Tokyo’s Salarymen Navigate Rising Food Prices with Budget-Friendly Lunch Options

by Ella

Amidst Tokyo’s vast culinary landscape, where Michelin-starred restaurants abound, the question arises: Is it feasible to enjoy a diverse lunch for as little as ¥500 (£2.60) daily, without succumbing to a monotonous routine?

Increasingly, cash-conscious office workers in Tokyo affirm a resounding “yes.”


After two decades of grappling with deflation, Japan finds itself adjusting to a new economic reality marked by rising prices attributable to the war in Ukraine, global supply chain disruptions, and the enduring impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. While Japan has not experienced the rampant inflation seen in other major economies, households are feeling the pinch, leading to a shift in spending habits.


This adjustment affects legions of sarariman, male office workers who traditionally dine near their workplaces during lunch, often reserving the bulk of their monthly allowance for obligatory post-work socializing.


In 2021, soaring prices of imported beef prompted the gyudon beef bowl chain Yoshinoya to raise the price of its regular-sized dish—a staple for salarymen—for the first time in seven years. Yet, even at the current higher prices, the dish remains accessible at ¥468.


Despite Japan’s ongoing cost-of-living crisis, where over 30,000 food items have seen price hikes in the past year, it comes as no surprise that frugality has become the preferred lunchtime choice for more salaried workers.

According to a survey by the Tokyo-based social lending service Lendex last year, nearly half of salarymen aged from their 20s to their 50s claimed to spend less than ¥500 a day on lunch. This figure includes those who bring their own bento from home, as well as a notable 22.6% who opt for a “one-coin lunch” to see them through the afternoon.

Another survey conducted by the Japan unit of Edenred, a payment service provider, revealed that around 40% of male and female office workers have cut back on lunch expenses, with nearly 70% sacrificing their favorite dishes to save money.

In an effort to showcase the prevailing trend, The Guardian embarked on a week-long exploration of Tokyo, challenging itself to dine at a different restaurant each day while avoiding supermarket delicatessens and convenience stores—common lunch destinations.

While the meals may have lacked in fruit and vegetables, featuring options such as gyudon, a gyoza set lunch, ramen, soba noodles, and Japanese curry, they excelled in providing value for money. Meeting the sub-¥500 criteria, even after factoring in a 10% consumption tax, these meals proved generous enough to satisfy even the heartiest appetites until dinnertime.



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