Make mine maglev (1)

In December, four of Japan’s biggest general contractors were accused of bid-rigging with regards to their involvement in the construction of Japan’s maglev shinkansen, vernacularly referred to as the “linear motor car.” Bid-rigging is a fairly common practice among Japanese general contractors, and so far two have owned up to the charges. They will be fined, executives will be shuffled around in a bid for self-reflection, and everyone will get back to work, because the ¥8 trillion project is too important to be sidelined by a mere money scandal.

In terms of media coverage, the scandal provided a kind of shade that was necessary so that the press couldn’t be accused of avoiding other, deeper, more problematic issues regarding the maglev project, which involves building a line between Tokyo and Nagoya by 2027. In fact, the scandal is probably the best news that JR Tokai, the arm of Japan Railways that is building the maglev, ostensibly with its own money, could have received since it diverts any media attention away from the deep-seated problems that are already plaguing the project. Since construction has already started, it’s too late to cancel the thing, but it seems likely that the company won’t make its deadline owing mainly to the fact that it still hasn’t purchased all the land it needs.

Because of the technology involved and Japan’s peculiar topgraphy, 246 kilometers, or 86 percent, of the initial route between Tokyo and Nagoya will be built underground, thus making it, basically, a very long subway line. Besides the obvious negative ramifications this aspect of the project could have on its appeal as a tourist attraction, the fact that the tracks have to be underground brings up significant logistical issues, and so the central government passed a special law that said space that is at least 60 meters below the surface is not owned by the title-holder of the land on the surface. The law thus allowed JR Tokai to avoid having to negotiate with landowners along the route planned for the tracks, as long as those tracks are located at least 60 meters below the surface.

However, the surface must still be taken into consideration. For instance, all new stations between Tokyo and Nagoya have to be built on the surface, and often surrounding tracts also have to be bought for ancillary purposes (parking lots, retail outlets, etc.). Also, according to the law, underground railways must provide egress to the surface every hundred meters or so in case of emergency, which means the land on the surface where the exits are built must be purchased.

But the most pressing need for land on the surface is for roads on which dump trucks will transport excavated soil and rock. These roads have not been built yet (for that matter, places to deposit the excavated rock and soil haven’t been designated yet, either), because the land has not been secured. According to Hideki Kashida, a journalist who seems to have made it his life’s work to report on the maglev, approximately 5,000 people own the various tracts of land that JR Tokai will need to buy for the construction of the maglev. The cost, they estimate, is about ¥342 billion. However, some of the land owners are not selling, a big problem in a country that doesn’t have eminent domain.

The reasons for not selling are numerous, and most are personal–basically farming families who are loath to give up their legacies. Some, however, are more practical minded. Environmental groups are protesting the transport roads because they will ruin national parks and the natural environment. The tunnels will destroy aquifers, upon which many rural residents rely for their water–several rivers may dry up as a result. Since the maglev uses up to four times the amount of electricity that a conventional shinkansen uses, residents along the route are afraid of electromagnetic fields.

Kashida says that so far several hundred people have filed lawsuits against JR Tokai to stop or restrict construction, and though courts have traditionally backed up large corporations in such suits, the trials could cause delays. They will also increase the cost of the project, but that doesn’t seem to be a big problem because the central government has already stated its interest in completing the maglev, not just to Nagoya by 2027, but to Osaka by 2045. It’s already guaranteed a ¥3 trillion loan to JR Tokai. With the government in the game, public opposition will become meaningless.

In any case, we don’t expect to see the maglev shinkansen completed–at least to Osaka–within our lifetimes, but we will continue to cover the story in this blog as it develops.

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Suburban blight, Japanese-style

img_20161223_114702In our latest housing column for the Japan Times we talk about a new book by Chie Nozawa that explains in simple, clear terms why more and more abandoned homes, both houses and condos, will litter the landscape in coming years. She gives a lot of good examples of the kind of city planning, or, more precisely, lack of city planning, that has given rise to over-production of housing even as the population in general is shrinking and homes are left vacant.

Last week, she published an article in Gendai Business that summarizes and elaborates on the book. (Gendai is published by Kodansha, which also published her book) Her main thesis is that housing is “no longer” a financial asset, though we would probably argue that it never really has been. She points out that by 2033 one out of every three homes in Japan will be vacant, and that if nothing is done–either through demolition or some program to make more effective use of existing housing–there will be 21.5 million vacant homes in Japan. She give two reasons based on the fact that the huge boomer generation will be dying out in large numbers: 1) the homes the boomers have inherited from their own parents will be empty; 2) the homes the boomers built themselves will be empty because their own children built their own homes and thus have no reason to take those homes over. It seems almost redundant for her to mention that these homes, unless they are located in major cities on desirable land, have no value whatsoever. The homes that boomers now live in are old, and so their heirs cannot possibly move in or sell or rent them without extensive renovations, which is not liely to happen given the nature of the housing market, which is all about new things, as we pointed out in our column.

img_20161223_114841Thus, these properties have “negative value,” meaning regardless of whether the heirs tear them down or improve them, they will have to spend money that they will never see again because it will become increasingly difficult to sell or otherwise liquidate these properties, most of which are in the suburbs. And the more there are, the worse this problem gets.

This vacant house problem brings about what Nozawa calls the “sponge phenomenon.” In English parlance we might refer to it as the Swiss cheese effect: The suburbs of major cities, and even the cities themselves, become pocked with holes of vacancies that further erode surrounding property values and scare off younger potential homeowners, who gravitate instead to the nearest brand new ultra-cheap, ultra-cramped subdivision. Nozawa gives examples of regional capitals where this effect is already in full swing: 20.8 percent of the homes in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, are vacant.

img_20161223_114030Vacant housing comes in four types: rental housing that is presently uninhabited, vacant houses on sale, secondary housing (vacation homes, etc.) that is unoccupied almost all of the time, and abandoned housing, meaning not for rent or sale, merely empty. Nozawa provides statistics showing that of these four type, the last, abandoned housing, is increasing at the fastest rate. She also shows the direct relationship between the amount of new housing being built in a town or city, and that locality’s portion of vacant housing. In most cases the more building that’s happening, the higher the number of vacant homes. A few enterprising spirits are trying to address this problem. One local real estate company in Higashi Matsuyama, about 50 kilomters north of Tokyo, is actively buying up small lots in these sponge-like neighborhoods and combining adjacent ones to make larger lots that can accommodate larger houses, but in order to do that effectively the realtor has to locate the owners of land that in many cases has been abandoned for a long time, and often that means negotiating with more than one reluctant heir.

It’s not a problem that is going away any time soon, or even later.img_20161223_115303

More Than Enough

Pamphlet from local government explaining how property is assessed

Pamphlet from local government explaining how property is assessed

We’ve written about Japanese property taxes a few times and in our JT column we once mentioned that the system for assessing property values and calculating the amount owed is complicated. Consequently, local governments, who do all this work based on laws implemented at the national level, sometimes make mistakes.

Apparently, the problem is even more widespread than we thought. According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, between 2009 and 2011, 97 percent of local governments reported at least one case of overcharging for property taxes, though, of course, that would indicate there are probably many more cases. A recent issue of the tabloid-style weekly Friday interviewed an official from a support network for “asset preservation” who pointed out that property taxes are very different from income taxes in that they are completely determined by the authorities. With income taxes, at least the taxpayer can see how his taxes are calculated since he has the documents with all the pertinent information. But property taxes are determined by the local tax office and the property owner simply receives a bill every year saying how much he owes without any explanation of how the bill was calculated, and unless the taxpayer has knowledge about the property tax laws and how they may apply to his particular circumstances, he won’t know whether or not the amount charged might be wrong.

The extent of the problem was illustrated in a feature in the Oct. 5 Asahi Shimbun, which cited a number of recent high-profile cases. Last May, the owners of apartments in a complex in Isehara, Kanagawa Prefecture, found out that they have been paying too much property tax for their units since the complex was built in 1972 by the then national housing corporation. Condominium values are assessed according to floor area, and almost all of the 600 units in the complex are about 63 square meters, but they also have verandas. The city tax office was including the verandas, which are about 8 square meters, into the assessment, but verandas are considered kyoyo, or common property, meaning they don’t belong to individual owners, but rather to all the owners, just like corridors and building foyers. The assessment for common property in a condo is divided up among all the owners but taxed at a much lower rate than property that is owned individually. Read More

Year zero (1)

CIMG3311Two weeks ago we received a phone call from N, the salesman at A-1 whom we worked with when we built our house. There was a young couple who were thinking of asking A-1 to build a house for them, but they hadn’t yet secured a piece of land. Apparently, their desires are similar to what ours were: an area that had a bit more nature than your average subdivision. They currently lived in Matsudo, which is about 45 minutes west of us.

The request was a surprise. A-1 doesn’t advertise, since advertising adds to their overhead and thus to the cost of their products. They don’t build model homes for the same reason. When a potential customer wants to get an idea firsthand of what their homes are like, they ask past, presumably satisfied customers if they can bring the potential customers in for an inspection. We did it ourselves when we started looking for homes and read about A-1’s philosophy and design concepts, and were impressed, much more so than with any manufacturer’s model home display. In A-1’s case, you get to see how the owner is actually living in the house designed for them.

However, we thought our home may have been too individualistic for this kind of tour. When N called we had just received the property tax bill for the house and land. Since we moved in after January 1, 2014, we didn’t have to worry about a tax bill for the house until this calendar year, and last summer, when a city official came to assess our property, he almost laughed, implying that what we had wasn’t really worth that much. The tax bill seemed to bear out that implication. The estimate for the house came to less than ¥50,000. Of course, that wasn’t based on an assessment of the market value of the house, but nonetheless, even if you take into account the special deduction that reduces the amount due on a building for tax purposes to one-sixth its assessed value, the assessment was much less than what we paid for it a year ago. We’re not sure what that means, but we do understand that our house is unusual and, perhaps, not the kind of thing that would attract the average buyer: the kitchen and bath are on the second floor, the bedroom on the first; few doors and walls. It was designed to be inexpensive and to satisfy our peculiar needs, so it wasn’t exactly marketable, especially when you compare it to the vast majority of Japanese homes, which, we assume, reflect market demand. We had to assume that N was bringing the couple here because of the environment–the surrounding woods and such–which would give them an idea of what A-1 could accomplish in such a place. Read More

Pump it up

All's well that ends with a well

All’s well that ends with a well

Before construction could start we had to dig a well. Though our land was nominally within a housing development, it was a rather small one; basically a piece of wooded property surrounded by farmland that had been sold to a real estate company, which had divided it up for sale. But calling it a “housing development” is pushing it, since the usual infrastructure wasn’t available: no waterworks, sewerage, or gas lines. Technically, the land isn’t zoned for residences. It exists in that bureaucratic limbo known as shigaika chosei kuiki, which means an “area being adjusted for urban use,” but for all intents and purposes it’s land that does not have infrastructure but nevertheless is being sold for a profit. We cannot actually build on the land until the local land authority gives us permission, so buying it before the fact would seem to entail a risk, but these kinds of sales happen all the time and are always approved. We could see that for ourselves, since there were already five finished houses in this development and they had gone through the same thing. Over the past three years we had looked at many properties that were also classified as shigaika chosei kuiki, and in many ways they were more to our liking since lots that were already approved for residential construction tended to be in housing developments built by developers, meaning they were densely populated, and we wanted more breathing room. The thing about infrastructure is that most of it is built by private or semi-private entities who aren’t going to extend utilities to areas where they won’t see a profit, and a dinky little housing development of eight homes in an agricultural area where farming families have been living for generations without infrastructure isn’t worth it. Interestingly, the border of Chiba New Town is only a 10-minute walk from our property, and anything within that massive, 40-year-old development project, which incorporates portions of three cities, has access to all the usual infrastructure. But proximity means nothing. We might as well be living on the moon. Though we had already paid for the land and gave the go ahead to have the well dug, we called up the semi-public water authority whose bailiwick was closest to our property and asked about future prospects of waterworks being extended to our neck of the woods. We were essentially told that it would never happen. A little more research revealed that water usage throughout Japan peaked around 2001 and has been dropping ever since, and because local water authorities’ funding comes from customer billing and not from any public outlay they have less money with which to lay new pipe than they had in the past, so there’s absolutely no incentive to extend waterworks to any areas except those that guarantee a large customer base. Read More

The burden of expectations (3)

What we're trying to avoid

What we’re trying to avoid

We went to Tsukuba on a Friday, and the following Monday the woman from SBI Mortgage called and said we had cleared the preliminary screening. She had already given us a checklist of the documents we would need to submit for the final screening and so we started to collect them. It’s a time-consuming process because many documents are required and you have to go to different government offices to get them. The woman had already photocopied our drivers licenses, national health cards, and three years worth of tax returns. Now we had to get real proof of our worth, so to speak. The easiest to obtain was proof of residence (juminhyo) from the local city office. The checklist still had gaikokujin toroku shomeisho, meaning proof of an alien registration card, but the Foreign Ministry had phased out registration cards last year. We could also pick up inkan shomeisho, meaning proof of registered seals, at city hall. In bureaucracy-obsessed Japan, seals remain the looniest relic, since anyone could go to the store and buy one with another person’s name on it and use it in that person’s stead. Signatures are still not commonly used for purposes of witness and certification, though they’re obviously more individual. In order to somehow safeguard the seal as a means of certification you are supposed to register yours at your local government office, and then when called upon by a party with whom you are drawing up a contract you bring that party “proof” from the local government office that the seal you are using is kosher, though I have no idea how counterpart parties check this evidence unless they’re experts in wood-block printing.

A bit more difficult to secure was proof of our income for the last two years. The copies of our joint tax return were used for the preliminary screening but for the next phase they needed actual documents from both the national and local tax bureaus where we lived, which meant taking a trip to Narita as well as a trip into Tokyo, since we lived in Arakawa Ward for the first six months of 2011. In Narita we could also go to the local branch office of the Justice Ministry to obtain records on the land we were planning to buy–history of ownership as well as the official registered survey map of the plot, or, in our case, plots, since the land we were buying was actually two adjoining lots, one about 200 square meters and the other a mere 20 square meters. This smaller plot would prove to be a hassle, but more on that in a later post. On Tuesday we took a trip to Narita to get the documents we could. Read More