If you’ve ever had to endure a Tokyo commute at rush hour, you may not get the sense that the Japanese are very happy. However, Japan Times senior staff writer Alex K.T. Martin has been keeping track of the mood of the nation, and he thinks the country could be a lot happier than we are usually led to believe.

On this week’s Deep Dive he talks about his visit in the summer to Japan’s “happiest town,” and why exercise and a strong sense of community may have them living an extra 10 years healthier.

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Alex K.T. Martin: Articles | Twitter

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Shaun McKenna  00:09  

Hello Deep Dive listeners, I'm Shaun McKenna and I have something I'd like to ask you: Are you happy? That was the question put to 500,000 people living across the country in an effort to discover the happiest place in Japan — and, uh, spoiler alert: it wasn't Disney World. 

Today, Japan Times staff writer Alex Martin joins us to share what he learned on a visit to this joyful place, and to give us an idea on what happiness actually means here.

Alex Martin, welcome back to Deep Dive.

Alex Martin  00:44  

Thank you, Shaun. It's great to be back.

Shaun McKenna  00:45  

And, uh, congratulations on your recent Society of publishers in Asia award that was for reporting on the mythical Japanese wolf?

Alex Martin 00:54

Yes, my favorite topic.

Shaun McKenna 00:55 

Is it still… is it mythical? Or have we come to a decision on that? 

Alex Martin 00:58

We haven't found the actual animal yet. So I guess at the current stage, yeah, we can call it mythical.

Shaun McKenna  01:03  

So a few months ago, you wrote an article titled “Inside Japan's happiest town,” which did really well with our readers. But for those who didn't read the piece, can you tell us where Japan's happiest town is? And I think maybe we might need a drumroll for this.

Alex Martin  01:20  

Yes, Japan's happiest town is [drum roll] Hatoyama, Saitama Prefecture.

Shaun McKenna  01:27  

Interesting. So I've lived in Japan for more than 20 years and, I have to say, I've never heard of this place. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Alex Martin  01:35  

Yes, it's located in the middle of Saitama Prefecture, it's about an hour, or an hour-and-a-half from Tokyo by train, I would say, although it doesn't have its own train station, so you would have to take a bus from nearby stations or a car. It's a rather small town, the population is a little over 13,000 people. And it's your typical sort of rural town that you can find anywhere in Japan. 

It has the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Earth Observation Center, and also the Hatoyama New Town, which turned out to be the main theme from my story, it’s a, uh, basically a residential project that was born back in the 1970s.

Shaun McKenna  02:11  

OK, we're gonna get you to explain what a “New Town” is later on, but first, how did Hatoyama get the title of happiest town in Japan.

Alex Martin  02:19  

So a construction and real-estate company called Daito Trust, they spent three years talking to over 500,000 adults living in all of the nation’s 1,883 municipalities. This is across all 47 prefectures in Japan. So it was quite a sort of significant survey, and that really caught my eye. And what they did was they asked these respondents to sort of rate their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10. And then their answers were then multiplied by 10, and No. 1, on this spot, was Hatoyama with 74.2 points.

Shaun McKenna  02:51  

So, just to be clear, there have been other surveys naming different towns in Japan as the happiest. For example, I know that the Japan Research Institute had one that said it was Saitama City.

Alex Martin  03:01  

Right, actually, there's all sorts of surveys regarding the happiest town. But you really need to look closely at these, sometimes they're very sort of small surveys just asking, you know, a few 100 people, and perhaps not as trustworthy as the one that Daito Trust conducted. So it really depends on what you're looking at. And the answers sort of differentiate, too, depending on whoever's conducting the survey.

Shaun McKenna  03:24  

OK, so you decide to explore what was going on in Hatoyama, what was making them so happy but, before we get into that, had you ever been to Hatoyama before reporting on it?

Alex Martin  03:34  

Actually, I’ve heard the name earlier this year when I wrote a different story about a town called Tokigawa, this is also in Saitama Prefecture, it happens to be right next to Hatoyama. And the story on Tokigawa I wrote about was primarily on how depopulation in Japan may not be entirely a bad thing. And this town was trying to sort of lure in younger people with new startups and other sorts of programs. So I went to Tokigawa earlier this year and while I was talking to a couple of people over there, I think someone mentioned the Hatoyama New Town project. And then I saw the Daito Trust survey and then I was like, ah, I know this town, I've heard about this town before. 

Shaun McKenna  04:09  

So you went there. What was it like going there for the first time?

Alex Martin  04:14  

I took a train up to Sakado Station in Saitama and then I rented a car. It's very close from Sakado, maybe like, 10, 15 minutes? There's nothing much by the roadside, it's your typical sort of suburban Japanese sort of scenery with occasional convenience stores and homes lined up, and then suddenly you take a turn up a hill, and uh, you're surrounded by forests, sort of like a small mountain. And you take this narrow road up the hill, and suddenly, on both sides of the road, you see these very clean, two-story houses lined up. Very sort of unlike any scenery you would typically see in the Japanese countryside. It has that sort of American suburban feel and, uh, one thing I really noticed was the lack of overhead power lines. Which, if you live in Japan, you notice everywhere it's like power lines all over the place. But this Hatoyama New Town complex that I sort of wandered into, there are power lines but they're very sort of scant and few. So the sky is very clear, right? And you see these houses lined up very clean, interspersed with little sort of narrow alleys and parks and it was quite an interesting scene.

Shaun McKenna  05:16  

To me, that sounds like a fairly standard suburb. Is there anything that makes it stand out?

Alex Martin  05:20  

Right, so, one thing I found really interesting when I was talking to the residents there was that there are no shrines or temples. And this is very rare, because in almost all towns or villages or municipalities you visit in Japan, you would find at least a shrine or temple. And Hatoyama New Town lacks that. So it's quite different from anywhere else in Japan.

Shaun McKenna  05:40  

OK, there's that term again, “New Town.” What is a New Town?

Alex Martin  5:44  

The New Town is sort of a concept that the government came up with back in the ’60s when a bulk of the Japanese population started migrating to the big cities. And, basically, there were too many people in cities like Tokyo, Osaka… crowding the city, and the price of land was really going up, people had a hard time finding a nice place to live. So developers and municipalities and the government, they decided to sort of establish these so-called New Town residential projects on the outskirts of these big cities, essentially creating towns from scratch to accommodate the growing number of people and new families that are gathering to the cities, so they can commute to the cities rather than actually living in the cities.

Shaun McKenna  06:24  

OK, so essentially, this was kind of Japan's move into the suburbs. 

Alex Martin 06:29


Shaun McKenna 06:30

So we know what Hatoyama New Town looks like, who lives there?

Alex Martin  06:34  

So the Hatoyama New Town project, roughly half of the population of Hatoyama town live there. The other half lives in the other side of the town, the older town, which is just like your old Japanese town — it would have its shrines, it would have its temples, it would not be as sort of meticulously planned out like Hatoyama New Town is. So this town is interesting because half the population lives in this New Town project that was developed 50 years ago, the other half have been living there for generations, dating back hundreds of years. So, combined, the population, as I mentioned before, is about 13,000. So maybe like 6,000/ 6,000 live in two different sort of areas in the town.

Shaun McKenna  07:13  

And then this Daito Trust survey that would have taken into account both sides, OK.

One of the things you also said in your article is that there's a higher percentage of elderly people that live in Hatoyama compared to other suburbs across Japan.

Alex Martin  07:27  

Actually, I think what happens when you talk about sort of average people over 65, what happens is you find that average lower in big cities, obviously, because you have that bigger mix of younger people. And once you go into the suburbs and rural areas, it goes up. And in Hatoyama’s case it's really high, 45.5% of the population is over 65, and I think if you just look at the New Town population, half the town's population, I think it exceeds 50%. So it's basically, you know, an old person's town pretty much.

Shaun McKenna  07:55  

Right. Compare that to the national average, then.

Alex Martin  07:59  

Which is 29.1%. Which is also pretty high but still, you know, there's a huge difference between 45.5% and 29.1%.

Shaun McKenna  08:05  

So you have a place that has, kind of, more elderly people than usual, that also comes out as the happiest town in Japan. Do you think the age of the residents has an effect on the town's ranking in terms of satisfaction?

Alex Martin  08:21  

I think it's a combination of not just age but the fact that a bulk of the population appears to be very healthy — and also, wealthy. And these two combination is, you know, common sense but this would be a huge criteria, I think, in measuring happiness. Yeah,

Shaun McKenna  08:38  

Yeah, I guess they're lucky, too.

Alex Martin 08:40

To be there? Yes. And the key is health. There's a term called a healthy life expectancy. This is different from your average life expectancy, healthy life expectancy is your average life in good health. So you're not bedridden, or you're not terminally sick, you're actually able to walk around and do your own shopping and stuff like that. The average for that in Japan stands at 72.68 years for men and 75.38 for women. In Hatoyama it's much higher, it's 84.16 for men and 86.12 for women. So basically, this is the age that people can live to, when they can pretty much look after themselves, which is quite amazing, I think, because, I think the average life expectancy for the Japanese is somewhere you know, 85 to 88. So what we're seeing here is that most of the folks in Hatoyama appear to be living in good health until the moment they die.

Shaun McKenna  09:30  

That's incredible. So if you live in Hatoyama, then you kind of have a shot of living an extra, healthy 10 years of your life.

Alex Martin 09:38


Shaun McKenna 09:50

So how did Hatoyama manage to kind of create this situation where people were living healthier for longer?

Alex Martin  09:56  

Right, so, when the current mayor of Hatoyama came in, I think he's in his fourth term right now so this is over a decade ago, he sort of established what he called the “Hatoyama model,” essentially teaming up with different hospitals, universities, different institutions to sort of promote a sort of healthy lifestyle campaign to all its residents. And there's several different facets to this. One is cardiovascular activities, exercise, strength training, eating healthy and taking walks, the mayor told me that, you know, they really encourage their residents just to take walks, and these all have impacts on their healthy life expectancy.

Shaun McKenna  10:33  

Right, and, I guess, if you're kind of doing the strength training, and if you're doing kind of the walks and you're eating healthy, that means less trips to the hospital, and that means you're more likely to be happy, right?

Alex Martin  10:43  

Yeah. So I think, statistically, while Hatoyama is one of the oldest municipalities in Saitama, a town of 13,000 and half of them are over 65. But the amount of nursing care fees that the entire municipality requires is the second-lowest in the entire prefecture of Saitama, which is a huge prefecture.

Shaun McKenna  11:00  

Wow, so if you get anything from this article that's take your walks.

Alex Martin  11:05  

Take your walks, yes. Take your walks, yes. Which is hard for people living in central Tokyo, for example, you could take walks, but it's not as gratifying, perhaps, than walking out in the countryside with clean air, obviously.

Shaun McKenna  11:17  

Right. So you also mentioned wealth earlier. So I guess that's kind of obvious. If you're financially stable, then you're likely to be happier overall.

Alex Martin  11:25  

Yes, I think one thing in common is that most of the families who initially moved into these NewTowns back in the ’70s, the early ’80s or even the ’90s, they were dreaming of a sort of a happy sort of retirement in a very nice environment where there's a balance between nature and necessary infrastructure, which also meant that these people were relatively affluent because these homes were actually quite expensive back in the days — especially during the bubble years, in the late 1980s and 1990s. So what you're seeing is a lot of people who moved into these New Town projects, paid up all their mortgage so they don't have to worry about their rent. 

Plus, they're typically from relatively affluent companies or corporations or their own sort of self-employed shacho-sans (company presidents), meaning they have a pretty good sort of pension scheme. And all that combined means that they can live a relatively affluent retirement, a happy retirement.

Shaun McKenna  12:19  

But as we mentioned at the top of the show, you'll see in other surveys that there's happiest places named in Japan that are in less affluent prefectures, like Miyazaki and Okinawa. So, a lot of the conclusions that people come to from that is that money can't buy happiness, to quote that old idiom. What's the relationship between the fact that the wealthy people in Hatoyama are pretty happy, but also the not-so-wealthy people in these other prefectures are also very happy?

Alex Martin  12:48  

The key is community, it's always the community. If there's a tight-knit community of people, sort of satisfaction toward their lives seems to go up. This has been the case with, for example, Fukui has been named the happiest prefecture several times before. They're not the most affluent, but they're extremely tight-knit in terms of each sort of municipality. So they don't migrate that much. You see the same generation of people living in the same neighborhood, which means they have an extremely strong community. And I know this can be suffocating at times, but apparently, from statistics, it seems that that sort of increases the level of happiness. In Okinawa, it's the same, they have a very distinct culture, quite different from the rest of Japan, and community and sort of camaraderie is extremely important in Okinawan culture. So there's Okinawa terms like yuntaku, which is sort of basically mingle with your neighbors and friends. And there's a term called yuimaru, which is to sort of help each other out. So it's a very community-based society in Okinawa, for example. And I think these things are the primary factors that really sort of elevate people's happiness. 

When we go back to Hatoyama it's also a community, it's 50 years, it's a very young town, perhaps — but it's the same people living in the same neighborhood.

Shaun McKenna  13:59  

Now, you mentioned camaraderie, and that topic came up in an article you wrote at the start of the year, titled, “Is Japan happy?” In that piece,  you outlined Japan's poor showing when it came to happiness around the world, we got a 6.039 out of 10. That's compared to a score of 6.977 for the United States, a 7.162 for Australia and a 7.821 for Finland — which was in the No. 1 spot. Do you think that if the residents of Hatoyama had been surveyed, then Japan's ranking would have been higher?

Alex Martin  14:32  

Ha ha, I don't know about that, but it is a fact that the top 10 is dominated by Western nations, mostly Scandinavian nations. And I was wondering whether this kind of report really reflects — because, you know, each culture has a different sort of concepts towards happiness and satisfaction — and that was the starting point of me starting to explore happiness in Japan. So for this piece, I also spoke with Kyoto University professor Yukiko Uchida and she said it's hard to say if this kind of survey works with a typical Asian mindset.

Shaun McKenna  15:04  

Right, in the story professor Uchida said that Japanese respondents would tend to gravitate between 5 and an 8 when describing their lives on a scale of 1 to 10 in happiness. While the American respondents were more polarized.

Alex Martin  15:17  

Right, I think it's fair to say that the Japanese people tend to play down their situations — if they think their lives are bad, they may think, well, you know, at least I have a roof or a home, or something like that. 

Similarly, they might not want to brag even if things are going really well, it's sort of considered bad taste to be bragging about your own personal happiness or wealth. So they're more likely to just sort of sit just above the middle, perhaps.

Shaun McKenna  15:42

OK, even in a survey. 

Alex Martin 15:44

Yes, and professor Uchida also pointed out that the concept of happiness is different in Japan or Asia, than it is in the United States and the West.

Shaun McKenna  15:52  

So, according to her, people in the West measure happiness by individual achievement and independence and self-sufficiency. Whereas in Asia, there's more weight placed on how well you're getting along with the people around you. Does she have a solution for this?

Alex Martin  16:06  

So Uchida says Japanese happiness might be better measured on what she calls the Interdependent Happiness Scale. 

Shaun McKenna 16:12

OK, is that an official thing?

Alex Martin 16:14

It was proposed by Uchida and a psychologist called Hidefumi Hitokoto was an associate professor at Kwansei Gakuin University's department of psychological sciences. And it essentially measures one's well-being based on interpersonal harmony, ordinariness and acquiescence. And the results have shown that the degree to which these criteria are related to general well being is stronger in Asian countries than in Western nations. And it's more prominent in rural areas than in urban areas. It sort of goes back to how Hatoyama ranked really high in a different survey. And to quote Uchida, she says, “You know, when we measure happiness, using the scale, Japan is basically on par with other countries.”

Shaun McKenna  17:04  

OK, Alex, so we've gone through two years of a global pandemic, and in that time, you've written a lot about the national psyche. You wrote a piece in 2021, about the fine line between loneliness and solitude. And there was one that you mentioned earlier on the positive view of depopulation in the rural areas of Japan. So I got to ask you, where do you think Japan stands at the moment in terms of happiness, loneliness, depression and so on? I mean, after the Abe killing, should we throw anger in there as well?

Alex Martin  17:36  

That's obviously a very difficult question. 

Shaun McKenna 17:40

You are not a psychologist.

Alex Martin 17:41

Not a psychologist and I'm just a reporter, but I basically grew up here. I was born in 1981, so I grew up during the 1980s, when Japan went through the bubble economy, through the ’90s, when the bubble popped and Japan sort of entered what they call the “lost decade” — or decades — of economic stagnation, which I think continues to this day. So there's a generational difference, I think, in terms of contentment in their lives, and happiness, loneliness, etc. You have the baby boomers, my parents’ generation, they're extremely upbeat in terms of how they sort of manage things, how they look at things, I think. They grew up during Japan's economic miracle, when everything was soaring, you know, they were making more money and life seemed as if, you know, there was always going to be something better and better and better. 

Whereas my generation, who grew up during the so-called “employment ice age,” sort of the economic doldrums, I think people 40 and younger tend to hold a much more pessimistic sort of outlook toward life in general. Adding to that, there's just, you know, extreme geopolitical tensions all over the place. Um, you never know when Japan might be roiled into one of these confrontations. 

But all that said, Japan has been a pretty peaceful nation since the end of war. For the past several years or so, it hasn't been entangled in major conflicts. The economy, while it hasn't been doing that, well, still, you don't see the kind of extreme wealth gap or poverty that you might see in other nations. So, I think there's a general sense of, sort of, uncertainty in the air that most Japanese feel. And I think that could sort of impact how they assess their own happiness or loneliness. And talking about loneliness, obviously, the entire world was going through the pandemic. Yeah, so it's not just Japan, right? I think, you know, people across the globe had to deal with this kind of extreme situations, or lack of interpersonal connection, stuff like that. 

In Japan, I think people have managed it perhaps a little bit better than some other nations. I don't know why maybe it's just the people's mentality that, you know, they they tend to sort of accept what comes at them. One potential hypothesis is that, you know, Japan is a very disaster-prone nation. We've seen tsunamis, earthquakes all the time. You never know when your life might sort of turn upside-down. So I think there's that sort of a psychological aspect among the Japanese that, you know, you don't want to expect the best out of, you know, the situation, always look at what could happen to you. And I'm not saying that, you know, this is like a negative outlook, but I think it just comes naturally if you're living in this, this island nation. 

All that said, I think people are doing pretty well, at least for now, thankfully because Japan's not in war. We haven't seen earthquake disasters in a decade or so, we had, we've seen many smaller ones, or midsize ones, I guess. But I think the main concern from now on is, you know, the country's sort of international competitiveness is gradually sort of sinking. We don't see as many younger students going overseas, obviously, it's, you know, the pandemic has something to do with that as well. So I think what the nation really has to sort of deal with right now is, obviously national security in the situation, but also how to sort of inject sort of hope into its younger generation to have them feel that you know, there's something beyond just working till retirement and getting your retirement pension, which is going to be very lower compared to our parents’ generation.

Shaun McKenna  21:07  

Is there anything we can take away from the people of Hatoyama?

Alex Martin  21:10  

So when you're talking about the baby boomers, the older generation living in Hatoyama, I think they've basically sort of made their way through their lives without having to face an extreme sort of catastrophe, you know, like, like war or extreme poverty, and they're getting a sort of healthy retirement pension. 

Then we have the younger generation folks moving into Hatoyama, and I think they're looking for something entirely different, perhaps a more laid-back lifestyle, cheaper rent. I mean, Hatoyama used to be expensive, but now you can, you can buy properties for, you know, ¥5 million, ¥6 million there. It's relatively close to big city centers. And, especially now when remote working is becoming the norm, if you have a job or IT-related job or anything that involves the internet and internet communication, you don't have to, you know, be located in the city. So it's appealing to a different sort of demographic entirely. So I think in terms of happiness or loneliness, those psychological aspects of the Japanese looking ahead, I think the younger generation, in terms of what they want for contentment in their lives, are not very materialistic anymore. I think it's more about sort of creating a healthy community, healthy lifestyle and a laid-back lifestyle.

Shaun McKenna  22:27  

OK, Alex Martin, thank you very much. 

Alex Martin 22:29

Thank you.

Shaun McKenna 22:38

My thanks again to Alex for coming on this week’s show. We’ll put links to his stories on the various emotions Japan has been feeling over the past year in the show notes, it’s interesting stuff. 

Elsewhere in The Japan Times, 26-year-old Mei Tomikawa and 18-year-old An Kozuchi were among the 156 people killed in that tragic Halloween crush in Seoul on Saturday. 

The news prompted my colleague Tomoko Otake to take a look at the lessons Japan has learned from its own deadly crush incidents and why risks remain. 

And, the highly transmissible XBB variant of the coronavirus has now been detected in Tokyo where authorities have seen a 10th straight day of rising COVID-19 cases. The number of new cases in the capital stood at 6,520 on Tuesday, up by around 1,800 from a week earlier. On top of that, syphilis cases topped 10,000 this year for the first time since 1999. You can find more coverage on all these issues on our website at japantimes.co.jp.

Production for today’s episode came courtesy of Dave Cortez. Our theme music is by LLLL and our outgoing track, the one you’re listening to in the background just now, is by Oscar Boyd. Until next week, podtsukaresama!