02 July 2009

Japan Calling: A Little More Local Color on the Japanese System

A friend in Japan is updating me on how things are going there.

Its been about ten years since I have worked in Tokyo personally, but everything he is saying is a logical extension of how things were at that time. I am very familiar with the NTT communication system, which was the basis of some of our early work here in the US. Its convenient sometimes to have a determined bureaucracy with plenty of money and power at your back when its time to get a strategic initiative achieved.

This is useful because people like to make facile comparisons between Japan and the US without really understanding some important differences in the markets, public policy, demographics, and culture.

"There are many things here that make life difficult, but on the other hand, make life much easier, some planned, some dictated by circumstances and by accident. It seems very socialist. Makes it very difficult to compare Japan and the US.

There is national health care here. Due to a focus on disease prevention (they have started to take waist measurements and warn you if your waist is say more than 34 inches), not eating too much meat, getting enough vitamin D from sunlight and getting a little exercise because you have to walk 10 minutes to the train station, you can expect, on average, to be fully functional until about 75 and live into your 80s.

Almost everyone is reimbursed for commute to work, by least expensive route, say bus and train, even if you work in a convenience store. Japanese people have told me that the idea is that everyone who wants to work should be able to work where they want without being deterred by the cost of the commute. At one firm I worked at, the limit for the reimbursement was 800 dollars per month, so a very few people commuted by bullet train from quite a distance away. More exactly, if you go to work 5 days a week, the company will reimburse you for the bus/train pass, which allows unlimited travel, so you can use the train pass to go shopping or do other things on weekends for free.

My pass for a half hour commute each way, about 40 miles round trip, is 120 dollars per month. This is why the public transportation systems work well and have continued to improve. All the trains are continuing in improve, and for example, the bullet train now uses one half the energy it did when it debuted 45 years ago. JR East, beginning with the Yamanote Line, is replacing all its trains with new regenerative braking trains that are lighter and roomier and use half the energy of the earlier models. Advertisements on the trains say it takes 1/10 the energy to go by train than by car, but I think that is for older models.

Which brings us to the biggest advantage: most people do not need a car here, and if they do need one, a household can get by with just one car.

I have long thought of cars as vampires sucking the economic life out of every household in the US. And the risk of death and serious injury from car accidents is about half what it is in the US (although the statistics may not be directly comparable).

In 45 years, only one rider has been killed on the bullet train, and that was because he tried to stick his hand in the door too late and got the sleeve of his jacket caught in the door. While there are commuter train accidents from time to time, they are rare, and I think in Tokyo, the last passenger deaths were about a decade ago when a train derailed. Since the auto fatalities in Japan are about 7,000 per year, whereas in the US they are around 40,000 per year with about double the population, I guess that if the Japanese drove as much as people in the US, there would be about another 10,000 auto fatalities per year here, so over the 20 years I have lived here, there are say 200,000 people walking around who wouldn't otherwise be here. That trumps absolutely all other considerations.

I think it is telling that during the oil price spike last year, the US cut its gasoline consumption by about 5%, whereas in Japan, gasoline consumption was cut by 14%. I said, the Japanese cut their gasoline consumption by 14%... BECAUSE THEY CAN.

Broadband, subsidized and incentivized, has been here for a decade. Around 1999, I picked up a Yahoo Broadband modem, filled out a form, brought it home, and plugged it in. 6 M/sec, 15 dollars a month. Although I didn't understand it at the time, the modem was converting my telephone calls into internet telephony, so calls to the US that were a dollar a minute by NTT were suddenly a flat 3 cents a minute. Around new year, I made a lot of phone calls, and was bracing for a thousand dollar phone bill... and then I realized that I hadn't gotten an NTT bill in months... it was instead a 20 dollar charge tacked on to my credit card.

The Japanese government has been panicking about the oil running out for more than a decade. I noticed Koizumi saying "global warming, global warming" over and over again, and mention of peak oil was conspicuous by its absence. That's when I realized that when he was addressing the captains of industry, what he was really saying was "You idiots, the oil is running out! Get the energy use of everything down!"

Because broadband is widely available, the Japanese government went from wanting 10% of workers to telecommute at least some of the time, to wanting 20% to telecommute by next year, as a means of reducing energy consumption.

Mitsubishi is advertising a split system heat pump air conditioner/heater that runs at about 6 cents per hour (and the electricity rate here is high, about 20 cents a kilowatt hour). My Sharp heat pump is 16 years old and runs for about 10 cents an hour. My total heating/cooling expense for a year is about 300 dollars.

There is a huge panic going on in the US about how bad the electricity grid is. I think there are estimates that unreliable electricity is costing the US 100 billion per year. In Tokyo, there has been only one major blackout in 20 years, and that affected only about a quarter of the city for half a day due to a crane snagging high tension wires. The only outages I have seen myself were when a construction crew accidentally severed a line (one hour) and when a fighter jet crashed into high tension wires (two hours). Quakes do not normally affect electricity, water, or telephone. Gas meters have automatic sensors that turn off gas supply, and then if it seems all clear after an hour, automatically reset. We sometimes have fairly big quakes every day for weeks on end... I'm not joking.

When a quake is detected by sensors, the sensors send signals to a central computer. The computer has models of 100,000 quake scenarios, and it matches the data to a scenario, estimating the surface shaking for each small grid square of Japan. If surface shaking in a particular location is predicted to exceed a certain level, the bullet trains automatically engage emergency braking. All city halls have automatic announcement systems that estimate the shaking and count down to the arrival of the primary wave at their particular location. Nuclear reactors and power generating stations receive advance warnings. Some residential condos also have this. I suppose it will become standard soon.

You can get warnings of a few seconds or minutes depending on how far away the quake is.

(After seeing the Kobe quake first hand, my solution was 1) buy earthquake ground shaking estimate map of Tokyo, 2) see closest station to downtown where risk drops substantially due to granite outcrop getting you off the alluvial plain. Estimates of shaking in downtown Tokyo is 10 times the estimated shaking where I live.)

This is why I think it is so difficult to compare the situations. You cannot walk away from the mortgage. On the other hand, your commute is subsidize and you do not need a car, so it is as if the condo were free."