Hong Kong night view

Photo:Barbara Willi

Hong Kong vs Tokyo: Where Would You Rather Live?

It’s only a couple of weeks now until I go on holiday. Well, I say go on holiday, it’s more like a long weekend really. I’ll leave Japan on the Friday morning and return back to Osaka on the Monday evening. It may only be 4 days, but considering I’m a teacher and it’s still a full 3 weeks before the end of the Spring/Summer term, I’m lucky to get even those 2 days off.

For my destination, I chose somewhere that will, I’m sure, invoke quite a bit of nostalgia in me. I’m returning to my former home of Hong Kong. From 2010 until late 2013, I spent 2 and a half years living and working in this amazing city.

Earlier in my career, I spent a similar length of time living in Tokyo back when I first moved to Japan.

Even to those who have never visited this part of the world, the names “Tokyo” and “Hong Kong” are world renowned and synonymous with international business, and especially the global financial markets.

These are just some of the numerous similarities these two cities share. However, they are also both fundamentally different in a number of ways.

So, which of these two magnificent Metropolises is the better place to live?

Let’s examine some of the issues.

1. Living Standards

Both cities generally enjoy a high standard of living certainly on a par with most European and American cities, however in this particular case, I feel that Tokyo has something of an edge. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First of all, in spite of ongoing economic turbulence and the apparent failure of the government’s “Abenomics” initiatives, income imbalance is far less of a problem in Tokyo than it is in Hong Kong.

On paper, Hong Kong is one of the world’s most affluent cities, where 1 in every 10 households is home to at least one millionaire (in US dollar terms). However, it is a city of extremes, with more than half of the population requiring some form of government subsidized housing and the median wage for ordinary workers is around half that of Tokyo.

Both Tokyo and Hong Kong have issues with space. The price of a 1 bedroom apartment in either city centre is liable to be far higher than the price of a family home in most other parts of Japan. City centre apartments in both cities can be a bit cramped especially for a larger gentleman such as myself. However, if you don’t mind a bit of a commute then you can find very reasonably priced housing in the surrounding

prefectures of Tokyo (namely Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa). The same goes for the New Territories and outlying islands of Hong Kong. And there is definitely something to be said for taking the ferry to work every day, so long as it’s not typhoon season!

Pollution is a major downside to Hong Kong living however, and the lack of parks and green space in the more urban areas of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon serves only to compound the problem.

Conversely, Tokyo has parks, temples and other places for quiet reflection scattered all over the place. For the whole time I was there, it seemed as if you never had to walk more than 5 or 10 minutes to find a park. This superior sense of urban planning means, conclusively that when it comes to living standards, Tokyo takes the point. First blood to Tokyo.

Tokyo 1, Hong Kong 0

Imperial Gardens
Photo: Luca Mascaro on Flickr

2. Career Prospects and Assimilating into Society

Before I continue here, I’d like to give an importance preface to my comments.

I am speaking here from the perspective of a native English speaking foreigner living in each of these cities. For local people opportunities will always be greater, simply due to the lack of visa constraints, institutional biases and language barriers. These issues afflict both Tokyo and Hong Kong, albeit to varying degrees.

Unlike Japan, in Hong Kong English is an official language. So, whilst it is of course beneficial to learn the local languages (Cantonese is good for communicating with the locals, and Putonghua is useful for doing business), the fact is in Hong Kong you can go to the top of the career ladder using only English.

In Japan, this isn’t really the case, at least not yet.

The “glass ceiling” phenomena is also a major issue that Japan needs to overcome if it is to attract more immigrants in the future, which it will probably have to in order to overcome its ongoing demographic problems.

Simply put, there remain very few non-Japanese at the higher levels of management in Japanese companies. Even the larger foreign-owned companies operating in Japan tend to use local managers for their branches. Visas are also something of a bone of contention for people coming to work in Japan. The process for deciding whether someone gets a 3 year or a one year extension seems completely arbitrary. People who work in exactly the same job and have been here exactly the same length of time seem to get different results when applying. This has the knock-on effect of creating other problems. For example, with only a one-year visa, it is impossible to get a cell phone contract without making a sizeable down-payment upfront. Likewise, it is also almost impossible to get a bank loan, credit card and other financial services if one is not at least a permanent resident, a process which takes at least 10 years unless you marry a Japanese national. In Hong Kong, which is a far more money-driven society, such complications aren’t as big an issue, and the path to permanent residency for most foreigners working there only takes 7 years of consecutive residence. Visa renewals are the same for everyone, and upon gaining a working visa a resident can access almost all of the same services as a local, subject to credit clearance.

Japan visa
Photo: Paul Davidson on Flickr

Japan, I love you, but this is one area where you really need to step up your game.

Tokyo 1, Hong Kong 1

3. Overall Quality of Life

And so we come to the final, decisive round. Just which of these two cities is a happier and more fulfilling place to live?

This is a close call.

If making money, advancing your career and having as international a lifestyle as possible are your primary motivators then Hong Kong is probably the place for you.

However, if, like me, you value safety, security and being amongst a more polite, and less aggressive people then you’re probably better in Tokyo.

Hong Kong’s major downside is that the place is just too crowded. You have a population in excess of 7 million squeezed into a livable area that is only about 20% of the size of greater Tokyo. Bear in mind that the greater Tokyo area is home to 11 million people. Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places in the world, and this places a noticeable strain on public transport and other public services. In Tokyo, there are of course those You Tube videos of people being sandwiched into rush hour trains, but those are extreme examples. I lived there for 2 years and I used to commute into Shinagawa from Chiba every day, during the rush hour and only once in that time was I caught in such a crush. This wasn’t due to over-crowding, it was due to a typhoon causing most of the trains to be cancelled.

I also hope to become a family man someday. I don’t want my kids growing up in a city with major pollution problems, political instability and schools that are hopelessly oversubscribed. For this reason above all, Tokyo just, and only just, edges it.

Final score: Tokyo 2, Hong Kong 1

Hong Kong is a wonderful city, and who knows, perhaps I may end up back there someday. However, taking everything into account, unless I was offered a big increase on my current, very generous, salary, I’m probably staying in Japan for a while yet!

Tokyo Tower at night
Photo: tetedelart1855 on Flickr

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