Living in Singapore vs. Tokyo: List of Talking Points (Part 1)

Shimokitazawa Cafe

Before moving to Singapore i spent 2 years in Tokyo as a Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) postdoctoral fellow. That whole experience probably deserves a post (or a few) of its own, but let’s leave it for the moment. Instead, here are some facets of life that are significantly different between the two places and its people. There are of course superficial similarities. Both are modern, vibrant cities in Asia with low crime rates, an aging society, and squeaky clean streets. Surprisingly, they both also have a population generally lacking spatial awareness, and a strange penchant to go mob-crazy over food obsessions… German baumkuchen in Tokyo & bubble tea in Singapore come to mind. In general though, i believe Tokyo and Singapore are quite distinct.

Disclaimer: These opinions are formed on the basis of my personal experiences. Take with a grain of salt. And while best attempts were made to learn Japanese at least to a high conversational level, i topped out somewhere between JLPT N3 and N2. That obviously would’ve had a huge impact on my experiences.

Point #1: Language Barriers

Despite the pokes people often make at the level of a typical Singaporean’s English, you can get everything you need done, and that’s good enough for me. The first time i landed at Narita International Airport in Tokyo, i was rather shocked to find that the agent selling train tickets into the city could not speak a word of English. This was the airport!?!? At Todai, the #1 university in Asia, even PhD and masters students struggled to make small talk. Of course individual skills varied, but the language barrier was a huge part of life in Tokyo. Compared to that, Singapore is a walk in the park.

Gingko leaves at Todai

Point #2: Cost of Living

Tokyo is the most expensive city to live in according to Mercer’s Worldwide Cost of Living Survey 2012. Singapore and Zurich share 6th place. If this is what the difference between 1st and 6th feels like (basically none), there’s some serious competition going on in the top 10. I had thought that coming from Tokyo i would find Singapore blissfully cheap. That did not happen. Yes, public transportation is affordable and hawker centres do a fantastic job feeding people at the lower end of the price spectrum. But there is a reason why locals are feeling pinched these days. The unrelenting inflation, standing at 3.9% in August (already a nearly 2-year low), is crazy. How long will it be before prices match deflationary Tokyo? As is, i can’t even imagine having to buy a house or a car here.

Point #3: Public Transportation

I love the train and subway system in Tokyo. If you’re within the Yamanote circle, it’s almost impossible to walk more than 10-15 minutes without seeing at least one stop. What i disliked was the super early last train calls at around midnight. If you missed your train, you had a few options: (1) dish out mucho $$$ for a taxi, (2) drink and sing all night at karaokes with special until-5am packages, (3) crash in the 24h McDonald’s, or (4) bum in a manga cafe or capsule hotel (the latter mostly for men). The Singaporean MRT system is quite good (it also ends by midnight), but you can’t get to many places unless you also take a bus, adding uncertainty to your journey time. I suppose it’s pretty difficult to beat the Japanese after all. Their clockwork perfect, punctual trains are a force to be reckoned with.

Katong neighbourhood in Singapore

Point #4: Work Culture and the Dreaded Face-Time

It’s a bit hard to compare, as i’ve not worked with many Singaporeans professionally yet. From what i hear though, the work day here is around 10h, which saves you maybe 2h from Tokyo’s ridiculous norm. Face-time was so important in my Japanese lab, that students routinely slept on their desks and also during our 8h meetings. Yes, that 8 was not a typo. This behaviour, worse even, was accepted as quite the matter of fact. I know this is reality in Asia (when in Rome…), but couldn’t we just efficiently do our work and be assessed on results rather than posed effort, or time in the office? A girl can dream right? And any commentary on Japanese work culture would of course be amiss without discussion of the salarymen, or their drunken work parties inevitably ending with ties secured around foreheads. Hehe.

Point #5: The Locals

One of the biggest differences you’ll observe in the people is their openness. Singaporeans are a lot chattier but also blunt compared to Tokyoites, and will happily complain about everything from expensive cab fares and their neighbour’s maid, to you yourself. On the other hand, it’s hard to really decipher what a Japanese person is thinking sometimes. They tend to be gracious but more reserved in general, and prefer to talk about positive and predictable topics. For me, it was quite difficult to befriend a Japanese person unless they previously had some global experience… In Singapore I was taken aback by the mannerisms of especially the older generation of Singaporeans. It can appear quite rude and puzzling (and most definitely so in this public transit fight), but is, for most cases, innocent and without malice. Since the “economic miracle” has unfolded over these decades we are now seeing a new generation grow up with different ideas and their own life philosophy. I wonder how things will turn out?

Point #6: Sticking Out Like a Sore Thumb

If you do not look East-Asian in descent, you will be noticed in Tokyo, period. It’s not so much staring, in my opinion, but more a mild curiosity because you’d stand out visually. And if you are East-Asian, everyone will just assume you’re Japanese and speak to you in Japanese. The bizarre thing is that after living there for a while, i also started behaving the same way despite growing up in Toronto, a mix mash of cultures. In that sense Singapore is definitely more familiar, because there’s such a variety of ethnicities present here. I only wish Singaporeans could appreciate this facet of their society more.

Point #7: Apartments

In Tokyo i lived in a 42 square meter (450 square feet) 2DK apartment (2nd Floor corner unit, southern + eastern exposure, cats ok, 6min walk to 4 subway lines including the Yamanote) for ¥120,000/month, or roughly S$1875. It was an older building without an elevator, but was a far cry from a true shoebox apartment. In Singapore, it was hard to find smaller studios until recently, so if your budget is under S$2000 you almost always have to rent a common room and share living/kitchen space with others. If you can afford S$3000+ some good options become available for say, a young couple just starting out. Now keep in mind, i’m talking strictly about condos in Singapore, because landlords renting out HDB flat to foreigners are often doing it illegally. The good thing about Singaporean condos is that they usually come with nice facilities – BBQ pits, a swimming pool, security guards (kind of unnecessary, in my opinion), and fitness gyms. What annoys me, is how they like to count balcony space as “real” square footage. I know we’re living almost on top of the equator, but so what? Hardly anyone would setup a study or bedroom on their balcony. Apartments in Japan are also designed more ergonomically, so that your tiny space is used as efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, those building principles don’t seem to apply here.

Tsukiji donburi

Point #8: Quality & Variety of Food

This one is a tough call, but Singapore definitely wins on variety while Tokyo wins on consistency of quality. What do i mean by that? Well, in Tokyo you can randomly walk into any restaurant and expect to get a high-quality meal. The Japanese are probably the best in the world at obsessing over little details to reach super elite master status, and this clearly shows in their food. Singapore does international food ever so well though, so you never have to worry about pastas garnished with seaweed, for example. (For the record it is delicious, but very “Japanified” Italian food). I also love, love, love all the variants of spicy food in Singapore. Seriously, good eats are everywhere.

Grilled Stingray

As i started writing this post it just got longer and longer, until i realized that i’d probably have to break it into multiple posts. Stay tuned for discussions on public spaces, immigration, how singles hook up, and more.

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