Harumi Flag Rising

That view!

Renovation work on the Tokyo Olympics Athletes Village that will turn the apartments into condominiums-for-sale won’t commence until after the Paralympics end in September, but already business media are exploring the future of the Harumi Flag residential complex, as it’s been dubbed by lead developer Mitsui Fudosan Residential. In the end, the various buildings will comprise about 4,800 units, and so far a bit less than one-third of those have already been sold. Since the Olympics was postponed in the spring of 2020, the date for moving into the complex has been moved back by at least a year to spring 2023, and there was talk that some buyers were angry because that means considerable added expense for them. Whether they have been offered a refund and an escape for their contracts isn’t clear, but, for sure, matters such as mortgage terms for the new condos and leases on rentals that the buyers may have to extend in the meantime could be serious hits to their bank accounts, especially given the current pandemic-affected economy.

However, those who have already signed contracts should be happy in one regard: the value of their condo seems to have gone up in the meantime, which means they got even more of a bargain than those who will sign contracts in the future. Condo prices in Tokyo have been steadily going up in recent months after dipping a bit last year, and it’s likely these increases will be reflected in the prices of the condos that will be put on sale starting in September. After the pandemic struck, sales activities for Harumi Flag were halted, which now seems like a good decision since Mitsui will likely be able to charge more. According to various real estate web sites, Mitsui will not put all the remaining units on sale at the same time, which would flood the market and bring the prices down. Though nobody seems worried right now that prices will drop over the coming months as more units are put on sale, the idea is to maximize demand as much as possible. As it stands, the units were already cheaper than comparable new condos on the waterfront by 30-40 percent, a situation that reportedly upset neighbors who paid premium prices for their apartments. The reason for the lower prices is that they are being repurposed and that the nearest train station is at least 20 minutes on foot (not counting the time it takes to get from one’s apartment to the ground floor), but also because Tokyo sold the land, which is reclaimed, to Mitsui and its partners at a 10 percent discount just because of the Olympics, a move that has also been criticized since Tokyo can’t really afford such largesse considering the larger-than-expected bill for the Games. 

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Dead houses

In the last year, we’ve seen a lot of headlines on social media about how you can buy a house in Japan for a song. The usual figure quoted is about $500 US, which makes us think that all these articles spring from one source that’s likely American. We haven’t bothered tracing the articles to one source, though we read a few of them and they all say basically the same thing: local governments throughout Japan are promoting the acquisition of abandoned houses in order to get people to move into their regions and lift the tax base. In some cases, they are even giving houses away, but in any situation these structures will need a lot of work before they are at all habitable. We’ve written extensively about the problem of akiya and since you get what you pay for it follows that the lower the price the more work that will need to be done. The worst akiya, it must be said, are not even on the market, meaning they were literally abandoned by the owner for any number of reasons—either because they moved out and couldn’t be bothered to try and sell it, or they did try to sell it with no success, or they simply disappeared in order to avoid having to pay property taxes, which, in all probability, were very low to begin with. Or they died—with or without an heir. There are a lot of akiya whose owners are dead, meaning they never transferred the title to anyone, and though heirs are still legally responsible in Japan they can be difficult to contact if they don’t want to be found. Those houses are probably unihabitable since they’ve been left to rot, and the local government doesn’t want to spend the money to have them demolished.

There are more than 8 million akiya and, not counting dedicated rental units, many are not livable and fewer are even sellable due to other factors such as location. So when you read an article about somebody who bought a house for nothing and fixed it up into a nice place it’s not just an exception to the rule, but almost an anomaly. Anytime a foreign person buys an old farmhouse or kominka and turns it into a monument to traditional Japanese craftsmanship they’re bound to get it featured in the news, but, again, it’s exceedingly rare. Most people prefer new homes, and because government policy has always privileged new house construction, potential buyers can always find something they can afford that’s new; and in many cases it will even be cheaper than an older house that requires extensive renovation, which describes a substantial number of old houses that are on sale. 

The reason these articles about cheap houses have proliferated in the past year is mainly the pandemic, which, for a while, cut into new home construction. People are moving out of the cities because they can now work from home, so used houses starting selling well, but, again, a lot still aren’t selling. We know of several houses in our general vicinity that are in good condition but they’ve been on the market for months, some even years. There are just too many cheap old houses that people want to sell and not enough buyers. Of course, much of it has to do with Japan’s decreasing population, but mainly it has to do with oversupply. When construction resumes apace, those old houses will become even more difficult to sell. 

More to the point, people who do sell their homes almost never make back what they paid for them. The exception is certain areas of big cities, but even in those cases it isn’t guaranteed, and then the seller will be even less likely to see a profit, especially when you factor in the interest they paid on their loan. (You’re more likely to make a small profit if you bought an old condo in a popular area of Tokyo and resell it later.) At this point, we think most Japanese people know this, despite all the talk about “maintaining property values” at all cost. We certainly know it. Almost as soon as we moved into our new house in 2014 the assessed value dropped by almost two-thirds—and that’s for property tax purposes, which tends to be higher than market assessed value. (Assessed value for land is a different matter) So we know we will never be able to make money on this house, which is one of the reasons why we had it built the way we wanted—meaning few other people would probably want it. But the problem as we get older is: What can we do with it when we reach the age where we can no longer live here? There’s a very good chance we won’t even be able to sell it. Since we don’t have children, there’s no one to inherit it. We’ve already brought up the possibility with some younger relatives that any of them can have it for free, and while they sound interested, we’re not sure if the idea of taking on a property is something they have the wherewithal to carry out. We’ve even thought of donating it to some organization, but that might run into problems with neighbors who find out about it beforehand. 

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The sky above, the mud below

Typical “morido” terrace formation for housing development

The disastrous mudslide that hit the city of Atami on July 3 brought attention to the term “morido,” which has no real equivalent in English, though some people might use “landfill.” In some cases, morido does qualify as landfill, but as it literally means “added soil” it has a wide variety of applications. In the case of the Atami mudslide, the consensus now is that the disaster was caused by an accumulation of soil at the top of a ravine that came loose during torrential rains and rushed down the ravine toward the sea, destroying dozens of houses along the way. The soil in question was apparently deposited there by a real estate company more than ten years ago, though it hasn’t been clearly explained what the purpose of the soil was. Media reports say that the company submitted a “report” to local authorities saying that they planned to build housing on the land, which they owned at the time, but the local government never properly checked the progess of this plan. Neighbors, however, startled by the succession of dump trucks that constantly came through to deposit soil on the site, contacted the authorities, who then “warned” the real estate company that it might be breaking the law. The company never responded to the warning and, in any case, there is no indication that they ever really intended to build anything on the “added soil.” Local regulations only permit soil accumulation of up to 15 meters, but just prior to the disaster it is estimated that the mound was 50 meters deep. The volume of soil, rock, and what is deemed to be industrial waste that flowed down the ravine is estimated to be 56,000 cubic meters. 

Some anti-solar (i.e., pro-nuclear) elements have pointed to the subsequent owner of the land as being to blame for the mudslide, since they cleared trees above the already existing mound and installed a solar farm. For sure, the clear-cutting removed some of the area’s water-retention capability, thus contributing to the disaster, but the solar energy company did not create the morido, and whatever the drawbacks of so-called mega-solar installations in terms of environmental impact, it appears that the company was operating within the law. The real estate company, which has since gone out of business, has yet to explain what the purpose of the mound was, but circumstances seem to point to it being a place to simply dump refuse and excavated soil, probably from construction projects far away. The local residents, for instance, said that the dump trucks all had Yokohama license plates. And then, of course, the industrial waste mixed in with the mud. This sort of problem is becoming more prevalent as construction continues undeterred with a dwindling number of places approved for refuse landfill. We’ve written about this before and the measures some contractors go to in order to find places to get rid of soil and other junk. 

Another kind of morido is that which is used to fill in valleys or create terraces on the sides of inclines in order to create level land for residential or agricultural development. As with all situations where soil is deposited on existing land, drainage must be assured by laying pipes within the mound of soil and the soil itself must be manually compacted so that it will not come loose. Unfortunately, even these measures may not be enough, though from what we’ve learned the main problem with this kind of morido doesn’t come from excessive rain but rather from earthquakes, which can cause the soil to shift, or, if it contains lots of ground water, liquefy. This happened throughout residential subdivisions affected by the 311 earthquake. Consequently, when we were shopping for land in 2012-13, we consulted topographical maps of the areas we were interested in in order to find out if a particular property was the result of morido. If it was, then we avoided it. We also avoided low-lying properties because of Japan’s problem with typhoons and heavy rains. But, in any case, morido is more prevalent than you might think, and most of it is perfectly legal, though not necessarily safe. That said, media reports have also said that the kind of morido that caused the Atami disaster is also very prevalent, despite the fact that it is illegal, so we can probably expect more of this kind of catastrophe. 

Baby you can park my car

We sold our car in 2006 and have never replaced it, despite the fact that in the meantime we moved out of the city and into a suburb where a car is considered essential. Our original reason for getting rid of ours was the cost. We were paying for insurance and biannual inspections and parking just for the privilege of owning a vehicle that we really didn’t use that much. Living where we did we had ready access to several train lines and as we both aged what we once considered the convenience of having a car at our disposal faded, mainly because driving in Japan isn’t very enjoyable, what with the narrow streets, highway tolls, and difficulty with street parking. Though we’ve often thought of buying a car again for emergency use, we keep putting it off because it’s really nice not to have that burden any more. We manage just fine with bicycles and car share services. 

The last place we lived had an underground mechanical parking facility. The space you rented was actually a pallet that moved vertically and horizontally. Parking lots are two-dimensional and thus require a lot of ground space. Mechanical parking garages, what we liked to call “3D parking lots,” used space both above and below the ground level to store cars, thus requiring less real estate. When we wanted to use our car, we went to the carousel assigned to us and, inputting a special code, “retrieved” the pallet by rearranging the other pallets in the carousel in order to place ours right at the front of the gate. This means, of course, that you have to wait for all the pallets to be rearranged properly, and sometimes it took a little time. It was especially troublesome if somebody else who had rented a pallet in your particular carousel was retrieving their car just as you arrived. On a few occasions, we needed our car quickly in order to make it in time for an appointment, and someone was already there getting their car so we had to wait. Fortunately, we never had, like, a medical emergency that required an automobile. The only saving grace was the rent, which was relatively cheap for Tokyo. Before living in that apartment we lived close to the Saitama border and rented a parking space from JR under the railroad tracks. It was unpaved but the tracks protected the vehicles from rain, and we paid ¥23,000 a month. The pallet we rented was ¥18,000 a month, and it was much closer to the center of the city. 

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Big One

To mark the tenth anniversary of the disaster of March 11, 2011, we are posting one of the chapters from the book we are working on about Japanese housing. Some of the following appeared in slightly different form in the anthology known as #quakebook. For those who may be interested, we have been looking for a publisher or agent to handle the book for the last year and so far have had no luck in placing it, so if anyone has advice, connections, etc., let us know. 

On March 11, 2011, the governor of Tokyo was Shintaro Ishihara, who later called the massive earthquake that struck off the coast of northern Japan that day “divine retribution” for some imagined slight to the nation’s soul. Never mind that all of the people who died or were left homeless by the disaster had lived in three northeastern prefectures far from the fleshpots of the capital he oversaw. Ishihara, a popular novelist in addition to being a politician, needed to make some sort of apocalyptic statement. 

No one thought there was anything “divine” about the catastrophe, but we could all appreciate a cosmic joke. The quake hit right in the middle of moving season. The Japanese fiscal year, not to mention the school year, begins April 1, and traditionally many people move house during the month of March because of changing jobs and entering university. Consequently, before, during, and after the quake there were moving trucks parked outside our 38-story apartment building in the Minami Senju area of Tokyo, carrying furniture for people who were settling in. Elevators in Japan are designed to automatically shut down in the event of an earthquake and they can’t be restarted until a technician arrives to turn them on again. Given that the entire city was affected, some buildings had to wait hours or even a day before someone showed up to get the elevators working. Movers were stuck on the street with trucks full of furniture while their customers stood in their new apartments appreciating the view as they swayed back and forth during one of the aftershocks that occurred on an almost hourly basis. Did they regret their decision to move into a high-rise? 

Perhaps not. The disaster helped answer a question: Would all these quake-proofed structures that had been built in the previous decades actually withstand a massive earthquake? Of course, the epicenter of the one we had just experienced was hundreds of kilometers away, but no buildings had collapsed in Sendai, the major city nearest to the quake and one with its own share of high-rises. So the technology seemed to work. But while it saved lives and property, it didn’t solve a more intractable problem: Once you’ve been in a major earthquake in a tall building, you don’t want to be in another one.

We had already been living on the 24th floor of River Harp Tower for more than ten years when the quake struck at 2:46 that afternoon, and had been through a good share of them. They just weren’t as intense. Usually, they started with a jolt followed by a gentle swaying. There are two types of quake-proof technologies for high rises in Japan. One is designed for flexibility: the entire structure absorbs the energy and disperses it more or less evenly throughout the frame, and the higher your floor, the wider and longer the sway. The other type, which is more expensive, involves rubber dampers in the foundation. We lived in the former type. On March 11, we didn’t feel that usual initial jolt but rather a slight rumble from the floor that just kept building until the walls started rattling violently. We knew this was going to be bigger than the usual quake and crouched together under a table. The shaking continued, and then gradually changed to swaying, which was much wider than it had been in the past. But the movement wasn’t as scary as the noise: a massive creaking sound that went on for more than two minutes.

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The Value of a Family (from 1996)

The following article was written by Masako for the July-September 1996 issue of the English-language Japan Quarterly, which is no longer published. We are posting it here because we think it offers some useful background for the never-ending debate over whether Japanese married couples should be allowed to use separate surnames for legal functions. The article is about the family registration system, the koseki, and offers not only a brief history of the document, but a summary of its use in a practical sense. Since the article was published, certain changes have taken place in the Civil Code, and we have added updates to the story where they apply. These updates are provided in brackets. However, the article itself is here recreated exactly as it appeared in 1996, so that readers can get some sense of how much progress has been made. For the most part, not much; and as Masako implies throughout the piece, a lot of the process surrounding changes made in the koseki depends on the individual civil servant who carries it out at the counter. Consequently, some of the matters explained here that were contentious at the time have become less so due to a looser attitude on the part of front-line officials; but, in theory, the koseki hasn’t changed very much since 1996, and the surname issue, which is directly linked to the bureaucratic primacy of the koseki, is just as contentious now as it was when the article was written, if not more so. For a detailed and very readable discussion of the legal aspects of the koseki, we recommend the 2016 series that Colin P.A. Jones wrote for The Japan Times. We should also mention that Sato Bunmei, who talked to Masako at length for this article and was probably the most knowledgeable person at the time about the koseki, has since died.

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A place in the sun

About a year ago, many people in our part of Chiba Prefecture were still struggling with loss of electricity after two typhoons plowed through the peninsula in rapid succession. Our house was lucky and only lost power intermittently for short periods. Not far from where we live, however, there were some households who didn’t have power for more than a month, and the local authorities, not to mention the regional power providers, seemed at a loss as to what to do about it. Moreover, they didn’t seem sure of how to prevent such problems from recurring in the future, seeing how, with climate change and all, it was likely that these kinds of extreme weather events would happen again and perhaps more frequently.

Extended blackouts are, of course, a serious matter. In addition to loss of lighting function, it means your refrigerator won’t work and thus all your food contained inside will spoil; it means no air conditioning, which could be a big problem at the height of summer; it means no television, which provides emergency information in times when disasters like this strike; and it means no cell phones because no recharging capability. These are all problems that can occur to anyone in the path of a typhoon, but in the cases of the people mentioned above it could be even more serious. We live in an area where a lot of infrastructure is not available. Most of us get our water from wells, and so we need pumps that are run by electricity, so that means no water for bathing and toilets. We also aren’t hooked up to natural gas lines, so unless you get propane deliveries, it probably means you run your household on an all-electric system, so that means no cooking or hot baths/showers. 

At least one local municipality has taken preliminary action to be more prepared, and in doing so may spark a trend that should be promoted nationwide. In the city of Sosa, on the Pacific coast, a group of environmental activists has set up a “solar sharing” operation that started out with farmers who allowed the group to install solar panels on tall stanchions above their fields. The panels absorb sunlight, but are far enough from the ground to allow peripheral sunlight to reach most of the ground underneath them, so the fields still produce crops. The farmers still sell their wares, and the sharing group sells excess electricity from the solar setup to the local power company and puts the revenue back into the local government, which uses the money to promote solar energy on a household-by-household basis. According to an article in Harbor Business Online, Sosa seems to be the only local government carrying out such a program. What’s particularly interesting is that, besides the money made from selling the electricity, the program has no relationship with any major power companies, which makes sense. Electricity providers are very concerned about people generating their own power for their own use, since it means using less electricity from the grid, which they control. However, after last year’s typhoons, many residents of Chiba have realized they can’t count on the grid and its overlords to guarantee service in the event of an emergency. 

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Go with the flow

Kominka interior. Note roka on the left.

Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a story about how proper ventilation of rooms can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 indoors. Japanese twitter responded in particularly derisive fashion by pointing out that in Japan proper ventilation was considered a pillar of the country’s anti-COVID measures as long ago as February as part of the government’s san-mitsu strategy, which told people to avoid “close” contact with others in “closed” rooms. Generally speaking, this strategy covered commercial, educational, or work spaces, since those were the most problemantic places in terms of keeping people safe from the spread of the virus. The operational logic then and now is that the virus doesn’t survive as long in the open, and so bringing the outdoors inside is a good way of keeping it at bay. For businesses, that means opening windows and/or optimizing ventilation systems to keep air moving through the space.

In Japan, however, greater attention is now being paid to transmission within homes, among family members. Coverage tends toward the inevitability of being infected by a loved one, since there is little you can do about your living situation. However, we would be very interested in seeing a study showing the relationship between intra-household infection rates and specific home layouts and other structural conditions. The first question that comes to mind is whether air conditioning systems help or hinder the spread of the virus. Generally speaking, the virus is in its best element in droplets of saliva expelled while talking or breathing, but scientists also talk about aerosol transmission, meaning the virus itself is carried on air currents. These particles can travel greater distances than droplets because they are much lighter and can still infect others by passing into their lungs when they inhale. Scientists are still debating the scale of infection due to aerosol transmission, but one thing that seems certain is that air currents in closed spaces are instrumental in propelling the virus and keeping it viable for longer periods of time than would happen outdoors or in indoor spaces with air flow passages that connect to the outdoors. Air conditioners are typically heat exchange mechanisms, and the public may misinterpret that to mean they exchange outside air for inside air, but that’s not really the case. Mainly they recirculate inside air and expel the ambient heat through outdoor fans. Consequently, there’s the possibility that if there are virulent particles in the inside air AC units may increase the possibility of causing those particles to enter into the bodies of humans in that space, and this is the main issue, especially in Japan where air conditioning, at least in residences, is a modular affair. Central air conditioning usually comes with filters that may be able to take out virulent particles (though viruses are really, really small). Apparently, some manufacturers have been touting anti-COVID features this summer, but one has to take such claims with a handful of salt. Daikin, to its credit, has been up front about air circulation and says that people should open their windows and use circulators and fans to facilitate ventilation. In other words, don’t count on their air conditioners. Because in the end the cooling efficacy of AC is dependent on how closed the room is and the efficiency of the insulation. That means all windows have to be closed tight and that there be no drafts in order to make full use of your AC. The entire home becomes a closed system, and the potential ventilation advantages of the AC unit-fan relationship is reduced by that much. The thing is, we just don’t really know now how this plays into viral infection rates. Read More