Though we miss living in Tokyo, especially shitamachi, we don’t really miss the highrise kodan where we spent eleven years. Until the earthquake our main complaint was the mostly insular nature of highrise life, the feeling that it was always difficult to get in and out, but during those weeks after the temblor it became a nerve-wracking experience, even as we became convinced that the structure was safe. We wrote a number of posts here about that experience and even one related column for the Japan Times (though it seems to have been taken off the JT site). For a while the media and the market seemed to concur with us that highrises may not be a wise option for a city that could be hit with its own big earthquake at any time, but eventually fears subsided and highrise condos started selling again; quite well, in fact, so we assumed our fears were just our own and didn’t extend to the general population. Even Tsutomu Yamashita, a housing journalist who is unusually frank about these sorts of matters, has come around and said that investing in a highrise Tokyo condo is a good idea since they’ve become even safer since the quake.
A recent article in Aera, however, has confirmed our initial sentiments. Opening with a frightening “what-if” scenario describing a 7.3 magnitude quake happening under the capital, the feature makes the case that even though these highrises will not collapse, life will essentially be impossible in them indefinitely. The most immediate concern, and the one that made the biggest impression on us in the aftermath of the 311 quake, whose epicenter was hundreds of kilometers away, was the loss of elevators, which shut down automatically when a building shakes. According to law, they can only be turned on by a certified technician, which means even when the shaking stops residents will have to wait for that technician to show up, and he may be inspecting other highrises. This problem multiplies with the intensity of the jolt. And if the quake is strong enough to knock out electricity, then the elevator problem is exacerbated. Under such circumstances, the residents on higher floors become like “people stranded on the top of a mountain in bad weather.” The idea of walking down and then up emergency stairways to run errands or whatever is just impractical, and virtually impossible for the elderly, the handicapped, and pregnant women. Most highrises have emergency generators, but these are for contingencies and thus only have enough power for maybe two hours. So if the elevators are out due to loss of power, that means the stairways are also dark. And even if the building structure is sound, some elements, such as doorframes, could be compromised, making it difficult to get out of an apartment. All highrises have emrgency ladders connecting verandas for use during fires, but it will be very difficult to use them to get all the way to the ground. The Tokyo metropolitan government has said that in the event of a major quake their estimate is that it will take at least a week to recover electrical power. Also, highrise residents will likely be lower down on the list of people receiving attention during rescue operations because of the difficulty for crews to access higher floors. Emergency services will first attend to victims they can reach more easily. Read More
Ever since the March 2011 earthquake, Tokyo has been reassessing its disaster preparedness policies with mixed results. Though the residents of the city have definitely become more knowledgeable about their vulnerability and what needs to be done to save as many lives as possible in the event of a major quake, not much, in fact, has been done, owing mainly to the usual issues involving private property versus public responsibility. Tens of thousands of old wooden houses, packed tightly together in some neighborhoods, are basically kindling for the inevitable conflagrations that will start after an earthquake hits. Since the local government doesn’t feel it can force these people to move or rebuild their houses (which would, in accordance with zoning laws that have gone into effect since they were originally built, force them to construct smaller abodes then they already occupy) their dire prediction falls on deaf ears. Libertarians and individuals with fond feelings about Tokyo’s uniquely quaint neighborhoods condemn any sort of regulatory move that would change the character of those neighborhoods, but it’s clear that these neighborhoods, as well as the people who live in them, won’t survive a big quake. They didn’t survive the 1923 quake, and the situation isn’t really that much different.
The same seems to go for condominiums and apartments, though in a different way. Late last year, the Tokyo government sent out questionnaires to building management companies and condo owner associations to determine the status of quake-proofing for collective housing in the city. Owner-occupied and rental combined, Tokyo has some 132,600 multi-resident buildings, 24,000 of which were built before 1981 when stricter quake-proofing standards went into effect. About 52,000 questionnaires were sent out, and one-tenth were completed and returned. Of these, only 11 percent said that their buildings have been inspected for structural integrity–17 percent for condos and 6 percent for rental apartments. Another 8 percent said they “planned to carry out inspections,” while 9 percent plan to “discuss the matter.” Sixty-three percent responded that they have no plans to do anything. Among the buildings that did carry out inspections, 60 percent were told that they needed “further reinforcements,” but only 4 percent have actually carried out any reinforcement work. Read More
Small item in the Tokyo Shimbun reported that on Sept. 8 the land ministry announced a policy to “step forward” in developing a system to provide potential homeowners with information about earthquake-proofing and renovation histories of used properties put on the market. As it stands, real estate agents who list homes for sale include information about price, layout, size, age, and location, but usually not much else unless you ask, and even then they are sometimes reluctant about things like quake-proofing since they don’t want to be responsible for such information. As far as renovations go, if the work was done recently in order to improve the value of a property, then, of course, the realtor will mention it, but if the work was done in the past there’s not much reason to if the cosmetic benefits are negligible.
The purpose of the land ministry policy is to expand the housing market to include more used homes. In 2008, only 13.5 percent of all homes sold in Japan were used, while the portion (in 2009) of same in the U.S. was 90.3 percent and in the UK 85.8 percent. The ministry thinks that if consumers had “more confidence” in used properties they would buy more. Typically, the ministry doesn’t have any concrete measures in mind to accomplish this confidence-building, but in the next budget they plan to ask for ¥50 million for “study,” meaning, presumably, looking into ways to help realtors include this information in their listings. Would they actually pass a law making it mandatory for realtors to tell potential buyers if a property was quake-proofed? That would be quite an undertaking since a lot of homeowners don’t even know the extent of the quake-proofing on their structures, or if there is any at all. All homes and condos constructed after 1980 are supposed to have been built to quake-proof standards, but given lead times on construction the standard probably didn’t become a full standard until the mid-80s. In any case, no one has done a proper study to find out how strictly the standards were carried out. One problem the ministry will have to consider when it spends its measly 50 million is what potential buyers can do to find out about quake-proofing. If a realtor doesn’t have that information and a buyer wants to know, who is going to pay for the inspection? For a single-family home a quake-proofing inspection can cost hundreds of thousands of yen; for a condominium building, a cool million. It’s easy to see why realtors, and the sellers they represent, want to avoid the subject, but the ministry doesn’t have that luxury. They say they want to stimulate the used housing market, but if there’s no reliable and reasonably priced system of assessing something as basic as quake-proofing then maybe the market isn’t even worth it.
Last Friday, several media reported that the land ministry released a new white paper on land and property usage based on research carried out last year. The conclusion of the study is hardly earth-shaking to anyone who reads this blog, but it’s nevertheless noteworthy. The paper says that the market for older homes and commercial properties should be expanded by maximizing their value through renovation and rebuilding. Though the Cabinet Office’s recognition that Japan is overwhelmed by superannuated, deteriorating structures is a step in the right direction, it’s difficult to understand if anything can be done about the problem as long as policies for promoting new building continues as it is.
According to the government’s findings, more than 30 percent of office buildings in Japan are at least 30 years old, meaning they were constructed before current earthquake-proof standards were implemented. Consequently, 90 percent of “real estate investors” are not interested in these buildings. The paper recommends that they be quake-proofed in order to “increase the stock of good quality” structures. It also advocates promoting energy efficiency so as to make the buildings more desirable. Such renovation will “increase the value of real estate” in general by reducing running costs. The government also concluded that as a result of last year’s major earthquake people’s “thinking about real estate” has changed: they are now more aware of “land quality.”
None of the news reports we’ve read have indicated what the government will do, if anything, to follow up on the findings of the white paper. Tax breaks for people who fix up older properties? That might work but seems unlikely given the government’s current craze for tax increases. The construction industry will certainly welcome any renovation boom sparked by tax cuts but it isn’t going to be happy if such renovation comes at the expense of new building, which is where the money is. Increasing property values in that way has never really been in the government’s interest.
Here’s this month’s Home Truths column, which is about cramped urban neighborhoods that could turn into death traps in the event of a major earthquake. Though much is made in the column about the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s measures to address this problem, we don’t really think it will make much of a difference. Anyone who has read Edward Seidensticker’s fascinating, peculiar, and often frustrating history of the city will understand one thing, that Tokyo defies any notion of city planning with an almost rabid resolution. The “low city” that is Seidensticker’s main subject is portrayed as an organic entity, one that resists any foreign (i.e., governmental) claim to its control as if it were a virus. Most of these neighborhoods sprang up almost overnight after disasters devastated other portions of shitamachi. Working class people moved on to farmland in the outer portions of the city because the place they used to live was destroyed by an earthquake, a fire, or American bombs. Economies of necessity superseded any authoritative prerogatives and communities were born. Those communities are still there. Romantic types love these neighborhoods because they represent what it is they appreciate most about Tokyo, its makeshift conviviality and resistance to conventional ideas of city order. And because those neighborhoods did develop organically, they really do characterize the urban experience in its purest form. But part of the appeal has to do with that hoariest of Japanese cliches, the beauty of transience. These neighborhoods were created by disaster and they will disappear by disaster again. The authorities’ means of addressing this situation may seem flat-footed and ill-advised, but the reasoning is unassailable. In their present state, these neighborhoods will go under, and they will take their inhabitants with them. Maybe there’s nothing anyone can do about that, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least think about it.
The house we inspected was in Matsudo, the nearest station Mabashi on the Joban Line, but the Joban line that connects with the Chiyoda subway line, not the one with the express stops that goes all the way to Tohoku. It was an eleven-minute walk from the station, and since Mabashi is 22 minutes from Nishi Nippori on the Yamanote Line, it makes it quite a convenient location with regards to Tokyo. This is significant since the house price is ¥12.8 million. That could be considered quite cheap; or expensive since it was built in 1975: 65 square meters of floor space comprising two floors on 75 square meters of land. There was another house on sale 15 minutes from the station, of approximately the same age, slightly smaller, but that one cost only ¥6.2 million. Read More
The Asahi Shimbun reports that more and more companies are interested in fortifying their buildings with so-called menshin technology. Menshin involves placing shock absorbers in the foundations to mitigate the vibration accompanying earthquakes. Quite a bit of media attention was directed at the 18-story Sendai MT Building, which not only survived the March 11 earthquake in the largest city of the affected area, but made it through with minimal shaking, according to people who were in the building at the time. Sendaki MT Building is a commercial building run by Mori Trust, and it acted as a kind of makeshift refugee center for office workers who couldn’t get home the night of March 11. Though there were aftershocks all through the night, most people in the building said they didn’t feel them as much as they did in their own office buildings. After the quake, the building’s occupancy rate increased 20 percent and is now almost completely filled.
And it wasn’t just high-rises. The two-story distribution center for Suzuden Logistics in Matsudo is menshin-equipped. None of the goods stored in the building were damaged at all. Another menshin building is the Aizu Central Hospital in Aizu Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture. Though it also underwent 5-plus shaking, the building suffered no damage and regular treatment continued normally. No in-patients had to be moved out or transferred.
The Asahi reports that, while menshin features add between 10 to 20 percent to the cost of construction, major contractors have seen inquiries into the system triple since March 11, and just as many are for factories and warehouses as they are for office buildings.