I went to Japan for vacation in fall 2007 to visit my wife’s family. Having been immersed in peak oil stories for the past year, this time when I went I viewed the country through that lens. Japan and Hawaii are somewhat comparable in that they are both volcanic island chains with high population densities. I came home realizing how much better prepared to weather declining oil supplies Japan is than we are.
Half the oil per person:
Japan uses about half the oil per person that we do, while maintaining a similar lifestyle to us in the US. They have cars, ipods, TVs, computers, mobile phones, office jobs, and all the other things that make life “modern.” Of course, it’s not exactly the same as here. Houses tend to be smaller, refrigerators & washer/dryers are smaller, and fewer people own cars, although getting around is absolutely no problem with the excellent public transportation system. When oil gets scarce, people will hang their wash (many still do), bike more (every Japanese person owns a bicycle), shop locally, garden more, and generally make do in an infrastructure already designed to promote conservation.
Mixed use living arrangements:
Most residential and commercial spaces are in the same block or even building. In the cities, condos sit on top of all types of stores, but especially convenience stores where one can buy food and sundries and pay bills. In the countryside, village houses often use the front room as a shop of some kind: barber, beer seller, fishmonger, etc. while the back (or top) is where the family lives. Of course this was, and in many places still is, the standard all over the world for all of human history. Only in the last 50 years have the single building shop/residence been replaced by Wal-Mart. Getting what you need from these shops is easy on foot or via bicycle. What suburbs do exist are walkable and convenient. My father-in-law lives in one. It’s all houses and no stores, but vending machines (for beverages, beer, and sadly, cigarettes) are a five minute walk. The store is a ten minute walk.
Excellent public transportation:
Japan’s public transportation system is one of the best in the world. Trains are clean, fast, plentiful, and on time. Some cities, like Nagasaki, still have electrified street cars. Downtowns in larger cities are clean, vibrant, and alive, with underground walkways to facilitate pedestrian traffic between bus and train terminals. Buses snake off from train stations out to less populated areas. Some of these are electrified, but most are not. However, installing electric buses during oil scarcity could be fairly easily accomplished and economically viable due to the high population densities. In Hawaii, all of our transportation is oil-dependent. And our light rail system isn’t supposed to come online until 2020, if it ever does.
High efficiency vehicles:
First, Japan discourages car ownership by providing barriers to ownership. It costs $3000 or so to get a drivers license, and taxes, registration, and the dreaded shakken (safety inspection) can cost an owner a couple of extra thousand per year. Top that with high gasoline taxes and highway tolls, and owning a car becomes a much greater expense than the cost of the machine. Cars in Japan get almost double the fuel economy of their American counterparts (I read 45 mpg, but I can't find the link) and this efficiency is realized largely without hybrids. Part of this is accomplished through the promotion of “K-cars” (keijidosha, or “light car”). These cars have only a 660 cc engine, thus get great MPG. The government offers lots of breaks on the taxes and shakken for k-cars, and so they are more affordable. By contrast, Oahu passed the million car mark last year, and many of these are large, inefficient SUVs which fall under the light truck CAFE standards required to average only 21 mpg.
Japan used to have a law that prohibited building on farmland, so that Japan could maintain self sufficiency in food production. I don’t know if this law is still on the books, but it appears so. The demarcation line between the city and countryside is sharp. One moment you’ll be driving by beige, ten-story condominiums (called “mansions”), and the next moment you’ll be driving by rice fields. Most cities are surrounded by farmland, and Japan kept subsidies on rice and other products in place to keep farmers in business. The Japanese pay some of the highest prices for rice and other food in the world. While the average age of farmers is very high, the infrastructure is still there. If peak oil results in the loss of a lot of city jobs, there are farms nearby that will need manual laborers, and the higher price of food will encourage this. The food won’t have to go far, either, to find its way to hungry mouths. Hawaii, by contrast imports over 90% of its food.
Another benefit is that the Japanese have kept their traditional diet made mostly from whole foods. Sushi, gobo, daikon, tsukemono, yamaimo, and many other foods are easy to prepare from vegetables and fish by hand from unprocessed ingredients. In an energy scarce world, processed foods will be the exception, and the Japanese won’t have to relearn how to make and eat traditional food. Assuming we could even grow enough to feed ourselves in Hawaii, would we be able to make sweet potatoes, pineapple, papaya, and poi dietary mainstays?
Japan’s population is shrinking, and is expected to fall from a current 120 million today down to 90 million by 2050. As oil and gas become scarce, food production will become more difficult, and a smaller population will be easier to feed. While this issue is currently viewed by the government as a negative (the growth model is the only model), I believe that this will definitely be viewed as a benefit during the lean years.
“The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”:
Japanese society is very orderly. Crime rates are among the lowest in the world. The Japanese people, for the most part, follow both the law and societal rules. While these rules have been described as oppressive, it has long been the case in Japan where people have been living in close quarters for centuries, and these rules create personal space and avoid conflict. Having such customs in place when times get tough will serve as a bulwark against chaos. In America, with our emphasis on individuality, where we’re so sure about our rights, and where the number of guns in private hands is the same as the population of the country, we’ll be lucky to avoid a blood bath when gas and food rationing begin.
Japan is far from a perfect country. Much product distribution is done via diesel truck. Japan, like America, has bought into globalization and imports billions in cheap foreign-made goods each year. Even with population shrinkage, the population is still far above the pre-industrial level of 20 million or so. The vast majority of the population goes about their daily business and pleasure completely unaware that peak oil is looming around the corner.
However, I was heartened the other day to read this article about how the Japanese government is aiming to install 30% of households with solar power. While I personally think they need a more aggressive program, it’s certainly a good start, and much more than we are doing here in Hawaii, with our favorable latitude and hundreds of sunny days per year:
I was also surprised at the number and types of people aware and concerned about global warming. I talked to three different people about it, each of whom had brought the issue up without prompting from me. A rental car salesman, a hotel worker, and a gas station attendant I talked to all made comments about it during our conversations. I can only hope that peak oil soon rises to the same level of consciousness.
UDPATE 1/22/08: I came across this article about how Japan is only 27% self sufficient in producing grain. I guess they weren't maintaining that old law about not building on farmland, or perhaps their population simply outstripped their ability to produce. 27% is the lowest rate in the world for a nation, but it is still better than the 10% or so self sufficiency Hawaii has.