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.

Family plots in a Japanese cemetary

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!


6 thoughts on “Japan

  1. Thanks for the insights into modern Japan. A few days ago I said to my wife “I sure feel sorry for all those folks in Japan.” She said ‘you never felt sorry for the folks in Hati; why is Japan different?’

    I pointed out that folks in Japan were not looting, and they were not bitching 24/7 that other folks were not doing enough for them while they sat on their collective…


  2. Thank you for sharing. I thought that living there would be tight but had no idea how tight until now. Through all of this heartache the Japanese people are courageous, disciplined and very respectful. The world is watching and during these very tragic times hopefully, we can all learn manners, honor and respect from them. Something the rest of the world is lacking.


  3. I remember a Japanese friend, many years ago, educated
    at USC as an engineer going back home for an arranged
    marriage. He came back with a different girl as a wife.
    And his comment was how small everyone looked
    (in Japan).


  4. I have spent a few years in that country, both in okinawa and on the mainland a few miles south of Hiroshima. You did a very good attempt, but there are no words to accurately describe commuting in that country! But, if you think Japan was bad, in thailand it was common to see a family of five on a single moped!

    Anyway, the merchant system there consisting of the small store instead of megalowmarts everywhere strangly reminded me of a classic time in middel America where every store was small and the owner was usually the guy behind the counter. What still amazes me is how “Service with a Smile’ was still going strong in those stores in Japan and all shop keeps were happy for your business and paid you back with a smile and a level of courtesy that has somehow been lost here in America. i usually attribute that to the Japanese people’s sense of community that is more woven into the fabric of thier society.

    You also forgot to mention how you can buy a one liter can of beer from a vending machine and drink it on the train.


  5. Thanks for that post. I lived for 13 months in Okinawa and thoroughly enjoyed my time there. The people are wonderful and I cannot imagine the devastation caused when one considers the way many Japanese homes are built — paper walls, etc.


  6. I’m 77 years of age and an avid student of WWII history. I marvel at how utterly cruel the Japanese military was then versus how gentle and courteous their people are today. The same ancient culture evidently produced both types of people! I find that intriguing.


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