Whose view?

Most place names in Japan are derived from geographical or topographical traits, and one of the most common names in the Kanto area is Fujimi, which indicates that the place has a view of Mount Fuji. The Japanese place a lot of spiritual stock in mountains. Traditionally they were the objects of worship, and Fuji, of course, is practically a religion unto itself. It’s probably no coincidence that “fuji” itself is a homonym for a word that means “live forever.”

Nowadays, any address with the name Fujimi attached is highly valued–if, in fact, it still affords a view of the sacred mountain. Tokyo, in particular, is so built up that, according to Tokyo Shimbun, there are only three locations left in the city named Fujimi from which Mt. Fuji can still be seen from the ground. The most famous of these is in Nishi Nippori, a place called Fujimi-zaka, or Fujimi Slope. In early November and late January, photographers and tourists converge at the top of the slope to wonder at the Fuji Diamond, when the sun happens to set behind the mountain’s summit. This year, rubberneckers almost lost their chance, since the weather was cloudy for two of the three days when the diamond view is possible. As it happens, it may be the last time.

That’s because Sumitomo is building three tower condominiums that will forever block the view of Mt. Fuji from the vantage point of Fujimi-zaka. This almost happened before. Back in 1999, another developer announced a plan to build a tall condo within the neighborhood that threatened the view, and local residents formed a committee to protest construction. Naturally, the developer paid no attention, but as it turned out, the building only blocked a small portion of the foot of the mountain. The new Sumitomo project will definitely block the whole thing, so the committee has asked the mayor of Arakawa Ward to lodge a formal complaint with the developer, which reportedly was quite “annoyed” by the request owing to the fact that the buildings under construction happen to be in Okubo, all the way on the other side of the Yamanote Line. Sumitomo bought the land five years ago and says it has complied with all relevant prefectural and ward regulations in planning the housing project, and the ward in question isn’t Arakawa, it’s Shinjuku.

Where there’s smoke

Last Sunday morning at about 7 o’clock, a fire broke out at the Rose House Higashi apartment building in the Okubo section of Shinjuku, Tokyo. More than half of the two-story structure was destroyed. Four residents died and two remain in critical condition. Of the 26 units in the building, 22 were occupied by 23 residents. That means one unit had two people, which is sort of remarkable since each apartment is only 4.5 tatami mats in size, or about 8 square meters.

Rose House is fifty years old. Each room has a cold water faucet and a gas burner. The toilets are communal. There is no bath, which is characteristic of these kind of wooden apartment buildings. Rents were between ¥51,000 and ¥53,000 a month, which is cheap for Shinjuku but quite expensive for this kind of residence. For ¥10,000 more you can probably find a six-mat apartment not far away with its own private bathroom, but as media have reported 17 of Rose House’s residents were on welfare, and most of them were “very old.” The Shinjuku welfare office told reporters that they did not “recommend” Rose House to any of the people they administer, but it’s common for welfare recipients to “live in the same building.” That’s because their incomes are extremely limited and most landlords will not rent to welfare recipients. As it happens, welfare recipients in Tokyo tend to receive a higher housing allowance than people in other cities in Japan, the maximum being ¥53,000. Rose House apparently catered to welfare cases, which makes sense. Landlords usually can’t demand that much money for such old, cramped apartments, even in Shinjuku, and public housing is usually off-limits to single people; but since welfare recipients don’t have a lot of choices the Rose House landlord could ask them to pay that much. Also, Rose House didn’t demand a guarantor. Even at less than full capacity the place makes more than a million yen a month.

So far the police have not isolated the cause of the fire. Some media initially suspected it had something to do with “old wiring,” since there was a small electrical fire in one of the apartments several months ago, but the Asahi Shimbun has reported that theory has been discounted. Though the building was situated on the edge of a parking lot, Rose House is what is called a saikenchikufuka, a structure that “can’t be rebuilt” because it was erected in the middle of block, thus making it very difficult for firemen to gain access. Nobody will be moving back in, which means the surviving residents now have to find some other hovel to accept them.

Now on sale

It’s fairly well-known that Japanese people like new things, and if their budget allows they prefer buying a brand new house or condo rather than one that’s already been lived in. Half of the almost six million condominiums in Japan were built within the last 15 years, and reportedly the pace of construction is slowing due to the ongoing recession. According to statistics recently released by Reins Tower (East Japan Real Estate), sales of older condos also went down over the past year. Sales contracts were concluded for 1,943 used condos in August in the Tokyo Metropolitan area. That’s a 6 percent drop from the same month last year. However, the 920 sales in Tokyo alone represented a 0.9 percent increase over last year. The suburbs were a bit different, with Chiba seeing a 6.8 percent drop and Kanagawa a whopping 14.1 percent decline.

But that isn’t the whole story. While sales on the whole have gone down slightly, the average prices of the condos sold have gone up, as much as 4.6 percent in Saitama, for instance. What this would seem to indicate is that more newer used condos are being sold, since condominiums lose their value with time on a pretty consistent basis. In Tokyo, the trend is more localized. Sales of used condos in the three central wards (Chiyoda, Chuo, Minato) decreased by 15.4 percent, while those in the eastern portion of the city increased by 8.6 percent. Condos in the center of the capital are, of course, much more expensive that those in the eastern part, even though prices in central Tokyo have dropped 6 percent while those in eastern Tokyo declined only 1.4 percent (for comparison’s sake, prices in the western wards dropped the most, 8.2 percent, while those in the southwest–Meguro, Shinagawa, Ota–lost only 0.6 percent).

All indications point to a buyers market for used condos, which is hardly surprising. The stock is increasing. For the entire Tokyo metropolitan area, the available stock of used condos is 52 percent higher than it was last year, and in central Tokyo it’s gone up by 25 percent (all Tokyo by 35 percent). What this means is that it’s becoming more difficult to sell older condos, even in those areas like central Tokyo where it used to be considered easy to do so.