High anxiety

You can’t get there from here

Since the earthquake of Mar. 11, I have been extra sensitive to stories of people living in Tokyo high-rises and have expected to see more dispatches like the one I wrote above. Interestingly, they’ve been few and far between, and mostly dwell on how well these high-rises performed during the earthquake. I said as much in my blog post, but that’s not the most salient observation I took away from the experience and I doubt if others who live in tall buildings did as well. Then, last week Asahi Shimbun printed an article relating the experiences of two koso mansion owners. Unfortunately, since then the story is gone from the Asahi.com site, either locked behind a pay wall or taken off completely. I doubt the latter, but M. says she read a few tweets from people who thought Asahi might have been pressured by developers or real estate companies, who are big advertisers. That seems a fairly conspiratorial take on the matter, but one thing’s for sure: New high-rise luxury condos have been one of the few reliable success stories in the Tokyo real estate market in the past few years.

In the article, a 32-year-old full-time housewife was in her 55th floor apartment in Chuo Ward when the quake struck. She ducked under a table. The swaying lasted for a full five minutes. Terrified, she remained under the table during the subsequent aftershocks while she tried to call her husband, a doctor, and the day care center where her two children were. (M.: “She’s a full-time housewife. Why are her two kids in day care?”) She couldn’t get through to either. Read More

Big One

A view to die for

I certainly don’t believe any of that “divine retribution” crap, which happens to unify the philosophies of right wing broadcaster Glenn Beck and Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara; but I can appreciate a cosmic joke. The massive earthquake that hit northeast Japan on Mar. 11 came right in the middle of moving season. The Japanese fiscal year, not to mention the school year, begins April 1 or thereabouts, and traditionally many people move house during the month of March, because of job transfers, university admission, or they just like to do what everybody else is doing. Consequently, there were a few trucks outside our 38-story building the weekend after the quake, carrying furniture for folks who were moving in. Fortunately, the freight elevator was operational again by the morning of the 12th, but what did those new arrivals think standing in their new apartment while it swayed back and forth during one of the many aftershocks?

Who knows? Maybe they were in a high-rise before, but in any case the quake helped test a theory, at least partially: Would all these earthquake-proofed structures actually withstand a massive quake? Of course, the epicenter of the one we experienced was a hundred kilometers off the coast of Iwate Prefecture, but according to reports, no buildings collapsed in Sendai, the nearest large city to the quake and one with its own share of skyscrapers. So the technology seems to work, and while it certainly saves lives and property, it doesn’t solve a more intractable problem: Once you’ve been in a large earthquake in a high rise, you don’t want to be in another one. Read More

The price you pay

The following is an article I wrote in 2004 for an occasional column that I and several other non-Japanese wrote for the Asahi Evening News about the “expat” experience in Japan. In a way it explains our skittishness about buying property today.

Naive days: The land when it was pure

In the early 90s, my partner and I discussed the possibility of buying a condominium or a house. Both of us had recently become self-employed and our financial situation wasn’t assured, so we talked about buying property as if it would occur sometime in the middle-distant future, meaning not soon enough that we needed to start looking right away.

Our friends knew of this vague plan, and once, while visiting a couple we knew in Nagano prefecture, they told us of a housing scheme being promoted by a nearby local government. The city was developing a large piece of land on the top of a hill and offering plots by lottery at below-market prices. The stated aim was to attract new people to the city, which had been losing population over the past decade.

We went to the lottery drawing not thinking that we would participate, but our friends talked my partner into picking a number out of the hamper just for fun. The odds against actually winning were almost ten-to-one. But she did.

Everything suddenly changed. The prospect of buying property had so far been theoretical, but now we had to face the decision head on because we had been given an opportunity.

We returned home and agonized over whether or not we should buy the land. On the plus side, it was very cheap and the lot we had “won” was located on a corner of the hill with an unblocked view of a green valley. On the minus side, we would have to move to Nagano and we would have to build a house, but as we talked these negatives slowly moved over into the positive column. Because of the nature of our work (mostly writing and translating) we didn’t need to live near Tokyo, and having to build our own house meant that we could build the house we wanted. Read More