Big One

To mark the tenth anniversary of the disaster of March 11, 2011, we are posting one of the chapters from the book we are working on about Japanese housing. Some of the following appeared in slightly different form in the anthology known as #quakebook. For those who may be interested, we have been looking for a publisher or agent to handle the book for the last year and so far have had no luck in placing it, so if anyone has advice, connections, etc., let us know. 

On March 11, 2011, the governor of Tokyo was Shintaro Ishihara, who later called the massive earthquake that struck off the coast of northern Japan that day “divine retribution” for some imagined slight to the nation’s soul. Never mind that all of the people who died or were left homeless by the disaster had lived in three northeastern prefectures far from the fleshpots of the capital he oversaw. Ishihara, a popular novelist in addition to being a politician, needed to make some sort of apocalyptic statement. 

No one thought there was anything “divine” about the catastrophe, but we could all appreciate a cosmic joke. The quake hit right in the middle of moving season. The Japanese fiscal year, not to mention the school year, begins April 1, and traditionally many people move house during the month of March because of changing jobs and entering university. Consequently, before, during, and after the quake there were moving trucks parked outside our 38-story apartment building in the Minami Senju area of Tokyo, carrying furniture for people who were settling in. Elevators in Japan are designed to automatically shut down in the event of an earthquake and they can’t be restarted until a technician arrives to turn them on again. Given that the entire city was affected, some buildings had to wait hours or even a day before someone showed up to get the elevators working. Movers were stuck on the street with trucks full of furniture while their customers stood in their new apartments appreciating the view as they swayed back and forth during one of the aftershocks that occurred on an almost hourly basis. Did they regret their decision to move into a high-rise? 

Perhaps not. The disaster helped answer a question: Would all these quake-proofed structures that had been built in the previous decades actually withstand a massive earthquake? Of course, the epicenter of the one we had just experienced was hundreds of kilometers away, but no buildings had collapsed in Sendai, the major city nearest to the quake and one with its own share of high-rises. So the technology seemed to work. But while it saved lives and property, it didn’t solve a more intractable problem: Once you’ve been in a major earthquake in a tall building, you don’t want to be in another one.

We had already been living on the 24th floor of River Harp Tower for more than ten years when the quake struck at 2:46 that afternoon, and had been through a good share of them. They just weren’t as intense. Usually, they started with a jolt followed by a gentle swaying. There are two types of quake-proof technologies for high rises in Japan. One is designed for flexibility: the entire structure absorbs the energy and disperses it more or less evenly throughout the frame, and the higher your floor, the wider and longer the sway. The other type, which is more expensive, involves rubber dampers in the foundation. We lived in the former type. On March 11, we didn’t feel that usual initial jolt but rather a slight rumble from the floor that just kept building until the walls started rattling violently. We knew this was going to be bigger than the usual quake and crouched together under a table. The shaking continued, and then gradually changed to swaying, which was much wider than it had been in the past. But the movement wasn’t as scary as the noise: a massive creaking sound that went on for more than two minutes.

A Japanese truism holds that most people who die in an earthquake are crushed by falling furniture, but it’s not true. Most die from collapsed structures, but the vast majority of these doomed buildings are wooden one-family houses. Still, falling furniture is deadly. Because older Japanese residences have little if any storage space, homes are filled with tall, heavy wardrobes and bookcases, and if they’re not fixed to the walls they will fall over. We didn’t have much in the way of possessions, but our bookcases were the type that attached to the ceiling, so nothing fell over during the quake except a floor mirror in the bedroom, which didn’t break. The TV stand, however, which is on casters, would have moved all the way across the living room if it hadn’t been tethered to the electrical outlet. In fact, the only thing damaged in the quake was our peace of mind. Though we now had utter confidence in the integrity of our high rise, we suddenly didn’t want to live in it if it meant having to go through that again. 

And that was a shame because we liked the apartment. Before the quake we assumed we would spend the rest of our lives there. As self-employed renters we were limited in what we could afford and obtain. This apartment was by far the best place we had ever lived in as a couple. It was sensibly laid out, bright, reasonably priced. The panoramic view of Sumida River and the mountains of Nagano and Yamanashi were just gravy. We had learned to put up with the demerits, chiefly the noise of the three train lines that ran by our building. But because there were three train lines going by our building, our neighborhood was very convenient. Stations for all three were within a short walking distance, and in Japan, proximity to public transportation is the gold standard of real estate. Almost anywhere else in Tokyo if you lived as close to three train lines as we did, you would pay through the nose, but we didn’t, the main reason being that our neighborhood was in shitamachi, the “low city” in Tokyo biographer Edward Seidensticker’s invaluable translation of the word. This is the old part of Tokyo where the hoi polloi traditionally reside, with alleyways laid out like strands of spaghetti dropped from the sky.  

In other words, it’s not as desirable an area for the average Japanese person as other parts of Tokyo, the “high city” to the north that lies within the Yamanote loop train line; or the popular, semi-hip residential corridor that extends from Shinjuku to the western mountains of Tama along the Chuo line; or the sparkling new waterfront district with its massive, ultra-modern skyscraper condo complexes, each one a self-contained town.

We ended up in Minami Senju due to a confluence of economic circumstances. In the mid-90s we moved from our delapidated house in the suburbs into Tokyo proper, near the northern border of the city. Our 65-square meter apartment in a 6-story building, only a minute from the nearest station, was ¥160,000 a month. Because it was new, it was more expensive than a similarly sized apartment in the same area, even though it was dark and designed in a style popularly known as either “kamaboko” (fish cake) or “chocolate bar,” terms that describe the geometric layout, with rectangular rooms and storage spaces carved out of a larger rectangle. This sort of layout benefits the developer and the owner, who can get more usable property out of a given volume of space and thus make more money. For residents it usually means less sunlight and more wasted space. We moved there because we wanted to live in Tokyo and, knowing someone who already resided in the building, it wasn’t that difficult to get approved. 

But we never liked it, and once our income grew we decided to move again, this time limiting our search to apartments managed by Japan’s semi-public housing corporation, UR, which stands for Urban Renaissance, though no one ever calls it that. Many people refer to UR properties as “public housing,” but technically they’re not. They certainly are not what Americans would picture if they heard the term. Anyone can rent a UR apartment regardless of income, and rents tend to be pegged to market values, so they aren’t any cheaper than regular private apartments. But UR terms are easier to satisfy. Usually, when you move into a rental property in Japan, if the landlord approves you as a tenant, in addition to a security/cleaning deposit the tenant has to pay so-called gift money (reikin), a kind of thank you fee to the landlord for being gracious enough to allow you to move in. In Tokyo at the time, gift fees were normally the equivalent of two months’ rent. (They tend to be more in Western Japan) And since security deposits were also about two months’ rent, that meant you needed at least five months’ worth just to move in. But UR did not demand gift money, and usually the security deposit was only one month’s rent. More importantly in our case, UR did not demand a guarantor, which all private landlords do. Our guarantor was a relative who made less money than we did, and the only reason we used him was because our landlord insisted our guarantor be a relation, since the Japanese Civil Code stipulates certain financial obligations between family members. We didn’t want to be beholden to anyone, especially family. In addition, UR did not charge a re-signing fee whenever the lease needed to be renewed, which is also customary with private landlords and/or their realtors. Since most leases in Japan are only for two years, you have to pay that fee–another one month rent’s worth–fairly often. 

Another good thing about UR is they manage properties all over Japan, since they used to be the national housing authority, popularly known as Kodan, which started building actual public housing in the late 50s when Japan was still rebuilding after the war and housing shortages were a real problem. Eventually, the government got out of the housing business and for years tried to privatize Kodan, but it was politically difficult owing to entrenched bureaucratic interests. It was turned into a public corporation, but in name only. UR is saddled with huge debts incurred by Kodan during the heady “bubble era” of the 1980s, when property values skyrocketed. Those debts are financed by taxpayers. Nevertheless, by the late 90s UR, while it no longer sold condominiums, was still constructing rental properties. 

So in the summer of 2000, when we started looking at UR properties, there were quite a few new ones to choose from in Tokyo. The buildings located closer to the center of the city were out of our league price-wise, but as it so happened, there was a new, fairly large UR complex just finishing construction in the Oji section of Kita Ward, not far from where we were living, and situated along the Sumida River. There were four buildings in the complex, the tallest about fourteen stories. We went there the first day they were open for viewing. Most were of the boxy, light-deprived type we were presently living in, and while their glittery newness was immediately appealing, we knew how quickly they’d lose their sparkle. At the time, the standard features of new collective housing were white, textured wallpaper called kurosu, and laminate wood flooring. When new, they looked nice, but after a year or so the kurosu would start to yellow and peel and the flooring’s finish would become dull and uneven. 

Our main criterion was light, since the apartment we were living in had very little. Most apartments in Japan have entrances (genkan) situated along an outside corridor, which means that side will not receive much sun. These corridors will be on the north side of the building, so that the balcony on the other side will face south. Since Japan is in the northern hemisphere, this makes sense: The movement of the sun is low in the winter, so the apartment will receive more sunlight during that season, and less of it in the summer when the sun is high. The only way to get more sunlight was to secure a corner unit, and, naturally, they were more expensive than units within the building, but we found one on the 13th floor of the Oji complex, facing south and east, with a roof terrace available to us on the eastern side. It was about the same size as the apartment we were living in but also slightly cheaper, owing to the fact that the building was a good 20-minute walk from the station. 

Though this unit seemed right for us, we looked around for other UR properties, but the only new one that we could afford was next to Minami Senju station, an area we didn’t know much about except that it was near Sanya, Tokyo’s infamous tenderloin district populated by day workers who live in hostels and, when they’re not working, get drunk on the street and literally sleep in the gutter. It’s also near the old pleasure quarters, which remain to this day in the form of tacky night clubs and massage parlors. Also, the building was very tall, and we weren’t interested in living that high above the ground. Nevertheless, the price was right so we went to see what was available.

At the time, River Harp Tower was the final element in a major urban renewal project taking place in a neighborhood bordered to the west by railroad tracks and to the north and west by the Sumida, which curved abruptly to the south forming the harp shape the building was named for. The entire area used to be crammed with tiny wooden houses and small family factories, and developers had been gradually buying up parcels of land for years. Now, the entire district was filled with medium-height apartments and condominiums. On the same block as River Harp Tower were two high-rises, one run by the city for middle-income families and the other by the ward for lower-income familes. The large section of land between Minami Senju station and this block was still vacant when we went to inspect the new building, and moving across it felt like walking on the moon, it was so alien from anything else in Tokyo. 

This was our first-ever experience with a high-rise, and we were immediately impressed with the layout. The elevators were in the core of the building, so entraces to all the units were situated along interior corridors. Consequently, the apartments had more light, and the designers had, for the most part, avoided the usual chocolate bar style. We spent several hours inspecting the variety of layouts.

One design was particularly intriguing. It was the one used for most of the units situated on the northwest corner, a 3LDK, which in Japanese real estate parlance describes a unit with a combined living-dining-kitchen area and 3 separate rooms. What was striking about the apartment was that all three rooms fed off a central hallway and looked north over the Sumida River. Moreover, it had floor-to-ceiling sliding doors, affording views of the Japan Alps to the north and Mr. Fuji to the west. Though we had seen apartments like this in very expensive buildings, the rent for this particular unit was, depending on the floor, about the same as what we were paying for an apartment that was much darker and 10 square meters smaller. Even more puzzling was the fact that when we checked the board set up in the UR office on the ground floor, we found that so far there were few applicants for this particular design, even though the building had been open for inspection more than a week. Was it because of the neighborhood?

More likely it was because of the orientation. Japanese people tend to shun residences with northern prospects. We didn’t care about southern exposure, so later when we went to UR headquarters in Shinjuku to apply for the Oji apartment we also put in our name for the Minami Senju apartment. Bear in mind that we could not apply for a specific unit. We could only apply for a “design.” With the Oji apartment, it wasn’t much of a problem because the design only covered that one unit we were interested in, but the design we liked at Minami Senju covered almost every apartment on the northwest corner of the building, and the higher the floor, the more expensive the apartment. If our name was picked for a particular design, UR would decide which floor we’d live on. When we made the applications we had to submit paperwork–tax returns, family registers, proof of permanent residency–that would go toward deciding who would get in. A certain minimum guaranteed income was required, and families with children and older people were given priority. We were freelancers, childless, and in our mid-40s, but in order to level the field somewhat UR did allow applicants to draw their own lots. We opted to let someone from UR pick ours, since we assumed it wouldn’t make any difference.

In the end, we got both and were forced to make a decision we hadn’t thought about very seriously. We had some time to ponder the choice and so revisited both buildings. What persuaded us to go with the Minami Senju apartment was mainly the view (which we could only imagine since the exact room we had been given, on the 24th floor, would not be open to us until we chose to take it), but also the idea that the entrance to the apartment was inside the building rather than outside of it. The layout just made more sense, and the fact that it did make sense made it unique. We let UR know we’d take the Minami Senju apartment.


For more than ten years we lived there and liked it, a situation that obviated the need to look for a place to buy, at least as long as fruitful work kept coming in, and right after we moved in we started getting a lot more. We were paying ¥160,000 a month for the place, which we considered a bargain given the size and short distance to the station, but could prove to be draining if our work fell off. Eventually, this did happen in 2008 when the recession kicked in. We were able to find work on an intermittent basis, but when the earthquake hit it was during a particularly dry spell, which helped harden our decision to move out of a city that was proving to be beyond our means. We reassessed our desire to buy a place of our own, which would at least guarantee a roof over our heads regardless of our workload. 

But we also wanted to be back on the ground, and not just because of the shaking. As much as we may not want to admit it, social interaction deteriorates in direct proportion to the number of floors in an apartment building. Elevator cars are limited spaces that force people to stand very close to one another, thus creating stress that only increases the longer they have to remain in that situation. A local newspaper once analyzed circumstances in high-rise condominiums, and found that elevators were one of the main causes of inter-tenant friction. People on higher floors tend to manifest a sense of privilege because they paid more for their units, and that feeling exacerbates the annoyance they feel when taking the elevator, especially when it makes many stops on its way down. Some building management companies even post rules of behavior in an attempt to alleviate the stress: Always greet others when you enter the car, don’t call more than one elevator at the same time, use the stairs if you live on the 2nd or even 3rd floor. Of course, none of these directives are mandatory and, as we discovered living in Minami Senju, very few people follow them. We once heard from a newspaper delivery person that many tenants cancel their subscriptions after moving into high-rises with so-called auto-lock security systems, which prevent non-residents from casually entering the building without being invited. Consequently, it’s too much trouble taking the elevator in the morning to retrieve their newspapers from their mailboxes on the first floor. The standard for high-rises in Tokyo at the start of the second decade of the 21st century was about one elevator per 80-100 units, though housing experts think the ideal would be one for every 40-50 units, which would obviously add to the cost of both the individual units and monthly maintenance. Newer buildings also have “smarter” elevators that move more efficiently. But the rule of thumb is the bigger the condo, the more inconvenient the elevators are likely to be. 

Certainly the main inconvenience is that they shut down when there’s an earthquake. Even if we were on the ground an earthquake could be just as scary, but being on the ground is a slightly more reassuring situation, since after it’s over you can get out of your building easily. When the shaking stopped on that fateful day, we were basically stuck on the 24th floor. Having two cats–which weren’t allowed–made it even more difficult to get out. We would have to put them in carriers and carry them down 24 flights in a stairwell that likely would be crammed with other people trying to escape. And if we did stay, what if the water, gas, and electricity were out of service? Or, even worse, a fire broke out?

These were possibilities we’d considered ever since we had moved into the apartment but didn’t contemplate seriously until the quake. It might be a safe building, even in a monster quake, but the attendant disadvantages made the prospect of such an inevitablity almost as terrifying as a structural failure.

And one more thing. The so-called building disaster team did nothing after the quake except apologize about the elevator. UR residences are state-of-the-art at the time they are built, but management is sorely lacking. We had never received literature outlining what we should do in a disaster. Apparently, we were supposed to get that from the ward office and learn it on our own.

But the saddest realization came when we eventually went out into the hallway to see if any of our neighbors might need help and were met with cold indifference. Ever since the couple who lived down the hall moved out a year earler, we didn’t know anyone else on our floor on more than a last name basis. Whatever cohesion there is in a given social milieu, it all goes out the window when the community is a vertical one. Even in fear, the residents keep to themselves.


During those dark weeks that followed the aftershocks continued, Tokyoites resorted to hoarding, and train service became less reliable. We decided we wanted to be out of the building as soon as possible, and much of the reason for our haste had to do with how much we liked it: the longer we stayed, the more miserable we’d be in having to leave. We didn’t have the time or wherewithal to look for a place to buy right away, so we decided to stick with UR and look for another rental apartment, but one closer to the ground and cheaper, which meant moving out of Tokyo. UR did have some apartments that allowed pets, and we found one that satisfied all of our conditions. It was about an hour east of Tokyo in a city we had never even heard of. The good part was that now that we were in the UR system, we didn’t have to submit a lot of paperwork for approval. All we had to do was find a vacant UR apartment to our liking and tell them we wanted it. They would even transfer our security deposit. 


  1. victoriaoyama · March 11, 2021

    A fascinating read, as always.
    I really want to read the rest.
    I do hope you get it published somehow.
    Good luck with it!


    • catforehead · March 11, 2021

      Thanks a lot.


  2. Pete · March 11, 2021

    I second Victoria’s thoughts. I am looking forward to reading it in print.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. rek · March 11, 2021

    Aside from the interesting reflections on high rises and eathquakes, it was good to see someone saying something nice about Minami-senju for a change! As you suggest, it is usually associated only with Sanya and the kozukappara. My son left Minami-senju recently, having lived there for 5 years, also in a UR property right over the railway lines, but in his case on the other side of the tracks in 7chome (my toddler grandson quickly became expert in identifying the different trains). I was impressed by the high standard of the apartment and of its maintenance, both inside and out. The recycling shed was a dream to anyone from the UK. Minami-senju has such variety within its area. I shall be back to revisit my favourite places and say goodbye as soon as it is possible. Thanks for a very interesting piece and good luck with the publishing

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lee · March 13, 2021

    Interesting read.

    Rents in Tokyo were and are very expensive compared to the rest of the country.

    The most we paid for our 3 fairly new LDK in Nagoya was 65,000 yen a month back in 1995 and even checking the rent for that same apartment building recently it is still cheap at 70,000 yen a month. We were never hit up for any fees to renew the lease either and when we left we got back 90% of our deposit. In other words a very good landlord.

    Rents for apartments in other parts of the country can be cheap as well. I’ve always wondered if living in Tokyo and paying the extra cost for rent and food is worth it. That 100,000 a month or more extra rent over a long period compared to living in other places really adds up over time!


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