Make mine menshin

The Asahi Shimbun reports that more and more companies are interested in fortifying their buildings with so-called menshin technology. Menshin involves placing shock absorbers in the foundations to mitigate the vibration accompanying earthquakes. Quite a bit of media attention was directed at the 18-story Sendai MT Building, which not only survived the March 11 earthquake in the largest city of the affected area, but made it through with minimal shaking, according to people who were in the building at the time. Sendaki MT Building is a commercial building run by Mori Trust, and it acted as a kind of makeshift refugee center for office workers who couldn’t get home the night of March 11. Though there were aftershocks all through the night, most people in the building said they didn’t feel them as much as they did in their own office buildings. After the quake, the building’s occupancy rate increased 20 percent and is now almost completely filled.

And it wasn’t just high-rises. The two-story distribution center for Suzuden Logistics in Matsudo is menshin-equipped. None of the goods stored in the building were damaged at all. Another menshin building is the Aizu Central Hospital in Aizu Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture. Though it also underwent 5-plus shaking, the building suffered no damage and regular treatment continued normally. No in-patients had to be moved out or transferred.

The Asahi reports that, while menshin features add between 10 to 20 percent to the cost of construction, major contractors have seen inquiries into the system triple since March 11, and just as many are for factories and warehouses as they are for office buildings.

Dynasty end


In 1941, 22 percent of all dwellings in Japan were owned by the people who inhabited them. By 1948, the portion had swelled to 48 percent in the cities and 67 percent nationally. Even before the war housing was at a premium, but thanks to the wholesale destruction of the Japanese archipelago during the final years of the war, it had become even more dear when the American occupation started. Inflation was rampant, and in order to make sure property prices didn’t spiral out of control a directive was issued in 1946 to freeze land prices and rents. It wasn’t the first time. Similar directives were issued in 1939 and 1940, but they were provisional. The 1946 directive was more open-ended, and the result was that landlords couldn’t raise rents. One of their countermeasures, at least in Tokyo, was to implement the now infamous koshinryo system: Every time the rental agreement expired, the landlord would charge the tenant an extra month or two worth of rent as a renewal fee. (This will be the topic of our next “Home Truths” column in the Japan Times on Tuesday) However, most landlords, unable to pass on maintenance costs, simply sold the properties to their tenants. Moreover, there was no incentive to build new rental properties, so construction companies started building houses for the few people who could actually afford to buy them. Ever since then, there have been more homeowners than renters in Japan.

The home ownership rate first peaked to 71 percent in 1958, then slid down to 64 percent by 1963 and 60 percent by 1968. The main reason is that more people migrated to cities for jobs. They couldn’t afford to buy houses, so more rental properties were built in urban and suburban areas. However, by this point home ownership became a national priority, since it spurred growth. With the population increasing and nuclear families replacing extended families as the household norm it wasn’t difficult for the government to promote home ownership through schems such as the Home Finance Law (1950), which made mortgages affordable; and the Public Housing Law (1955), which set up a government corporation to oversee the building of affordable rental properties in cities so that young families had a stepping stone to home ownership. The main problem is that in order to make home-ownership possible for the new generation of urban workers they had to be made relatively cheaply, since land prices have always been high. In other words, the houses themselves weren’t meant to outlast their mortgages. Read More


Masako was used as the framing voice in an article by Hiroko Tabuchi in this morning’s New York Times about the Tokyo high-rise market following the quake. You can read it here, though you may have to register first.

All fall down

In the months after the March 11 earthquake, a condominium management association conducted a survey of the Tohoku region to find out the damage sustained by multi-resident buildings. Almost all those that were built since 1981, when stricter earthquake-proofing codes went into effect, survived with minimal damage, but there were quite a few built before 1981that didn’t do as well. In fact, the survey found that about 60 structures in Sendai alone had been declared zenkai (“completely damaged”; in other words, legally uninhabitable).

The Asahi Shimbun looked at several of these buildings. One, the somewhat optimistically named Sunny Heights Takasago, was built in 1976 and was actually damaged in 1978 during a large earthquake that struck Sendai. However, the damage wasn’t “complete” and repairs were made. The building was not so lucky this time. The condominium is actually two 14-story buildings positioned in an L-shape. During the initital earthquake the two structures knocked against each other, but afterward inspectors declared them yochui–residents should take caution but they could keep living there. But the condos sustained further damage in the aftershock of April 7: window and door frames deformed, cracks appeared on outside corridors, steel beams were exposed. Even worse, the ground itself was “damaged.” Consequently, the properties were condemned. Read More

No parking

It takes two

Yesterday at our sister blog, Yen for Living, we posted an article about big cars that probably needs some clarification. By no means are we fans of big cars and, in fact, we sort of denounced cars in general when we sold ours in 2006. We aren’t necessarily against cars in principle, but the automobile is privileged way too much in Japan and America (we can’t vouch for Europe and the rest of Asia). We simply wanted to comment ironically on what we thought was the strange marketing logic of GM, and also wanted to use this photo of a Hummer that is parked not far from our apartment. The fact that the owner needs to rent two parking spaces says a lot about Japan’s car-ownership situation, though it should be pointed out that these spaces only cost ¥4,000 each. For another look at how parking explains Japan’s car-ownership situation, after the jump is an article we wrote for the Asahi Shimbun in 2004, when we were still car owners ourselves. Read More

The right thing

The blur of memory: After the cleanup in Tokyo

In the last few posts we’ve ragged a bit on UR, specifically their dodgy ties to outside providers like Tokyo Gas and local cable outfits, but that shouldn’t be interpreted as disillusionment. For all its anal bureaucratic culture and general air of mismanagement, Japan’s only national semi-public housing corporation is also the only place in Japan where renters get a fair shake. We found that out when we received the refund for our security deposit a few days ago.

We moved from a UR high-rise in Tokyo to a low-rise UR complex in northern Chiba Prefecture. UR makes it relatively easy to move from one of its buildings to another one. The tenant doesn’t have to go through the screening process again (unless he/she is moving to a decidedly more expensive residence), and the security deposit (shikikin) that was paid for the former apartment is transferred to the new one, with the difference either being made up by the tenant or refunded to him/her. In our case it was the latter. Though the new apartment is the same size as the one we rented in Tokyo, it is almost ¥70,000 cheaper per month. The security deposits for UR typically amount to the equivalent of three months’ rent, which is a bit higher at the moment than security deposits for private rentals, but the important thing to remember about UR is that they don’t charge “gift money” (reikin) or contract renewal fees (koshinryo), and also don’t require guarantors or co-signers. Read More