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. 

Read More

Big One

To mark the tenth anniversary of the disaster of March 11, 2011, we are posting one of the chapters from the book we are working on about Japanese housing. Some of the following appeared in slightly different form in the anthology known as #quakebook. For those who may be interested, we have been looking for a publisher or agent to handle the book for the last year and so far have had no luck in placing it, so if anyone has advice, connections, etc., let us know. 

On March 11, 2011, the governor of Tokyo was Shintaro Ishihara, who later called the massive earthquake that struck off the coast of northern Japan that day “divine retribution” for some imagined slight to the nation’s soul. Never mind that all of the people who died or were left homeless by the disaster had lived in three northeastern prefectures far from the fleshpots of the capital he oversaw. Ishihara, a popular novelist in addition to being a politician, needed to make some sort of apocalyptic statement. 

No one thought there was anything “divine” about the catastrophe, but we could all appreciate a cosmic joke. The quake hit right in the middle of moving season. The Japanese fiscal year, not to mention the school year, begins April 1, and traditionally many people move house during the month of March because of changing jobs and entering university. Consequently, before, during, and after the quake there were moving trucks parked outside our 38-story apartment building in the Minami Senju area of Tokyo, carrying furniture for people who were settling in. Elevators in Japan are designed to automatically shut down in the event of an earthquake and they can’t be restarted until a technician arrives to turn them on again. Given that the entire city was affected, some buildings had to wait hours or even a day before someone showed up to get the elevators working. Movers were stuck on the street with trucks full of furniture while their customers stood in their new apartments appreciating the view as they swayed back and forth during one of the aftershocks that occurred on an almost hourly basis. Did they regret their decision to move into a high-rise? 

Perhaps not. The disaster helped answer a question: Would all these quake-proofed structures that had been built in the previous decades actually withstand a massive earthquake? Of course, the epicenter of the one we had just experienced was hundreds of kilometers away, but no buildings had collapsed in Sendai, the major city nearest to the quake and one with its own share of high-rises. So the technology seemed to work. But while it saved lives and property, it didn’t solve a more intractable problem: Once you’ve been in a major earthquake in a tall building, you don’t want to be in another one.

We had already been living on the 24th floor of River Harp Tower for more than ten years when the quake struck at 2:46 that afternoon, and had been through a good share of them. They just weren’t as intense. Usually, they started with a jolt followed by a gentle swaying. There are two types of quake-proof technologies for high rises in Japan. One is designed for flexibility: the entire structure absorbs the energy and disperses it more or less evenly throughout the frame, and the higher your floor, the wider and longer the sway. The other type, which is more expensive, involves rubber dampers in the foundation. We lived in the former type. On March 11, we didn’t feel that usual initial jolt but rather a slight rumble from the floor that just kept building until the walls started rattling violently. We knew this was going to be bigger than the usual quake and crouched together under a table. The shaking continued, and then gradually changed to swaying, which was much wider than it had been in the past. But the movement wasn’t as scary as the noise: a massive creaking sound that went on for more than two minutes.

Read More

A place in the sun

About a year ago, many people in our part of Chiba Prefecture were still struggling with loss of electricity after two typhoons plowed through the peninsula in rapid succession. Our house was lucky and only lost power intermittently for short periods. Not far from where we live, however, there were some households who didn’t have power for more than a month, and the local authorities, not to mention the regional power providers, seemed at a loss as to what to do about it. Moreover, they didn’t seem sure of how to prevent such problems from recurring in the future, seeing how, with climate change and all, it was likely that these kinds of extreme weather events would happen again and perhaps more frequently.

Extended blackouts are, of course, a serious matter. In addition to loss of lighting function, it means your refrigerator won’t work and thus all your food contained inside will spoil; it means no air conditioning, which could be a big problem at the height of summer; it means no television, which provides emergency information in times when disasters like this strike; and it means no cell phones because no recharging capability. These are all problems that can occur to anyone in the path of a typhoon, but in the cases of the people mentioned above it could be even more serious. We live in an area where a lot of infrastructure is not available. Most of us get our water from wells, and so we need pumps that are run by electricity, so that means no water for bathing and toilets. We also aren’t hooked up to natural gas lines, so unless you get propane deliveries, it probably means you run your household on an all-electric system, so that means no cooking or hot baths/showers. 

At least one local municipality has taken preliminary action to be more prepared, and in doing so may spark a trend that should be promoted nationwide. In the city of Sosa, on the Pacific coast, a group of environmental activists has set up a “solar sharing” operation that started out with farmers who allowed the group to install solar panels on tall stanchions above their fields. The panels absorb sunlight, but are far enough from the ground to allow peripheral sunlight to reach most of the ground underneath them, so the fields still produce crops. The farmers still sell their wares, and the sharing group sells excess electricity from the solar setup to the local power company and puts the revenue back into the local government, which uses the money to promote solar energy on a household-by-household basis. According to an article in Harbor Business Online, Sosa seems to be the only local government carrying out such a program. What’s particularly interesting is that, besides the money made from selling the electricity, the program has no relationship with any major power companies, which makes sense. Electricity providers are very concerned about people generating their own power for their own use, since it means using less electricity from the grid, which they control. However, after last year’s typhoons, many residents of Chiba have realized they can’t count on the grid and its overlords to guarantee service in the event of an emergency. 

Read More

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

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

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

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.

…the further they fall

Elsa Tower 55

Continuing in the vein of our previous post, last August the weekly magazine Shukan Gendai ran an article that revealed an “unwritten” belief among real estate agents in the Tokyo metropolitan area that says tower condos will start to “fall into ruin” starting in 2022. The choice of terminology is interesting here and, apparently, quite literal in that the towers themselves will start to deteriorate in ways that will make it difficult to maintain these buildings for many years into the future. The article describes in credible detail how tower condos differ from other condos, in terms of both structural design and real estate value, and how these differences manifest over time.

Gendai starts out with a profile of a tower condo that was built 15 years ago, or around the time that tower condos were making their debut in Tokyo and surrounding areas. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t say exactly where the condo is, but it contains 400 units, of which only 30 percent are occupied at the time the article was written. The facade is riddled with cracks and the entrance to the building is surrounded by overgrown weeds. The building also has a gym, which apparently has been closed for several years already. The current residents are described as people who have “nowhere to go,” thus implying they would like to move if they could, but the value of their properties has dropped so low that even if they were able to sell their apartments they wouldn’t receive enough money to cover a down payment on another condo. And yet, as the article attempts to point out, the overall popularity of tower condos in Tokyo is currently peaking.

As we previously wrote, tower condos are defined as collective housing complexes of at least 20 floors. Between 2008 and 2017, 341 new tower complexes were built in the Tokyo metropolitan area comprising 111,722 units. It was, according to Gendai, a phenomenon that “no one could have imagined” and, in fact, may have been too good to be true. Realtors have always been suspicious of the tower boom, since there was the obvious danger of oversupply, but to developers towers were the geese that just kept laying golden eggs, so they kept building them. Presently, they are still being erected in the Tokyo harborfront area on landfill, and in suburbs that are conveniently situated for easy access to the city center, such as Kawaguchi in Saitama Prefecture and Musashi Kosugi, which was described in our previous post. Now, some ambitious developers are eyeing certain areas of Tokyo for “redevelopment” with tower condos, such as Tsukishima, which is filled with older low-rise buildings. Read More

The higher they are…

Tower condos in Musashi Kosugi

When Typhoon Hagibis roared through the Kanto Plain Oct. 12, three homeless individuals were turned away from an emergency evacuation center in Tokyo’s Taito Ward because they could not prove they were registered as residents in the ward. The incident gave rise to a lot of soul searching on the part of the authorities, but there were also quite a few people on social media who felt the staff of the evacuation center didn’t do anything wrong. To these people, the homeless really are on their own and shouldn’t expect any help from the rest of society.

As it turns out, there is a corollary to this attitude that applies to the rich. As everyone knows, the Tama River overflowed its banks during the typhoon, causing flooding in parts of Setagaya and Ota Wards. The waters didn’t inundate the other side of the river, which lines the city of Kawasaki. However, the rising waters did cause sewage lines to back up, thus resulting in what is called “internal flooding” that inundated train stations and the basements of some condominium and apartment buildings. This problem was totally unexpected by both the authorities and residents of the area. The neighborhood that was hit the worst was the one surrounding Musashi Kosugi station, which services several train lines and is thus extremely popular. There are at least ten tower condominiums surrounding the station, and as we reported in an earlier post, apartments in these buildings are quite expensive. It’s one of the few areas in the Tokyo metropolitan area where used residences are increasing in price because they are in such demand. New condos in the area go for about ¥70 million, so only the affluent can afford them. Read More

Yen for Living: Houses As (non-)Assets

For sale? Good luck.

The following article was submitted as the July entry in our Yen for Living column for the Japan Times. However, it was rejected by the editors.

One of the issues facing voters in this month’s Upper House election is the national pension system. The government received criticism after the Financial Services Agency announced that a couple would need at least ¥20 million in savings when they retire to supplement their pensions. Opposition parties are using this figure to point out flaws in the pension system, and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is challenging the FSA, saying that current pension benefits are adequate to support people after they retire.

In a letter published in the Asahi Shimbun on July 1, a 63-year-old dentist wrote about the ¥20 million figure, saying that when he was 30 he started saving for his old age. As a self-employed person he knew a public pension would not be enough when he retired, and so he joined a cooperative that, in return for monthly premiums, guaranteed a one-time payment when he reached a certain age. Over the course of 30 years, he paid a total of ¥18 million into the fund in the belief that he would receive ¥40 million in the end. But he received only ¥20 million. He also paid into a private pension plan, convinced that when he turned 60 he would start receiving ¥280,000 a month for a limited time. As it turns out, he is only getting ¥120,000, because interest rates have plummetted since he was 30. When he’s 65, he will start receiving benefits from his national pension, but since he belongs to the kokumin nenkin system for the self-employed and others who weren’t employed by large companies, he will only receive ¥65,000 a month. So even though he basically “invested” in private plans and paid his obligatory national pension premiums, he is not going to have as much income in his retirement as he once thought he would receive. Read More