High anxiety

Last week, the media was filled with reports on Tokyo’s latest projections regarding what residents could expect if a major earthquake struck the capital. The parameters used for the simulation were a 7.3M quake that occurred directly beneath the prefecture’s 23 wards, with a shindo reading of 6+ for the city center, and shindo 7 for riverbank and coastal areas. It would occur in the wintertime with wind speeds of 8m/second. For the most part, the news was relatively good in that the number of deaths (6,200) and amount of damage (194,000 structures) estimated were less than in past projections—30 percent less, as a matter of fact. 

In detail, 50 percent of the deaths would be caused by collapsed houses, and 40 percent the result of fires. In both cases, the houses involved would be older wooden structures that are densely concentrated, so the prefectural government has said—not for the first time—that it will work harder on providing subsidies for the rebuilding of such houses to make them less vulnerable to earthquakes. 

An important factor in the lower casualty and damage numbers estimated by the report is improved quake-proofing since the last report was compiled. The portion of houses that have been quake-proofed since 2010 increased by 10.8 percent, which means 92 percent of all homes in Tokyo have some form of quake-proofing. In addition, the total area of densely packed wooden houses has decreased by 46 percent since 2012. The government now estimates that 4.53 million workers who live outside the capital would not be able to return home on the day of a major earthquake, and of the city’s residents 2.99 million would have to evacuate their homes. But while these numbers sound high, they are down by 12 percent from the last report. 

However, there is one sector where matters have not improved: high-rise residential apartment buildings. As we’ve written in this blog numerous times in the past, so-called “tower mansions” have unique problems when it comes to earthquakes that have nothing really to do with their ability to withstand the tremor itself. All multi-story buildings in Japan, whether for commercial or residential use, are constructed to the world’s strictest quake-proofing standards, and are expected to maintain their integrity even during a catastrophic temblor. The problems occur after the shaking, and none have been solved in the past decade while at the same time there has been a 30 percent increase in the number of high-rise residential apartment buildings and condos during that time. At present, there are some 600 “tower mansions” in Tokyo, which are defined as multi-residence buildings that are at least 45 meters tall. 

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The Lie of the Land

Here is another chapter from our unpublished book about housing in Japan based on our own experience of trying to buy a home. This one is about residential land usage.

Example of a private road built for a future fukurokoji housing development

“It’s about the size of a cat’s forehead” – proverbial Japanese rejoinder when asked how much land a person owns

The real estate agent picked us up at the train station in a company car with long scratches on the side, probably inflicted during attempts to park in tight, unfamiliar spaces. We drove to the property through dense suburban sprawl overshadowed by pylons and interrupted by small plots of farmland. 

The two-story house had royal blue siding and was sixteen years old. The owner moved out two years ago. The wallpaper was discolored, the laminate wood floors spongey, the second floor “veranda” filled with debris. The price: ¥5.8 million. We estimated it would take at least ¥6 million to make it livable, but ¥12 million for the whole thing seemed too much. Moreover, anyone who bought the house would have to assume the lease for the land, which was ¥38,000 a month.

The agent explained that the same landlord owned the property under the other four houses on the street. The owners all had them built at the same time and paid the same rent. The leases were 50 years, which meant the owner of the blue house was still paying rent even though he didn’t live there any more, and would continue paying rent until he found someone to buy the house and take over the lease. He originally wanted ¥12 million, but had come down to ¥5.8 million about a year ago. We asked what the options were if he couldn’t find a buyer.

“Oh, he could easily rent this place, depending on how much he asked,” the agent said. “Many people in this situation do that.”

This concept of owning a house on rented land, in Japanese called shakuchiken, isn’t uncommon. According to the land ministry, between 1993 and 2007, 35,492 single-family homes and 18,937 condominium units were built on rented land, a trend that peaked in 2001, when many companies in the Tokyo Metropolitan area starting selling off property, fueling a development boom characterized by cheaper condos. When prices rose after 2005, shakuchiken started becoming popular again. The agent said that the number of people building houses on rented land was increasing, “but you don’t see so many for sale.”

As a rule, the value of homes in Japan depreciates rapidly, but land is still expensive, and not just in urban and suburban areas. Because of usage laws that make it difficult to shift land designated for agriculture to residences, even the countryside can be costly. 

We had decided to check out shakuchiken after talking to a friend, also self-employed, who had a house built on rented land seven years earlier. He and his family wanted to live in Kamakura, the trendy center of traditional culture located on the Miura peninsula just south of Tokyo, but were looking to rent since they didn’t think they could afford to buy a house there. A real estate agent directed him to a plot of land being developed by a housing company. The plot was owned by a local Buddhist temple.

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Gas pains

In the last three years, almost 30 cities in California have moved to reduce the use of natural gas in buildings, mainly through banning installations of gas lines in new structures. Last summer, the state legislature, in fact, approved energy standards that, while not actually prohibiting the use of natural gas, would greatly expand the use of electrical appliances for heating, cooling, and cooking in a move to greatly reduce consumer reliance on fossil fuels, including natural gas, which is considered a prime contributor to global warming. In December, New York City went California one better with an outright ban on fossil fuel combustion in future construction of residential and commercial buildings, thus bringing about the beginning of the end to gas use in the city.

This trend seems irreversible as more countries approach their deadlines for reducing greenhouse gases as dictated by various global agreements. Though some pundits insist that replacing natural gas with electricity will not solve climate change since electricity has to be generated somehow, and often through the burning of fossil fuels, the concerted worldwide push toward greater use of renewable sources will eventually obviate the need for these fuels. And, of course, the problems of natural gas go beyond its immediate and long-term effects on the atmosphere. Mining damages soil and water resources; gas is inherently dangerous and expensive to transport, whether across continents or across cities; and gas usage within homes is now known to cause health problems, including cancer. 

None of these issues entered into our decision to not use gas in the house we built in 2013 since “city gas,” as it’s called in Japan, is not accessible in the place where we built the house. However, it didn’t really bother us because we had had it with gas and even if it had been available we wouldn’t have used it. This attitude had less to do with worries about the environment than with our own preferences and convenience. Using it as a heating source, we’d always felt ripped off by Tokyo Gas, the monopoly in the places we rented up until 2013. The company is the perfect example of a capitalist enterprise that uses its stranglehold on a utility to bleed customers. Not only does Tokyo Gas (and probably every regional gas utility in Japan) overcharge for the gas itself, but it makes it so that the infrastructure that delivers the product requires serious investment. When we moved to a high-rise rental in Tokyo that had just been built, in order to use gas for heating we had to buy special stand-alone units for each room from Tokyo Gas because the piping system was unique to the building. Each unit cost as much as ¥45,000, and then when we moved out of the building more than ten years later and into a new rental that had gas heating from Tokyo Gas, we couldn’t use these units because the apartment we rented didn’t have the same system, even though it was built after the one we lived in previously. Tokyo Gas had already moved on, and there was no demand for the units we owned, so we had to throw them away.

Moreover, we had fallen out of the habit of deep frying foods at home or even grilling fish. If we wanted those dishes, we’d buy them already prepared at the supermarket. Mainly we were tired of scrubbing the burners and the range hood with steel wool, and storing and disposing of rancid cooking oils, and tended to associate these things with gas ranges and open flames. 

So our house is all-electric, the stovetops IH, which are easy to clean. That isn’t to say we couldn’t have gas in our lives any more, only that we couldn’t have natural gas. We could have liquefied petroleum gas, sometimes called propane, which is available everywhere in Japan, but that would require appropriate piping within the house, and when the builder suggested it to us we thought about it and declined, also mainly for aesthetic reasons. When we lived in Omiya for 3 years we rented a house that used LPG, and didn’t really like the sight of all those cannisters lined up outside under the kitchen window. So our decision to not use LPG in our new house was consistent with our dislike of natural gas: We didn’t want to use it for cooking or heating. We were through with open flames.

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The sky above, the mud below

Typical “morido” terrace formation for housing development

The disastrous mudslide that hit the city of Atami on July 3 brought attention to the term “morido,” which has no real equivalent in English, though some people might use “landfill.” In some cases, morido does qualify as landfill, but as it literally means “added soil” it has a wide variety of applications. In the case of the Atami mudslide, the consensus now is that the disaster was caused by an accumulation of soil at the top of a ravine that came loose during torrential rains and rushed down the ravine toward the sea, destroying dozens of houses along the way. The soil in question was apparently deposited there by a real estate company more than ten years ago, though it hasn’t been clearly explained what the purpose of the soil was. Media reports say that the company submitted a “report” to local authorities saying that they planned to build housing on the land, which they owned at the time, but the local government never properly checked the progess of this plan. Neighbors, however, startled by the succession of dump trucks that constantly came through to deposit soil on the site, contacted the authorities, who then “warned” the real estate company that it might be breaking the law. The company never responded to the warning and, in any case, there is no indication that they ever really intended to build anything on the “added soil.” Local regulations only permit soil accumulation of up to 15 meters, but just prior to the disaster it is estimated that the mound was 50 meters deep. The volume of soil, rock, and what is deemed to be industrial waste that flowed down the ravine is estimated to be 56,000 cubic meters. 

Some anti-solar (i.e., pro-nuclear) elements have pointed to the subsequent owner of the land as being to blame for the mudslide, since they cleared trees above the already existing mound and installed a solar farm. For sure, the clear-cutting removed some of the area’s water-retention capability, thus contributing to the disaster, but the solar energy company did not create the morido, and whatever the drawbacks of so-called mega-solar installations in terms of environmental impact, it appears that the company was operating within the law. The real estate company, which has since gone out of business, has yet to explain what the purpose of the mound was, but circumstances seem to point to it being a place to simply dump refuse and excavated soil, probably from construction projects far away. The local residents, for instance, said that the dump trucks all had Yokohama license plates. And then, of course, the industrial waste mixed in with the mud. This sort of problem is becoming more prevalent as construction continues undeterred with a dwindling number of places approved for refuse landfill. We’ve written about this before and the measures some contractors go to in order to find places to get rid of soil and other junk. 

Another kind of morido is that which is used to fill in valleys or create terraces on the sides of inclines in order to create level land for residential or agricultural development. As with all situations where soil is deposited on existing land, drainage must be assured by laying pipes within the mound of soil and the soil itself must be manually compacted so that it will not come loose. Unfortunately, even these measures may not be enough, though from what we’ve learned the main problem with this kind of morido doesn’t come from excessive rain but rather from earthquakes, which can cause the soil to shift, or, if it contains lots of ground water, liquefy. This happened throughout residential subdivisions affected by the 311 earthquake. Consequently, when we were shopping for land in 2012-13, we consulted topographical maps of the areas we were interested in in order to find out if a particular property was the result of morido. If it was, then we avoided it. We also avoided low-lying properties because of Japan’s problem with typhoons and heavy rains. But, in any case, morido is more prevalent than you might think, and most of it is perfectly legal, though not necessarily safe. That said, media reports have also said that the kind of morido that caused the Atami disaster is also very prevalent, despite the fact that it is illegal, so we can probably expect more of this kind of catastrophe. 

Baby you can park my car

We sold our car in 2006 and have never replaced it, despite the fact that in the meantime we moved out of the city and into a suburb where a car is considered essential. Our original reason for getting rid of ours was the cost. We were paying for insurance and biannual inspections and parking just for the privilege of owning a vehicle that we really didn’t use that much. Living where we did we had ready access to several train lines and as we both aged what we once considered the convenience of having a car at our disposal faded, mainly because driving in Japan isn’t very enjoyable, what with the narrow streets, highway tolls, and difficulty with street parking. Though we’ve often thought of buying a car again for emergency use, we keep putting it off because it’s really nice not to have that burden any more. We manage just fine with bicycles and car share services. 

The last place we lived had an underground mechanical parking facility. The space you rented was actually a pallet that moved vertically and horizontally. Parking lots are two-dimensional and thus require a lot of ground space. Mechanical parking garages, what we liked to call “3D parking lots,” used space both above and below the ground level to store cars, thus requiring less real estate. When we wanted to use our car, we went to the carousel assigned to us and, inputting a special code, “retrieved” the pallet by rearranging the other pallets in the carousel in order to place ours right at the front of the gate. This means, of course, that you have to wait for all the pallets to be rearranged properly, and sometimes it took a little time. It was especially troublesome if somebody else who had rented a pallet in your particular carousel was retrieving their car just as you arrived. On a few occasions, we needed our car quickly in order to make it in time for an appointment, and someone was already there getting their car so we had to wait. Fortunately, we never had, like, a medical emergency that required an automobile. The only saving grace was the rent, which was relatively cheap for Tokyo. Before living in that apartment we lived close to the Saitama border and rented a parking space from JR under the railroad tracks. It was unpaved but the tracks protected the vehicles from rain, and we paid ¥23,000 a month. The pallet we rented was ¥18,000 a month, and it was much closer to the center of the city. 

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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

Am I high?

Tower condos in central Kobe

Local governments are starting to realize the disadvantages of tower condos and doing something about it. According to a Jan. 3 article in Tokyo Shimbun, last July the city of Kobe implemented regulations that would limit construction of new condominium complexes in the city center. As mentioned in a previous post, last fall’s kanto area typhoons brought home to the residents of at least one tower condo in Kanagawa Prefecture the truth that high-rises were especially vulnerable to storms in ways residents hadn’t counted on. Western Japan has had more immediate encounters with typhoons in recent years, and that seems to have been part of the reason for Kobe’s new regulations, though the main impetus may be purely economical.

The new law covers land to the south of Sannomiya Station. For the 22 hectares closest to the station, all new residential construction, including single-family houses, has been banned. Then, in the surrounding area, for any plots of land that are 1,000 square meters or more in size, the capacity rate for new residential construction is limited to 400 percent. That means, for instance, if a building with a footprint of 500 square meters is built on these plots, it can be no taller than 8 floors. Tower condos are defined in Japan as being at least 20 floors, and usually they contain at least 100 units. Currently, Kobe has 69 high-rise condos, 24 of which are located in Chuo Ward, which is where Sannomiya Station, the main transport hub, is situated.

One of the reasons for these restrictions is that the city can’t provide all the services required for tower condos. The trend at the moment is for younger people to move as close to city centers as possible so as to be nearer to their jobs. They are willing to pay for such proximity because they understand, having grown up in the suburbs watching their fathers commute two or three hours a day to and from work, what that commute does to their lives. And a lot of these young people have families, but Kobe can’t provide enough schools in the city center. At the moment, in fact, many existing schools in the area have had to provide prefabricated classrooms off-site, because there is no land left in the city center to expand schools or build new ones, and one of the reasons is that there are so many tower condo complexes taking up room. For the same reason, there aren’t enough stores or other commercial facilities and, most significantly, there is a paucity of employment, which means, ironically, that the city center has become a kind of bedroom community for surrounding areas, including Osaka. Read More

Notes from underground

One of the older neighborhoods in Inzai without utility poles.

In recent weeks, we heard that the city where we live, Inzai in Chiba Prefecture, has become notorious for something. This has happened before; in fact, it’s happened several times. Though Inzai is about as nondescript as a Tokyo suburb can be, it occasionally pops up on the news for some reason or another. Earlier this year we were the butt of jokes because of a PR video produced by the city that had gone semi-viral because of its conflation of the name “Inzai” with the word “Indo,” which is the Japanese pronunciation of India. The video, fashioned after a low-budget Bollywood production, featured Indian tourists supposedly flocking to Inzai because they somehow mistook the city for their home country. Yeah, it deserved all the derision it attracted, and not just for the bad humor. More often, however, Inzai gets cited as one of the most “livable” cities in Japan for reasons we’ve talked about before and don’t need to get into again.

This latest blast of fame apparently originated on the prime time TBS information program “Newscaster,” which ran a mini-feature during its “7 Days” weekly review segment in September about all the homes on the Boso peninsula that had lost electric power during and following Typhoon Faxai. The main problem was that the strong winds blew over utility poles, many of which were in poor condition due to neglect. Because of all the work involved in getting utility lines back up, some sections of Chiba Prefecture didn’t have power for more than two weeks. In order to illustrate what could be done in the future to avoid such disasters, TBS visited Inzai, where a lot of new single-home construction is currently taking place. They went to one development near Inzai Makinohara Station on the Hokuso Line, the same station we use, because this neighborhood did not have utility poles. All the electrical cables are underground. Burying cables is the norm for most of the developed world, but Japan is way behind. In Tokyo only 8 percent of cables are buried; in Osaka only 6. In Hong Kong, London, and Paris all the cables are underground. Read More

Heirs? Apparently

This land is your land?: Property marker in the middle of a residential street

An ongoing headache for the government, in particular the land and justice ministries, is all the land in Japan whose titleholders are only vaguely determined. The reason this is a problem, of course, is that the central and local tax authorities don’t know to whom they should send property tax bills, but also when public works projects are being planned that involve the appropriation of land the relevant authorities don’t know whom to deal with. For a more detailed discussion of this problem see here, but suffice to say that the volume of property nationwide with undetermined owners amounts to a piece of land the size of Kyushu.

The reason for this confusion has to do with inheritance laws. When a title holder dies, if no formal transfer of the property has taken place, their property automatically passes to their heirs, meaning spouse first and then children. If those heirs never properly register the land in their names, then it then passes on to all their heirs when they die, and so on. According to a Nov. 18 article in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, there is one piece of land—location undisclosed—that has up to 700 potential titleholders since the land has not been re-registered since the registered titleholder died many years ago. The amount of money and resuources needed to sort out these matters is beyond the ability of local governments. Of course, in most cases, the land is worth probably nothing to the family—maybe it’s on the top of a mountain or in a remote forest—and they simply don’t want to be taxed for it. However, a good portion is located in already developed areas. In any case, the local government or maybe a developer may want to exploit that land someday. The central government would like to have everything properly registered.

The Civil Code states that the titleholder must be consulted in order to dispose of the land or any portion of it, so if the government really wants to solve this problem it should amend the law, and that seems to be the plan. The Nikkei article says the government is now considering an amendment to the law that will allow the sale of plots of land or any portions of it if a certain number of heirs agree to the sale. At present, all titleholders must agree to such disposal. The land and law ministries plan to send this bill to the Diet in 2020, and are currently carrying out research that will better define vague property lines. As of 2017, about 16 percent of the land in 80,000 “locations” classifed as “urban,” meaning designated for residences and commercial businesses, does not have a definite titleholder in accordance with existing records. The portion of undetermined land is probably more, since the 16 percent mainly represents lots that are being disputed for some reason—either neighbors want to buy the land for expansion or local governments want to use it for parks and other public facilities or a developer wants to build a condominium on it. None of these entities have the money to negotiate with all the heirs, and according to most local laws any property line disputes have to be mediated through the consultation of surveyors and other experts, and those services have to be paid for by the parties involved.

On the surface, passing such a law should be easy. All the government has to do is specify the problem and how many of the identifiable heirs or titleholders must be located in order to dispose of the land. But because Japan has such a weak concept of eminent domain, it’s likely there will still be limitations to what the government can do unilaterally. And it’s apparent that people who have rights to a piece of land but are coy about being located have a reason for being coy. The main obstacle will be defining how much work should be involved in “notifying” all the interested parties. They must also determine if unpaid back taxes can be waived. One solution, according to Nikkei, would be a condition that the land in question must be sorted out within a certain timeframe due to health or safety concerns, and while that may sound like a limiting condition itself, the government has never been averse to bending such laws when it serves them.