Japan vs San Francisco
A meme and then comparing some statistics
The screenshot above popped up somewhere in social media and it made me think because it is, to coin a phrase technically inaccurate but rhetorically correct. As a current multiyear resident in Japan I can confidently say that the details are generally wrong, but I can see how a visitor could get that impression. However the basic idea that Japan is a pleasant place to live in is fundamentally correct. Indeed in certain ways Japan is remarkably liberal compared to the US or Europe and is a lot more pleasant to live in than, say, San Francisco - to pick a city completely (not) at random.
The nitpicky bit
Let me start with the nit-picky accuracy part, taking it line by line:
You will see homeless people if you pay attention, however they are polite homeless people who won't mug you for the price of a hit of some drug and, polite or not, there aren't many of them. The number of rough-sleeping homeless in the whole of Japan (c. 3500) is probably about half that of just San Francisco (c 8000 a year or two ago). From direct observation I can confidently say that in the last decade or two the homeless encampments in Tokyo have decreased massively.
Zero people shitting on sidewalks
It is true that you will see zero people shitting on sidewalks although you may occasionally see a very drunk salaryman dropping a pavement pizza and (usually drunk) males definitely urinate here and there. But on the other hand even the homeless will use the fairly widely available public toilets when they can and those public toilets will usually not be an insanitary mess. The most basic may lack provided toilet paper (lacking TP is rare these days but was common in the past) but most do and many will even have heated toilet seats, bidets and other pleasantries. None of them are vandalized beyond perhaps a few grafitied "for a good time call ..." sorts of message.
Zero needles is true. No drug paraphernalia or drug addicts at all. If you are caught doing hard drugs in Japan you generally go to jail and if you are a foreigner you are kicked out with no chance of re-entry. Japanese people smoke tobacco and drink alcohol and that's it for intoxicants for 99.9+% of the population. Now and again some celebrity, politician or company boss will be caught doing cannabis or (shudder) cocaine and will make a public apology before disappearing from public life but it's extremely rare.
There are zero examples of public, open air drug use in Japan. Unlike in, say, San Francisco
Beggars are likewise extremely rare. Now it is true I don't live in a major conurbation but I do visit them moderately frequently and I haven't seen a beggar for years. I have seen a Buddhist monk or pilgrim begging a couple of times but that's very different.
Zero trash in the streets
Similarly streets are not 100% trash free, but generally it's an occasional bit of trash blowing in the wind or can/plastic bottle washed up in a corner. Random people will pick trash up and take it with them to dispose of somewhere. The worst places for litter are the beaches and (from personal observation) most of the trash on them comes from the sea and the majority of that has Korean or mainland Chinese labels when it isn't anonymous fishing floats etc.
This is correct if you mean loitering in a threatening thug-like way. There is essentially zero street crime in Japan. If you want to be mugged, raped by random strangers, pick-pocketed etc. you really have to work at it. The stories about people rushing after you to hand you the wallet you dropped are true.
Controlling who enters your country matters
Controlling who enters your country is only part of the solution. Japan used not to be as amazingly clean and safe as it is now as recently as 50 or 60 years ago. Japan is an extremely high-trust society and while it is certainly true that allowing undesirables in would erode that, it got to be a high trust society in part by some extremely harsh treatments of criminals and rebels dating back (if you squint at it) all the way to the Tokugawa shogunate. As a foreign visitor you reap the benefits of prior repression. Japan's police have a clean up rate for crimes of somewhere around 99%. Now part of that is low crime rate (it genuinely is low, but it is not as low as claimed - many crimes are not reported for various reasons) and clever massaging of crime reports but another part of that is failing to pay any attention to alibis or extenuating circumstances that might get the suspect off. If you interact officially for more than a traffic offense or similar with the Japanese police you will generally regret it, which is also one reason why crimes are often not reported. Everyone knows that and so almost everyone behaves really well just to be sure they don't have that negative interaction.
Comparing Japan and San Francisco
I wrote above a little about the difference in crime and drug use between Japan and San Francisco. I think it is worth expanding on this and comparing the numbers of various relevant things
That is to say we are going to look at how manay bad things happen in San Fancisco, population 808,000 (source), and Japan, population 123,294,513 (source). Simple sums tell us Japan has about 150 times the population of San Francisco
Consider drug overdoses. As I wrote recently comparing Japan and British Columbia, Japan has about 10,000 people a year treated in hospital emergency rooms for drug overdoses. Based on this data, it looks like in 2023 San Francisco has 4550 overdose call outs. That is roughly half the total for the whole of Japan
I’ve found it hard to get a recent number of overdose deaths in Japan but I have seen a rate of 0.33/100k reported at various places (such as here). That works out at an annual death rate of about 400. Compare with San Francisco:
In 2022, the San Francisco Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reported that 647 people died from an unintentional drug overdose in San Francisco.
The most destructive year in San Francisco’s drug epidemic has ended with 806 people dead from accidental overdoses.
To summarize on drug issues.
Japan has about 400 deaths annually and about 10,000 overdoses that result in medical intervention.
In 2023 San Francisco has 800 deaths and 4550 overdoses that result in medical intervention.
How about murder?
The police in Japan recorded 853 murder cases in 2022
According to police data, there were 55 homicides in 2023, as of Dec. 24.
The police in Japan recognized about 44.15 thousand grand theft offenses in 2022
Roughly speaking San Francisco has the same number of theft-like offenses as Japan when you combine the data (44,965 in 2023, 49,302 in 2022). Japan with 150 times the population has 16 times the murder rate. It is true, there are differences in how things are counted but it seems unlikely that using US counting methods would get Japan’s mruder numbers up to anywhere close to SF levels
We covered homelessness above. It is worth noting that although Japan has less than 3500 homeless who live on the streets, it does have a significant number of people who are temporarily homeless but sleep in unofficial accomodations like all night internet cafes. About 5000 or so had to be found housing when the Covidiocy caused the net cafes to shut for a while. It is hard to differentiate between the long-term net cafe residents and ones that spend a few nights there as a cheap hotel alternative for a M-F wordk week say. If you add in the estimates for these people Japan may have more homeless people than the combination of “street living” and “living in shelters” homeless in San Francisco city. On the other hand San Francisco has (or had pre covidiocy anyway) a large “couch surfing” population of generally younger people. I am unable to tell to what extent the phenomenon survived the covidiocy and the general movement to “working from home” that meant many such could move somewhere else.
San Francisco’s homeless number is of the same magnitude as Japan’s despite Japan having 150 times the population
It’s mean to include rural Japan in a survey of house prices since in parts of rural Japan they will give you a house. However even in urban Japan, prices are considerably lower than the $1.2 million Zillow reports for San Francisco. Other sites report that San Francisco homes sell at about $1000/sq ft.
Price per Square Meter to Buy Apartment in City Centre ¥1,149,789.47
Price per Square Meter to Buy Apartment Outside of Centre ¥638,726.32
Converting those to US$ / sq ft on the same site
Price per Square Feet to Buy Apartment in City Centre 719.92 $ 407.61-1,127.04
Price per Square Feet to Buy Apartment Outside of Centre 399.93 $ 222.28-579.17
Even central Tokyo prices are lower on per floor area basis that San Francisco.
The same site reports that renting a 3 bedroom central Tokyo apartment costs an average of $2,592.62/month and obviously a one or two bedroom one is lower. Zillow reports that
median rent for all bedrooms and all property types in San Francisco, CA is $3,295.
Prices are notably lower in Tokyo than San Francisco and even cheaper elsewhere in Japan
Elementary-age school children take the train or bus in Japan in (near?) perfect safety with the only danger being that they are socialized to wearing masks inappropriately. Adults fall asleep on them and people will stop their expensive iDevices from falling out of their hands onto the floor. Plus of course in urban Japan services are as frequent as every 2-3 minutes during rush hours. I can personally attest that ridership in Tokyo is similar to the levels pre-covidiocy.
San Francisco? Articles like this:
Only 17 percent of Bay Area residents feel safe on local public transit, and overwhelming majorities say crime and homelessness are out of control in the system, according to an official survey released this week.
The Bay Area Council commissioned the poll to understand why Bay Area Rapid Transit ridership remains woefully below its pre-pandemic numbers. Per the survey, the problem is less a rise in remote work than widespread concerns about safety and cleanliness. Forty-five percent of local residents cited those issues as the main reason they don't use BART, and 78 percent said they would ride more often if the trains and buses were cleaner and safer.
And if you don’t like the Free Beacon you can easily find other sources like this one and many, many more.
Retail and Office
In Tokyo office space is still desirable:
In October 2023, the vacancy rate for office space in Tokyo's five central business districts reached 6.1 percent. The office vacancy rate in the capital's central business districts reached a low of 1.5 percent in early 2020, but increased significantly during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Office space is more available outside Tokyo and there is generally plenty of demand for it and for shared working spaces etc.
In San Francisco:
The San Francisco office market continues to struggle, but it hasn’t hit the bottom yet.
Office vacancy in the city rose to new heights in the fourth quarter of 2023, according to new preliminary data from commercial real estate firm CBRE. The vacancy rate increased to 35.9%, a modest jump from last quarter’s rate of 34%. That translates to another 1.4 million square feet of occupancy loss — the equivalent of Salesforce Tower completely emptying out.
San Francisco is also seeing the closure of many retail establishments such as this long established toy shop. Japan, as a general rule, is not. A department store close to me did close recently and this was fairly big news because of its rarity.
Tourism in both Japan and San Francisco declined precipitously during the covidiocy and has gradually recovered. Although there is some bad news, it looks like by the end of 2023 tourism numbers in San Francisco are going to be close to those in 2019.
The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted domestic travel (and has had a catastrophic impact on inbound and outbound travel), resulting in record-low industry revenues between 2020 and 2022. The void of travelers caused by the advent of the pandemic led to sluggish performances during that period in related industry segments, such as the hospitality industry, gastronomy, and transportation industry, among others. In 2023, domestic tourism almost fully recovered, while inbound and outbound tourism were on a recovery track.
Aside: it is interesting to note that Japan as a country had about as many foreign tourists as San Francisco had tourists in total.
One difference is the perception. When you start typin San Francisco Tourism into google it offers “decline” as one of the auto-completes
For Japan there is nothing like that.
Japan as a country has similar negative statistics spread across 150 times the population as San Francisco, while positive statistics seem to be more or less at parity. Both are, in theory, nice rich places but San Francisco is more expensive and far, far more dangerous.