Note to family and friends: With a weak yen, it’s a great time to visit Japan.
Every country, for the most part, is trying to ruin their currency. Unfortunately Japan has momentarily succeeded.
First you have to understand that when you move to a foreign country you are given a handful of funny looking bits of paper they call “local currency”. The problem is, you have no frame of reference for it and your brain immediately defaults to your home currency. I remember during our orientation in Tokyo that speakers would describe something as 20,000 yen and we newbies would be like “whaaasat?” and they’d say that’s about 180 dollars and then the people from the British Isles and/or Australia would be like “whaaasat?”
Once you learn the money, it becomes second nature and then you give a talk to newbies and they go “whaaasat?” when you mention a computer costs 90,000 yen. However, except for that case, you don’t even think much about the dollar or pound value. You just live and use the local currency.
However, if your goal is to send money back to your home country, you immediately become a minor currency speculator. You analyze whether or not you should send your 200,000 yen home now when it’s worth 1,800 dollars or wait and risk the yen weakening and your 200,000 being worth only 1,700 dollars. But if the yen strengthens, your 200,000 yen is worth 1,900 dollars.
This is important because your salary never changes but its value in your home currency can change a lot, as can your bragging rights. When I first came to Japan I had a 300,000 yen per month or 3,600,000 yen per year salary that didn’t change for three years. This is how the value in dollars changed each year. (I’m including the value when I finished that job in 1999.)
1996: $34,286 per year
1997: $30,000 per year
1998: $27,692 per year
1999: $35,643 per year
Just three years ago that same salary would have been $47,368.
The other thing you become aware of is why countries are trying to ruin their currencies: Stuff. By weakening your currency you increase exports (albeit by driving up inflation and making your country a crappy place to do business but at least someone’s getting rich).
As an expatriate, though, you get really good at price comparisons and adding in tax and shipping to decide if buying local is better or if importing is worth the money, the effort and the wait. For example, three years ago if you wanted to buy a laptop and the price was $1,000 in the USA and 100,000 yen in Japan, it would be worth the time, effort and wait to import to Japan because $1,000=75,000 yen, a savings of 25,000 yen or $328.
Now, however, that same $1,000 laptop would be 115,000 yen to import but only 100,000 yen to buy in Japan.
A couple years ago, I purchased a couple bags from an online retailer here in Japan. Soon after I made the order the yen started to get weak and the retailer cancelled most of my order. I suspect they were importing products from the USA and taking advantage of the margin they got by selling in yen. Then, suddenly the margin disappeared along with my order.
Confused? Welcome to my world.
Edited on 11/8-2014 for clarity.