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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We’re on Twitter!

We recently opened a Twitter account under the catforehead moniker. The Twitter handle is @catforehead1. We will use it to tweet links to English or Japanese articles and other items on the internet related to housing in Japan. Please follow us and tell your friends about it. Part of the reason for starting a Twitter account is to attract more attention to this site as we look for a publisher for our book. If anyone could help us in that department, please feel free to contact us through this blog or through the Twitter account. Thanks.

Addendum to March 2014 Home Truths column

DSCF2401Here is this month’s Home Truths column, which is about moving house. Yesterday, we read in the newspaper an item that would have been suitable for the column but it was too late to include it. The Japan Trucking Association has issued a press release warning consumers that from mid-March to early April, moving companies are expecting a huge amount of demand–one-third of demand for the full year, in fact–and urges anyone who is thinking of moving during that time to put off the move until later. In our experience, people usually move house because they have to, and have to move during a certain period of time due to specific circumstances, such as a new job, new school year, or the availability of a rental or purchased residence.  In any case, March 3 seems way too late to make such a warning, but, then again, anyone who is planning to move during the period described and  hasn’t made arrangements yet probably deserves whatever difficulties arise when they finally do try to make arrangements. But in the end, you can always rent a truck and do it yourself, which we’ve done many times.

UR Ogikubo

Unfinished courtyard

Japanese apartment complexes often have pretentious, unwieldy names that are meant to add a touch of cosmopolitanism to otherwise nondescript residences; something you might expect from an industry that managed to convince people to adopt the English word “mansion” for condominiums. Earlier this week when we went over to Ogikubo in Tokyo’s western Suginami Ward to inspect the new UR apartments that are starting to accept applications for tenants I couldn’t quite make out the name, which sounded French, and I neglected to write down the romaji iteration after we got there, though I do remember is started with a “C” and had an “X” and some consecutive combination of “E” and “I.” Maybe a “U,” too; but whatever it was I couldn’t pronounce it on sight. Having returned home I see it rendered in katakana as シャレール. So let’s just drop the whole thing and call them the Ogikubo UR apartments. Read More

Thanks for nothing

One of the Aso administration’s economic initiatives that was retained by the Democratic Party of Japan when it took over the government last year was an allowance for people who had lost their housing as a direct result of having lost their jobs, because, in most cases, the place they were living in was either owned or subsidized by their employers. The DPJ plan originally earmarked ¥70 billion for this allowance, with an additional ¥30 billion for it in the new supplemental budget. Read More

Older and smaller

Six of the ten elderly people who died in a fire in a Gunma Prefecture nursing care facility last March had been sent to the facility by the Sumida Ward welfare office. Since the fire, the press has talked a lot about this practice of sending poor old people out of cities, where they can’t afford public facilities, to rural areas where the land values and thus the facilities themselves are cheaper. The Tokyo government has carried out an investigation into how to solve this problem, and they’ve come up with an idea.

The Tokyo government wants to increase the number of single rooms in so-called “care houses” by 2,400. Care houses are privately run housing complexes where single seniors–meaning people over 60 years of age–live by themselves. The facilities have baths and serve meals. The Tokyo government has found that rent for these care houses is prohibitively expensive since land agency regulations state that each room of a care house must be at least 20 square meters. The Tokyo government estimates that a 20 square meter room costs about ¥180,000, which is beyond the means of the government itself if it is footing the bill for indigent seniors. So they have asked the land ministry to reduce the minimum standard to 7 square meters, which is the size of a 4.5-tatami room. This, the government estimates, would cost about ¥100,000. In other words, you pay about half for a room that is only one-third as big.

As of 2007 there were only 259 care houses in all of Japan comprising 86,000 resident seniors. Fifty were in Tokyo.

Oldies are goodies

According to the government, new housing starts in 2009 were the lowest they’ve been in 45 years. At 788,410 units, it was also the first time since 1967 that the number of new housing starts fell below a million, and the 27.9 percent year-on-year drop was the highest since 1974.

Meanwhile, the used housing and reform markets are doing quite well. The used housing sales company Livita, a subsidiary of Tokyo Electric, recently told Asahi Shimbun that about a year ago they noticed a large spike of interest in older homes that has only increased since then. Part of Livita’s business is to buy company housing complexes that are not longer occupied and convert them for sale. A potential buyer chooses a unit and then instructs the company as to how he or she wants it to be remodeled. Read More

Absence makes the heart grow more litigious

On Jan. 26 the Supreme Court decided in favor of a condominium management association that wanted to charge a nominal fee to non-resident owners of units in a large complex in Osaka. The decision overturned a lower court ruling that had supported the owners, who refused to pay the fee by saying that it was unfair. The judges in the higher court said “no,” the fee was perfectly legal and proper. Read More

Retreat

On Jan. 22 the land ministry announced that inspection criteria for construction of new homes and condominiums would be simplified starting sometime in June. At present it takes about 70 days for new construction to be approved after the proper documents are submitted, and the ministry wants to cut this period in half so as to stimulate new home construction, which is sluggish.

Criteria for inspection of documents was made stricter after the 2005 scandal that exposed how some architects and builders were forging documents regarding the strength of materials used in construction of new buildings. As a result a number of hotels and condominiums had to be rebuilt in order to meet earthquake standards. In 2006 the land ministry tightened inspection procedures of these documents and since then the number of new housing starts had declined.

Of course, the ministry acknowledges that the main reason for this decline is the subsequent recession and the population shrinkage that will continue in the future. Housing starts, after all, have been declining since they peaked in 1990 at 1.7 million units. Between Jan. and Nov. of last year, only 719,000 units were built. Does this mean business will be back to normal, with all the negative connotations that cliche carries?

No place like home-stay

A foundation called AFS, which arranges for student exchange programs in Japan, recently released some startling news with regard to the number of home-stay students in Japan. Apparently, there is a huge gap between the number of foreign high school students who want to come to Japan and study and the number of Japanese families willing to put them up for at least six months. In Tokyo, where most foreign students want to stay, only 17 families are presently on the list to accept them. And throughout Japan, the number is only 295.

The number of willing host families has remained more or less constant over the years while the number of exchange students has increased. In 2007, 1,114 students came to Japan, a threefold increase from 1998. However, the pickings has become even slimmer. Next year, 354 students from Thailand alone want to come to Japan, and so far only 20 have found places to live.

You can blame this circumstance on two things; or one thing if you make the logical connection. Japanese families aren’t normally comfortable bringing strangers into their homes to stay. This reluctance is a combination of  natural reticence and an acknowledgement that Japanese homes are not designed for guests in the first place. People know that and they probably think that foreign students, even fellow Asians who often live in homes that are just as cramped, wouldn’t be comfortable here.