Reform or Die

Here’s another chapter from our unpublished book about housing in Japan based on our own experience of buying/building a home. This one is about keeping up properties.

One of the most popular sub-genres of reality TV is the home improvement show. In 2002, Japan’s Fuji TV launched one called “Before/After,” where superannuated, usually cramped properties were magically transformed into marvels of modern design. The producers hit on a fool-proof hook for the show that they exploited successfully week after week, year after year, without seeming redundant. 

People with properties they wanted to fix up would contact the producers, who sift through the candidates, looking for the most broken-down or unusual cases. The best sequences highlight houses that would seem impervious to improvement due to their state of disrepair or local environment. A surefire hit is always the hovel located in one of Tokyo’s warren-like residential areas, usually dating from just after the war, when neighborhoods were constructed on the fly, and which require not just ingenious design skills to improve, but superhuman feats of logistics, since there usually isn’t any room to get heavy machinery to the property owing to narrow alleyways. The architects are lone wolves who waive their design fees and charge only for materials and labor. The recipients of their largesse come up with a ceiling amount they will pay, thus adding another layer of challenge to the architect’s task. The family is then sequestered off-site while the work is done and documented in detail by a film crew. The residents are not allowed to view the property until the “reform” is complete. The climax is dramatic, with the family entering the sparkling new house with tears streaming down their faces and the anodyne voice of the female narrator showing us the stark differences achieved by the architect. 

“Before/After” sparked a boom in home improvement TV shows but not in home improvement–or, at least, not to the extent that it made a difference in the marketability of older homes. One of the main problems with remodeling in Japan is lack of regulation and oversight. The vast majority of homeowners can’t afford the kind of architects featured on “Before/After,” but anyone can start a home improvement company. In the past, the biggest complaint with regard to remodeling was fraud, characterized by operations that over-billed elderly people for poor work. Eventually, the complaints became more general owing to greater demand by homeowners who decided it was cheaper to renovate their present houses than it was to buy new ones, even if that wasn’t necessarily the case. In 2011, the Center for Housing Renovation and Dispute Settlement Support addressed more than 4,500 claims, mainly in Tokyo. In most cases there were no contracts, design plans, or even written estimates. If a particular job costs less than ¥5 million, according to the law, the company that carries it out doesn’t have to be registered as a construction firm, though remodeling companies are supposed to be insured for shoddy work. Also, the work doesn’t need to be inspected by the relevant authorities unless “it affects the integrity of the structure.” Some years ago a Nagoya woman whose condo became virtually unlivable after a reform company replaced her floors and windows couldn’t sue because there was no contract. The National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan handled more than 13,000 reform-related complaints in 2011, or twice as many as in 2010. Since there were no regulations, the center urged homeowners who were going ahead with remodeling to record all conversations. The Japan Bar Association in April 2011 urged the construction ministry to pass new laws to cover the industry, no matter how small the company.

When it comes to home improvement, experts recommend hiring designers who understand the engineering aspects of a remodeling project and can subcontract the various jobs to tradespeople. Such projects, however, can run into the tens of millions of yen, which is why comprehensive discount remodeling companies have sprung up, offering total renovations for much less. Many are associated with major retail home improvement centers, and are thus deemed to be reliable. They cut costs by buying materials in bulk, which usually means limited choices for the consumer. As with anything, you get what you pay for. 

But most homeowners in Japan don’t renovate in any substantial way, because they’re not conditioned to think of their properties as an investment. And until very recently, there were no government incentives to improve properties. The idea that one’s house, as opposed to the land it sits on, accrues or even retains value over time isn’t widespread in Japan, so as long as people can put up with the wear and tear, they let their houses slide. So the question becomes: Do the houses not retain value because people don’t keep them up? Or do they not keep them up because they believe their houses don’t retain their value? In any case, the majority of used houses, especially those built before, say, 1990, are virtually junk. 

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Simple plans

Here is another chapter from our unpublished book about housing in Japan based on our own experience of building a home. This one is about the final preparations before construction of our house began.

The design came together quickly because it was so simple. In fact, we thought that whatever form it took it would never be simple enough. Each item that went into it was going to cost us, so we didn’t want a wall or a door or even an electrical outlet that we didn’t need. It’s one of the reasons we chose A-1 as the builder, because every plank and screw was subject to our approval, and while the simplicity of our basic idea made it quick and easy to plan, refining it took time.

The initial estimate was close to ¥14 million, which was reasonable but more than we originally wanted to pay given what the land had cost. The A-1 design our plan was based on cost less than ¥11 million. The difference was taken up by the design fee and some custom add-ons, like the extra toilet. So we scrutinized the plans. Did we really need a door to the office on the first floor? Would a mail slot be cheaper than a mailbox? Could we find less expensive lighting fixtures than the ones A-1 would purchase through its usual supplier? We weren’t being cheap for the sake of being cheap. Several decisions actually cost us more than if we had let A-1 go its normal route. The bathroom on the second floor did not have a standard vanity unit, which would have been less expensive than the built-in sink and mirror combo we requested. We gave in to the unit bath because on further inspection we didn’t think we would find a tradesman who could build the kind of Western bathroom we preferred at a price we could afford. As antiseptic as we found unit baths, they tend to have more structural integrity and are easier to maintain than custom-made bathrooms. And though we weren’t crazy about the standard system kitchen we’d been forced to choose at Housetec, we didn’t need to buy overhead cabinets since it’s an open kitchen. We also opted for sliding doors for the upstairs bathroom and the downstairs toilet, and they are more expensive than conventional hinged doors. Sliding doors take up less room, and at 89 square meters the house didn’t have any extra room to spare. We had already eliminated the “veranda” that tends to be standard in any Japanese home, and that saved us a lot. And since our house is essentially a big box there were fewer angles and thus less surface area. With A-1, real wood panel walls are standard, but for a bit more you can have conventional sheetrock walls, and for a bit less again you can have OSB (oriented strand board), which we chose for the walls of the office and the walk-in closet, since they would eventually be covered by bookcases and other furniture, so the look wasn’t important. Originally, we opted to leave out a UHF-BS antenna unit on the roof, thinking we’d get cable or Internet TV, but after calling around to various cable companies and internet providers we discovered that such services weren’t yet available in our neck of the woods. In fact, they might not be available for some time, so we opted back in for the antenna unit. In the name of simplicity again we asked them not to tile the genkan (foyer), but just leave it as bare concrete, and not just because it’s less money. We like bare concrete and since we included in the design a small recessed storage area just to the right of the genkan it would all be of a piece. We also wanted a lot of windows, which costs more than having less windows, though due to the usual “modular” Japanese design methodology, which bases all measurements on ikken multiples or portions of the length of a tatami (182 cm), we had to chose window sizes accordingly. Any other sizes would require custom work, which would mean going outside the modular parameters and spending more.

Another reason for the simplicity was that it would allow us to change things later more easily. Once everything was built it would be expensive, not to mention stupid, to change features we didn’t like, so rather than risk putting in something we might not like in the long run, we left out as much as possible. We’d be paying for whatever post-construction changes we made, but they would be easier to carry out and probably cheaper. A-1 wasn’t going to do any landscaping–no concrete apron or approach to the front door–and while those are always options they are options most homebuyers want because they think that as long as they’re building a house they should get as much done as possible. We may have been asking for trouble by leaving all that until later, but until the house was built it was difficult to make decisions that would have a permanent effect on the look and practicality of the property as a whole.

It was this aspect of the building process that was the most difficult to address. As we’ve already mentioned, one way A-1 saves money is by doing away with promotional schemes, including model homes. Building and maintaining model homes is expensive, and those costs add to the prices of the homes people buy. A-1 doesn’t see the necessity, and neither did we given how simple we were trying to keep things. But there is a big advantage to model homes, which is that the buyer has a clearer idea of what things will look like once the house is finished. We didn’t. A-1 brought us photos of other houses they’ve built with similar features to ours, but our design was unique, and so these photos could only give us an idea. Take the stairway. Though we thought it might be good aesthetically to have a metal stairway, it would have been very expensive, as much as a million yen more. Nagaoka showed us the standard wooden stairway A-1 installs and it looked nice in the house depicted, but that house is very different from ours. The fact is, we wouldn’t know what it would look like and what sort of practical improvements it would need until it was finished, so we wanted to keep all our options open until we could make choices based on reality.

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Condos can be akiya, too

Reviewing our posts on this blog for the past year or so, we noticed that much of our writing is related to akiya, or vacant housing, which has become an increasingly visible problem that the media is finally addressing. However, when we look at the statistics, we notice that akiya are not limited to single-family houses, which is usually how the problem is framed in the press, but, in fact, is mostly comprised of apartments and condominiums. 

The reasons for this lack of coverage may have to do with the fact that the image of apartments is that they are rented out, while the image of akiya is that of abandoned properties, so it’s difficult to imagine an apartment that temporarily does not have a tenant to be permanently vacant. However, condominiums are a different story since they are bought and sold, and for the most part when the press talks about the condo market they only talk about Tokyo, where apartments and condos are still in demand, even used ones.

But we found an article that appeared last spring in the business magazine President that covered vacant condominiums in depth, and, apparently, the situation is as dire as it is for single-family houses, even if the problem isn’t as visible. 

The article quotes a number of experts, including an economics professor, Hiroaki Miyamoto, who says that in ten years one out of every four housing units in Japan will be vacant, and that the majority will be collective housing units, meaning condos or apartments. The main reason will be the lack of funds available to carry out long-term repairs and renovations on older buildings, which, as a result, will fall into disrepair and become not only difficult to sell, but in many cases uninhabitable. 

To the international finance community, Japan is already considered a “pioneer” in the onset of permanently vacant properties, especially after the IMF conducted a study of the phenomenon in 2020. The outcome of the study was that vacant properties bring down property values in the communities where they are, and thus adversely affect regional economies. 

As we’ve noted a number of times, the Japanese government carries out a large-scale survey of the housing and land situation every five years, and according to these surveys the gross number of housing units in Japan continues to increase even as the population has leveled off and started to decrease due to the birth rate. In 2018, the last time a report was released, the number of housing units stood at 62.4 million, while the number of households was 54 million, meaning that there is a 16 percent excess of housing units. 

Until 1963, the number of households in Japan exceeded the number of units, but this ratio reversed in 1968 and ever since the number of units has continually increased in relation to the number of households. 

Moreover, 85.9 percent of households in Japan, or 53. 6 million, contain full-time residents, meaning that 8.79 million units, or 14.1 percent of the total, contain no residents, and almost all of these are defined as “vacant” by the government—8.49 million, or 13.6 percent of all housing units. A property’s “vacant” status depends on how much or often it is used. In that regard, the portion of vacant properties has been increasing since 1988, when the vacancy rate was 9.4 percent. 

President cites the methodology of the National Social Welfare Population Issues Laboratory, which has determined that the number of households in Japan will peak at 54.19 million in 2023, which also happens to be the year when the government releases the results of its latest housing survey. From now on the number of households will drop, and by 2040, the laboratory predicts the number of households will be 50.76 million, or 3.24 million less than it was in 2018. Extrapolating this trend further, the number of akiya will invariably continue to increase at an accelerating rate; that is, unless more properties are demolished.

As it stands, the number of demolished properties is also accelerating. Between 2008 and 2012, the number of homes demolished was 30 percent of the number of new homes that were built. Between 2013 and 2017, this portion increased to 62 percent. Nomura Research used this statistic to predict the vacancy rate for the future. If the 2008-2012 rate of 30 percent is used, the vacancy rate will be 25 percent by 2033 and 31 percent by 2038, but if the tendency shown in the change in the rate through 2017 is used, the vacancy rate will be 18 percent by 2033 and 20.9 percent by 2038. 

So while the vacancy rate will continue to increase, it could slow down if the rate of destruction of superannuated properties increases as well, but that isn’t a given, since new home construction isn’t slowing down appreciably. 

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Make Mine Maglev (4)

Shizuoka Governor Heita Kawakatsu predicts the Chuo Shinkansen won’t be ready by 2027. (TBS)

Our ongoing coverage of the Chuo Shinkansen, vernacularly known as the “linear motor car,” and usually referred to in English as the “maglev project,” continues apace even if construction itself doesn’t. This week, we found three distinct media stories about the maglev, and while they can be related to one another due to the way they describe obstacles toward completion of the Tokyo-to-Nagoya leg of the railway, they deserve to be addressed separately.

The first story, reported by the Mainichi Shimbun on Nov. 12, takes place in the town of Mitake in Gifu Prefecture. In 2016, two areas within the town had been selected as candidate landfill sites for receiving excavated soil and rock resulting from maglev tunnel construction. However, any formal announcement about the selection had been postponed after problems arose about the “impact” of the decision. Apparently, a portion of the candidate sites included a wetlands area that has been recognized by the environmental ministry as a vital habitat for a rare species of flora. Such designations do not automatically prohibit “development activities,” but those who carry out the operations regarding development are “required” to consider conservation efforts to protect precious resources. JR Tokai, the company building the maglev, has said it would transplant any rare species of plant in the area. 

On Nov. 10, Mitake held its fourth public forum with “experts” and representatives of JR Tokai. Residents expressed alarm, since it was the first time they were alerted to the fact that the landfill project would contaminate a valuable wetlands area, a fact that was actually revealed by reporter Hiroaki Izawa in a scoop for the weekly magazine Sunday Mainichi after he confirmed the environmental ministry’s designation of the rare species. Afterwards, the town’s mayor tried to explain why no announcement had been made previously, even though the environmental ministry’s designation had also been made in 2016. He said that he wasn’t sure what JR Tokai was planning to do at the time and so put off the announcement. After the company pledged to transplant the endangered plant species he became more positive about the landfill project. 

Though the environmental ministry applauded the dialogue between Mitake and JR Tokai, they didn’t address another problem, which was pointed out by a different media outlet, namely that the excavated soil and rock would contain natural heavy metals, which are toxic to living things, including humans. Consequently, the soil would have to be extensively processed before being dumped into the landfill. 

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New Shinkansen comes up short

While we’re in the mood to talk about high speed express trains, we should discuss the West Kyushu Shinkansen, which opened for business on Sept. 23. Its most notorious feature as far as the media is concerned is that it’s the shortest Shinkansen line, at least for the time being: 66 kilometers long, connecting Takeo Onsen and Nagasaki stations in as little at 23 minutes, having replaced the Kamome limited express train. In fact, the new Shinkansen, which will run 44 round trips a day, has appropriated the Kamome name, probably to make locals feel more familiar with something they likely didn’t see much need for; or, at least, not in its present form.

JR Kyushu, which operates the new train, makes a big deal in its advertising of the fact that the Kamome Shinkansen will reduce the journey from Hakata in Fukuoka, the main Kyushu hub, to Nagasaki by 30 minutes. However, the new line does not connect directly to the main Kyushu Shinkansen line. It’s actually completely independent and self-contained, meaning that it only exists between Takeo Onsen and Nagasaki. To get from Takeo Onsen to Hakata, you transfer at Takeo Onsen to the Relay Kamome, which is not a Shinkansen and doesn’t have a connection to the main Kyushu Shinkansen line either. In order for the new Shinkansen to connect directly to the Kyushu Shinkansen line, a new route would have to be made from Takeo Onsen to Shin Tosu station on the Kyushu Line, a distance of about 50 kilometers, and while JR Kyushu has said that it wants to someday build such a line, there are no plans at present to do so. That’s because Saga Prefecture, through which the connecting line would pass, doesn’t want to pay for any more construction. 

Why it doesn’t want to pay for something that would seem to add value to its infrastructure is an interesting, complicated story. Though JR Kyushu, like all JR group companies, is privately owned, it can’t really operate without considerable assistance from the central government, which guarantees the huge amounts of money necessary for constructing Shinkansen lines. The West Kyushu line cost ¥620 billion to construct, which was 20 percent more than the initial estimate. Much of that had to be covered by the central government and Nagasaki and Saga Prefectures.

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Make Mine Maglev (3)

When last we visited the maglev Chuo Shinkansen, or “linear motor car” in local parlance, construction had been delayed in Shizuoka Prefecture, where the governor, Heita Kawakatsu, had insisted work not proceed until the region’s water supply was addressed. If you want details about that particular problem, see our previous post on the matter here, but the problem itself hasn’t gone away in the two subsequent years, which is a long time for this particular project, already delayed significantly by other problems. 

According to a Sept. 14 article in the Asahi Shimbun, Shin Kaneko, the president of JR Tokai, which is building the train line, has pledged to address the issue of “assuring water resources and conservation of the environment” surrounding the Shizuoka section of the line, which is only 8.9 kilometers in length and all underground. In order to deliver these assurances a meeting was held between Kaneko and Kawakatsu on Sept. 13, but the Asahi reports that nothing much was accomplished at the meeting, their first in two years and three months. Shizuoka’s main gripe is about the water in the Oi River, which is used by residents, and Kawakatsu has insisted that JR Tokai replace any water that is “lost” during construction, a demand that, on the surface at least, sounds difficult though JR Tokai has tentatively agreed, probably because the delay has become untenable and they have to say something to get things moving again. After all, JR Tokai still has 2027 set for completion of the maglev between Tokyo and Nagoya. For his part, Kawakatsu says adamantly that he is not “against” the maglev—Shizuoka finally joined the construction promotion group in July, the last prefecture affected by the maglev to do so. By all means, he wants to see it up and running. But given that Shizuoka doesn’t benefit from it—there will be no maglev Chuo Shinkansen station in the prefecture—he definitely isn’t going to give up something for nothing. 

The matter was covered during a recent discussion on the web news show Democracy Times. Apparently, Kawakatsu made a remark to the effect that the maglev project should shoot for a more attainable short-term goal, like starting partial operation between Kanagawa and Yamanashi prefectures. Given the train’s high speed and the paucity of stations on that stretch of the maglev line, this almost sounds as if Kawakatsu is pulling somebody’s leg. Would anybody use the maglev for such short distances? The governor of Kanagawa was not amused and complained about the remark. As it happened, Kawakatsu had already gone to see for himself how construction was coming along in Kanagawa Prefecture and visited the Sagamihara Station construction site. There, he found out that JR Tokai is planning to build a railyard near the station that hasn’t even been started yet. Given that it will take 11 years to build, it would seem that there’s no way the yard could be completed by 2027. What’s worse is that JR Tokai hasn’t even finalized the purchase of all the land needed. Buying land has always been one of the most difficult aspects of the maglev project, which is why in Tokyo the line is being built 60 meters below the surface. Landowners’ rights don’t go that deep. According to Asahi Shimbun, this matter, which Kawakatsu wasn’t aware of before his inspection trip, caused him to become even more doubtful about the whole project. 

And there’s more. An Aug. 30 article in Nikkei xTech explained how the huge machines used to dig the tunnels—which make up more than 80 percent of the maglev line—have been breaking down. Already, the machine digging the tunnel in the Shinagawa area has broken, or, more specifically, the part of the machine that injects the chemicals into the excavated soil and rock in order to make them easier to remove, has been damaged, and it can’t be fixed until “after 2023.” Also, the massive bit on the machine that is being used to remove the temporary concrete retaining walls of a vertical tunnel in Aichi Prefecture has also been damaged. Nikkei xTech points out that because so much of the maglev tunnel construction is at depths never before attempted, the whole construction process is almost experimental. In fact, the late JR Tokai president Yoshiyuki Kasai, who lobbied for the maglev project, used the construction of an automobile tunnel through the Hida region of the Japan Alps as a means of convincing the land ministry that construction of the maglev was feasible. The construction of the Hida tunnel, which is 10.7 km in length, was considered extremely difficult due to the weak rock structure, high ground water content, and height of the mountain, and it took 8-and-a-half years to complete. The government’s go-ahead for the maglev was granted in 2007, the same year the Hida Tunnel was finished. But as one reporter on Democracy Times pointed out, if it took more than 8 years to dig a tunnel 10.7 km long, how long will it take to complete the whole maglev route, which goes through similar geological environments? Obviously, 2027 is out of the question, but will anyone living today actually live long enough to ride the thing? 

Harumi Pre-flag

While searching for any news about the current state of the Harumi Flag condo complex in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward, we came across an older related article with detailed information we weren’t aware of. As we’ve written here before, Harumi Flag was originally the athletes village for the 2020 Olympics, after which the apartments were renovated into condo units, many of which had already been sold. Because of the one-year delay for the Games, people who had put down deposits and made plans to move in had to put off those plans for at least an extra year, thus causing a lot of grumbling among the buyers. 

According to a special report that appeared in July 2019 on the Min-IREN website, a consumer advocacy and social justice concern, people who already lived in the Harumi area of Chuo Ward on the waterfront had filed a lawsuit against the Tokyo prefectural government. The reporter was Nobuyuki Kitaoka, who often writes for the muckraking weekly Kinyobi, and he makes the point that the lawsuit had/has similarities to the 2017 scandal surrounding Moritomo Gakuen, the educational company that bought land in Osaka from the central government for a fraction of its assessed value, thus setting off speculation that this special deal was due to the fact that the wife of then prime minister Shinzo Abe was an honorary principal of the elementary school that Moritomo planned to build on the property. Apparently, the developers who would build the athletes village for the Olympics and then redevelop the complex into luxury condominiums also got the land at a fraction of its worth, and existing residents wanted to know why. According to Kitaoka, Moritomo paid only 20 percent of what the land it bought from the central government was worth, while the developers of Harumi Flag paid only 10 percent of the value to the Tokyo prefectural government, which owned it. Located only 3 kilometers from Ginza, the market value of the Harumi land was ¥959,000 per square meter, but Tokyo sold it to a consortium of 11 developers, including Mitsui Fudosan Residential, for only ¥97,000 per square meter. This consortium ended up paying a total of ¥12.96 billion for 133,900 square meters. 

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Til death traps

One of the main themes, if not the central theme, of this blog is that Japanese homes don’t hold their value over time the way they usually do in other developed countries, and while this situation does have a silver lining in that homes are affordable to a larger cross section of people, including young families, in the long run it makes it difficult for retired people to expect much in the way of a return on the investment they made in their home, which is usually the most expensive thing they own by a huge margin. But this feature of Japanese economic life has even broader effects on the quality of life for seniors, as revealed in a June 5 article in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun.

Certainly the main advantage of owning one’s home anywhere is that once the mortgage is paid off no one can kick you out. Regardless of income, a person who owns their home will always have a roof over their head. In Japan, this notion is usually conveyed by referring to the house or condominium as the person’s “final home” in that the person can live there until they die. The theme of the Nikkei article is that even this concept is no longer guaranteed or, at least, not assured in the way that most seniors thought it would be. The main reason is that the cost of renovations for homes has increased by 20 percent over the past ten years on average. This increase, combined with the fact that Japanese people are living longer, makes the possession of homes in Japan more difficult for people on fixed incomes. 

According to a survey conducted by the justice ministry, the home ownership rate of households with two or more members and whose head of household is over 60 is above 90 percent, which is quite an impressive portion and speaks to the success of Japanese housing policy in how it has promoted home ownership over the years. In practical terms, it means the people who live in these households have a “final home” that should remove any economic anxiety from their twilight years, but Nikkei says that isn’t the case. For one thing, standalone houses in Japan tend to need extensive renovation work done on exteriors and roofs every 15 to 30 years, depending on when the house was built—the older the house, the more frequent such renovations are needed, and each time they are carried out they require at least ¥9 million. In the past year alone, costs for renovation have gone up substantially owing to inflation and the world distribution crisis. These costs are not expected to go down.

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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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Guilty as charged

Storage heater and friend

In the previous post we talked about our decision to go all-electric from the perspective of not wanting to deal with gas any more. However, this reasoning should not be taken as an unconditional endorsement of all-electric houses. Electricity is what it is—electrons moving in a certain way to transfer energy—and is separate in meaning from how it is produced. Natural gas is a substance whose mining and combustion have negative effects on the biosphere. Electricity is not a substance, so the issue surrounding electric power is how it is derived, and since we weren’t going to install solar panels—a choice that, at the time, was based on our financial outlook, and one we now regret—we assumed that we would have to buy all our electricity from the monopoly that supplied it in our area, Tepco, because at the time the energy market had not yet been liberalized. So it was a devil’s bargain, since at the time (2014) Tepco generated electricity chiefly from burning fossil fuels, though it was no secret to anyone that the company’s main wish was to bring back all the nuclear reactors it shut down in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown. We weren’t comfortable with either of these energy sources, and therefore had to live with the fact that we would (by buying thermally derived power) or could (by buying nuclear power) be paying into a system that was in some way unsustainable. 

In terms of climate control, summertime wasn’t a problem since we haven’t used air conditioners for years, mainly as a matter of preference. In fact, one of the criteria for choosing a place to build a house was relatively cooler temperatures during the summer. Given that we still opted to live in the Kanto region, that wasn’t very easy, but we managed to find a plot of land within a wooded area that was two to three degrees cooler on average than surrounding areas. So the main problem was heating the house in the winter with electricity, which can be expensive. We opted for storage heaters, which tend to be more popular in northern Japan and along the Japan Sea. The units are large boxes filled with ceramic bricks that heat up at night using electricity and then radiate this stored energy during the day. This method takes advantage of two phenomena—the human sleep cycle, and Japanese power companies’ practice of charging less for electricity at night than they do in the daytime. This latter point is based on the idea that large power generators are always online, but that the electricity they produce at night mostly goes unused, so businesses and homes that can use that surplus power pay less for it. Of course, our storage heating solution did nothing to help the environment, but at least it used power that would otherwise have gone to waste. Our water heating system, called Eco-Cute (a play on the Japanese word kyuto, or “hot water supply”), used the same cycle—heat the water at night for use in the daytime. We’ve been happy with the storage heating system. There is one unit on the first floor and another on the second floor, and by adjusting the amount of energy absorbed depending on projected temperatures, we’ve enjoyed a uniformly warm house throughout all the rooms during the winters we’ve lived here, something we, as a couple, have never really enjoyed in Japan, as anyone who has lived here for any length of time knows well. Moreover, we calculate that we don’t pay anymore to heat our home exclusively with electricity than we did to heat our home with gas, kerosene, and/or electricity in the past. 

But that may not last much longer. We recently received a notice from Tepco outlining payment changes for the future. The notice is supposed to be good news, since it essentially says that unit fees for electricity will be going down. However, the nighttime discount that we take advantage of for our heating uses will be discontinued. We were a bit taken back by this development, since the whole point of the storage heating system is to tap that surplus energy, but then we realized what it was all about. Some years ago, when we started writing about energy issues in Japan, especially with regard to nuclear energy following the 2011 meltdown, we learned that the nighttime discount was originally implemented because of nuclear energy. Reactors cannot easily be shut or powered down, and thus, unless they have to be serviced for whatever reason, they always run at full capacity. Thermal power stations that use fossil fuels—furnaces, to be exact—can be shut off or powered down more readily. So the nighttime discount became a normalized business practice in Japan because nuclear power by definition always produces a large capacity surplus at night. After the Fukushima meltdown, Japan shut off its nuclear reactors, and only 10 have come back online since, so the reasons for nighttime discounts are no longer as compelling, even though thermal power also produces a nighttime surplus. More importantly, as renewable energy becomes widespread, nighttime discounts become meaningless, especially with regard to solar power—the sun doesn’t shine at night, so there’s no excess power being generated. None of these functional aspects make our storage heating system any less effective in the task it was developed to perform, which is heat our house, but it does change the whole economic rationale for the system. 

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