Summers in the Pool

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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?

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

18 Responses

  1. r. Says:

    the geo-determ slant is useful, but in bit of a novel way. what happens is that the MOST wealthy japanese still build pools in their backyards, but BECAUSE it is an extravagance–not of money, but of space.

    this is related so something i was talking about on my blog recently:

    …And echoes of this can be found in the most unlikely places. In the upscale Setagaya ward, Tokyo Japan, there is, in total, what amounts to a small fleet of these vehicles being driven on roads almost too narrow for two normal cars to comfortably pass each other, by nouveau riche Japanese, in an embarrassing effort to flaunt their ability to spend their disposable income on the raw excess of spatial redundancy, an indulgance which is, regrettably, its very own raison d’etre. The only way that this socio-economic class can find to express itself in the backdrop of a country in which space is at a premium is to rebel against the tendancy of hyper-miniaturization, and consciously select hyper-maximization.

    http://glitchslaptko.blogspot.com/2005/06/like-nothing-else.html

    in other words, the using their wealth to go against the geo-determ is one of the last ‘status markers’ left to the nouveau riche here.

  2. marxy Says:

    Well, what you describe is Veblen’s classic “conspicious consumption” – objects that look valuable and extravagant because they are a pain in the ass or take an amount of leisure unknown to normal workers. For example, silver utensils are more “prestigious” than stainless steel, precisely because they are a pain to polish.

  3. r. Says:

    of course…but the novelness of the idea stems from the fact that these ‘white elephants’ are not ‘external’ objects (as in your two examples) but land (which, aside from having the money to own it, isn’t a “pain in the ass” or only enjoyable with “leisure unknown to normal workers”) which adds a kind of japanese specificity to the discussion. or, to quote sun-ra, “space is the place!” (in japan) and in america, it isn’t.

  4. nate Says:

    Maybe this is just up here where there’s still some space, but there are some shockingly big houses in my not particularly wealthy neighboorhood.
    Having 2 extra bedrooms is par for the middle class course around here, as is having a seperate building on the property for the parents to live in. However, the biggest marks of status all seem to relate to heating and the removal of snow.

    though speaking of pools, virtually every elementary and middle school in aomori city has one, and leaves them completely unkept and overgrown with algae but for about 6 weeks a year.
    Conspicuous consumption + public works.

  5. claris Says:

    That’s just how I feel about the expensive houses here in the San Francisco Bay Area (median cost for houses in general: $610,000). They seem kind of small and old and meh to me, having been raised in the south/central US.

  6. Brad Says:

    As I was flipping channels the other day, there was a video by Kreva for some summer jam and in it, the protagonist and his girl sneak into what looks like a private residence to go swimming in the backyard and I remember thinking “Who in Tokyo has that kind of pool in their backyard? And with all the splashing about that they’re doing, why hasn’t anyone called the police?”

  7. der Says:

    I’d also like to bring in the idea of public ownership. In most countries in Europe (at least those where it gets hot enough to be wanting to be at a pool) you don’t have to build your own, because there are nice public ones. That’s what you pay taxes for. (And this even holds for rural areas, by the way, at least in Germany, where land wouldn’t be as much of a problem as in the city.)

    Erm, what’s the point? Ah yes, the “devilish dream” may be yet another consequence of hating the state.

  8. marxy Says:

    In most countries in Europe (at least those where it gets hot enough to be wanting to be at a pool) you don’t have to build your own, because there are nice public ones.

    While the feeling of trying to separate yourself from the masses and public facilities is universal, I can’t imagine a country more dedicated to the idea of private ownership than America. (Or even worse that private ownership, the support of exclusionary private groups like country clubs.) There’s probably a good economic analysis of this, but the more that people neglect public facilities, the more that they become primarily used by lower classes, and therefore, more and more ignored by “proper” society. (Like the subways.)

    At least in Japan, everyone uses public goods and they are taken well-care of. For pools, however, the local ones are mostly for sports-use, and there are very few just for hanging out and floating on a raft. In desperation last year, we hit a water park, which was fun, but crowded. And a thunderstorm kept the slides closed….

  9. marxy Says:

    Maybe this is just up here where there’s still some space, but there are some shockingly big houses in my not particularly wealthy neighboorhood.

    Yes, I can believe this. It’s not really fair to compare Tokyo to Southern suburbs, but I’m not sure I’ve seen a surplus of pools in my time outside of the big city.

  10. Terrorific Says:

    Marxy,

    This is off topic, so I apologize in advance. I came across here totally randomly, but I really like it (sans the anti-capitalist stuff, but ya can’t win em’ all!). You mentioned that you don’t mind filesharing as long as the person emails the artist about the music, but I can’t find your email! I miss good Shibuya-kei, and living in the countryside in Mie-ken doesn’t help my cause.
    Feel free to shoot me a note.
    -MLK

  11. james Says:

    Obviously the land space factor is part of it, but if you drive around a lot, Japan’s actually a lot bigger than it looks. I drove to Nikko and back in Feb and was, as usual, stunned by how empty such a tiny place could feel. I’d love to get a winter-themed holiday house around there one day, actually!

    But it’s not just square metres per person, or the japanese love of “conglomeration” (for want of a better word) and high-density living. There is also a more carefree culture of leisure, I believe, in the US and even more so in my native Australia, where one can hardly see the suburbs as one glides down towards landing for the endless glittering of backyard pools. Coming from a literally “colder” cultural background, the japanese tend to prefer onsen, a little difficult to do in your backyard even if you do have one, and when they do take to the pool it’s in the typical large-scale fashion and you’re left with 2000 people in one big pool in a temperature controlled leisure centre.

    Stereotypes, I know, but there’s cultural trends in there somewhere, not just about the space. I think most japanese wouldn’t want a pool even if they could afford it. Mottainai …

  12. marxy Says:

    I think most japanese wouldn’t want a pool even if they could afford it.

    Maybe, but this is difficult to detach from the fact that they’ve never been able to afford it. Do the Japanese visiting resorts in Hawaii avoid the pools? I doubt it.

  13. marxy Says:

    BTW, my email is always marxy [at mark] neomarxisme.com. I guess I should post that somewhere more clearly.

  14. Chris_B Says:

    aw man, now you got me hankerin for a dip in the pool! Aint nothin as nice as comin home from a hard days work, shedding clothes and jumpin in the pool on a hot summer day. I’ma gettin totally nostalgic for Texas right about now.

    You know what would really suck about owning a pool in Tokyo? Earthquake damage. That and keeping is clean in a place where any puddle of water grows algae in about 90 seconds.

  15. Roshan 3OOO Says:

    The geographical determinism suggestion is nice, but unfortunately completely wrong. India has more rich minerals than just about any country, but has been impoverished for centuries. Work ethic and market models do make a difference.

  16. marxy Says:

    Completely wrong? So you’re suggesting that there’s all this fallow land in Japan just waiting for the Japanese to get their priorities straight?

    I absolutely 100% believe that market models matter (more so than “superstratum” ethics etc.), and in the case of Japan, the built-in social inefficiencies tend to make everything too expensive for everybody. (But hey, everyone has high salaries with which to buy the high-priced products!)

  17. Sho Says:

    “this is difficult to detach from the fact that they’ve never been able to afford it”

    Now, this is just plain wrong. For a good many years Japan was the richest country in the world – even now, they are in the top 5 or so.

    It’s not a matter of being able to afford it. If they wanted to, they wouldn’t buy expensive high rise apartments in densely populated areas – there’s plenty of room out of town to do whatever you want. The thing is, they don’t want to – they like the dense areas. Americans wouldn’t put up with that, they can and do drive 1 or 2 hours to work every day, just for the privilege of living in a huge house, even if it is way out in the burbs. The equivalent japanese could do that if they want, especially outside the Kanto region. The plain fact is they don’t.

    The average Japanese is only slightly poorer than the average American, and yet pool ownership is way down. That clearly points to non-economic factors in my view.

  18. marxy Says:

    For a good many years Japan was the richest country in the world – even now, they are in the top 5 or so.

    Yes, but per capita incomes are not the only economic factor here.

    Land prices – way higher in Japan than in the United States (back to geographical determinism).
    Home ownership – became much more difficult when land prices skyrocketed in the Bubble period.
    Bank loans – I don’t want to assume anything, but I get a sense that “home improvement” loans are easier to get in American than Japan

    The thing is, they don’t want to – they like the dense areas.

    Huh? You’re saying that a Japanese person wouldn’t dare live in house one hour or two hours away from central Tokyo? The commuter trains weren’t planned to be so packed, but the only way you could own a home was to keep moving farther and farther away from Tokyo. These dwellers of Hachioji etc. make that sacrifice every day in order to have their own house AND they still don’t have a pool, because it would be extraordinarily expensive, even in the “suburbs.”

    The average Japanese is only slightly poorer than the average America.

    Well, Japanese incomes are currently 75% of American incomes. And they were only above the U.S. level for a brief decade from the mid-80s to the mid-90s.

    If you can somehow find me some info that building a pool in your spacious backyard in Japan is as cheap as $15,000, I’d be willing to consider your argument that Japanese people hate owning their own personal pool.