Energy use in Japan

I was in Japan a week ago, giving lectures at some of the universities in Tokyo and the Bank of Japan. I couldn’t help but be struck by how differently energy is used in Tokyo compared with southern California.

Since 1999, total
petroleum consumption
has declined by 1% per year in Japan, while in the U.S. it has increased by 0.8% per year. Part of the reason is that their economy has been growing at a slower rate (1.6% per year in Japan versus 2.7% per year in the U.S.). But part also is explained by different energy-use habits.

Bike parking at Fukushima Station

Practically no one I spoke with would even consider driving to work– everyone takes the subways and trains, and gets to the station by bus, bicycle, or on foot.

It’s not because gas is particularly more expensive. I often saw regular gasoline selling for 136 yen per liter (about $4.20 per gallon) in the outskirts of Tokyo, not much more than the $3.50/gallon that we paid here in San Diego at the height this spring.

People complained that parking is expensive. A typical price I saw was 2000 yen (or $16.30) to park your car for the day. Moreover, you could not count on the lot having space when you arrived, and employers don’t provide parking for their workers.

But the most important explanation seemed to be that you’ll get to work faster on the train than you would in your car. I never had to wait more than a few minutes to catch a train (and I took several every day), whereas sitting in a traffic jam was almost a sure thing if you tried to drive on any of the major roads. Years ago, Tokyo made a decision that the transportation infrastructure in which to invest was rail rather than parking and roads.

As China ponders which model to follow, I know what my advice for them would be.

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28 thoughts on “Energy use in Japan

  1. Buzzcut

    My impression of Tokyo is that it is more like Houston or LA than Manhattan. It sprawls and is relatively low rise.
    It seems to me that Tokyo sprawl would require a lot of train lines to ensure that every station is within walking or biking distance of residences.
    Then, couple that with the frequency of trains, and you have to ask if this system is really more energy efficient than its American alternative (let’s say Houston, for arguments sake).

  2. ed

    I’m guessing their commute times are a lot longer than typical American commute times?

  3. PaulS

    Buzz, did you actually notice Tokyo when you were there? The Tokyo metro area has around 25 million people crammed into around 1,000 square miles. The Houston area is not even in the same universe – it has only 5.5 million people spread over 10,000 square miles – it’s about 50 times less densely populated. No wonder that in Tokyo there isn’t room for everyone who wants a car to have one, while in Houston virtually everyone must drive.
    The Tokyo area has “a lot of train lines” (see and be sure to follow the PDF links)
    so most people are certainly within cycling (though not necessarily walking) distance of a station. And most of those trains are somewhere between crowded and jampacked most of the time, so they are pretty “efficient”.
    But, JDH, do note that the bike density is not what it was 15 or 20 years ago. In many places, scenes like the one in the picture have been replaced by far smaller bike corrals. After all, people are getting richer, and biking is a very unpleasant experience in the thick humidity that prevails for much of the year.

  4. Fat Man

    The real reason is that central heating has not yet caught on in Japan. I do not regard that as a plus for the Japanese way of life.

  5. ajay

    Most countries use gas-fired or electric central heating, which wouldn’t show up in the petroleum statistics. Oil-fired heating is a US and Canada thing.

  6. Anchoku

    Getting a driver’s license in Japan can cost 300,000 yen. Parking spaces are an extra rental fee on top of most apartment rents and parking somewhere else is more. A lot of the fast roads are toll roads. There are mandatory and not inexpensive maintenance checks on your vehicle every few years. And, let’s not forget the fun of driving in a city packed with vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists. Everyone I know with a car uses it very sparingly given the maturity and convenience of public transportation. In Japan, the added cost of “full service” at a gas station is in the noise and probably accounts for the minor difference in price between there and the US.

  7. inquiringMind

    Driving to work in Tokyo couldn’t be that bad…otherwise there wouldn’t be traffic jams…?
    NYC has a similar dynamic – definitely lots of slow traffic during the morning/evening rushes…but often the drive time is just about equal to the train/subway time. Parking is similarly expensive, though it depends where you work.
    Driving to work in your A/C-equipped car is less of a hassle for many people compared to braving the sweaty, stuffed trains/subways. If you live beyond the subway’s reach, train tickets cost around $5 each way (minimum), so paying $15-20 per day for parking is really only paying $5-10. (we’ll trade the subway fare for gas costs).
    Also, if you use a parking garage, one can almost always be found within a couple blocks of your office (midtown, anyway). Avoiding a several block walk from subway to office is worth a certain amount of money in the sweltering summer & cold, wet winter…
    …so, yeah, I agree the Japanese are likely more frugal in general…but it is complicated…

  8. Buzzcut

    The Tokyo metro area has around 25 million people crammed into around 1,000 square miles.
    What struck me about Tokyo was the lack of tall buildings. I was expecting something like you see in Seoul or Vancouver, people living in huge, high rise apartment buildings, like hives.
    That’s not what I found.
    But you’re right, it’s not suburban population density, which Houston is.
    Hey, Houston has light rail now. But more people hit the trains with their cars than ride on them!

  9. Ken Houghton

    InquiringMind neglects the cost of getting into NYC, which is a minimum of $5 (EZPass, off-hours; which means before 6:00am) and generally closer to $8 for anyone driving over most bridges or through most tunnels. (The non-tolled bridges are within subway range.)
    Also, trains are quicker than driving, unless you’re leaving before 6:00am. Where “often the drive time is just about equal to the train/subway time” comes from is beyond me, though it’s possible IM is ignoring the rush hour times (say, 7:00-9:30am and an equivalent chunk in the evening).
    [The train takes me just over an hour door-to-door, about 35-40 minutes on the trip itself; driving never took less than an hour on the road into NYC alone, leaving after 7:15, with another 15 to 20 minutes to get to a reasonable parking lot.]
    IM also, somehow, manages to ignore the availability of buses, which are air-conditioned and mitigate much of the heavy-sweat need if you’re convinced that spending $1.66 on the ride is more utile than walking.

  10. Ravenor

    Your readers need to know that Tokyo streets are largely much narrower than typical American city streets (with a few exceptions). So one must drive more slowly on Tokyo streets, which is a disincentive to car use.

  11. Dan

    I highly recommend that Americans travel extensively and try to live overseas for a period, preferably in a country that is not part of the Anglo-sphere (Canada, Aus/NZ, etc.) Experiencing different lifestyles is usually enlightening.
    In regards to Japan, what I found interesting is how trusting the average Japanese still is to this day. Bikes are usually safe wherever they are left – there is theft but is the rate is still pretty low. In any American city, how long would a new, unlocked bicycle last unattended?
    Question for the professor: how does social morality (in this example thievery) affect economics?
    The train systems of Japan are amazing and for the most part a joy to use. We could only hope to see something like that here in the US.

  12. jm

    As I started to write above…
    For most Tokyo Japanese commuting time is much longer than the US average. Although the average is 45-50 minutes, a significant fraction of the populace has commutes in the 90-minute range. A major difference from the US is that in the morning or evening rush hours it is very unusual to be able to get a seat even on those long commutes — you stand all the way, most of it packed in like a sardine. If you work very late you may get a seat on the way home.

  13. DickF

    Just another example of the miracle of the free market. Japan has a totally different transportation system than in most of the US and it works perfectly well for the Japanese. The US system works perfectly well for the American. Any attempt to force one system on the other through government coercion actually destroys wealth. Each culture and circumstance has adapted to the system that works best of the people.
    I just love the free market.

  14. Michael Cain

    If you work very late you may get a seat on the way home.

    The issue with public transportation in the US and working late is quite different in many cities: if you work very late, there are no seats to be had, as the last commuter bus runs from downtown to the suburbs at a surprisingly early hour. Similar difficulties if you need to get from downtown early in the afternoon for some reason (eg, day care called and your kid is sick).

  15. Buzzcut

    Actually, the one jm paper about accesibility to jobs via public transportation brings to mind an interesting side topic.
    One idea floating aroung the intellectual ether is that “sprawl” is bad, and that it needs to be managed or prevented by government.
    Yet, even in a place like Chicago, with a wonderful business district with excellent transportation access via rail from all over the region, vacancies are very high and office buildings are being converted to residential.
    Now, why are these business districts with great rail access having so much trouble? Property taxes. Commercial tax rates are confiscatory. Residential tax rates are much, much lower.
    And yet, who is at the forefront of the anti-sprawl movement? The same politicians who run the municipalities that are imposing the confiscatory taxes.
    Meanwhile, the suburbs that are attracting businesses tax commercial property at much lower rates, and have residential tax rates that are much, much higher.
    Democracy at work. It’s too bad that certain politicians and certain groups only see businesses as deep pockets.

  16. inquiringMind

    To Ken’s rebuttal,
    Sorry – forgot to mention that I would take the 59th bridge & avoid the LIE by using Northern State/Grand Central &/or Cross Island to get to BQE/Queens Blvd. It is not the most direct route, but we used it at the height of rush hour to get to Midtown & back (to eastern Nassau cty). There are savvy (and cheap) ways to get everywhere in NYC…usually not the most direct ways.
    Buses are good for long straight routes, but anything diagonal wouldn’t be worth it – price or time-wise.
    Commuting everywhere is tough…my main point was that sometimes the economics don’t match up with the petty practicalities of comfort and the willingness of humanity to bend over backward a little to get an angle.

  17. M1EK

    “Now, why are these business districts with great rail access having so much trouble? Property taxes. Commercial tax rates are confiscatory. Residential tax rates are much, much lower.”
    The fact that we subsidize suburban residential sprawl with highway investments, better tax treatment, and regulations forbidding new urban development has a lot more to do with the decline of those business centers than does the higher property tax rate in the city. Once people live too far from the city center, they clamor for suburban office parks – no matter how low or high the urban tax rate.

  18. Buzzcut

    The fact that we subsidize suburban residential sprawl with highway investments,
    Paid for with gas taxes, license fees, tolls (this is Illinois, the suburban highways are toll roads, not freeways), etc.
    better tax treatment,
    Howso? Like I said, if anything, the differential in property taxes is a function of local politicians and local voters, nothing more.
    and regulations forbidding new urban development
    Chicago is very pro-development. You can more or less redevelop as you please. Granted, you need to grease some palms, but some developers prefer to operate that way.
    Among other active projects is the largest building in the Western Hemisphere, which just broke ground this month on the Chicago River.
    has a lot more to do with the decline of those business centers than does the higher property tax rate in the city.
    I just don’t agree. I think the decline in The Loop as a business destination is totally a function of mismanagement by local politicians who view businesses as deep pockets. Unfortunately, as a suburbanite, there is very little that I can do about that.
    I think that it is insane that commercial properties are being redeveloped as residential. This trend could be reversed with nothing more than property tax reform. But that would involve huge tax increases on residential property.
    Once people live too far from the city center, they clamor for suburban office parks – no matter how low or high the urban tax rate.
    Again, this doesn’t apply to Chicago. The suburbs that have good rail access have had it for literally a hundred years (that’s how old the train lines are, literally). These rail lines are being extended to the new developments in the exurbs. People are willing to sit on an express train for well over an hour to reach the loop.
    Yet, with all that great transportation access, with people willing to travel there for work, maybe even preferring to travel there, the Loop is dying.
    It’s because the resource is being mismanaged, and Chicago isn’t the only American city where it is happening. Downtown Manhattan is experiencing the same dynamic.
    Businesses and liberal democrats are not a good mix (and Daley isn’t even a liberal Democrat, he’s pro-business, and even he can’t even change the system. Ditto Bloomberg).

  19. Name

    Corporate Income Tax
    Federal Income Tax
    Social Security Tax
    Federal Capital Gains Tax
    Federal Payroll Tax
    Federal Gas Tax
    State Income Tax
    State Payroll Tax
    State Capital Gains Tax
    State Gas Tax
    State Annual Auto Registration Fee
    State Toll Roads
    County Property Tax
    Municipal Water Bill
    Municipal Waste Collection Fee
    City Income Tax
    Local Meals Tax
    Local Property Tax
    Local Auto Excise Tax
    Local Landfill Permits
    Local School Activity Fees
    There are too few levers for the government to use for social engineering experiments.
    We need more toll roads, and definitely a carbon tax to better plan economic progress and keep social values on a progressive track.

  20. Buzzcut

    I still don’t get it. How do those taxes put downtown business districts at a disadvantage relative to the ‘burbs.
    And Chicago has an extensive suburban toll road system as well as good rail access to downtown from all over the entire region. Yet the Loop is still in steep decline.
    “Planning” and “economic progress” don’t go together. Ask the Chinese, they have intimate experience with the failure of planning, and have wisely abandoned planning and embraced economic progress.

  21. matt wilbert

    I know nothing about Chicago real estate, but this article from July 2nd
    doesn’t make it sound like it is dying very quickly.

    “The vacancy rate in the downtown office market fell in the second quarter to the lowest level in four years on strong demand led by service companies seeking to expand their offices or move into new space.

    The amount of vacant office spaces continues to decline. The rate dropped for the sixth consecutive quarter, declining to 12.6% from 13.0% in the first quarter, according to new data from CB Richard Ellis Inc.

    Landlords have already begun raising rents to seize on the improved conditions.”

  22. Thomas

    Well, to be honest I can’t hear it anymore.
    Yes, Japan uses less oil products and is more energy efficient than the US. In many ways thats
    due to improved technology and people being much more concious about it.
    But, a very big chunk comes due to much worse living conditions than in other G7 countries.
    In the winter, very often, a japanese family will for instance heat only 1 room in their apartment to around 18 degress celsius and leave the others unheated (meaning around 10 degrees celsius). To stay warm they will use a kotatsu. Thats a low table with big blanket over it, thats heated electrically. So warm feet, but cold ears.
    I’ve been living in Tokyo (under more western circumstances, thank god) for more than 7 years, and still can’t believe that this heating very often happens with kerosine oven, the very same kerosine ovens my grandparents told me they used after the war (i’m german). Hello? it’s the 21st century now!!! The very same ovens that caused more than a 100 deaths (in all of Japan) last year alone, because they were wrongly calibrated.
    I believe it makes much more sense to compare the energie use in a european country with that in the US, because that would assume a similar standard of living.
    A usual saying here goes, if Toyota cars were build like japanese houses GM would still rule the car industry.
    Enough ranting…nice day everyone,

  23. Thomas

    One last point:
    Another reason why less oil products are used, is that a lot of heating is done using electricity produced in nuclear plants.
    Japan has more than 50 (Fifty) of them in the most earthquake prone zone of the planet.
    They are run by an industry that faked maintenance records and uses unqualified personnel to run them.
    Once all those cracks in turbines etc. got discovered and (hopefully) fixed 2-3 years ago, the industry got away with hardly any penalties, since the government depends on the energy produced.
    We talk about faked maintance records on a nuclear plant over a period of 15 years in some cases.
    I think everyone can build his/her own opinion over that…

  24. Buzzcut

    What’s going on in the Loop and downtown Manhattan is that older office buildings are being converted to residential. This takes commercial space off the market, and helps to keep the vacancy rate down. That’s the one factor that that article didn’t take into account.
    The problem is that this is prime commercial real estate with excellent transportation access from throughout the region. Once the commercial space is converted, it is gone forever.
    For example, the Aon building, the third largest building in Chicago (formerly known as the Amoco building, and the Standard Oil of Indiana building) has a 25% vacancy rate. As a result, the top floors are going condo.
    This is one of the premier buildings in Chicago, right across the street from the train station that serves northern Indiana. And yet it can’t find tennants and is going condo.
    And what’s the response from people in Chicago? “Isn’t it great that people are starting to live in the Loop?”. No understanding of what an absolute policy disaster this is.

  25. Tyler

    This whole article and discussion are ridiculous. Trying to compare the lifestyles of southern california and downtown tokyo are apples and oranges. The author’s description of tokyo is what it is like to live and/or work in Manhattan. Last time I was in San Diego, I didn’t hear alot of people wanting to turn the whole region into Manhattan or Tokyo and raise their families in two-bedroom apartments. Last I checked, most Americans prefer to live the relatively affordable, large homes that they have, this means they drive.

  26. Eric H

    I read once upon a time that Japanese or perhaps specifically Tokyo residents had to prove that they had access to a parking space before they could purchase a vehicle. This in effect limits vehicle purchases to people who already have a vehicle.
    Not having to use a vehicle is one of the advantages to living in a relatively high density area. I think this also goes to show what happens when your energy expenses are always high: Japan has always been an energy importer and this is reflected in their use patterns.

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