Putting on heirs, Part 2

On April 27, the government will launch a new system that will allow people to “return” land they own but don’t want to the state. The main reason for this new procedure is that there has been a marked increase in recent years of land whose ownership is not clear. In 2016, a specially appointed research group found that 4.1 million hectares of land in Japan, an area larger than the island of Kyushu, had no clear titleholders. If this trend continues apace, then by 2040 there will be 7.2 million hectares of unclaimed land. The reason for the increase is that it is assumed that as more land-owners die, a good portion will not have heirs to take over that property. Unmanaged land becomes a problem for the authorities in terms of disaster prevention and general administration, which includes appropriating land for public works and other projects. 

There are many reasons why people either abandon property they own or avoid inheriting it from family or relatives. Mostly, it has to do with the cost, including property taxes, of maintaining land and structures that they will never use and can’t sell, especially if they are located in remote areas. Sometimes the property is a rental apartment building that still has a mortgage but no tenants. Sometimes it’s a parent’s home that no one wants to occupy and, again, isn’t sellable for some reason. Then there are forested tracts of land that require management by law, which can be expensive. According to a survey carried out by the land ministry in 2019, 42.3 percent of people who own land or expect to inherit land think that such ownership is a “burden.” This portion goes up when the land is either vacant or zoned for residential use. In addition, 63 percent of unused or vacant land in Japan was inherited by the current owner, a common situation given that land inheritances are taxed at a lower rate than cash inheritances. 

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Putting on heirs, Part 1

On Jan. 23, the Asahi Shimbun reported that in 2021, ¥64.7 billion in assets were left to no one by people who had died. In other words, these people had passed away with no heirs and no will. In the end, most of this money will go to the national treasury. The amount mentioned is 7.5 percent more than the previous year’s amount, making it the highest ever recorded, and it will likely continue increasing until sometime after the baby boom generation dies off. As it stands, heirless assets have doubled in the past ten years and sextupled in the past twenty years, coinciding directly with the sharp increase in single-person households, many of which are occupied by seniors. In 2020, there were 6.71 million single-person households whose sole member was over 64, a 40 percent increase over the number in 2010. By 2030, this number is projected to increase to 8 million. Another reason for the increase is the decline in the rate of marriage. According to the Population Research Center, 28 percent of men over the age of 50 and 18 percent of women over 50 have never married. These portions are on the rise. 

The lesson that Asahi wants readers to take away from this information is that they should draw up wills as soon as possible if they haven’t already, especially if they have no children or family to whom they can or want to leave their money and property. 

When someone dies without an heir or will, any so-called interested parties can apply to family court for resolution, and the court will then appoint an executor to manage the assets. If the executor finds someone who they think deserves a share of the assets, say a caregiver or neighbor who may have been close to the deceased, those people may inherit something, but whatever is left over goes to the state. In 2021, 27,208 executors were appointed by family courts, another record. 

In order to explain the importance of legally binding wills, Asahi presents an example of a well-off man with lots of real estate assets who died at the age of 92 in Morioka with no heirs. His funeral was carried out by the real estate company he used in his property transactions as executor per his instructions before he died, and he gave the company ¥20 million to set up a grave at a nearby temple. He also wanted to set up a foundation and a scholarship with his money. These instructions were done verbally, however, and later a court rejected this “will” because it wasn’t written down. 

The court instead appointed a lawyer to be the executor of the estate, who then acquired the keys to the man’s house and all his bank records. The money he had in financial institutions amounted to ¥492 million. The safe in his home contained ¥810 million in cash. His real estate holdings, including his own 1,500 square meter home, which was located 10 minutes by foot from the nearest station, were assessed at ¥700 million. So the total worth of the estate was more than ¥2 billion.

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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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Mind the gap

Yours in exchange for your first-born male child

Tokyo real estate has become even more expensive, though it should be noted that it’s still reasonable when compared to other large cities in the world. An article that appeared Dec. 7 in the Tokyo Shimbun cited a survey about luxury condominiums where the price of a representative example in trendy Moto Azabu was pegged as the standard. If the Moto Azabu condo price is set at 100, then the price of a comparative condo in London is 181 and one in Hong Kong 218. (Masako: “And even with a luxury condo in Japan, you still get only one toilet.”)

Tokyo isn’t as expensive as most foreign media think it is, but even disregarding the usual markups for properties designed for so-called expats, condominiums in the capital are still out of reach for the average worker, and have become more so since the advent of the pandemic. According to the same Tokyo Shimbun article, the average price of a new condominium in the 23 wards in October exceeded ¥90 million. For sure, after COVID hit, more people decided that if they could telework, they’d rather live outside of Tokyo, but that didn’t really put any downward pressure on prices in the city center, which are not only popular, but extremely popular among rich people, the only socioeconomic layer that has seen an appreciable rise in income in recent years. In 2021, the average price of a new condo in the 23 wards went over ¥80 million for the first time since the bubble era, and in October the average was ¥93.65 million.

The main reason has less to do with COVID than with the Bank of Japan, whose president, Haruhiko Kuroda, implemented his infamous money easing policy when he assumed his position ten years ago. Since then, most of the cash that the BOJ has pumped into the money supply has ended up in the accounts of the very well-off, and they’ve used it to buy expensive property, thus pushing up prices across the board, but mainly in the high-end market. Add to this pressure the construction crunch that accompanied the Olympics, when labor and materials shortages made it more expensive to build anything, and prices of new apartments have outpaced the spending capabilities of the average Japanese family. Tokyo Shimbun quotes a 27-year-old “homemaker” who lives in Shinjuku with her husband and three children and frets that she wants to buy a new condominium in the area rather than “keep paying rent,” but that prices are way too high. “I want to move when the kids get settled in school,” she says, “but I want to live in central Tokyo and there’s nothing we can afford.” Dream on!

It may seem shortsighted to talk only about new condos in Tokyo, but the mainstream media has never been very interested in covering available stock anywhere but in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Still, for argument’s sake let’s leave the rest of Japan alone. If the woman cited above was herself employed and half of a “power couple” (at least ¥15 million combined yearly income), then she would not only be able to qualify theoretically for the down payment and loan conditions for a new condo in Shinjuku, but she’d be part of the demographic that was pushing up prices. Another demographic doing that is seniors with a lot in the way of assets. A real estate representative says that market growth is being spurred by people who already live in central Tokyo and want to “replace their present homes.” Redevelopment is progressing apace and the portion of the population that has this kind of money on hand remains stable. If these are mostly retired people, they are not the kind of retired people who sell their apartments and then move to the suburbs. They stay in the city center, and get a nicer place. They can afford it. 

A real estate agent who mostly represents foreign buyers and whose network extends to 70 countries told Tokyo Shimbun that through May of this year, the number of inquiries they’ve gotten from real estate companies in the U.S. for Tokyo properties has nearly tripled since the beginning of the year, owing mainly to the drop in the value of the yen against the dollar. To Americans, Tokyo real estate is like one big fire sale right now, and buyers are snatching up deals in the most famous neighborhoods in the city—meaning, the ones whose names they’ve heard before—Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ginza, Roppongi. The truly wealthy are buying condos in the ¥500 million-¥1 billion price range, which, as mentioned already, is still cheap compared to other world class cities. 

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Planned Obsolescence

Variable interest housing loan campaign from early 2020

With constant talk of a looming worldwide recession, economic news tends to be gloomy, and each country has its own particular problems. Some financial commentators say that Japan’s interest rates remain ridiculously low compared to elsewhere, but no one seems to see it as an issue to fret about. A Nihon Keizai Shimbun article that appeared Nov. 6 tries to examine the matter as it relates to Japan’s overall financial health and the prognosis is not good.

However, the reason for Nikkei’s pessimism is rooted in a larger problem where interest rates play a part: Japan’s over-supply of housing. This blog has covered this topic every which way since it launched in 2009, and none of the conclusions reached by Nikkei are particularly fresh, but as Japan’s population continues to shrink and age they are more relevant than ever and bear repeating.

The main concern of the article is variable interest loans, which account for more than 70 percent of all mortgages in Japan. Variable interest means that the lender has the discretion of changing the interest rate during the period that the borrower pays back the loan, meaning it could go up or down at a designated time. The reason most people take out variable interest loans is that they charge lower rates in the beginning than fixed interest loans do. In Japan, housing loan interest rates are still absurdly low compared to the rest of the developed world. The lowest we could find right now is the 0.289 percent charged by au Jibun Bank, followed by Mizuho’s 0.375-0.675 percent. When people take out variable interest loans starting at these rates, they likely think that even if they go up, it won’t make that much of a difference, but actually it does. According to MFS, a service company that helps customers compare housing loan rates and conditions, a 0.1 point increase in the interest rate would lead to an increase of ¥110 billion in interest debt throughout Japan. In simpler terms, if your variable interest rate rises from 0.5 percent to 1.0 percent, your interest payments will double. 

Such an increase wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the asset value of the home being financed remained the same or went up, but in Japan, as we’ve said here many times, that isn’t the case. Conventional wisdom says that if your mortgage becomes too much to handle you can refinance the loan using your home as collateral, or sell the house, pay off the loan, and then buy something cheaper with the money left over. But in Japan, depending on how old the house is, it may be difficult to sell it for the amount needed to pay off a loan, which means the owner is at risk of going bankrupt if their personal financial situation changes for the worse due to loss of income, sudden severe illness, or whatever.

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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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Money out of mind

As with many families, my partner and I contribute to the living situation of an aged relative, who is currently living in a facility for seniors. We share this contribution with other members of her family, and in addition to paying directly for things like laundry service and supplemental meals, we also manage her pension and other social service income, which are directly deposited into her savings account. Another member of the woman’s family has the bank ATM card, with which that person can make money transfers to cover her care. In our case, we have the passbook, which can also be used to transfer money but not to withdraw cash from the account. Often we make necessary payments on her behalf and then transfer money from her account to reimburse ourselves.

This system is not uncommon, but it isn’t really legitimate, either, since we are not registered proxies for the woman. Because she has a cognitive disability owing to her age, she cannot handle her assets herself and thus relies on family to manage her finances, but legally speaking we—meaning not only my partner and I, but the other members of her family—should have registered as proxies with power of attorney well before she started losing her mental faculties. Now it is too late, and we are basically gaming the system. No one has prevented us from doing this because no one has complained, but recently banks have started phasing out passbooks in order to save money and paper. All records are being transferred to online systems, so we are afraid that once the current passbook fills up, we will not be able to get a new one, and thus will not have access to her account, since we can’t apply for an extra ATM card without her written compliance, which, legally, she can’t give because of her mental state.

A recent article that appeared in the Asahi Shimbun discussed this problem in more general terms, and it appears that our dilemma is one that many families also face. In principle, cash savings, real estate, and other assets owned by people who lose their cognitive functions cannot be touched except by people who have been granted such access by a court. The Civil Code says that if a person has no ability to make judgements regarding legal actions, those actions are not recognized. According to Mitsui Sumitomo Trust Bank, as of 2020, the amount of cash in Japanese bank accounts that has been frozen because their signatories have lost cognitive faculties amounts to ¥175 trillion. In terms of real estate and other assets, ¥80 trillion. That’s the equivalent of 8 percent of all household assets in Japan. By 2040, frozen assets are projected to reach ¥349 trillion, or 12 percent of all household assets. “Frozen” means that this money cannot be spent or otherwise circulated in the economy, which will slow down even further as a result. 

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The Lie of the Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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