Japan: The Space Problem

Because much of Japan’s land does not lend itself to development, with the exception of Hokkaido, lack of space is a permanent problem. The space squeeze is most serious in cities and particularly acute in such huge metropolitan centers as Nagoya, Osaka, and Tokyo and numerous other urban areas. When one negotiates Japanese cities, example after example of space affecting human activities is in evidence. Multistoried large apartment complexes with much smaller individual units than those Americans are accustomed to are common in urban areas. Foreigners visiting Japanese cities also almost always notice the multilevel golf driving ranges with nets that take up a relatively small amount of space. They also take note of the voluminous number of multistoried buildings with one or more restaurants or nightclubs on each floor.

Because of the space problem in urban areas, the Japanese have, more than people of any other nation, developed extensive urban underground streets for retail shopping and dining out. Typically, underground commercial areas are near or under subway and train stations. One of the largest in Japan is in Nagoya under the central train station where the train and subway systems converge. This shopping complex features one of Japan’s largest malls as well as several lesser malls, all connected by more than 5 miles of hallways. Strolling through this area as well as similar underground commercial districts in Japan, one finds entire streets of restaurants, coffee houses, and food stores, with other streets featuring outlets representing large Tokyobased chain stores that sell clothing, books, and other consumer goods.

The daily task of getting from one place to another is more problematic for the average Japanese than for the average American or European. Even though Japan has only a little more than half the number of cars as in the United States, many Japanese city streets average several times as many cars daily as U.S. streets. A major reason that Japanese streets are so crowded for vehicles and pedestrians is that there is little room to build adequate expressways in urban areas. This intense congestion makes it impossible for Japanese to depend on the car to the extent that it is used in the United States.

Fortunately, the Japanese enjoy one of the best train and subway systems in the world. Japanese trains link the entire nation, and all major cities and some mediumsized cities have subway systems as well. The Japan Railways Group, or JR, consists of eight for-profit companies that took over the assets of the old governmentowned Japan National Railways when the national government privatized that organization in 1987. JR owns and operates about 70 percent of Japan’s rail networks, with dozens of private companies also providing rail service, particularly in and around major metropolitan areas. In a recent year, almost 10 times as many Japanese annually used Japan’s public rail systems as Americans used the same kind of transport.

Although there are a variety of types of Japanese trains, the Shinkansen, or bullet train, is the most famous. The Tokaido Shinkansen, the first bullet train and the first high-speed train in the world, was launched in 1964 and connected Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kyoto. Originally, Shinkansen traveled up to 200 kilometers per hour but now exceed 300 kilometers per hour. Shinkansen service now reaches parts of Japan’s four major islands. Shinkansen manage to travel at these impressive speeds quietly and smoothly and almost always on time. Wind and earthquake detectors as well as rain gauges are installed throughout the entire Shinkansen rail lines to monitor possible natural disasters. If an earthquake occurs, the electrical current helping to power the trains automatically ceases, and trains in the danger area stop. In high winds and heavy rains, train speed is automatically reduced, or the train stops. Many Japanese, because of auto highway congestion getting to and from airports, find it easier to take the Shinkansen to domestic destinations than to fly (Karan 2005, The Japan Railways Group).

Still, in Tokyo and other large Japanese cities, using subways and trains during rush hours can be uncomfortable at best and, because of the enormous number of users, dangerous at times. During rush hour, Tokyo subway cars often are jammed to over twice their capacity, and passengers are warned not to board subways with their arms in awkward positions because of potential broken bones. In rare cases, babies have suffocated on crowded Japanese subways. Windows sometimes shatter because of the crowds, and dozens of riders lose shoes daily. Station attendants often must shove the last few people on commuting trains or subways on board in order to close the doors. In winter, heavy clothing increases the average rider’s bulk and forces officials to employ more shovers.

Lack of adequate living space makes housing and land prices atypically high by world standards. However, the daily quality of life of typical Japanese is an even more important factor than simply the high cost of housing. The average Japanese home or apartment by American standards is often small and somewhat noisy. Individual privacy is usually difficult or impossible to fully attain. The amount of space in typical Japanese homes compared to residential space in the United States makes privacy a precious commodity. In a recent year, new Japanese homes averaged just 1,435 square feet, compared to 2,204 square feet for new American homes. Japanese homes, however, seem less cramped when Japan is compared to several Western European countries rather than the United States.

Japan’s postwar economic affluence changed the utilization of space within homes. Traditionally, Japanese used the limited space available in their homes in very flexible ways. Rooms contained little furniture. Instead of a sofa and chairs, there would be only a low table in the middle of the room. Family members would sit on the floor on straw tatami mats, and at night the table would be pushed aside and futons, the traditional Japanese sleeping rolls, taken from the closet and spread out. One room could easily be used for eating, recreation, and sleeping. In the past, traditional Japanese homes were also pleasing in appearance because of the lack of big, heavy furniture.

Japanese homes are now in some ways more difficult places in which to spend large amounts of time than in years past. The rise in living standards and changes in cultural preferences mean that even though the average family size is smaller and the available living space is larger now, the interiors of houses tend to appear somewhat cluttered. In most Japanese homes, much of the wall space is now taken up with wardrobes, bureaus, and furniture. Typically, rooms include a large variety of such decorative objects as stuffed animals and Japanese or French dolls, and other ornaments are likely to be found on top of furniture and pianos. Although many Japanese still retain a traditional room with tatami mats, Western-style interior furnishings, particularly in urban areas, are the norm.

Lack of adequate home space forces Japanese to pursue a number of activities outside the house that people in the United States and many other developed countries engage in at home. For example, almost no homes in urban areas have lawn space or outside play equipment for children. Because of the lack of space and sometimes high noise level at home, many students do their homework in study areas provided by their schools or in public libraries. Friends are often entertained at restaurants or other public places.

Insufficient space is so widespread in Japan that primary school students are assigned the exercise of finding the best way to get from one to another section of their town or city. Japanese children learn early how to read detailed train and subway maps because it is unlikely some youngsters will be driven to school or other activities on the country’s crowded roads. Lack of adequate habitable space affects how Japanese people live, travel, spend leisure time, and work.