful examination. Learning about other lifestyles can give you a lot of perspective on your own life and your own decisions. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager says:

    Great comparison. I wonder if Americans would save more money if there was an expectation that their parents would be moving in with them after retirement?

  10. This is a great post. I realize people will compare the hours worked between Japan and the U.S., and that might be a fair comment. But people are seemingly working more hours here these days, as the cushy days are over.

    What jumps out at me is the cultural tendency (as you desribed it) to save 25% of income and to have societal structure such as the oldest son taking care of his parents. This is a model that appears to have wisdom and sustainability built into it.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love where I live, and think the good ole USA is the best place for me! I just think we can also keep an open mind and learn from others as well. Our savings rates, for example, aren’t so great here but need to be better.

  11. portabella says:

    I also think this model is broken, and one that we should NOT emulate.

    70 hour work week for the dad and a 50+ hour work week for the mom? Give me sloppy American spending time with the kids, even if it means credit card debt, any day!

    As inspiration, a split-the-difference, for quality of life plus some savings, then sure, by all means. However, you could find many of the same examples from our own Depression-era citizens.

What Do You Think?