A place to rest one's weary head
On capsule hotels, natural disasters, and housing refugees
With its notoriously high population density (more than 12,000 people per square mile) and extremely high standard of living (its economy is bigger than Canada's), Tokyo is bound to be the source of imaginative solutions to problems that deserve a second look elsewhere in the world.
■ Among those clever solutions is the capsule hotel: A space big enough for a bed and little else, apparently often stacked in double-decker style. It may not be much (nor even feature individual bathroom facilities), but as a method of achieving a high density of accommodation at comparatively low cost with at least a modicum of privacy, it's a smart idea.
■ For the most part, space really isn't at a premium in the United States. Vast reaches of the country are virtually uninhabited, and for the most part, our hospitality industry is more than happy to find ways to build more hotel space (and travelers seem willing to shell out for preposterous nightly charges).
■ But the idea at the core of the capsule hotel needs a second look for other reasons. The essence of it is that an individual space can be safely and cleanly demarcated, turned private (with walls on all sides), and densified by stacking. The individual sleeping capsules should be easy to standardize and mass-produce, especially if all any of them really require is a main electrical connection (since toilet and bath facilities can be supplied in congregate fashion).
■ From time to time, we need to be able to accommodate substantial demand for housing on short notice. The most dramatic domestic case, of course, is that of a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina -- which initiated a diaspora that numbered at least 400,000, if not more. Large-scale destruction of urban habitat happens periodically: Think of the fire in Boulder, Colorado that destroyed 1,000 homes in 2021, or the Camp Fire in California that displaced 50,000 people and destroyed 11,000 houses in the town of Paradise.
■ But from time to time, social situations create nearly-instantaneous demand shocks for housing. The number of refugees fleeing Ukraine right now is estimated at 1.5 million people, and it's far from the only refugee situation underway in the world right now; millions are still displaced from Syria.
■ It would be a worthy pursuit to find a way to emulate the Japanese capsule hotel at a high-volume, mass-production, economy-producing scale, so that when the occasion calls for it, a substantial amount of safe, serviceable, and private shelter could be installed on extremely short notice -- especially if a modular design would permit such facilities to be built close to where the people affected by a disaster like a hurricane or wildfire had been chased away. Losing a home is certainly bad enough; having to deal with the repercussions from far away, isolated from social networks of home and community, only make it worse.
■ Americans are a generous people, and we tend to have great sympathy for those who need help through no fault of their own. States offering to take in refugees would benefit from having access to resources and standardized mechanisms for creating short-term living space. We regard food, clothing, and shelter as the most basic human needs. It would be prudent to look at how we could mimic practices already well-established elsewhere (like Tokyo) to help make it more efficient to deliver one of those needed resources quickly and practically.