Mind the gap

Yours in exchange for your first-born male child

Tokyo real estate has become even more expensive, though it should be noted that it’s still reasonable when compared to other large cities in the world. An article that appeared Dec. 7 in the Tokyo Shimbun cited a survey about luxury condominiums where the price of a representative example in trendy Moto Azabu was pegged as the standard. If the Moto Azabu condo price is set at 100, then the price of a comparative condo in London is 181 and one in Hong Kong 218. (Masako: “And even with a luxury condo in Japan, you still get only one toilet.”)

Tokyo isn’t as expensive as most foreign media think it is, but even disregarding the usual markups for properties designed for so-called expats, condominiums in the capital are still out of reach for the average worker, and have become more so since the advent of the pandemic. According to the same Tokyo Shimbun article, the average price of a new condominium in the 23 wards in October exceeded ¥90 million. For sure, after COVID hit, more people decided that if they could telework, they’d rather live outside of Tokyo, but that didn’t really put any downward pressure on prices in the city center, which are not only popular, but extremely popular among rich people, the only socioeconomic layer that has seen an appreciable rise in income in recent years. In 2021, the average price of a new condo in the 23 wards went over ¥80 million for the first time since the bubble era, and in October the average was ¥93.65 million.

The main reason has less to do with COVID than with the Bank of Japan, whose president, Haruhiko Kuroda, implemented his infamous money easing policy when he assumed his position ten years ago. Since then, most of the cash that the BOJ has pumped into the money supply has ended up in the accounts of the very well-off, and they’ve used it to buy expensive property, thus pushing up prices across the board, but mainly in the high-end market. Add to this pressure the construction crunch that accompanied the Olympics, when labor and materials shortages made it more expensive to build anything, and prices of new apartments have outpaced the spending capabilities of the average Japanese family. Tokyo Shimbun quotes a 27-year-old “homemaker” who lives in Shinjuku with her husband and three children and frets that she wants to buy a new condominium in the area rather than “keep paying rent,” but that prices are way too high. “I want to move when the kids get settled in school,” she says, “but I want to live in central Tokyo and there’s nothing we can afford.” Dream on!

It may seem shortsighted to talk only about new condos in Tokyo, but the mainstream media has never been very interested in covering available stock anywhere but in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Still, for argument’s sake let’s leave the rest of Japan alone. If the woman cited above was herself employed and half of a “power couple” (at least ¥15 million combined yearly income), then she would not only be able to qualify theoretically for the down payment and loan conditions for a new condo in Shinjuku, but she’d be part of the demographic that was pushing up prices. Another demographic doing that is seniors with a lot in the way of assets. A real estate representative says that market growth is being spurred by people who already live in central Tokyo and want to “replace their present homes.” Redevelopment is progressing apace and the portion of the population that has this kind of money on hand remains stable. If these are mostly retired people, they are not the kind of retired people who sell their apartments and then move to the suburbs. They stay in the city center, and get a nicer place. They can afford it. 

A real estate agent who mostly represents foreign buyers and whose network extends to 70 countries told Tokyo Shimbun that through May of this year, the number of inquiries they’ve gotten from real estate companies in the U.S. for Tokyo properties has nearly tripled since the beginning of the year, owing mainly to the drop in the value of the yen against the dollar. To Americans, Tokyo real estate is like one big fire sale right now, and buyers are snatching up deals in the most famous neighborhoods in the city—meaning, the ones whose names they’ve heard before—Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ginza, Roppongi. The truly wealthy are buying condos in the ¥500 million-¥1 billion price range, which, as mentioned already, is still cheap compared to other world class cities. 

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