Albatross by the sea

Akiko Matsumoto (Mainichi Shimbun)

In this blog we often write about how Japanese houses lose their value quickly and become money pits, but we’re usually talking about housing tract structures and prefab or manufactured homes. Recently, however, there was a minor celebrity story in the news that illustrated how this phenomenon even applies to what many would consider legacy housing, meaning quality homes that were built to last multiple generations.

An article that appeared in the Mainicishi Shimbun July 16 told the tale of enduring TV talent Akiko Matsumoto and her difficulties in maintaining the family home, which is located in the mountainous part of Takamatsu City on the island of Shikoku. Matsumoto’s father, who worked for a construction company, had the house built at a cost of ¥30 million in 1972 when she was 6 years old. Though the price included the land, which was located on the side of a hill with a breathtaking view of both the sea and the city of Takamatsu, ¥30 million was a lot in those days. The one-story house was custom built using expensive Japanese cypress and the carpenters were miyadaiku, meaning craftsman skilled in the art of shrine construction, which does not use any nails but instead incorporates special joinery technology. From the description in the newspaper it was a magnificent traditional style Japanese house, not quite a kominka but of the same pedigree.

Such a house is meant to be handed down to one’s children, but Matsumoto’s brother, who is 10 years older, moved to Tokyo for his work 3 years after the house was completed. Matsumoto herself left Takamatsu after she graduated from junior high school to seek her fame and fortune in the capital as a singer, and initially met with some success in that regard. She made her idol debut in 1983 at the age of 17. However, there was too much competition at the time and eventually her management started selling her as a variety show guest because of her sense of humor and knack for celebrity impersonations. She became an emcee in her own right during the initial variety show boom of the 90s and made a lot of money. 

Her life was exciting in Tokyo, but she carried out her filial obligations in a proper manner. When she was 27 and they were in their mid-60s she moved them to Tokyo to live with her, but her father refused to sell the house in Takamatsu, assuming that one of his children would take it over. But Matsumoto’s older brother owned his home in Tokyo where he was raising his own family, and eventually Matsumoto’s father asked Akiko to take title on the house because he thought that her lifestyle was more precarious and could move back to Takamatsu if her show business gigs dried up. It often happens, especially to female talent. 

But Matsumoto was never without work, and she didn’t intend to move back to Takamatsu. Nevertheless, she wanted her father to be happy and agreed to his request, putting off any real decisions about the house until later. Her father died in 2003, and after Matsumoto took over the house full time she discovered what a burden it was. On average, annual maintenance ran about ¥370,000, which included property taxes, insurance, utilities, garden work, and airing the place out occasionally. In 2011, she spent ¥3.5 million on renovations, even though no one was living in the house. It was right after the big earthquake, and Matsumoto thought that if a similar disaster struck Tokyo she would have a place to evacuate to, so she invested some money to bring it up to quality. The renovations included new toilets and bathtub, and replacing all the tatami with hardwood floors. 

But the disaster never came and after her mother died in 2017, Matsumoto closed up the house. Though her father would have been angry, she decided she didn’t want to pass on this burden to her own children and eventually decided to sell or rent it out, so she spent an additional ¥2.5 million fixing it up further. When she had a local realtor appraise it for sale, she was shocked when he came up with the figure ¥2 million—including land. She was hoping for at least ¥6 million, meaning the amount she had spent on renovations. Either that or, if she could rent it, ¥100,000 a month. But while the natural scenery was second to none, it was too far from the city—a half hour by car—and it became difficult to find anyone interested through the usual real estate channels.

Then she did away with realtors and registered the house with a local public akiya (vacant house) bank, and eventually negotiated with a couple who agreed to pay the ¥6 million she asked for. It was just the kind of house they were looking for—all wood, traditionally styled, nestled in nature—and they could move right in thanks to Matsumoto’s renovations. The only problem was that the house was still filled with family possessions, since in the intervening years it had functioned mainly as a warehouse, so Matsumoto had to get rid of everything before the new owners moved in. Sorting through the mass of “junk” was backbreaking work, she says, and eventually she just hired someone to haul it all away at a cost of ¥1 million. She had to spend 10 days in a hot spring sanatorium to recover.

All told, Matsumoto figures she spent ¥18 million on a house she left when she was 16 years old. She tells Mainichi that had she known what taking over the house would entail, she would have sold it much earlier, but the ordeal isn’t over yet. Now she is preparing to move her parents remains to a new family graveyard in Tokyo, which means her branch of the Matsumoto family will no longer have any ties to Takamatsu, and she’s worried about her relatives’ reaction, especially since she relied on them to take care of the house in her absence all those years. And, as she points out, there are a lot of costs involved in moving remains from one graveyard to another, including “consultation” fees and donations to temples; not to mention the mental stress. Matsumoto is 56, but she says she’s already worn down by her filial obligations. 

5 comments

  1. Lee · July 22

    And here in Australia the kids can’t wait to get their hands on the parent’s house.

    Real estate in Australia is very different from Japan.

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  2. padraigjapan · July 23

    We have the same conversation about my mother-in-law’s house in Nagano. Nobody has lived there for several years and we go back 5 or 6 times a year to tend the overgrown garden. It has also become the storage place for all the stuff we don’t want to keep in Tokyo and will have to thrown away one day. Still it is very nice to have somewhere to go every few months.

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  3. Bob M · July 25

    We had a beautiful Japanese house built for us by highly skilled Japanese daiku-san who have been featured in Japanese traditional architecture magazines. Lived in it happily for 30 years and raised our kids there. But they went to Tokyo for uni and never wanted to return, despite the house still being in great condition. So we moved to Tokyo to get closer to the kids and now live extremely happily in a modest manshon within easy walking distance of multiple subways, doctors, supermarkets, department stores, restaurants and even huge green spaces. It’s a helluva lot easier to maintain than the big house which we had to sell. It sold on the first weekend it was listed. Unlike Akiko Matsumoto’s home, ours was not an albatross being located in a popular suburb and did not require any renovation. But despite its quality, it basically sold for its land value being 30 years old. Such is Japanese real estate.

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  4. Mr Jim · August 13

    Only about US$230 a month for maintenance including taxes and utilities! And a purchase price of only $45000?? I’d really like to see pictures of this place to get an idea of the quality of the construction and renovations she did. Where I’m from you can’t even construct a cheap builder’s grade home for less than 5 times that amount. Do these types of well built but cheap homes exist in urban locations, ie. near subway stations in major cities?

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    • catforehead · August 13

      Very few such houses are built in major Japanese cities, and if they were they’d cost upwards of a million dollars. The reason this house is so cheap is that it is *not* located near a convenient transportation nexus in a major city.

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