Japan, Korea Rank Low Among Rich Nations in Quality of Life

The only two East Asian members of the elite OECD rank only in the third and fourth quartiles in overall quality of life, according to the latest OECD report.

Japan, the world’s second biggest developed economy, ranks 21st in the Quality of Life Index among the OECD’s 32 member nations — generally considered the world’s richest and most highly developed — plus Russia and Brazil.

Japan’s ranking was boosted by a 10 — the highest possible score — in safety, one of 11 criteria used to arrive at the rankings. Japan also scored well in education (9.0), environment (7.1) and jobs (7.0). It garnered the lowest scores on work-life balance (4.1), life-satisfaction (4.2), housing (4.6) and health (5.0).

The latter score, in which it ranked 7th from the bottom, comes as something of a surprise given the Japan’s top ranking in longevity and the OECD’s lowest obesity rate (just 3.5% versus an average of 17.5%). Japan’s low health score mainly reflects a relatively high smoking rate (19.5%) and the subjective evaluation of the Japanese themselves — only 30% feel themselves to be in good health, far lower than the OECD average of 69%.

Korea is the only OECD nation to slip 3 notches in the rankings over the past year, from 24th in 2012 to 27th this year. Much of that is due to its abysmal scores in the areas of community (1.2 — ahead of only Turkey and Mexico), income (2.2 — 22nd of 34 nations) and life satisfaction (4.3).

The low community score is based on the somewhat surprising fact that Koreans seem to have fewer emotional links to other people in their communities than virtually every other people surveyed. For example, Koreans spend an average of only 1 minute per day on volunteering, compared with an OECD average of 4 minutes. Only 77% believe they know someone on whom they can rely in a time of need, less than the 90% OECD average.

Korea’s low income level is due largely to the extremely low participation rate of women — only 53%, far less than the OECD average of 60% and the 75% rate for Korean men.

Korea would have been far lower in the quality of life rankings but for its high scores in safety (9.2), education (7.9) and civic engagement (7.5). The high score for civic engagements seems paradoxical in light of the extremely low score for community. But the nation has one of the world’s highest voter turnouts at 76%, compared with the OECD average of 72%.

The high turnout seems even more paradoxical in light of the very low rate of trust among Koreans in their nation’s political institutions — just 41% versus the OECD average of 56%. Another surprising plus contributing to Korea’s high civic engagement score is the relative ease with which citizens can make freedom of information requests to access confidential government files. Requests are taken over the phone or online, as well as by mail or in person.

The nations with the highest quality of life rankings are Australia and Sweden which tied for first with an average score of 7.95 points. They were followed by Canada (7.92), Norway (7.88), Switzerland (7.85), the U.S. (7.67), and Denmark (7.66).

The US topped the charts in income and housing with 10 points in each category. American nominal per capita incomes are significantly lower than those of several European nations but confer better purchasing power due to the openness of the US to low-priced imports and low-cost labor from illegal immigrants.

One of the biggest surprises is the relatively low score the US earns in work-life balance (6.7 — 25th out of 36 nations included in the survey). Contrary to the hedonistic lifestyles often depicted in Hollywood movies and TV shows, Americans spend more time working than the OECD average and rank only 27th out of 36 in the amount of hours devoted to leisure activities.