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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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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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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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.

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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. 

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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