Go with the flow

Kominka interior. Note roka on the left.

Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a story about how proper ventilation of rooms can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 indoors. Japanese twitter responded in particularly derisive fashion by pointing out that in Japan proper ventilation was considered a pillar of the country’s anti-COVID measures as long ago as February as part of the government’s san-mitsu strategy, which told people to avoid “close” contact with others in “closed” rooms. Generally speaking, this strategy covered commercial, educational, or work spaces, since those were the most problemantic places in terms of keeping people safe from the spread of the virus. The operational logic then and now is that the virus doesn’t survive as long in the open, and so bringing the outdoors inside is a good way of keeping it at bay. For businesses, that means opening windows and/or optimizing ventilation systems to keep air moving through the space.

In Japan, however, greater attention is now being paid to transmission within homes, among family members. Coverage tends toward the inevitability of being infected by a loved one, since there is little you can do about your living situation. However, we would be very interested in seeing a study showing the relationship between intra-household infection rates and specific home layouts and other structural conditions. The first question that comes to mind is whether air conditioning systems help or hinder the spread of the virus. Generally speaking, the virus is in its best element in droplets of saliva expelled while talking or breathing, but scientists also talk about aerosol transmission, meaning the virus itself is carried on air currents. These particles can travel greater distances than droplets because they are much lighter and can still infect others by passing into their lungs when they inhale. Scientists are still debating the scale of infection due to aerosol transmission, but one thing that seems certain is that air currents in closed spaces are instrumental in propelling the virus and keeping it viable for longer periods of time than would happen outdoors or in indoor spaces with air flow passages that connect to the outdoors. Air conditioners are typically heat exchange mechanisms, and the public may misinterpret that to mean they exchange outside air for inside air, but that’s not really the case. Mainly they recirculate inside air and expel the ambient heat through outdoor fans. Consequently, there’s the possibility that if there are virulent particles in the inside air AC units may increase the possibility of causing those particles to enter into the bodies of humans in that space, and this is the main issue, especially in Japan where air conditioning, at least in residences, is a modular affair. Central air conditioning usually comes with filters that may be able to take out virulent particles (though viruses are really, really small). Apparently, some manufacturers have been touting anti-COVID features this summer, but one has to take such claims with a handful of salt. Daikin, to its credit, has been up front about air circulation and says that people should open their windows and use circulators and fans to facilitate ventilation. In other words, don’t count on their air conditioners. Because in the end the cooling efficacy of AC is dependent on how closed the room is and the efficiency of the insulation. That means all windows have to be closed tight and that there be no drafts in order to make full use of your AC. The entire home becomes a closed system, and the potential ventilation advantages of the AC unit-fan relationship is reduced by that much. The thing is, we just don’t really know now how this plays into viral infection rates. Read More

Out of the city

Suburban street in Sakae

We’ve written in the past about how local governments come up with schemes to repopulate their areas, often by dangling cash incentives in front of families or couples who plan to have children. The coronavirus crisis has reinvigorated these efforts since more people are now working from home. Prior to the mid-90s, the pattern of home ownership was that breadwinners who worked in large cities but wanted their own home would buy one in the suburbs and commute, because they often couldn’t afford city prices. There was also the idea that it was better to raise a family in the suburbs. And because employers paid for transportation, they put up with ever more punishing commutes. However, some years after the bubble burst and the so-called ice age of stalled employment possibilities set in, younger people with no real certainty of promotion within their companies and less likelihood of settling down decided that they would live near their place of work, regardless of what it cost, because they didn’t want to spend two hours-plus on the train every day. Maybe their fathers did that and they decided, no way am I going to do that. So they live in cramped, expensive rental apartments in the heart of the city, even if they didn’t like the city.

So the increased ingress of young people to places like Tokyo is not entirely due to decisions based on desire. But now, if your employer says you can work from home there’s no reason to live “near the office,” and, according to news reports, more people are leaving the city because they don’t like living there. Some local governments are already trying to exploit that trend. Sakae, a town in northern Chiba Prefecture just west of Narita, is now offering families ¥50,000 if they move to their area. The catch is that the family has to prove that one or more of the members is teleworking, a condition we find a bit puzzling—if the purpose of the money is to lure families, then why limit it to only teleworking people? Also, a one time payment of ¥50,000 doesn’t sound like much of a mind-changer, especially since the family has to pledge they will remain in Sakae for at least three years. Read More

Dirty deeds done dirt cheap

Mound of dirt created after we had our septic tank installed.

In the six years we’ve lived in our house we’ve done some landscaping and in many cases were left with soil that had been removed from the ground. The contractor would always offer to dispose of the dirt for a fee, but we always had them dump it on the adjoining property, which is mostly covered with a bamboo grove. We know this is illegal, because it is not our land, but the plot, which is quite large, already has loads of dead wood and bamboo, and the amount of dirt we leave there is hardly noticeable. Besides, we’ve often helped ourselves to the soil we put there for gardening purposes.

But there is a real problem in Japan of where to put excavated soil resulting from large-scale construction projects. This week, Asahi Shimbun ran a fairly in-depth story that illustrates almost too perfectly this problem. Read More

Make Mine Maglev (2)

Section of maglev route, in red, that goes through Shizuoka

Right now there are much more serious matters on people’s minds than the maglev Chuo Shinkansen, or “linear motor car,” as it’s called in Japanese. Nevertheless, the train, which will spirit bodies from Tokyo to Nagoya in about 40 minutes, is set to become a major public works project that many in government and industry probably think could help revitalize the economy in the new post-pandemic “normal,” though no one has actually taken the time to publicly explain its role in such a brave new world. But one thing is for certain. It’s not going to be finished by its planned completion date in 2027. Actually, we never thought that was possible in the first place, but now it seems to be definite because the major media have said so.

Though there are actually a lot of reasons why the project won’t be completed on time, the only one the media is talking about is the governor of Shizuoka Prefecture’s refusal to allow construction to proceed on the 10-kilometer portion that passes through his bailiwick. Consequently, Heita Kawakatsu is the scapegoat for everyone who has a stake in the maglev. The governor of Aichi Prefecture, Hideaki Omura, is especially aggrieved, since the city of Nagoya is spending a great deal of money redeveloping the area surrounding the new maglev station. If it doesn’t open by 2027 everything will be screwed up fiscally. A think tank has estimated that the maglev will generate ¥2.3 trillion for Nagoya during the ten-year period after the station opens.

Kawakatsu’s gripe is about water, specifically the water supply for the 600,000 residents who live along the Oi River, which is 168 kilometers long. In 2013, JR Tokai, the company behind the project, carried out an environmental assessment that found construction of the tunnel through Shizuoka would result in a loss of ground water amounting to between 1.07 and 2.12 tons per second, equivalent to 17 percent of the river’s volume at any one time. Read More

Viral market

Delivery of bathroom fixtures from Asia has been delayed

Since consumption has declined precipitously during the CV19 crisis, it’s no suprise that the real estate market has suffered considerably. The Nihon Keizai Shimbun has obligingly looked into the particulars, which are mostly predictable but worth looking at in detail. The Nikkei reports that people have essentially stopped looking for new homes, though the effect hasn’t been sustained enough to cause prices to fall just yet; and, in a sense, it might be better if prices did fall a bit, since that would encourage people who may be sitting on the fence to jump off and sign a contract.

The main problem at the moment is that people who have already signed contracts are getting cold feet, even if it’s too late at this point. Nikkei says that more than a few realtors it talked to have said they receive requests from customers to “disinfect” the used condos they buy, thus placing the realtors in a difficult position. As one agent told the newspaper, he understood the sentiment but how exactly he was going to convince the customer that he had cleaned the apartment “to their satisfaction” was going to be a problem. For people who had already signed contracts, it wasn’t a primary issue, but for those who were about to sign, the agent’s response could prove to be vital to the sale. A number of realtors said that more than the usual number of price negotiations had broken down since the pandemic developed. Demand is quickly evaporating unless something happens soon to change the situation. Read More

The now and future isolated

A superannuated New Town

Around the time the central government finally decided to declare a state of emergency to get people to stay indoors and help halt the spread of the coronavirus, we wondered if anyone would mention our pet peeve—tower condominiums—as an ideal residential accommodation for self-isolating individuals in Tokyo. The problem with living in a metropolis during an epidemic is that most people reside in collective housing, which makes it more difficult to not come into contact with others if you decide to emerge from your apartment. Consequently, the closer you are to the ground, the more insistent the urge to get some fresh air. High-rise apartment buildings make it that much more difficult to leave one’s home, since it requires getting into an elevator, which is the worst environment in a pandemic—cramped and unventilated—in order to come and go. So in a sense people who live in high-rises are already isolated to a certain degree, since, in our own experience as tower dwellers, such residents require more energy and initiative just to get out the door.

Novelist Jin Mayama doesn’t make this exact point in his essay for Asahi Shimbun that appeared April 18, but he comes close. He acknowledges that families will be trapped inside together for an indefinite period of time and hints that people in high-rises will be more stressed out owing to the cramped conditions. However, he sees this as a kind of opportunity, not so much for the residents, who are mostly stuck with their lot, especially if they bought their apartment, but rather for the rest of us who don’t live in high-rises. The epidemic puts the future of tower condominiums in a new light, or, maybe it would be better to say, a new shade.

Mayama predicts that the lot of tower condos will be strikingly similar to that of New Towns right now, which is that the latter have essentially become “slums.” Most of Mayama’s explanation mirrors what we’ve talked about at length in this blog, but it’s worth going through again for the sake of clarity. Collective housing is still a fairly recent trend in Japan, since it wasn’t anywhere near the norm, even in cities, before World War II. To him, the idea of collective housing as a social trend really took off in 1955, when the central housing authority started planning New Towns, which were based on a British idea but, physically, resembled Soviet apartment blocks. The New Towns were broadly covered by the media as being futuristic and progressive, and were instrumental in creating what was called “new families,” which, to Westerners, were basically nuclear families. Extended families, which had always been the norm and ideal in Japan, didn’t fit the new housing plan. Moreover, the New Towns epitomized the government’s drive to create a “100 million-strong middle class.” Read More

Harumi Flag at half-mast

One of the many negative economic by-products of the unavoidable decision to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for a year is the fate of Harumi Flag, the condo development project attached to the athletes’ village that was built on landfill in the Tokyo waterfront area. It was widely believed that the Olympics would produce a real estate bubble, but the coronavirus epidemic may have already prematurely burst that bubble. Harumi Flag will feature condominium towers, as well as schools and retail outlets to serve the large community that will be moving in after the games. The condos will eventually contain some 5,600 units and, in all, they are expected to attract more than 20,000 tenants, including renters. The entire area will cover the equivalent of three Tokyo Domes. Eleven developers are working together on the project headed by Mitsui Fudosan Residential.

For buyers, the complex has two attractions, according to a February article in Money Post: bragging rights that the units were once used by Olympic athletes, and cheaper prices. The average price of a new condo in the 23 wards of Tokyo is ¥80 million, which is about the same as it was during the bubble period of the late 80s. The median price of the 85 square meter units that went on sale earlier this year was ¥64 million. One real estate professional told the magazine that, per tsubo (3.3 square meters), the Harumi Flag units are 30-40 percent cheaper than new units in surrounding complexes. And a new 85 square meter unit in central Tokyo would go for ¥100 million at auction. A Tokyo municipal government researcher said that this may be the last chance to buy a new condo with the “big three” advantages—central location, large floor area, and affordable price. It’s the best place if you work in central Tokyo, and the schools will be very good.

Another attractive feature of the complex is that, because it is being built for Olympic athletes, the common areas are spacier and more comfortable. In particular, the elevators are larger. However, the negative points that have been pointed out are specific to the kinds of lifestyles of people who are buying the units. For one thing, transporation is not convenient. The nearest train station is Kachidoki on the Oedo Toei subway line, 20 minutes from Harumi Flag on foot, not counting the time it takes to get from one’s apartment to the ground floor by elevator. Mitsui says that there will be exclusive tandem buses operating between Harumi Flag and Toranomon during rush hour using a special lane, but until it actually starts it’s difficult to gauge how fast and convenient the buses will be. Given the density of the living conditions in the towers and the fact that they plan to operate twelve trips a morning with buses that hold a maximum of 40 people, they may not be enough. For that reason alone, one real estate journalist told Money Post that Harumi Flag is attracting few people who buy property as investments, since, in Tokyo at least, they usually aren’t interested in any apartment that is more than 10 minutes from a station. The same writer says that the initial Olympic legacy hook won’t mean anything ten years down the line in terms of resale value. Read More

Empty nest syndrome

Occupied house undergoing a Sumitomo makeover

A Kyodo news report carried by the March 18 issue of the Tokyo Shimbun clarified an important point in the discussion of abandoned or otherwise empty homes in Japan, vernacularly referred to as “akiya.” According to a survey of 700,000 properties throughout Japan conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 46.4 percent of akiya are at least 50 years old. Moreover, among the reasons given by present owners for not having unloaded the properties or demolishing them, 52 percent said they had inherited them or received them as gifts and, essentially, didn’t know what to do with them. As years passed, neglect took its toll, and in many cases if not most, the homes, especially if they are single-family houses, have become uninhabitable.

Five years ago the central government enacted a special housing law that would compel local governments to manage vacant properties more proactively. According to Kyodo, the government is now going to “check the effectiveness of the law” in order to see whether it should be revised or supplemented. As of October 2018, the last time the land ministry released findings from its national housing and land survey, which it conducts every five years, the number of vacant homes stood at 8.489 million. That includes apartments and condos that have not been occupied for at least one year. According to the government, there are 12 percent more akiya than there were when the survey was conducted in 2008. In addition, 14 percent of all homes in Japan right now qualify as akiya, and the ministry estimates that 40 percent are “abandoned,” meaning they are permanently unoccupied. Last year, Nomura Research Institute projected that by 2033, the number of akiya would increase to 19.55 million, or 30 percent of all homes in Japan.

In a related story, Nikkei Business Daily’s March 15 edition explained Sumitomo Realty and Development’s new project to exploit vacant single-family houses. The project accepts orders for renovations of derelict houses in order to turn them into share houses (i.e., homes with multiple residents who share common spaces), minpaku (guest houses or airbnb properties), or social welfare facilities. Sumitomo has a lot of experience in the home renovation business through its Shinchiku Sokkuri-san brand home “reform” service. “Shinchiku sokkuri-san” roughly translates as “making an old house look just like a newly built one.” Since the service started in 1996, Sumitomo has renovated about 130,000 houses, and is now working on expanding the business to include renovations that turn old single-family houses into share houses or guest houses.

Sumitomo’s target with regard to akiya are wooden houses, which number about 2.39 million. The land ministry says that about 480,000 akiya in Japan that are judged to be easily renovatable are also located within one kilometer of the nearest train station, making them easily sellable after going through the reform process. Last year, the government relaxed the building standards law so that usage of a structure could be changed more easily, for instance from residential usage to commercial usage. Consequently, Sumitomo wants to turn some of these old family houses into airbnbs or share houses or even restaurants/cafes. Sumitomo, in fact, projects that its revenues for reform business will amount to ¥123 billion in fiscal 2020, a 6 percent increase over fiscal 2019. So there may be some life in those old empty houses after all.

Slipping away

That first step is a doozy: First world elderly problems.

Here’s a fairly common retirement strategy: The kids are gone and have families of their own, so the house you bought so long ago and which is likely paid for by now becomes too big, so you sell it and use the money to buy a condo somewhere in or near an urban center where public transportation and retail resources are easy to access. However, a recent feature in the weekly magazine Shukan Gendai warned people who are thinking of doing this to think twice. It may not be as easy as you think, and, in fact, it could end up being a disaster.

The number of people in Japan over the age of 65 recently exceeded 35 million, an expanding demographic that has become a target for real estate agents who are selling used or new condos, which tend to retain their value more readily than single-family homes. As it stands, many of these new retirees probably live in single-family homes in the suburbs of large cities to which the heads-of-household used to commute. These houses are likely two stories, a structural feature that becomes more of an inconvenience the older you get, and they are also probably far from public transportation hubs, meaning the people who live in them require a car to get around. Realtors use such reasonings to convince people to sell their homes and buy condos, and it makes sense, but not as much sense as it used to. First of all, there are just too many single family houses on the market and not enough people who want to buy them, and that disadvantageous ratio will only get worse as the population greys further.

Gendai also brings up the magic amount of ¥20 million, which is what a retired couple should have in savings to supplement their pensions. Actually, ¥20 million is probably not enough unless the couple is able to invest in some kind of financial instrument that can guarantee a small income, but most people still have their savings in time deposits, which generate almost no income, so the thinking here is that the couple lives off their pensions and doesn’t touch their savings since they may need it for emergencies. It’s a precarious way to live. Read More

Alone again, naturally

Public housing complex run by Saitama Prefecture

Low income public housing is available in Japan through different levels of local government, either prefectural or municipal, though some larger cities also have public housing run by wards (ku). In almost every situation, however, the applicant, traditionally, has to have a guarantor, ostensibly as a backup in case the tenant is unable to pay their rent. Obviously, because public housing is only available for people of limited or no income, coming up with a guarantor could pose a problem, since it’s entirely likely that the applicant does not have anyone, meaning relatives, they can lean on for such support. In Japan, welfare authorities do not extend public assistance to applicants without first making sure that the applicant cannot tap a close relative for such assistance. It’s one of the uses of the koseki (family registration) system. Once it is understood that the applicant has no relation they can turn to, then welfare officials grant assistance. Of course, this isn’t a universal requirement—as with most bureaucratic processes, it’s up to the individual official—but it’s enough of a protocol to make applying for assistance difficult for many, and when it comes to housing, guarantors are thus required. Usually, officials insist on relatives, since they are more likely to honor the contract.

Now, apparently, some local governments are facing up to reality. An article in the Jan. 20 Asahi Shimbun reports that an increasing number of local governments are eliminating the guarantor requirement for public housing. Asahi Shimbun apparently carried out its own survey and found that 13 major cities in eight prefectures have waived the requirement, and the newspaper predicts that many more will follow.

According to the land ministry, in 2018 1,674 local governments provided public housing, and of these 366 reported cases where applicants were rejected because they could not provide guarantors. This problem is becoming more acute with the aging society, since single elderly people without means are less likely to have living relatives who can vouch for them. Consequently, the land ministry itself some years ago started sending out notifications to local governments to remove guarantor requirements. In the end, of course, it is the local government’s decision, but since the central government subsidizes welfare assistance, many local governments have taken the notification as a kind of directive. Read More