The administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is determined to increase the birth rate—last year it fell below 800,000, 10 years earlier than expected—by any means necessary, even going so far as to suggest raising the consumption tax in order to fund programs that would encourage young people to marry and procreate, which sounds not only desperate but eminently wrong-headed. Another head-scratcher is the proposal to forgive student loans to either spouse or both spouses in a marriage when they produce a child, an idea that opposition lawmakers have found risible for a variety of reasons.
Koichi Hagiuda, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s policy chief, has another idea: Give young couples, regardless of income, priority to enter low-rent public housing. Tokyo Shimbun reports that Hagiuda made the suggestion at a party meeting in Saitama, saying that the first order of business for newleyweds is finding a place to live. The thing is, the central government doesn’t manage housing for the general public. Public housing in Japan is only maintained at the prefectural and municipal levels, so the government would have to get them to agree to the proposal.
The party’s secretary-general, Toshimitsu Motegi, elaborated on the idea by saying that the usual upper income limitations would have to be waived for the proposal to work. He also said that initial estimates indicate such a program would cost about ¥150 billion, most of which would be spent on renovations of public housing. On January 30, Hagiuda explained in the Diet that the current income qualification for public housing applicants—household monthly income should not exceed ¥158,000—would have to be changed for newlyweds, but in any case he said it shouldn’t be a problem since there are 200,000 vacant public housing units nationwide.
At the moment, the government continues to debate a plan to give families with younger children whose incomes are below a certain line payouts of ¥100,000 per child as a countermeasure to the continuing financial strain brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. One point of contention is that the government would like to pay half the funds in “coupons” that can only be used to purchase items at offline retailers, preferably within the municipality where they live. The obvious reason for this scheme is to stimulate businesses that are suffering due to the pandemic. Reportedly, the government has said it is up to local governments, who would prefer coupons since the money would likely be spent in their bailiwicks. However, the coupon scheme automatically limits the recipient families’ discretion with what they can do with their handouts. Many would obviously like to use that money for things other than purchases.
Like rent. In a front page article that appeared Dec. 15, Tokyo Shimbun reported that there is a good possibility that the rate of evictions nationwide will increase “rapidly” in the coming year. Actually, the newspaper doesn’t use the word “eviction” since there is really no exact equivalent in Japanese. The word that’s used is “taikyo,” which means “leaving” in various senses of the term. In principle, it is difficult for a landlord legally to evict a tenant for any reason in Japan, but there are many other ways to get a tenant to leave a property if the landlord doesn’t want them there anymore.
The thing about the anti-eviction law is that it is the only national law that protects the interests of tenants, and while it sounds like a major protection, other tenant rights that are taken for granted in other countries regarding things like fees and rent control and property maintenance are not similarly protected in Japan. However, tenants who are not formally receiving government assistance and find themselves in temporary financial straits can apply for rent relief from the central government. After the pandemic hit almost two years ago, the government relaxed some of the conditions so that more people could receive the subsidy and for longer periods of time. It proved to be popular. According to Tokyo Shimbun, the number of approved applications in fiscal 2020 was 34 times what it was the previous year.
Obviously, many renters were suffering financially and the subsidy was a big help, but while the period for applications was extended, it wasn’t made indefinite, and many recipients who have been relying on that money will soon be cut off. According to the emergency revision to the rental subsidy law, households in need could receive the funds for a maximum of 15 months. Tokyo Shimbun, in fact, covered the matter because a number of citizens groups had a meeting in Tokyo on Dec. 14 to demand the government make the rental subsidy program permanent and open-ended.
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.
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
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
Low income public housing is available in Japan through different levels of local government, either prefectural or municipal, though some larger cities also have public housing run by wards (ku). In almost every situation, however, the applicant, traditionally, has to have a guarantor, ostensibly as a backup in case the tenant is unable to pay their rent. Obviously, because public housing is only available for people of limited or no income, coming up with a guarantor could pose a problem, since it’s entirely likely that the applicant does not have anyone, meaning relatives, they can lean on for such support. In Japan, welfare authorities do not extend public assistance to applicants without first making sure that the applicant cannot tap a close relative for such assistance. It’s one of the uses of the koseki (family registration) system. Once it is understood that the applicant has no relation they can turn to, then welfare officials grant assistance. Of course, this isn’t a universal requirement—as with most bureaucratic processes, it’s up to the individual official—but it’s enough of a protocol to make applying for assistance difficult for many, and when it comes to housing, guarantors are thus required. Usually, officials insist on relatives, since they are more likely to honor the contract.
Now, apparently, some local governments are facing up to reality. An article in the Jan. 20 Asahi Shimbun reports that an increasing number of local governments are eliminating the guarantor requirement for public housing. Asahi Shimbun apparently carried out its own survey and found that 13 major cities in eight prefectures have waived the requirement, and the newspaper predicts that many more will follow.
According to the land ministry, in 2018 1,674 local governments provided public housing, and of these 366 reported cases where applicants were rejected because they could not provide guarantors. This problem is becoming more acute with the aging society, since single elderly people without means are less likely to have living relatives who can vouch for them. Consequently, the land ministry itself some years ago started sending out notifications to local governments to remove guarantor requirements. In the end, of course, it is the local government’s decision, but since the central government subsidizes welfare assistance, many local governments have taken the notification as a kind of directive. Read More
New housing going up in the Inzai portion of Chiba New Town
It was a little odd to open the Japan Times this morning and find a feature about the city we live in, Inzai; odd in the sense that for as long as we’ve lived here whenever we tell people our address, in almost every case they’ve never heard of Inzai, which is the city just to the west of Narita in Chiba Prefecture. The article, written by Elaine Lies of Reuters, uses Inzai as a model for future growth in Japan, which is seeing its population shrink and age. For this purpose, the article compares Inzai’s situation with that of its neighbor to the south, Sakura, which is aging much more rapidly. The reason for Inzai’s good fortune is what Reuters sees as its aggressively pro-growth outlook. Inzai is one of the three cities that are part of the Chiba New Town development project, while Sakura is a typical suburban bedroom community that was developed in the 70s-80s during the lead-up to the Japanese bubble period. Though it includes some neighborhoods, like Yurigaoka, which was planned around an offshoot of the Keisei Main Line, that continue to attract young families, for the most part Sakura is made up of isolated housing subdivisions that no one is really interested in any more, probably because most of them are far from train lines. Inzai, on the other hand—or, at least, the part of Inzai that Reuters was covering—is built along the Hokuso Line, which also happens to follow Route 464, a major road that goes from the edge of Tokyo almost to Narita airport. In fact, the first item in the article that raised any eyebrows on our part was the factoid that says Inzai is 40 minutes from the airport. Actually, if you take the Airport Access train from either of Inzai’s two express stops, it’s only about 20 minutes, so we suspect the reporter got her information from someone who drives to Narita. As of now, 464 doesn’t reach as far as the airport. After it gets to the town of Sakae, you have to take back roads to get there.
And in a sense, this ironic lack of ready automobile access to the area’s most prominent feature is what makes Inzai less progressive than the article makes it out to be. Interestingly, Lies does not mention one feature of Inzai that the local government plays up constantly—that it has been named multiple times as Japan’s most livable city by the business magazine Toyo Keizai. The reasons have to do with things like affluence, green spaces, and convenience. Inzai’s tax base, as Lies implies, is quite sturdy owing mainly to the fact that new housing developments are booming along the 464 corridor. After we moved here in 2011, much of the land that had been put aside for the Chiba New Town project was opened up for development by UR, the semi-public housing corporation that managed the land. Because the land had been held for so long in the hopes that it would someday regain the value it had at the end of the 1980s (it never did), and UR was losing money in the process, the central government had for years been pressuring the corporation to liquidate it, and finally gave them a deadline. So they mostly sold it to developers and housing companies at prices far below those they’d paid, and all at the same time. The most valuable properties in the New Town area, those immediately adjacent to 464 and the Hokuso Line, were originally slated for commercial development, either for retail businesses or office buildings, and while Inzai did manage to attract a fair amount of commercial interests, it wasn’t nearly as much as Reuters seems to think. There are at least three shopping malls within 15-minute bike rides from our home and two of them are only half-occupied, despite the huge amount of residential development taking place. And as far as office buildings go, most were built two decades ago around the Chiba New Town Chuo Station. For the most part they are data centers for banks and other major financial institutions. Inzai is built on bedrock, so in the event of a major earthquake the records of these companies should be safe. As far as new commercial facilities go, the only things we’ve noticed is more logistics centers, which take advantage of Inzai’s proximity to Narita Airport. Read More
New public housing apartments in the Tateyama area of Kesennuma
Further on from our April Home Truths column about temporary housing for evacuees in the Tohoku region, local governments in the area are also facing another related problem: an oversupply of permanent public housing built expressly for victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake. These are apartment buildings, not unlike public housing complexes erected in other parts of Japan, that accept people who were left homeless by the disaster and were either already living in public housing destroyed in the disaster or who were living in their own homes and, for whatever reason, do not plan to rebuild those homes due to financial limitations or age.
An article in the March 15 Asahi Shimbun describes three such buildings that are now completed in Kesennuma–two 6-story structures and one that’s 10 stories, altogether comprising 165 units. People started moving in in Jan. 2015, and at present more than half the residents are over 65. As the 51-year-old community leader of the complex told the newspaper, already ten residents have died in the past two years, among them three people who were living alone and whose bodies weren’t discovered for a few days. The leader is concerned because, while the vacancy rate for this particular complex is low right now, Kesennuma eventually will have 2,087 units of public disaster housing, to be completed this May, and it seems to be too much. Given that most of the victims who move in are elderly, the local government has now estimated that by 2025, 27 percent of the residents will have died or moved into nursing homes, and by 2035 51 percent will be gone. This is only to be expected, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone to replace them. The city has said that when vacancies arise it will solicit low income families to apply for units, but projections are that there won’t be many of those since so many young people moved away from the area after the disaster. As it stands, Kesennuma will have five times as many low-income public housing units as they had before the earthquake, but now they have much fewer residents overall and few prospects for any influx. The population now stands at about 64,000, or 13 percent less than a year ago. The trend is that after graduating high school, young people are leaving the city. Read More
Here’s this month’s housing column in the newly designed Japan Times. This one’s about emergency housing, which we’ve talked about before but we never really got into the legal aspects, which are quite interesting.
Here is our latest Home Truths column, about public housing in Japan and, more specifically, Tokyo. One point inadvertently removed during the editing process is that Tokyo’s public housing system is called toei jutaku. Koei jutaku is a general term for all public housing, anywhere. Kuei jutaku is public housing facilities run by an individual city ward (ku), etc.