Living conditions in Japan are a study in contrasts, but not in the way you can find extreme poverty and extreme wealth in the United States. Income distribution is far more even, but the actual living conditions, in comparison to foreign countries, are a different matter because of the cost of commodities such as land and housing.
The fundamental policy of Japanese governments beginning around 1880 or 1890 has been to promote growth of production. Infrastructure and amenities necessary to support industrial production were happily undertaken, but those which did not have an immediate payoff were put off. While it is possible to travel on the Shinkansen ‘bullet trains’ at 300 kilometers per hour, most of the rural houses you pass don’t have connections to a sewage system. Instead, a truck pumps out the septic tank from time to time. The number of people in each room in a house is nearly double the number in a North American home. The trains are crowded to the point that riders have to beware of broken ribs at rush hour.
By any measure, the metropolitan areas of Japan are crowded. The planes landing in Osaka coast in over densely populated urban areas: local residents have complained about the noise for years and there are late-night restrictions on flights into the major airport serving about 30 million people. A new airport is being built where no one lives: on a floating island in the middle of Osaka Bay. The amount of land in Tokyo devoted to public parks is laughable even by the standards of New York and most of the park land is located not in the center of town like Central Park, but out on the outskirts. Tokyo city made a major addition to its park lands when it purchased the golf course and adjoining lands belonging to International Christian University located some 20 miles west of Tokyo station.
The main roads in the major cities are broad, but they are also crowded since the number of vehicles on the road has increased from 2 million in 1960 to well over 35 million today. Some roads have been widened, but that is a very expensive process. Expressways have been put in with great difficulty atop existing roads or utilizing the moats and rivers that ran through Edo and Osaka. But the expansion of the road system has in no way kept pace with car sales.
Off the main boulevards, the roads are scarcely different from their size two hundred years ago, aside from the paving. What was wide enough for pedestrians and the occasional cart is barely broad enough for two cars to squeeze by each other.
Housing is a particularly severe problem. The quality built into a modern home is good, but cost and size are a different matter. With the rapid appreciation of land values in the 1980s in Japan, a four-bedroom, ranch-style, North American house on an acre of land and valued at maybe US$250,000 would have cost many millions in Tokyo. The most that people could hope for would be a 3DK (3 bedrooms, a dining room and a kitchen plus, of course, a bath, bathroom and entryway) squeezed into, perhaps, 700 square feet. But the price was so high that banks were beginning to write 60-year ‘3-generation’ mortgages which would be finally paid off by the grandson of the signer. With prices at such a level, inheritance was a problem. The tax on inheritances ran to 70% at the top end and, with many homes valued toward a million dollars, most salarymen were forced into deep debt or would have to sell the family home to pay the tax.
In the early 1970s, pollution was a problem, especially in large cities like Tokyo. Policemen were provided with oxygen if they had to direct traffic at a busy intersection and smog alerts rose from 16 a year in 1960 to 150 a year in 1970: school children and those with breathing problems were advised not to go outside on those days. To a large extent, air pollution has been solved and from time to time Tokyo’s residents can even see Mt. Fuji once again.
What has not been solved is commuting. Even if the commuters’ ribs are not broken, the time spent on public transport has increased from about 60 minutes in 1960 to and average of 90 minutes. The time spent is a serious degradation of the quality of life, even if the trains run exactly on time, are air conditioned, and have stock quotations and weather forecasts on LCD monitors at each door.
As the economy has grown, pressures have increased to deal with questions of living conditions and the quality of life. Pollution has been reduced and more households are connected to the sewer system in the cities, but there is pressure on local and national governments to invest more to improve living conditions. Local governments especially have been responsive, but the national government controls the bulk of public money and therefore long-term improvement depends on it.