I love Japan.
I was fortunate to have lived in Tokyo Prefecture for three years and enjoyed just about everything about the country. The people are fantastic and the culture both fascinating and beautiful.
The Japanese renaissance from an almost completely devastated country following World War II (which they genuinely regret) to modern-day is a phenomenal story of innovation, national pride and industriousness.
The current, horrible catastrophe in Japan has affected our family as I’m sure it has others who have experienced this wonderful land. It has us asking questions that might not strike others, so I’m offering here a little bit of information to provide some context to the physical challenges the country is facing.
Japan’s population is 41% of that of the United States (127,560,000/311,000,000) or twice that of the top 115 cities in the United States combined.
Japan’s land mass is about the size of Montana (146,000 sq/mi). However, given the amount of land actually inhabitable, subtracting rocky coastlines, mountains, etc., the amount of habitable land is about one-third the total or approximately or 42,520,000 sq/mi. That’s roughly the size of Tennessee, the 36th largest state in the United States.
There are nearly 146,000 people per square mile nationwide – almost 15 times the population density of Washington, DC., 5 ½ times New York City.
These numbers not only result in tremendous logistical challenges for the Japanese, but they also shape the culture and personality of the country.
There are few single storied residential buildings in Japan, and those are normally found in suburbs or remote towns and villages. Most family housing units are not much larger than the average U.S. two bedroom apartments. Kitchens are extremely small and refrigerators are about half the size of the average American unit.
This requires families (that is, wives) to purchase groceries every day, usually at small mom and pop stores. There are larger groceries in department stores, but they are not as convenient to as much of the population. In the northernmost areas, primarily on Hokkaido, snowfall can reach as much as 50 feet per year. Residents in these areas use this to their advantage. They’ll raise a window and carve niches in the snow and use that space to refrigerate food.
Because of the paucity of land, over 99% of the deceased are cremated. There simply is no land available for burial. Funerals can cost as much as $28,000 in Japan and family plots are no larger than an automobile parking space. Many families have decided to scatter ashes, usually at sea, to avoid some of these expenses.
As with in any country, most of the jobs are found in the urban areas, but the extremely high cost of residences in cities means that most Japanese commute. It is not uncommon for a Japanese commuter to ride a bicycle or take a bus from home to the nearest train station and take one or more trains into the city.
Before a city resident can buy an automobile, (s)he must prove they have somewhere to park the vehicle. It is actually cheaper to pay an exorbitant fine for illegal parking – repeatedly – than it is to own or rent a parking space. Wealthy businessmen actually pay people to stay with their cars all day and move them when the “meter maid” comes by.
Traffic will test one’s patience very quickly – and often. When driving, distances are measured in time, not miles or kilometers. Fifteen or twenty miles never took less than an hour to travel. For our sons’ soccer or baseball road games, we planned for at least two hours to go the forty miles.
We lived 76 miles from Narita International Airport, on the outskirts of Tokyo. To make an international flight, and arrive the required two hours before flight time, we had to leave six hours before that scheduled departure time. Seldom did anyone need less than that six hours.
Still, traffic is civil – without the aggressiveness seen on American roads. Everyone realizes that no matter where you’re going, it’s gonna take a while, so there’s no sense in getting all road-ragey.
That’s pretty much, in microcosm, a snapshot of the Japanese persona. Because everyone lives so close to each, travels so close, work so close … people look after people rather than get territorial.
For all its compactness and crowds, Japan is an exceptionally beautiful country. The cities are clean and (ultra)modern, but honest to its traditions. It is not at all unusual to walk in Tokyo and see a futuristic office building next to a centuries old Shinto shrine. Futuristic? I once saw a twelve-story building with an outer “skin” made of plastic!
All of this – and much more – makes our family wonder…
How will they dispose of all the bodies?
What will they do with the massive volumes of debris?
What will come of the land now fouled by sea water, oil, gasoline and other elements that will render it infertile, if not uninhabitable?
Where will displaced people live? How long will it be before they have permanent residences again?
How long will it take to repair or replace the miles and miles of damaged roads, bridges, rail lines and causeways?
What of the thousands of destroyed small businesses on which the country depends?
I predict the Japanese people will stun the world with the speed and efficiency with which they recover.
God bless ’em!