Saturday, January 02, 2010

Life in a Japanese "capsule"

Allow me to preface this post with two points:

1) I love Japanese culture, and have loved it ever since I first read Yasunari Kawabata's glorious novel Snow Country many years ago. I have come to love Japanese literature, film, art, food, drink, and design. I hope to travel to Japan in the not-too-distant future.

2) Oftentimes, during my commute into downtown Toronto for work, I think, as I shuffle my way through the dense crowds at Union Station, the city's main train station, and as I push my way onto a packed subway car, far more pushed than pushing, and as I stand there amid the unpleasant humanity, just how thoroughly uncivilized we and our daily lives can be.

Well, as I read Hiroko Tabuchi's interesting piece in yesterday's Times on Japan's "capsule" hotels, I realized, as clearly as ever, a) that not all Japanese culture is good, and b) that my uncivilized, dehumanizing commute from a lovely detached home in the suburbs to an office with a nice view in one of the nicer cities in the world really isn't so bad.

Make sure to read the whole thing. Here's a taste:

For Atsushi Nakanishi, jobless since Christmas, home is a cubicle barely bigger than a coffin -- one of dozens of berths stacked two units high in one of central Tokyo's decrepit "capsule" hotels.

"It's just a place to crawl into and sleep," he said, rolling his neck and stroking his black suit -- one of just two he owns after discarding the rest of his wardrobe for lack of space. "You get used to it."

When Capsule Hotel Shinjuku 510 opened nearly two decades ago, Japan was just beginning to pull back from its bubble economy, and the hotel's tiny plastic cubicles offered a night's refuge to salarymen who had missed the last train home.

Now, Hotel Shinjuku 510's capsules, no larger than 6 1/2 feet long by 5 feet wide, and not tall enough to stand up in, have become an affordable option for some people with nowhere else to go as Japan endures its worst recession since World War II.

I suppose there was once something vaguely appealing about these "capsule" hotels. For a night or two, they offered a fairly cheap place to sleep, if little else, for busy people in a busy city. There was something simply, well, Japanese about them. (You may even remember the Seinfeld episode in which three Japanese tourists sleep in, and get stuck in, a chest of drawers in Kramer's apartment. Somehow, it was thought, the Japanese were used to such tight spaces.)

But now? Well, there doesn't seem to be anything even remotely appealing, let alone charming, about them. It's one thing to sleep in a "capsule" when times are good, after all, but when times are bad, as they are now, with the economy about as decrepit as they are? Not so much, now that they've become home, as opposed to a place to get a bit of rest, for so many who have been "forced from their company-sponsored housing or unable to make rent" as a result of the economic crisis. And these "capsules" aren't exactly nice:

The rent is surprisingly high for such a small space: 59,000 yen a month, or about $640, for an upper bunk. But with no upfront deposit or extra utility charges, and basic amenities like fresh linens and free use of a communal bath and sauna, the cost is far less than renting an apartment in Tokyo, Mr. Nakanishi says.

Still, it is a bleak world where deep sleep is rare. The capsules do not have doors, only screens that pull down. Every bump of the shoulder on the plastic walls, every muffled cough, echoes loudly through the rows.

Each capsule is furnished only with a light, a small TV with earphones, coat hooks, a thin blanket and a hard pillow of rice husks.

Most possessions, from shirts to shaving cream, must be kept in lockers. There is a common room with old couches, a dining area and rows of sinks. Cigarette smoke is everywhere, as are security cameras. But the hotel staff does its best to put guests at ease: "Welcome home," employees say at the entrance.

Some home, eh? Now that's an uncivilized life, a darker, bleaker side of one of the world's richest countries, with one of the world's most beautiful cultures.

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  • I too am a Japanophile. It stuns me to read these things. I wanted to put Japan on a pedestal.
    One thing for sure they are a nation that has brilliantly surmounted a lot. I am holding for more of that nature of theirs that takes a challenge and improves on it.

    By Anonymous JB, at 3:39 PM  

  • I came across your post while looking for that NY Times article, and found your reaction interesting.

    As a former Torontonian now living in Tokyo, I think there's a lot over here that would surprise you. Truist me when I tell you that I'm shocked that the fellow managed to find a place to live in Shinjuku for a month for only ¥60,000. I can only conclude that he's living in Kabuki-cho and is surrounded by pimps and other hustlers whenever he sets foot outside. I know of a capsule hotel in a neighbourhood given over to hostess clubs and "soapland" operations not far from my home; ¥60,000 would only get you ten nights there.

    Don't underestimate the impact of what's going on over here. This is a real recession in Japan. I've compared notes with friends and family back in Toronto, and came to the conclusion that everything is fine in Toronto. I even get emails from headhunters back home, whereas local agencies are saying, "You want a job? Time to leave town!" Sadly, the Japanese budget deficit and total debt are already reaching critical mass and will just get a lot worse as the demographics turn the tax base on its head. I don't know what's going to happen.

    As for the fellow in the capsule, he doesn't have a bright future whatever happens. He didn't got himself a cozy corporate "job for life" when he got out of school (I'm assuming he finished his studies) and he will now never enter that arena. I don't want to overstate this, but people who change jobs mid-career in Japan are viewed as suspect. There's no such thing as making a career by making your own promotion in finding a new job at another firm.

    Anyway, thanks for posting.

    By Anonymous Michael, at 12:37 AM  

  • I agree, JB. It's troubling.

    Thank you for your very insightful and interesting comment, Michael. I'm a current Torontonian, and I agree, compared to Japan, things seem great here. Obviously, the recession hit hard, and a lot of people are out of work or struggling to make ends meet, but at least a recovery already seems to be underway, and at least it never got as bad as it did over there. This guy seems to be in real trouble, and there are probably many, many more like him.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 2:01 AM  

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