According to a 2012 survey of 2,000 Shinsei Bank employees, the average worker now spends 510 yen (US $5.79) on lunch every day. That’s down from 710 yen (US $8.06) in 2001 and 600 yen (US $6.81) in 2007. That’s a 30% decrease in twelve years.

Nikkan Spa, a popular magazine in Japan, conducted its own survey and found an even bleaker outcome. In a survey of 100 salarymen (office workers) and public servants in their 30s and 40s, a surprising 64 percent of workers admitted that they spend 500 yen (US $5.67) or less on lunch. An even more astonishing 24 percent of workers get by on just 250 yen (US $2.84) a day.

A measly 250 yen (US $2.84) won’t even buy a beef bowl at Sukiya, famed to be the cheapest lunch around. If these salarymen can’t even afford the cheapest meals available for purchase, what exactly are they eating? Let’s take a peek inside the slimmed-down lunchboxes of Japan’s typical worker.

◆  “I’ve been taking a lunchbox to work since I got married 25 years ago” admits Wataru Takaoka (49). His wife used to prepare his lunch every day, but has recently started making his own lunches. “I prepare the food the night before and pack it in the morning. I like being able to regulate how much food is in my lunchbox.”

◆  “I used to eat out for every meal, but paying 1,000 yen (US $11.10) for one meal is absurd,” comments Takayuki Wada (26). Mr. Wada now eats a granola bar for lunch every day (pictured below). Now he can eat for six days on his former daily food budget.

◆  “I spent too much money attending summer festivals, so I started bringing lunch to work in order to save money” said Hirofumi Kidokoro (26). He heats up frozen food or uses premade sauces. “It’s fine if you can get used to bringing a pack lunch every day,” he chuckles.

◆  Since getting married, Shige Toyama’s wife always makes him a lunchbox. “If I ever go out to eat for lunch, I always have a hard time choosing what to order,” he laughs.

◆  “My wife just recently stopped working in preparation for the birth of our child, so she’s been making me a lunchbox every day for the past month. I gratefully eat it everyday,” said Tetsuya Masuda (39).

◆  “Ever since my children became junior high students, my wife has been making us lunchboxes every day. Now I have to eat whatever the kids want for lunch,” said Toshiyuki Nakai (49).

◆  “I often go to the cheap bento shop on my way to work and pick up lunch for the day. It’s closer to homemade than the food at the convenience store and it tastes better, too,” comments Kyohei Sugawara (33).

◆  “I usually just swing by the nearest convenience store and buy some bread and a rice ball. Those two items cost a little over 200 yen (US $2.22). I don’t have to bother purchasing a drink because my company provides free tea and coffee. If I chew slow enough, my stomach feels pretty full. But sometimes I go to a beef bowl shop. I chew that food slowly, too. A egg? That’s definitely a luxury item.” (37, sales)

◆  “The 100 yen menu at McDonald’s is a lifesaver. I can get a hamburger, chicken nuggets, juicy shaka-shaka chicken, or an apple pie for only 100 yen (US $1.11) each, so I usually choose two items to eat for lunch. Sometimes I splurge and go for the 120 yen (US $1.33) menu items.” (32, financing)

◆  “Sometimes I’m forced to eat out for social reasons, but I normally don’t eat lunch at all. I’ve never been big on eating lunch anyways. My health doesn’t seem to be suffering at all.” (44, civil servant)

◆  “I eat more fish than meat and I make sure to keep a balanced diet when preparing lunch for myself.” (Naoya Itou, 28)

◆  “I had a shotgun wedding, bought a house, then had to change jobs… then we entered the recession and my salary took a hit. Now I eat at an izakaya (Japanese pub) just down the street from my company. I usually manage to spend around 500 yen (US $5.55),” laughs Shinji Hayakawa. At that price, he can enjoy as much rice, miso soup, pickled vegetables, raw egg, seaweed, and fish as he can eat.

“I work at HP and they have a campus cafeteria that I stop by during my lunch break. If they’re serving sashimi (my favorite), I’ll eat lunch at HP, but if they’re serving boiled fish, I go over to the izakaya.” Mr. Hayakawa’s wife doesn’t have time to make a home cooked lunch because she also works, and Mr. Hayakawa himself cannot cook, so he’s forced to either eat out at his favorite izakaya or at his work cafeteria. “Of course I sometimes get tired of eating the same food every day,” explains Mr. Hayakawa. “In that case, I’ll pick up a cheap bento for 320 yen (US $3.55) and walk over to a nearby park. But it’s always a challenge to find a bench to sit on. There’s always a ton of salarymen carrying lunchboxes just like me who are on the prowl for a bench to sit on and enjoy their lunch. Fierce arguments are always unfolding at lunchtime in the park.”

◆  Recently, Mr. Uemura, an employee at a printing company, always sighs at lunchtime. Half a year ago, he was forced to find another job after his colleagues found out that he was cheating on his wife and performing other unsavory acts. Before he changed jobs, he was able to keep track of his own money and spend it freely, but once Mr. Uemura started his new job, his wife instituted an allowance system, maintaining that it was because of the lingering recession. Since then, his pocket change went from over 50,000 (US $555) yen per month to 30,000 yen (US $333), a decrease of 40 percent. “I understand we don’t have a lot of money because of the recession, but I think she went overboard,” he laughed bitterly.

His decreased budget may have a lot to do with his extramarital affairs and only a little to do with the economy. With less money in his pocket, Mr. Uemura no longer has the option to go out to eat for lunch (or spend money on anything that could get him into more trouble with his wife). He now eats at his company’s cafeteria every day.

“My company is really small, so even though they call it a ‘company cafeteria’ it’s not really a cafeteria. The company teamed up with a local Chinese restaurant to provide company workers with lunch. Although the price is fair, there are only five choices on the menu and they’re all greasy. Because I have to eat at the ‘company cafeteria’ every day, I’ve gotten really fat and sluggish. When I get too tired of eating the food there, I go over to the convenience store and purchase some bread or something small. I wish my wife would make me a lunch to take to work, but whenever I ask, she immediately refuses saying she’s too busy.”

◆  “Around 10 years ago, I would always eat out at a restaurant, paying about 1,000 yen (US $11.10) for lunch. But from about five years ago, I started ordering premade lunchboxes, which cost me around 500 yen (US $5.55). Now I bring a lunchbox from home every day and try to keep the cost down to 150 yen (US $1.67) or less,” sighs Kazutoshi Tsuchiya, an employee at an IT firm. He was recently transferred to a job away from his home and wife. As a result, costs of housekeeping have risen, but his salary is at a sideways crawl. With his two daughters about ready to enter high school, Mr. Tsuchiya has adopted a spirit of saving.

“I get tired of eating home cooked food every day, but at least it doesn’t taste bad. Although I’ve managed to save some money, I sometimes lose a bit of savings gambling and playing pachinko,” he admits.

◆  Ever since Akihiko Suzumura got married two years ago, he and his wife have been taking lunch to work. “Our wedding and reception cost a lot of money, so we initially started making lunch as part of our savings plan. Thereafter, costs have added up; we purchased a condo, my wife became pregnant, I had to start paying back student loans, and we’re also saving money to go on a vacation sometime. Because of this, we’re continuing to make lunch at home.” Mr. Suzumura’s wife makes breakfast and dinner with the leftovers used for lunch. “I think lunches only cost us 150 yen (US $1.66) each. We’ve also been taking advantage of bargain sales and save up points on our club card at the local supermarket. We’re really good at saving money now.”

Source: Nikkan Spa!