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

We’re the top

What we’re talking about: Palm Springs in Inzai!

Earlier this week the Sankei-affiliated web magazine Zakzak published this year’s results of business journal Toyo Keizai’s annual survey of “urban power,” meaning the most livable cities in Japan. Toyo has been doing the survey since 1993 in conjunction with the publication of a periodical data book that compiles statistics about local economies. The survey uses “14 types of information” released by a number of government organs, including the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, comprising five criteria for satisfactory urban living: safety, convenience, comfort, affluence, and housing standards. The survey covered 787 cities and the 23 wards of Tokyo, and this year the municipality that came out on top was Inzai in Chiba Prefecture, which just happens to be where we live.

Our reaction was pleasant surprise mixed with doubt, and as we read the Zakzak article it became clear what Toyo Keizai’s priorities are with regard to a satisfactory living situation. Inzai ranked #3 in the nation in the convenience category because of its retail accessibility. There are lots of discount stores that are easy to reach and with plenty of free parking. People of a certain aesthetic disposition will, of course, find this aspect of Inzai life somewhat off-putting. The retail outlets in question line route 464, which runs parallel to the Hokuso train line through three stations. Many of these outlets are gathered into rather sterile shopping malls. The article also quotes a 35-year-old resident as praising the “large choice of restaurants” along the main road, though such effusiveness should be qualified by the information that almost all these restaurants belong to national chains. For sure, if there’s one thing that characterizes Inzai’s abundance of commercial choice it’s the almost total lack of distinction. There’s nothing here that’s any different from other suburban commercial districts in Japan except maybe more of it; or less, since you’d be hard pressed to find anything that could be described as “typically Japanese.” If anything, the retail tone is strikingly American. Read More

Field diary: Yukarigaoka

Monorail at rest

Centrally planned communities have been around in Japan since the 60s with the advent of the “new town” movement, based on the similarly named British social housing policy. The idea is that housing and commerce are engineered to work together. Theoreticians of the Jane Jacobs school of organic urban environments may look down on the concept because of its artificiality: everything is supposed to work because it’s been programmed carefully beforehand. The new towns we’ve looked at in Japan are predictably old-fashioned, like snapshots of the 60s and 70s but ones that evoke no feelings of warm nostalgia except for so-called kodan otaku (public housing freaks). They just look old, mainly because most of the people living in them are old, but also because they are simply superannuated. Though the term “public housing” needs to be qualified in the case of new towns, for the most part the architecture and design of the communities were carried out by public or semi-public entities, and today the buildings and neighborhoods still have a utilitarian quality that many people find quaint at best, ugly at worst. It all depends on what’s been done with the residences in the meantime.

Yukarigaoka, a community in the north-central Chiba city of Sakura, isn’t stricly speaking a “new town,” but it was extensively planned. The difference is that the planning was done by a private company, Yamaman, which started out as a fabric wholesaler in Osaka in 1951. They moved their headquarters to Tokyo in 1965 and for the next ten years became a full-scale real estate developer for residential communities. Their first large-scale project was in Yokosuka, a project that was historically notable for being the first Japanese address written in katakana. They started the Yukarigaoka project in 1971, and even after the initial development phase was completed, have stayed on for the expansion, which continues today. The first sale of single-family homes was in 1979, the first condominium in 1982, the same year they opened a monorail that circled the project and connected to the Keisei Honsen train line. In fact, they convinced Keisei to build a new station just for the community called Yukarigaoka. Naturally, the company had to work closely with the Sakura municipal government in order to purchase land for development, but they also built the area as a community with a future. According to one of the company’s real estate agents, Yukarigaoka is the only similarly sized project in Japan completely overseen by a private company. Because it’s built on a hilly plateau with lots of farmland, the usual expanses of cramped housing developments are broken up by huge swaths of green forests and fields. (Though public parks are relatively scarce.) It has its own “downtown” with a major city hotel and department store complex. There’s even a university with one of the most attractive campuses we’ve ever seen. Read More