Japan vs the West – statistics and graphs

It’s easy to idealise a certain country or people, as I frequently do with the Japanese. But let’s take a look at the hard facts, according to the various country “top lists” available on Wikipedia. In this post I’ll focus on life and death matters.

I’ve compared Japan with Sweden (since I’m Swedish), Germany (since that’s where I live) and the US (just to get some perspectives on how diverse “the West” apparently is). Here we go:

1. Life expectancy

I consider life expectancy the most basic and most comprehensible way to measure a country’s success. With a life expectancy of 82,6 years, Japan is number 1 in the world. Sweden is number 9 with 80,9 years. Germany and the US come in at place 20 and 36:


2. Homicide rate

Just like life expectancy, the murder rate is easy to measure and compare between countries. (Crimes like rape and abuse might be defined differently in different countries, but a murder is always a murder.) Japan is famous for its low homicide rate of only 0,46 murders per 100 000 inhabitants and year.

This again makes Japan the world winner, because you can’t really count countries like Monaco and Iceland, the only two countries that score higher. (With a population of only 36 000, Monaco’s most recent murder rate is 0,00. Down from 3,1 in 2006. The statistics fail with such small populations. Likewise, Iceland’s most recent score is 0,31 – but only in year 2000 it was 1,79. Iceland has 318 000 inhabitants.)

USA’s score of 5,0 murders per 100 000 inhabitants per year is 10 times higher than Japan’s. And 5 times higher than Europe’s average. I knew there were many murders in the US, but I didn’t know there were that many.


3. Traffic deaths

These results make me proud as a Swede. With only 2,9 traffic deaths per 100 000 inhabitants we’re the world number 1, because counting states with under 100 000 inhabitants is just ridiculous. (The world number 1, Marshall Islands, scores 1,7 and has a population of 68 000 people.) But Japan is close to Sweden with 3,85. Germany is not bad either, considering its car culture. As with murders, USA scores spectacularly bad.


4. Suicide rate

When I rant about how good Japan is, people always tell me: “But isn’t there an awful lot of suicides in Japan?” Well, here’s the answer: There is! Even though Japan, as the world number 7 in most suicidal nation, is far from South Korea (31,2 suicides per 100 000 inhabitants per year) and the “winner” Lithuania (34,1).

My spontaneous reflection: I think that suicides reflect the Japanese honour culture. There are plenty of suicides in early Japanese literature (Saikaku for example), and Japan’s probably most famous author Yukio Mishima killed himself through seppuku (harakiri) in 1970 after a failed coup attempt. I can think of more charming cultural traits than this suicide-fetish, but at least it’s better to kill yourself than to kill others. There is also a beauty in the black-and-white pureness of the act, reminding of the perfection of the tea ceremony, but that’s another post.


5. Cigarette consumption

What, Japan loses again? Well, I’m not surprised. Cigarette vending machines are ubiquitous in Japan, and you can smoke in most restaurants and cafés. It’s a mystery why Japan’s high cigarette consumption is not mirrored in its life expectancy. Maybe tobacco isn’t so bad for you after all? 🙂 And like with the suicides: Cigarettes might be unhealthy, but at least they only kill yourself.


6. Birth rate

This is where the US gets back the population it lost in traffic accidents and murders. Sweden scores surprisingly well, which is probably due to the world’s most heavily subsidised parental leave. I worry about Japan though.


Does anyone feel tempted to draw any conclusions from these statistics?

9 thoughts on “Japan vs the West – statistics and graphs

  1. There is, of course, one thing that Germany, Japan, and Sweden all have in common relative to the United States, and that is fairly low levels of socio-economic inequality. I wonder if you are familiar with Richardson and Prickett’s book, “The Spirit Level”? It compares data on inequality relative to a number of the factors you list here. It is a slightly simplistic analysis perhaps, and its critics point out that correlation is not the same as causation, but it does seem to suggest that Japan and Sweden – though radically different economies – may have more in common socially than European social democracies have with the US.

  2. Interesting, I have not read Prickett. But it has often struck me how similar Japan and Sweden are. When it comes to mentality, I think Swedes have more in common with the Japanese than with the Germans (or other Europeans). Japan indeed is the Scandinavia of Asia. Maybe that’s why I feel instinctively at home there, despite Japan is ranked 95 (at the top) on Hofstede’s masculinity index, whereas Sweden scores a mere 5, making us the least masculine nation on earth.

    Oh, and welcome to the blog! 🙂

  3. The US are pretty much a third world country in many regards so it’s not surprising that Japan would be closer to Europe than any of the two are to America I reckon.

    It’s a bit funny how Sweden has a lot more social mobility (the movement of individuals or groups in social position over time… the whole “my kids will have a better and easier life than I did” thing) than the US do.

    So if you’re looking for the so called “American Dream” you should rather look at Sweden, that country that for many Americans is the synonym of socialistic evil, than America.

    As for the stats above… I suppose the murder rate would be a lot lower in the US if they wouldn’t allow anyone to carry guns (duh), the amount of traffic deaths wouldn’t be so high if they would have *some* kind of standards for car safety…

    …and, that’s just my simplistic view on things, I always connected the high suicide rate in Japan with their crazy attitude towards work. They don’t seem very good at relaxing. But that might be just me not understanding the differences between our cultures.

    (I wonder if they considered snus for their cigarettes statistics >_>)

    Now Melodifestivalen! Heja Ulrik!

  4. That’s true – they work a lot without gaining much from it, personally or as a nation (since Japan still isn’t prospering the way it should from so much work).

    Another view on the suicide thing, if you wanna be optimistic about it, is what my friend Alexander said about South Korea:

    “They kill themselves more than ever before. (…) That probably means they’re doing something right – they’re taking risks at the moment!”

  5. From England it is easy to view the US as (at least mainly) a third world country is so many ways
    e.g. its considerable failure to adopt universal human rights;
    its insistence, in the main, that it’s OK to judicially and militarily murder those with whom you disagree; its lack of ambition to cut down its own selfish excesses of consumption and with all this goes a breeding rate which would please any animal farmer.

    The US seems, like some aspects of the former USSR and maybe China, to be rather too big and fat and self-centred for its own good – or for ours.

    Thank you for a lovely and thoughtful blog.

  6. Alright, statistics bely what is really going on here. The USA has a a system that allows for many to succeed and many to get caught in unhealthy lifestyles. The point is, you can live anyway you want. In Europe, in my experience, the feeling is very boxed and singular. For instance, I am this and that demographic and born from this family (selbstbewusst) therefore I can do this. Its a mind-numbing relaxation towards the middle (and also certainly a stereotype which only represents a tendency, for I am having a great time in Berlin!)

    Furthermore, I hear constantly these Leute Mecking around complaining constantly about guns, drugs, childcare, pedagogy, nuclear power-plants, universal healthcare and so on, making for an interesting kniepe chat. But, at the end the question comes out, “Have you ever been?”

    Live dangerously and come to our third world country. I live in Berlin and every day I get a new viewpoint on why someone thinks the USA is scary or that Fukushima is worse than peeing standing up. Then I meet people who have visited and the criticism usually changes to “Wow, the Midwest is really open and beautiful … people who like country music like to talk a lot… driving is a lot of fun… pancakes taste interesting, shitty, blah…. NY is great…. natural parks are amazing… people are fat”, but not only is this a shift in Meinung, its a shift in the way these statistics are understood and looked at, more that the US is full of every type of person imaginable and individualism is central to fostering these lifestyles. Individualism dies with structure.

    My theory on these discrepancies is that the US has a system of government that relies too much on short-term thinking, also, that idea of short term-thinking resides in much of the populace. I have lived in both Japan and Germany and I find that both countries really approach problems in a very slow and meticulous way and decisions are made in long streches. The US thinking is getting what I want now, and that is a little dangerous, aber auch nicht gefarlich.

    Ach, ich danke Ihnen für die Interresant Blogpost.

  7. And thank you for your comment, Ben. You touch on something central here: The connection between individual freedom and the unhealthy things that might come with such a loose leash.

    It is easy to hail the country that scores the highest, but to forget that the Third Reich would probably have scored quite high (or at least had the potential to) in several of the graphs. After all, a hard enough state fascism could abolish crime, but at the expense of freedom.

    The real challenge for a society is probably to find a good place on the continuum between individual freedom/dangerous living and state control/safe living. One shouldn’t say that one is better than the other, it simply has to do with what aspects one values higher. And different societies view different aspects differently – one could say it’s a matter of taste. Thanks for highlighting this.

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