A couple of months ago, I biked down to Den-en Chofu — Tokyo’s wealthiest neighborhood — to see what constitutes “super-rich” in Japan, and while the large houses and ginkgo-lined streets are certainly nicer than the ugly apartment buildings littering the bulk of the city, I could not help but think that these houses were tiny compared even to the moderately rich people who live in my middle-sized suburban hometown in the Florida Panhandle. This is hardly Japan’s fault. I’ve realized lately that the automatic-luxury of the American lifestyle makes an awful standard for global comparisons. No matter how hard the Japanese work, nothing will come as easy as it does for Americans.
Unless you’ve driven around the American South, you could not imagine how much unused land remains in the United States. All the big cars, boats, enormous houses, cheap food, etc. are more a product of geographical determinism than virtuous hard-work or widespread ingenuity. In the early 20th century, owning all this stuff was the American dream — my great-Grandfather escaping Russian pogroms had a much lower standard and supposedly quipped, “All you have to do is pay 20% of your income and no one comes in and burns your house and rapes your wife? Great!” But now, this luxury is an international symbol of tacky American excess and environmental destruction. Maybe rightly so.
But as I bear the burden of unbelievable summer heat, I want nothing more than a quick dip in a backyard swimming pool. I can’t imagine anything crazier about America than the fact that owning one of these tubs of water — designed to perfectly refract an icy blue — is totally commonplace in the suburbs and countryside. Land is cheap, and the local bank will happily finance the construction of a pool with a “home improvement” loan. $15,000-$30,000 doesn’t sound so bad when paid in installments, and while the pool still retains an image of wealth, they are generally available to most members of the American middle class.
I had a pool when I lived in Mississippi (but oddly, not in Florida). Many summers were spent playing Marco Polo, pool hopping across the neighborhood, eating Doritos with soggy fingers. Every school year ended with the mandatory pool party at a schoolmate’s house. Of course, we still fawned over the indoor pools of big hotels and the tall diving platforms of anachronistic Southern country clubs, but swimming in the summers was just a natural, everyday part of eight year-old life.
There are some local athletic pools in my Tokyo neighborhood, but only an insane billionaire would build a backyard oasis in urban Japan. But why would he think to build a large, impractical concrete cool-water bath in the first place? How did such a devilish dream become a reality in America?