Unsafe as houses

Ever since the March 2011 earthquake, Tokyo has been reassessing its disaster preparedness policies with mixed results. Though the residents of the city have definitely become more knowledgeable about their vulnerability and what needs to be done to save as many lives as possible in the event of a major quake, not much, in fact, has been done, owing mainly to the usual issues involving private property versus public responsibility. Tens of thousands of old wooden houses, packed tightly together in some neighborhoods, are basically kindling for the inevitable conflagrations that will start after an earthquake hits. Since the local government doesn’t feel it can force these people to move or rebuild their houses (which would, in accordance with zoning laws that have gone into effect since they were originally built, force them to construct smaller abodes then they already occupy) their dire prediction falls on deaf ears. Libertarians and individuals with fond feelings about Tokyo’s uniquely quaint neighborhoods condemn any sort of regulatory move that would change the character of those neighborhoods, but it’s clear that these neighborhoods, as well as the people who live in them, won’t survive a big quake. They didn’t survive the 1923 quake, and the situation isn’t really that much different.

The same seems to go for condominiums and apartments, though in a different way. Late last year, the Tokyo government sent out questionnaires to building management companies and condo owner associations to determine the status of quake-proofing for collective housing in the city. Owner-occupied and rental combined, Tokyo has some 132,600 multi-resident buildings, 24,000 of which were built before 1981 when stricter quake-proofing standards went into effect. About 52,000 questionnaires were sent out, and one-tenth were completed and returned. Of these, only 11 percent said that their buildings have been inspected for structural integrity–17 percent for condos and 6 percent for rental apartments. Another 8 percent said they “planned to carry out inspections,” while 9 percent plan to “discuss the matter.” Sixty-three percent responded that they have no plans to do anything. Among the buildings that did carry out inspections, 60 percent were told that they needed “further reinforcements,” but only 4 percent have actually carried out any reinforcement work.

The results are not encouraging, and hardly surprising given how weakly quake-proofing standards have been enforced. Even after the earthquake, structural reinforcement has been only partially mandated. The city passed a regulation obligating 5,000 buildings that stand along major arteries to undergo inspections since their collapse in a quake would exacerbate the disaster by blocking emergeny roads. But the regulation only talks about inspection, not actual renovation work. Tokyo Shimbun went to one 33-year-old building in Nishi Kasai with 300 units. After the quake of 311, the union of owners started talking about reinforcement more seriously, and it was determined that the inspection alone would cost ¥400 million. According to the union’s charter any major repair or renovation work must be approved by at least 75 percent of the residents, and a good portion are older people on fixed incomes. If the residents approve the plan, there is enough money in the repair fund to pay for inspection reinforcement since Tokyo increased its subsidy for such work from 23 to 50 percent of the total cost. But while those repairs are taking place people may have to move out temporarily.

Obviously, it’s a very complicated and time-consuming process, and according to Tokyo Shimbun many resident associations and building management companies just don’t want the hassle. Apparently, for a lot of older buildings there aren’t even blueprints on file–which makes you wonder what’s the point of having a building code in the first place–so any inspections would involve intrusive work that greatly multiplies the cost. In a sense, the residents of these older buildings are in the same situation as the residents of all those little wooden houses. There’s nothing the authorities can do, so the only implied recourse is to let an earthquake wipe them out and start from scratch afterwards.


  1. Stephen Smith · September 29, 2012

    Given that new buildings are uniformly more quake-proof than old ones, then wouldn’t a less intrusive solution to the problem of old wooden homes that are overbuilt according to current zoning be to simply upzone them for higher densities, to encourage redevelopment?

    At least, that would be the libertarian position.

    While a libertarian may be opposed to mandatory rebuilding regulations, they would certainly not be opposed to an upzoning that gives property owners the right (“right,” not “obligation”!) to “change the character of those neighborhoods,” as you put it.


    • catforehead · September 29, 2012

      That’s one solution to the zoning problem but it doesn’t solve the problem that’s at issue here: safety. There is not enough space between houses for vehicles to pass and in the event of an earthquake there would be even less. Even if properties were zoned for higher density, there’s usually not enough room for a decent foundation once you factor in wider roads. The only thing to do is force some people to sell their properties so that plots can be combined for redevelopment that takes into account wider roads; but it’s the narrow, warren-like alleyways that give these neighborhoods their character.

      The relevant laws are discussed here:



      • Stephen Smith · September 29, 2012

        It seems we’re discussing two separate safety issues. You are concerned about roads that are wide enough for emergency vehicles to pass, and I’m concerned about buildings that will fall down or easily catch fire.

        Zoning the area for new development would go a long way to preventing emergency vehicles from being necessary in the first place, since new buildings would be held to much higher earthquake and fire standards, no?

        As for not having room for decent foundations, so long as the buildings aren’t supertall skyscrapers, do they really need that much room beyond the property limits for foundations? In NYC buildings are almost always built up to the lot line, with no room beyond the sides of the building at all for extra foundation. And when I see construction sites for mid-rises, the foundation seems to end at the property line – it doesn’t look like any extra land is necessary.

        Now, the individual plots may be too small for anything above a story or two, but developers could acquire adjacent parcels and combine them.


      • catforehead · September 29, 2012

        Actually, the whole point of the saikenchiku-fuka (prohibit rebuilding) law is to make property owners sell their lots to developers so that wider roads can be built. That would solve the road width problem, but the Tokyo government, respectful of property, will not force anyone to do it. They simply prohibit the owner from rebuilding on his lot unless he gives up part of his land for wider roads, and most property owners aren’t willing to give up any of their property so they simply don’t rebuild. The only alternative is to sell to a developer, and most of them don’t want to, it seems.


  2. Matt · September 29, 2012

    We’ve looked at some detached homes near Sakura City in Chiba. The homes we saw are 20 years old but they have cracks in the wall, presumably from the quake. Have you seen cracks in any of the homes you’ve seen? Are there legal issues with selling homes in that condition. Really enjoy reading the blog.


    • catforehead · September 29, 2012

      Yes, we’ve seen cracks in walls. Usually, the explanation is that it’s more or less cosmetic, or at least it is when it’s a crack on an exterior wall, since it could just be a matter of the mortar, which has nothing to do with the structural integrity. Still, you wonder. Legally, we’re not sure what you can do. If the seller doesn’t apply for an exemption, the buyer has three months after moving in to change his mind; meaning, if you move in and find something serious that the previous owner didn’t tell you about, you can forfeit the house and get your money back. But you should ask the realtor about those things.


  3. Cookied · October 14, 2012

    I’m just going through this blog, and I’m trying to figure out if I’m being elaborately trolled. As I understand it, you guys are in your 50s and have been looking to buy a house for 15 years. Seriously? Buy a damn house or give it up. I’m reminded of all the career women who can’t find a man to marry because they’ve acquired unreasonable standards over the years. At least they can go to the sperm bank.


  4. Nando · October 17, 2012

    Thanks for the blog – it’s interesting, well researched and well-written, and I look forward to the next installment. A couple of ideas.
    Could you have a separate heading for the field diary? I enjoy the developing tale. In a way I almost hope you’ll never hit the housing G-spot, because it keeps the rest of us entertained while you look, but I think with the amount of effort you’ve put into it, you certainly deserve to! I just hope you’ll keep on going out and looking at places even after you’ve got your own.
    I’d really appreciate an entry on the ins and outs of condominium management committees. We’ve had experience of two so far, both owner managed. While I believe it’s the way to go, unless people learn how to have self-managed committees, they’re not going to be successful. Our first experience is that everyone’s frightened of the original owner who’s the kanrinin, so we haven’t had any committee meetings in the three years we’ve lived here. It’s very cheap as a result, but our initiative to have an earthquake inspection has sunk without trace as there’s no formal way to talk to the other building occupants without going past the dreaded Nan-toka-san. I heard there were courses available for people to learn how to do this, but came up against a blank when I looked locally in Yokohama.
    Another good one, would be on how to go about an having an earthquake resistance inspection and possible retrofit on a condominium. I’ve been to the local architect’s department and got general information about the procedure, but so far come against the resistance of Nan-toka-san. There are subsidies available for the full investigation, and again for the actual retrofitting work, but it depends on building size. All of this would be very useful to know more about, for people wanting to take the initiative in the building where they live.
    I think the whole thing of getting a mortgage as an outside person would be interesting for your readers. We did it by the bootstraps method, and have learnt a lot along the way, but I think a lot of people don’t even bother because they think it’s impossible or they have to sign their life away for 35 years, which simply isn’t the case. In ours, we’ve got a 6m loan for 10 years, which is perfect as it’s small, it doesn’t tie us up for years, but enables us to stop throwing money away on rent. I’m sure others would be interested in this route.
    Another one would be in the costs of demolishing an old house and rebuilding on the plot. Given what you say about lots of houses rotting away, as long as the ownership issues you’ve referred to can be overcome, could be a viable route for a lot of people, who maybe think it’s too complicated to consider, but maybe actually it isn’t …
    Another useful one would be how to go about insuring your piece of turf. Again, first time round we got one of the token compensation type of deals, which means that if the whole thing comes down in a disaster, we get some money to for our pains, but it’s not on the cost of rebuilding basis that house insurance works on in the UK, where I come from. Obviously the difference here is earthquakes and tsunami. But you can apparently boost it with contents insurance, and our second shot with Tokyo Marine, looked much more like actual cover of the value of the building. All that sort of stuff is very useful to know if you’re weighing up whether it’s worth buying a property or not.
    Anyway, just a few ideas.
    Nando in Kanagawa


    • catforehead · October 18, 2012

      Thank you for the suggestions. They’re very helpful. Some of them we have already addressed here and in our JT column, though perhaps not in sufficient detail. We’ve talked about condo management committees in our articles about rebuilding old condominiums; and as for demolishing houses, the post we did about the NHK Closeup Gendai program regarding superannuated homes covered some of that territory. We’ve also covered disaster-related insurance, albeit mainly in Media Mix and Yen for Living, though also here.

      As for mortgages, we’ve been talking about doing an article about it. We’re of two minds because we did go to a bank and gave them our financial particulars and were turned down. It’s difficult right now for self-employed people at our age, especially with our unguaranteed income, to get approved. I suppose that in itself is worthy of an article, but we’ve heard that JA is much more forgiving in their housing loan policy so we should probably check them out before we write it. In any case, we want to pay cash for whatever it is we end up buying, and if that seems to limit our choices, well, there you have it.


  5. rabbit hutches for sale · November 10, 2012

    What this got to do about rabbit hutches?


    • catforehead · November 10, 2012

      The title of the blog refers to a comment that an American official once made in reference to the Japanese economy back in the 1950s or 60s, pointing out that most Japanese people lived in “rabbit hutches,” meaning small, cramped housing. It’s become something of a running joke in Japan itself.


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