Charlie Stross on Japan

For the past two years, Charlie Stross and his wife Feorag NicBridhe have been planning their Big Trip to Japan for the World Science Fiction Convention that's just gone by. Now Charlie -- an accomplished sf writer and keen observer -- has written up a charming and fascinating set of observations from his trip. This is keen-eyed stuff from one of the great sf writers of the day.
It's hardly a secret that Japan is a crowded archipelago, but to get a feeling for what this means is quite hard. I'd recommend a monorail journey. Japan probably has more monorails than the rest of the world put together (I told you they'd got our future!) and most of them are fairly cheap. Take a commuter train to a terminus, pay for your ticket – 200-300 yen, or maybe 650 yen for a day pass – and ride up and down the monorail, streetwatching. Most of these pocket railways run on overhead tracks, ten metres up, above most of the suburban rooftops. A sunny afternoon in Tokyo and a rumbling glide across a seascape of frozen tiled waves: the houses huddle together with barely a gap, punctuated by public playgrounds and pocket parks the size of an English suburban garden. Even the obviously wealthy (with Bentleys and Rollers parked ostentiatiously in their carport) lack insulation. I'm told the custom when you buy a house is to knock it down and build a new one in its place – after all, construction is cheap compared to land, and who wants to live in a used house? But high-rise apartments seem to make up the majority of housing, and custom has yielded priority to structural engineering in the small matter of buying and selling flats. I have an unnerving feeling that I'm mirroring the reactions of an American citizen of exurbia visiting Britain's crowded inner city estates: how do they manage to live there, so close together? Part of the answer can be found in any estate agent's window – three bedroom houses at a price that translates into the low millions of pounds – and suddenly Japan feels disturbingly familiar all over again.

See also:
Charlie Stross on the future
Economics in fiction with Stross, VanderMeer, et al
Charlie Stross's Halting State: Heist novel about an MMORPG
Stross's magnificent ACCELERANDO as a free CC download
Charlie Stross got hitched!
Charlie Stross interview podcast
Charlie Stross, posthuman: April Fools' from Paul Di Filippo
Stross's MISSILE GAP: free download
Stross on mini-PCs
Stross and me on the WELL
Stross's Singularity wiki
Stross on the future of history
Charlie Stross on Katrina economic impact questions
Stross's first novel hits the stands
Stross's future-rant
Charlie Stross and Cory's "Appeals Court" free on Infinite Matrix


  1. The reason the Japanese knock down the house and build a new one is that houses aren’t built to last in Japan. Construction is very shoddy compared to other first-world economies.

  2. That’s a pretty shoddy (ha!) answer though for bad construction. If you look at the architecture in some of the more expensive parts of Tokyo vs the rest of it you’ll notice that when monetarily motivated construction is actually very high in quality.

    When I lived years ago in Yotsuya we watched a three story building get constructed over the course of half a year only to be torn down the next year and replaced with an identical 14 story building. The reason? They needed showroom models to sell the future potential apartments in the 14 story building.

    And why won’t that building be here in another 20 years likely? A few factors.

    1) Construction companies = usually yakuza. Which in all variety of businesses offer incentives to companies to use their construction services.

    2) Japanese people hate renting or buying old things as a general practice. Especially apartments and offices. Look at the rent on a brand new apartment 20 minutes away from the station and a shoebox versus a 1DK (1 bedroom, dining room + kitchen) that’s twenty or thirty years old near the station. The price will often be near identical because Japanese people simply prefer renting new.

    Though Charlie Stross’s interpretation from the “monorails” of Tokyo seems a bit like Jean Baudrillard’s. Beautifully glossy but really having no connection to the actual city or the culture. Of course it will look like most Tokyo people live in high rises if you’re only seeing the city from what I assume is the JR Rail, as Tokyo only has one monorail line. “ekimae” (near the station) is the most expensive property in all areas and is of course overdevelped in comparison to the rest of the city.

    Coming from the perspective of someone who lives in Tokyo on a “normal” income I can say none of my friends live in buildings any higher than two stories. Four technically if you count loft spaces as floors.

  3. I figured out why Hello Kitty doesn’t have a mouth.

    It’s because she lives most of her life in the larval stage. She’s only an adult for one day, just long enough to reproduce, and not long enough to need nutrition.

    The reason you never see Hello Kitty larvae?

    Because they’re ugly.

  4. I am always fascinated by accounts of travelers to foreign lands and this was a particularly enjoyable read. I liked the analogy to a starship as I have begun to think of foreign cultures as truly alien in ways that we rarely accept. “We’re all human” the saying goes, but that doesn’t mean we begin to understand each other and all the more so someone who is from half a world away. I absolutely love travel and cannot recommend it enough. If nothing else, it allows me to become that space faring hero of comic inspiration that can go and explore the exotic landscapes and find love in the arms of a beautiful alien woman ;).

  5. Since my previous message was not up to mods taste, shorter version:

    Tokyo Yokohama is excessively crowded, but for every other town, after a 10 minute drive, most of the time you are lost between rice fields, small dying villages, empty hills or the seaside. This being for the main island. Hokkaido is more like 95% cows 5% inhabitants. And the southern Islands might not even have enought cows to make a football team…

    Don’t get fooled by Tokyo… it’s generica, not Japan…

  6. Over 10 years back I was visiting a potter in a small town in Tottori prefecture. One day I went out alone for a walk. Soon I was admiring the hills, the rice fields and ancient houses with thatched roofs. Then, as I passed an old lady in traditional clothes leaning on her wooden gate she stared at me with bewilderment. I thought “What is exotic in this scene?” and the answer came: it was me.

    In Japan you will feel more like an alien than in most other countries and that’s one of the reasons I love it.

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