Saturday, January 12, 2008

Introducing Japan with three numbers

A story on Japan can start with a post card: a geisha, traditional artist, with her hear on her mobile phone, or the shinkansen bullet train speeding in front of the famous « Mount-Fuji » volcano with cherry blossoms in the front. However, those images do not represent the real life of this archipelago. New-York is not only the Statue of Liberty, and even, the statue of Liberty is not so important for New-York, except of course for the company managing the ferries to get there.
We should rather start by looking at a map, and draw from Paris (or London for the matter) and Tokyo two circles each : Here is the list of countries falling in those circles :
  • less than 1000km from Tokyo : South Korea, Russia (Siberia)
  • less than 1000km from Paris : Ireland, UK, Spain, Portugal, Italia, Slavenia, Croatia, Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Liechtensteinm Luxemburg
  • less than 3000km fron Tokyo : North-Korea, Mongolia, China (Continental, Taiwan, Hong-Kong), Philippines, Saipan, Guam
  • less than 3000 km from Paris : Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, The Azores, Morocco, The Sahara Western, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Malta, Chad, Egypt, Sudan, Israel & Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Moldavie, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary, Bielorussia, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia
Starting from Paris, a 3000 kilometers travel will lead you to Chad, the Azores, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Georgia, in Iceland, Sweden, or in any of sixty other countries with a wide range of customs. Only Ten countries are within the same range from Tokyo. China is of course the main neighbour. Only South Korea and Russian Siberia are really close. The limited choice of short holidays suggested abroad by the Japanese travel agencies is depressing. It is difficult to escape from Guam, Saipan, Seoul, Peijing or Hong-Kong, and perhaps for the most seasoned travelers will go to the Philippines. This relative isolation is more important than the lack of choice for a romantic week-end with a loved-one. Japan is also a dead-end, the north-eastern end of hospitable Asia, and the last outspot before the Pacific Ocean or Siberia. It was thus never invaded before the American occupation of 1945, despite a Mongolian attempt in the 13th century. Before the modern era, foreign influences were limited and essentially Chinese and Korean.
These islands are isolated, but also over-populated. Japan area is similar to the UK. But with forests and abrupt mountains cover two thirds of the archipelago. One hundred and thirty million inhabitants must thus live, work and feed themselves on a limited space. The following table compares the density of population, i.e. the number of inhabitants by usable square kilometer, for Japan and its larger cities, compared with the west.
Thus, on average, Japan (1200 inhabitants per usable square kilometre) is slightly more populated than Paris metropolitan area (900), and much more than Switzerland (364) or Belgium (407), which are considered very urbanized countries in Europe. In comparison, the Metropolitan France (159) and the United States (41) are just empty. Japan is thus an over-populated country, where the land is a luxury. Such a place must be well organized to make this promiscuity bearable. However, its cities are not the most densely populated. Tokyo concentrates 13000 inhabitants with a square kilometre, which is a little more than Lyon (10000), but much less than Paris (20000), or Manhattan (26000). The height of buildings explains these differences. It is difficult to build high-rise in a country with frequent earthquakes. Japanese also often rather own a house because than a condo. In a country where an old house is also dangerous, only the land is will keep its value. Rather than a 10 floor condo surrounded of a garden, the wanderer in Japan streets more often meets tens of houses each built on a ground of 40 m2, leaving 20 cms between the wall of their house and that of the neighbor.
Land is for sure a luxury in Japon, but comparisons in standard of living with the West is difficult. Japanese often find that European drive old cars. They are often surprised by the difficulty to find designers clothes in a minor town in America. Westerners are impressed by luxury clothing shops in Japan, but find lodging in Japan small and decayed. Specialists give the following results:
Japan’s standard of living is approximately 20% lower than that of the richest countries, like Switzerland, Hong-Kong and the United States. On the other hand, it is comparable with France, or Germany. It is not a poor and backward country, as is too often believed by the expats living in their luxury corporate condos in ceter Tokyo. Neither is it this unique Asian miracle to fear, despite of some spectacular success story, an example of which is more and more, for lack of another choice, Toyota. The reasons of this half-success come easily to mind. Land scarcity and a difficult geography will transform a motorway in a continuous and expensive succession of bridges and tunnels. Foreigners in Tokyo also point some Japanese inefficiencies, from ATM closed on week-ends, to over-qualified women who quit their job at 30 to have children, or to people raising flags all day in front of roadworks. All this will seem terribly backward to them until they come back to their homeland, and find many such annoying details about their home country.

No comments: