CIMG2839During the negotiations with the builder, we were asked, several times but mostly in passing, whether or not we wanted to hold the various ceremonies associated with building a house. Understanding marginally that this would involve hiring a kanushi (shinto priest) to perform a jichinsai (rite of purifying the land) before construction could begin in earnest, we said no. Neither of us is religious in any denominational sense and regard shintoism as a convenient instrument of the state for propping up emperor worship, but in any case we have no desire to pay for something that is superstitious in essence. N-san, the salesman, said he understood and we assumed that was the end of it.

But after the foundation was poured and carpenters started erecting the frame, young N, the architect, who was now nominally in charge of the project and would be our sole liaison with the building side, sent us an email saying that the workers would be carrying out a jotoshiki, the ceremony to mark the raising of the roofbeam, which is a big deal and, since it involves the people who are actually building our house, seemed more momentous than the jichinsai, though initially we looked upon it as no more relevant. The idea is to give thanks for the successful completion of the house thus far, which seems sort of premature since only the frame has been finished, but we’re sure the ritual has somehow been streamlined over the centuries and, in any case, it’s entirely symbolic. We can appreciate that if it’s something the carpenters value, but from the way it was presented to us it sounded like yet another expense, an obligation that the builder was passing on to us for our approval, as if we were being asked to confirm something that had already been decided anyway. We knew that the carpenters would, however perfunctorily, carry out the jotoshiki and since we were the end beneficiaries of this gesture it would be considered cold of us not to participate–or so we were led to believe by the purport of the email. Upon further interrogation young N said we would be responsible for the refreshments for the ceremony. He also said it was customary to present go-shugi (gifts) to all the carpenters in the form of cash, usually ¥10,000-¥20,000 to the chief carpenter (toryo), and ¥5,000-¥10,000 to each of the others. After studying the matter on the Internet we came to the conclusion that, while the ritual did have the effect of bringing the house owners and work crew closer together, it was mostly a racket and could become quite expensive depending on how many contractors showed up for the ceremony–and that included the building company itself.

Eventually we decided to participate, since it was going to take place with our without us and several Internet commentators had wondered out loud, after the fact, if the carpenters tacitly sabotaged their houses because they didn’t attend the jotoshiki and/or give out go-shugi. One thing that we have learned by all our reading about the house-building process is that Japanese carpenters are a closely knit and rather proud species of worker, and tend to place themselves above the rest of us unskilled mortals. Though we didn’t like being blackmailed, we thought it best not to challenge the status quo on this point.

However, there was a more immediate difficulty involved: lack of cash. Ritually, the raising of the roof beam occasions more than just the jotoshiki. It also marked the second payment to the builder, according to our contract, which amounts to one-third of the total cost of the house, or close to ¥5 million. Keep in mind that our loan does not come through until the house is completed and approved by the relevant authorities, so we had to produce this second installment ourselves, which meant cleaning out all our various Japanese savings and investment plans and even transferring some money from our American portfolio. It was something we knew we were going to have to do, but we had planned it all down the last yen, and suddenly we were going to have to pay money we hadn’t planned for to throw an afternoon party to make sure the carpenters didn’t leave cigarette butts in the insulation. We tried to make a deal with young N: Could they arrange for the go-shugi and give out the envelopes in our name and then just add the expense to our overall bill for the house? He refused with uncharacteristic bluntness, as if what we had proposed was some kind of blasphemy against the construction gods. We were more than a little irked, because, legally, we didn’t own the house until it was finished. Strictly speaking, the builder owned the house until it was finished, so having us not only pay for the jotoshiki but also requiring us to arrange for it came across as an imposition that revealed the changed circumstances of our respective roles in the transaction. Before we signed the contract, we were customers and treated with the kind of fawning deference customers in Japan can expect. But now that they had us they acted as if they were in charge and had been all along. From now on whenever we asked for a change in the original plan or a modification they would preface their response with, “Well, it will cost more money, but…” The jotoshiki, as it were, was simply an aspect of the business of building, but a part of the process whose financial form was amorphous in nature and thus non-negotiable. Though we had the option of not participating, we were led to believe that it would be a mistake, even if the consequences of such a mistake weren’t explained to us. It was the same thing with the line on the contract estimate called shohiyo, which translates as “miscellaneous expenses.” These are unforeseen costs that will inevitably pop up during the course of construction, and amounted to a full ¥1 million, whose roundness of figure made us wonder if it wasn’t arbitrary. When we asked how they decided on that amount, young N said it was based on the “size of the property.” Would we later receive a detailed schedule of the expenses incurred under the shohiyo designation? Apparently not. It was a pre-emptive catchall category, which means it could cover many things or nothing at all, but in either case we wouldn’t know what.

Logistically, the jotoshiki was also a pain in the ass. We asked how many people would be participating because we had to know how much food and drink to bring. We were told there would be the chief carpenter, four underlings, N-san, and young N, so we went ahead and ordered the meals. Then, the night before the ceremony we learned that two of the carpenters wouldn’t be attending because of back problems, but by that time it was too late to cancel part of the box lunch order, so we would have two more than we needed. Also we had to hire a taxi to take us to the building site so that we could carry all the food.

The one good thing about the jotoshiki is that we were formally introduced to our head carpenter, an agreeable, modest young man, as well as the other workers, or at least three of them. In that regard it was worth the trouble, though not necessarily the expense. In the end we decided not to pay the go-shugi, and for that reason after handing out the lunches we left before the actual ceremony, which was really for their benefit, not ours. We didn’t think the workers would hold it against us if we didn’t give them little gifts of cash and watch them sprinkle sake on the worksite, but even if they did we were willing to take the chance on principle. For one thing, our research had revealed that the jotoshiki was originally conceived as a community event, wherein neighbors celebrated a new member who was building a house in their midst, and that’s something we could get behind, though it seems less likely in modern Japan. Besides, it was easy to get the feeling that the two carpenters who didn’t show up did not, in fact, have back problems. More likely, they just didn’t feel like coming all that way for a ceremony. Since there was no work for them that day they weren’t being paid. Later, still wondering if we had been too serious about the whole matter we told a neighbor about our misgivings and she laughed and said when she had her house built she didn’t pay for the jotoshiki at all and certainly wouldn’t give out go-shugi. “That’s just stupid,” she remarked.CIMG2824


  1. Anonymous · January 4, 2014

    It’s such a scam, isn’t it?! I respect tradition and all but funny how it involves you giving more cash out. If they were to take the amount you gifted out of the final bill or if the building company was to pay for it then fine.

    Was the priest expensive? I only have (limited) experience with Buddhist ceremonies but that also comes out ludicrously costly. Nice work if you can get it!


    • catforehead · January 4, 2014

      We didn’t do the jichinsai so we didn’t hire a priest. As far as we know, this is a Shinto ritual, not a Buddhist one, but I’m sure you can find someone to do a Buddhist one if you prefer. And when you hire the priest, of course, they never state how much the fee is. You’re supposed to give what you think it’s worth, but from what we’ve read it’s anywhere from ¥20,000 to ¥100,000.


      • Martin · January 4, 2014

        My point was more about the religious traditions in Japanese life. Buddhist or Shinto, it can be very expensive and it preys on people who will err on the side of caution and pay more than they need to. It would make more sense and be more honest to charge a set fee.

        Your example is classic Japan though. Asking you if you want the ceremony as if you have the choice and ignoring your opinions worho

        (Please can you hide my email address from the 1st message. It was done in error. Thanks!)


  2. Martin · January 5, 2014

    Outside of Tokyo/Osaka, do you really think home ownership is more financially beneficial than renting? I’d like to own my own house but the costs involved for even a basic design that is going to be knocked down in 30-40 years’ time anyway seem pretty high. The value of the land is almost certainly going to drop substantially with the population collapse (here in Akita anyway). Plus the annual tax bill and liability for repairs etc.

    The security of owning your own home is something to consider but it can’t be considered an asset whatsoever!


  3. larecontreimprevue · January 6, 2014

    Japanese carpenters are indeed a proud species. We’ve been through four of those ceremonies (2x groundbreaking and roof-raising) and considered them well worth the cost. One of our buildings required the construction of seven dormers with hipped roofs (that’s a lot of angles…), and when the contractor told the chief carpenter upon completing the first dormer, “Great. Now do it six more times,” the carpenter started kicking the wall repeatedly. But he worked through his agony and got the damn dormers done. Don’t know if he would’ve without the various yen-denominated emollients.


  4. JapanAsobu · January 7, 2014
  5. Tim · January 8, 2014

    Well, first of all… as you guys slowly get ready to finally settle down, I’m already missing the installments on home-shopping and your weekly trips around town assessing various properties. Will be sorely missed.

    As to the woes of dealing with the building contractors… it seems in every culture there’s some take on the contractors having the new homeowner over a barrel of one sort or another. I’ve heard these tales now from Holland to England to Spain to the US… Korea and Hong Kong. In every country there’s a uniquely different spin on it, but somehow contractors know how to get their pound of flesh out of you… and not very much you can do about it.

    I’d say you made a wise precautionary move… there’s more a contractor can do than just leave cigarette butts in the insulation.

    Hope it all works out well and look forward to the pics of the new place once it’s completed.


  6. david · February 8, 2014

    Having been through a U.S. version of your current ordeal, I can vouch for the fact that even the best version of a contractor is a scoundrel — there’s no other way to put it. Ours was a personal friend (still is, though we see each other a bit more “completely”).


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