It was a little odd to open the Japan Times this morning and find a feature about the city we live in, Inzai; odd in the sense that for as long as we’ve lived here whenever we tell people our address, in almost every case they’ve never heard of Inzai, which is the city just to the west of Narita in Chiba Prefecture. The article, written by Elaine Lies of Reuters, uses Inzai as a model for future growth in Japan, which is seeing its population shrink and age. For this purpose, the article compares Inzai’s situation with that of its neighbor to the south, Sakura, which is aging much more rapidly. The reason for Inzai’s good fortune is what Reuters sees as its aggressively pro-growth outlook. Inzai is one of the three cities that are part of the Chiba New Town development project, while Sakura is a typical suburban bedroom community that was developed in the 70s-80s during the lead-up to the Japanese bubble period. Though it includes some neighborhoods, like Yurigaoka, which was planned around an offshoot of the Keisei Main Line, that continue to attract young families, for the most part Sakura is made up of isolated housing subdivisions that no one is really interested in any more, probably because most of them are far from train lines. Inzai, on the other hand—or, at least, the part of Inzai that Reuters was covering—is built along the Hokuso Line, which also happens to follow Route 464, a major road that goes from the edge of Tokyo almost to Narita airport. In fact, the first item in the article that raised any eyebrows on our part was the factoid that says Inzai is 40 minutes from the airport. Actually, if you take the Airport Access train from either of Inzai’s two express stops, it’s only about 20 minutes, so we suspect the reporter got her information from someone who drives to Narita. As of now, 464 doesn’t reach as far as the airport. After it gets to the town of Sakae, you have to take back roads to get there.
And in a sense, this ironic lack of ready automobile access to the area’s most prominent feature is what makes Inzai less progressive than the article makes it out to be. Interestingly, Lies does not mention one feature of Inzai that the local government plays up constantly—that it has been named multiple times as Japan’s most livable city by the business magazine Toyo Keizai. The reasons have to do with things like affluence, green spaces, and convenience. Inzai’s tax base, as Lies implies, is quite sturdy owing mainly to the fact that new housing developments are booming along the 464 corridor. After we moved here in 2011, much of the land that had been put aside for the Chiba New Town project was opened up for development by UR, the semi-public housing corporation that managed the land. Because the land had been held for so long in the hopes that it would someday regain the value it had at the end of the 1980s (it never did), and UR was losing money in the process, the central government had for years been pressuring the corporation to liquidate it, and finally gave them a deadline. So they mostly sold it to developers and housing companies at prices far below those they’d paid, and all at the same time. The most valuable properties in the New Town area, those immediately adjacent to 464 and the Hokuso Line, were originally slated for commercial development, either for retail businesses or office buildings, and while Inzai did manage to attract a fair amount of commercial interests, it wasn’t nearly as much as Reuters seems to think. There are at least three shopping malls within 15-minute bike rides from our home and two of them are only half-occupied, despite the huge amount of residential development taking place. And as far as office buildings go, most were built two decades ago around the Chiba New Town Chuo Station. For the most part they are data centers for banks and other major financial institutions. Inzai is built on bedrock, so in the event of a major earthquake the records of these companies should be safe. As far as new commercial facilities go, the only things we’ve noticed is more logistics centers, which take advantage of Inzai’s proximity to Narita Airport.
The green spaces are quite impressive, and one of the most pointed observations that Lies makes is that the subdivisions in Inzai don’t look very Japanese. This is a statement only a non-Japanese person would probably make, and it’s true. The streets are wide and most have real sidewalks. There are plenty of parks, and a five-minute car ride from the main corridor brings you to abundant rice fields and dense forests, though with construction in full frenzy many of the more natural tracts of land that impressed us when we first moved here are being clear cut for still more residential housing. For instance, our home is not within the New Town bailiwick, which means we don’t have access to water or city gas service. Nevertheless, some of the forests near our house are being cut down for things like nursing homes and medical clinics that may not want to pay the higher land prices within the New Town area.
And this is where our own experience with Inzai differs from the characterization put forth in the article. Though Inzai is very definitely filling up at a remarkable pace with young families who should keep the tax base vital for decades to come, the older sections of Inzai are becoming just as superannuated and redundant as those ghost towns in Sakura. The article says that Chiba New Town was a redevelopment project that “started” in the mid-1980s. Though it’s true people didn’t really start moving in until skyrocketing land prices closer to Tokyo forced more of the capital’s workers to seek property further out, Chiba New Town had been in the works since the mid-1960s. It was envisioned as a redevelopmet project on the scale of more famous New Towns, like Tama in Western Tokyo and Kohoku in Yokohama. But maybe because Chiba has never had the cachet of Tokyo or Yokohama, Chiba New Town didn’t take off until the mid-1980s, and even then it didn’t attract nearly as many people as the original projections. The target was 340,000, which was extremely optimistic considering that the area was almost completely agricultural and there was almost no public transportation. Everything had to be built from scratch, meaning it was much more expensive than other New Towns. It wasn’t until Narita Airport opened in 1978 that people in Tokyo paid attention to Inzai, and even then they didn’t actually see it because the trains that connected Tokyo to the airport went around the city to the south along the Keisei main line or to the north using the JR Narita line.
By 1984, Chiba New Town had only attracted 25,000 residents, or 7.5 percent of the target. The main problem was built into the lack of long-range planning: Not all the farmers wanted to sell their land, so it became difficult to construct infrastructure in a timely manner. It all had to be done piecemeal as land became available. Road construction was begun and then suspended for decades as negotiations continued. It’s not uncommon to drive through Inzai and hit dead ends on beautifully designed roadways. Originally, the size of the New Town was to be 2,900 hectares. When we moved here in 2011, it was only 1,900 hectares. Eventually, the project developers scaled the target population back to 140,000. It was only two weeks ago that the whole city of Inzai, much of which is outside the New Town area, broke through the 100,000 population line. It was a cause for celebration.
The biggest problem with the slow pace of land acquisition was the building of the Hokuso Line. In the 70s and early 80s, the only rail transportation was a stretch of the Keisei Line that took commuters to Matsudo at the eastern edge of Tokyo, where they could then travel on to central Tokyo. Local governments of villages in the western part of the Chiba NT area, which would later be incorporated into Inzai City, worked hard to convince residents to sell land for the train line, only to end up waiting years before a station was built anywhere near them. A whole generation grew up and moved away in the meantime. The Hokuso Line didn’t complete Chiba New Town Chuo station, located in the heart of the project, until 1984, which was actually good timing since it was the dawn of the so-called bubble era, when real estate skyrocketed. For a short period of time people flocked to the vicinity to build single family homes, since everyone believed property values had nowhere to go but up, but because the land closest to the railway line was reserved for commercial use, most of the residences were far from the stations, so commuters still had to take buses to get to the train, and yet they were paying as much as ¥70 million for land and a house. The population spiked briefly during the late 80s, but ridership was too low to make up for the high cost of construction, so the operator had to set the fares high, which acted as a further disincentive, especially if people had school age children who used the train to get to classes. For years families who lived along the line lobbied to get fares reduced, and the railway authority did end up offering discounts for students. When we moved there the deficit stood at ¥23.1 billion, and while that was lower that it had been in the past and ridership later increased owing to the opening of the Tokyo Sky Tree tower and the Sky Access express train to Narita Airport, it wasn’t enough to convince the operator to reduce fares for everyone. It costs ¥280 to go from one station on the line to the next one.
The Hokuso Line’s cash flow problems mirror that of UR, which managed land that the prefectural government bought at premium prices during the height of the bubble era and which remained undeveloped. It is this land that the central government wanted UR to liquidate. So after thirty years of little if any development, the land originally reserved for commercial purposes was leveled and infrastructure added in the hopes that it could be sold to residential real estate developers. UR managed more than 300 unused hectares in Inzai alone. UR went ahead with land preparation in the hopes that someone would want it, and eventually someone did, but not until after UR, Chiba Prefecture, and the central government lost tons of money on the project in the meantime.
So while Inzai is booming at the moment—new houses are being built at a pace that will make your head spin—it’s only along the 464 corridor. In the part of Inzai that’s closer to the JR Narita Line, and where the city hall and other municipal services are located, they’re practically giving empty houses away because they’re more than 25 years old. The reason people are coming to Inzai is that they’re building so many new houses at reasonable prices, less than ¥40 million in some places, and within walking distance to a station. Compare that to people who bought houses for ¥70 million back in the day and had to take a bus to get to the station. But because of the very fact that they are building so many at one time, it’s obvious that they will probably be worth next to nothing in 15-20 years time, when the owners’ will still be paying off their mortgages. In the meantime, they have to provide more services to the new families in the New Town, and already Inzai is building schools and amenities in the vicinity of the new subdivisions. As a result, the few students who attend the existing public schools in those portions of Inzai that aren’t part of the New Town—which is most of the city—are going to be transferred across town to these new schools. Another deficit of a Japanese suburban city with a young tax base is lack of surface transportation. There are practically no buses or, for that matter, taxis in Inzai, since it’s made for driving, so the older people who still live here have difficulty getting around if they don’t drive. None of these young families thought of buying even cheaper used houses near the JR Narita Line, mainly because Japanese people like new things, but also maybe because the Narita Line is not as convenient as the Hokuso Line for getting to Tokyo.
Which brings up the point we’ve often talked about here: If Japanese employers didn’t cover their workers’ transportation costs, would as many people be coming to Chiba New Town to buy new houses? If they had to pay for their own transportation, which costs about ¥1,200 to get to Nihonbashi, one-way, they might think again. So Reuters is right that Inzai is definitely growing, but is it, to borrow the current buzz term, “sustainable growth”? In 20 years it may be indistinguishable from Sakura, if Sakura still exists, that is.