Standard of living meets house of correction


Recently I had coffee in the Ginza with a friend from abroad, a Japanese gentlemen making a rare pilgrimage back to the land of his upbringing.

From our second-story window we gazed down upon the pizzazz of the city streets — the glistening facades of the storefronts, the sleek fashions of the passersby, the state-of-the-art flash of advertisements, and the overall fabulousness of a scene that could have been snipped from Lucasfilm.

Yet this was real — not CGI — and unfurling right before our very eyes, as it does every day there in the land of Chanel, Cartier, Gucci and the rest.

“But the splendor isn’t only here,” said my friend. “It’s everywhere. “

And he went on to chronicle his recent high-tech travels through Japan, from subway lows to skyscraper highs, a streamlined, future-esque journey every mesmerizing step of the way. He claimed his adopted North America had nothing that could compare.

I thought of my own Midwestern home — with all potholed roads leading not to Rome but to Walmart — and I could only agree. No matter the crowds, no matter the numbing weight of the recession, Japan ranked as more advanced — clearly.

He nodded back. “Yes, the standard of living here is beyond that of North America. In every way.” But then he swallowed a drum roll pause and added:

“Except . . .”


“Except the houses. Oh, Japanese homes are fine. They just can’t match up with the size and quality of the West.”

I drum rolled back and thought . . .

Duh, tell me about it.

For I am the proud owner of a Japanese home, one of the thousands that are egg-cartoned around the outskirts of Tokyo.

And, as my friend had said, it is fine.

We have, to start, five fine rooms. Which are connected by stairs and hallways as slender as Jessica Alba’s waist.

Five rooms. Into which we jam 10 rooms worth of possessions. We can do this through sophisticated Japanese shelving methods, invented no doubt by origami experts. The twists and turn open up just enough space so that each room can also hold some air.

We also have a fine ofuro. For some architecturally obtuse reason it is the largest room in the house. Too bad the changing area is the size of a phone booth, as it also holds our washing machine. The result? We have become clothes-change contortionists. There was no choice. It was either that or hop to the bath naked from the hall.

We also have a fine yard, where I enjoy working out. I stand at one end and leap boldly to the other. Or if I feel lazy, I just lean and step across.

And of course, there is also our fine drive, a selling point for the entire residence. For it takes only two minutes to shovel. Should it ever snow.

But the truer selling point was the fine price. Yes, we stole this honey at a post-bubble low that at the time made all our neighbors sick with envy. With current recession markdowns now producing a relapse.

Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away — called Illinois — one of my sisters also bought a house not too long before we did. At one-sixth our cost.

And she too has but five rooms, all strikingly larger than ours.

And a full den in her basement. And a porch. And a driveway long enough to park a circus train, let alone her car. And a garage. And a front yard twice the size of my entire property. And a back yard for which no Japanese would ever use the word “yard.” They would say “park.”

In another nearby town — connected by potholed roads — is the home of a different sister. I gaze at this and shudder.

For the front porch alone is more expansive than my entire house. In Japan, this much space would have a highway down the middle.

Not that I’m jealous. Nope. Uh-uh. Not at all.

For this all fits the grander scheme of nature, right? Japan is spatially challenged. If people built bigger houses, there wouldn’t be enough room and some homes would surely slip off and tumble into the sea.

Or . . . Japanese would have to add pounds to help fill the excess space in their wider dwellings. For nature abhors a vacuum. Why do you think so many Americans are obese?

OK. So I am jealous. A little.

But so what if my very fine house is also very small? Does size really matter?

I mean . . . It is still a happy home. Even if we have to sleep standing up.

And in the meantime, whenever I want to behold Japan’s superior standard of living, I can catch a jam-packed train for the glorious Ginza.

Where I can grab a doughnut and enjoy a very humble breakfast at Tiffany’s.