The now and future isolated

A superannuated New Town

Around the time the central government finally decided to declare a state of emergency to get people to stay indoors and help halt the spread of the coronavirus, we wondered if anyone would mention our pet peeve—tower condominiums—as an ideal residential accommodation for self-isolating individuals in Tokyo. The problem with living in a metropolis during an epidemic is that most people reside in collective housing, which makes it more difficult to not come into contact with others if you decide to emerge from your apartment. Consequently, the closer you are to the ground, the more insistent the urge to get some fresh air. High-rise apartment buildings make it that much more difficult to leave one’s home, since it requires getting into an elevator, which is the worst environment in a pandemic—cramped and unventilated—in order to come and go. So in a sense people who live in high-rises are already isolated to a certain degree, since, in our own experience as tower dwellers, such residents require more energy and initiative just to get out the door.

Novelist Jin Mayama doesn’t make this exact point in his essay for Asahi Shimbun that appeared April 18, but he comes close. He acknowledges that families will be trapped inside together for an indefinite period of time and hints that people in high-rises will be more stressed out owing to the cramped conditions. However, he sees this as a kind of opportunity, not so much for the residents, who are mostly stuck with their lot, especially if they bought their apartment, but rather for the rest of us who don’t live in high-rises. The epidemic puts the future of tower condominiums in a new light, or, maybe it would be better to say, a new shade.

Mayama predicts that the lot of tower condos will be strikingly similar to that of New Towns right now, which is that the latter have essentially become “slums.” Most of Mayama’s explanation mirrors what we’ve talked about at length in this blog, but it’s worth going through again for the sake of clarity. Collective housing is still a fairly recent trend in Japan, since it wasn’t anywhere near the norm, even in cities, before World War II. To him, the idea of collective housing as a social trend really took off in 1955, when the central housing authority started planning New Towns, which were based on a British idea but, physically, resembled Soviet apartment blocks. The New Towns were broadly covered by the media as being futuristic and progressive, and were instrumental in creating what was called “new families,” which, to Westerners, were basically nuclear families. Extended families, which had always been the norm and ideal in Japan, didn’t fit the new housing plan. Moreover, the New Towns epitomized the government’s drive to create a “100 million-strong middle class.” Read More

Alone again, naturally

Public housing complex run by Saitama Prefecture

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

Inzai as the future of Japan

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

Disaster Danchi

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

Home Truths for April 2015

HereCIMG3976 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.

Low priorities

DSCF2013It’s become an almost trite litany in the media: the poor become poorer and the rich richer, with the middle class mostly shrinking and absorbed by the former. The conventional narrative says that free market capitalism makes this so, as governments in the free world become “smaller” and thus less likely to regulate economic functions. But more fundamental to the issue is the idea that priorities are shifting away from the poor.

An article in the Dec. 3 Nihon Keizai Shimbun reports on a survey completed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in September and just released to the public. The survey collected data from local governments regarding public buildings, including apartments and schools. One of the more startling statistics is 12,251, which represents the total number of these buildings that local governments throughout Japan, both prefectural and municipal, want to tear down. The estimated cost of this mass demolition would be ¥403.9 billion, a huge burden for municipalities, most of which are cash-strapped anyway. But the cost of maintaining these buildings is probably higher, since it’s an ongoing expense. The reasons local governments want to tear down these buildings is simple: they’re old–the average age is 41 years–and the population is expected to continue decreasing. This number doesn’t include buildings that will be renovated or replaced after they are destroyed. It’s only buildings that will be gone for good. At the time the survey was conducted, 40 percent of these buildings were in use, while 47 percent were not in use at all and were thus shuttered. As far as plans for demolition go, 32 percent will be torn down “within a year or two” while the fate of 41 percent was “not known” at the time.

It’s a huge number, but if you’re at all familiar with construction trends in Japan it’s probably not shocking. Just walk through any business district in Tokyo and marvel at how many new skyscrapers are going up, replacing other buildings that were put up only thirty or so years ago. Buildings in Japan are notoriously short-lived, and, of course, outside of the large cities there is even less reason for keeping buildings that no longer serve a function. Populations and tax bases continue to shrink, so there is no need to maintain a school that has no students, or a public housing project that’s only 30 percent full. Read More

Home Truths, August 2013

CIMG2664Here’s this month’s Home Truths column in the Japan Times, which is about the Chiba New Town development project, where we happen to live. To clarify something that may not be apparent in the article, it’s a very nice place to live. As pointed out, the people who reside here enjoy a mix of urban convenience and unspoiled nature, though one of the points we tried to make is that if the New Town scheme had gone ahead as originally planned, it might have been more congested and less attractive, but it was never going to happen that way because of the area and the way it was developed. As it is, the urban sectors have plenty of well laid-out parks, the roads are all lined with wide sidewalks and bicycle lanes (which few people use since everyone drives), there are plenty of retail outlets offering a wide variety of very cheap merchandise, and just minutes’ walk from any station in the NT area you are in deep countryside: rice paddies surrounded by well-kept forests. And while the Hokuso Line is expensive, it is extremely convenient to both central Tokyo (one hour to Nihohbashi without transfer) and Narita Airport (20 minutes), and, probably because it is expensive, it’s never crowded.

Based on a rough survey of the land being developed now for residential homes, lots of approximately 200 square meters will be going for ¥10-15 million, or about ¥50,000 per square meter. So far, tracts being prepared are located 10 to 25 minutes by foot from Inzai Makinohara Station. We haven’t seen too much land being prepared near other stations. When the project started in the 70s, condominiums were promoted, and there are still some large condo complexes near the various stations in the NT area that have vacant units. One, called Doors near Inzai Makinohara Station (five minutes), is only about half filled. Apartments were first put on sale more than two years ago, and since then the developer has decreased the price at least twice, which probably upsets people who already bought. You can get a brand new condo of 70 square meters for only ¥19 million, but if you go a little farther from the station you can probably have a house built for less than ¥10 million more than that. UR, who will be selling most of these plots to real estate and housing companies, will want to get as much money as possible in order to pay down its debt, but with so much being developed at one time and demand unknown, it’s likely that those prices will come down in a short period of time. Chiba, of course, is the cheapest place to live in the Tokyo metropolitan area, and since its population decreases every year, it will become even cheaper just for that reason. Though the New Town has been a failure in terms of what a New Town is supposed to accomplish fiscally, Chiba New Town is a reasonably priced, attractive alternative to its counterparts in other places in the Kanto area. And now that we think about it, maybe that’s the reason Inzai was selected as the most comfortable city in Japan.

Back to the land (3)

CIMG2494Having lost interest in the land in Makinosato, we felt as if we’d retreated to square one. There was still that lot near Shimosa-Manzaki station, but besides being really cheap it didn’t offer anything we could get excited about. Our disinterest was rooted in the same feeling that made it easy to drop the Makinosato plan: We didn’t really want to live in a subdivision, though we also understood that if we wanted to remain in this particular stretch of Chiba Prefecture and weren’t going to pay more than ¥5 million, the only lots we could afford were in subdivisions. This feeling turned to something like despair when several large tracts of land close to our train station were suddenly opened for development. As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, we live in what is called Chiba New Town, which stretches across parts of three cities in northern Chiba Prefecture. As a housing and commercial project developed by the government housing authority in the 1960s and 70s, management eventually fell to the authority’s semi-private successor, UR, which was stuck with a lot of land that was never developed because Chiba New Town didn’t attract residents and businesses in the numbers the government originally envisioned. But the government has also given UR a deadline to get out of the land development business and that deadline is next March. So suddenly, all these overgrown fields bordering the Hokuso Line are being bulldozed and subdivided, and several weeks ago housing companies and real estate agents started advertising the plots, which start at about ¥11 million for 200 square meters. So even though there will be hundreds of plots made available soon in subdivisions we would probably prefer not living in, we at least have to double our land purchase budget in order to buy one.

So after a short respite we resumed our seemingly endless Internet search, checking portal sites for anything–land, condos, used houses–that might offer us something appealing. In terms of land, we increased the budget to see what was available. Portal sites have series of buttons you check to narrow the search, and land prices are normally tiered in multiples of ¥5 million. In the past we’d input the very smallest amount, but now we broadened the search to ¥10 million in the areas we were interested in. There was a lot more available, obviously, and since we’ve been at this thing a while we’ve become better at rejecting properties without looking too closely at them. Read More

This land is UR land

Tract of UR-owned land near Inzai Makinohara station on the Hokuso Line

The Asahi Shimbun recently reported that the government finished auditing its accounts for fiscal 2011. The board that conducted the investigation found 513 separate cases of “waste” comprising ¥529.16 billion, the largest amount since records have been compiled. In the wake of media reports that have government organs inappropriately using tax money earmarked for reconstruction of the disaster-hit Tohoku region, it is natural to assume that this waste would be doubly scrutinized, but we won’t hold our breath. One of the areas that will probably invite less concern is assets held by dokuritsu gyosei hojin–independent administrative agencies–that remain unused. In 2010, the cabinet issued a directive that such assets should be returned to the government, but apparently that’s not happening as the auditors found lots of unused assets lying around–literally, in many cases, since the assets that seem to be the most problematic are real estate-related. The National Hospital Organization, for instance, owns 217,000 square meters of land valued at ¥6.7 billion that remains undeveloped and with no plans for development. According to the cabinet directive this land should be handed over to the national government.

Another independent administrative agency with lots of unused assets is Toshi Saisei Kiko, more popularly known as UR (Urban Renaissance), the semi-public housing corporation that the government would like to make completely private because it’s such a sinkhole for money. Since UR’s business is the sale, development, and management of real estate, its unused asset problem is also a business problem, and the auditors found that the company controlled 223 hectares of land valued at ¥89.7 billion that was unused, which many not sound like much, but apparently the audit board was only talking about assets that were supposed to be “processed” during FY2011. As almost everyone knows, UR has lots and lots of land that remains undeveloped, and since all of UR’s debts are covered by the government the auditors insist that UR can cover at least some of its deficits by liquidating land assets. Read More