The construction company in Shiroi, Chiba Prefecture at the center of the Amari scandal
The Feb. 21 Media Mix column in the Japan Times, which we also write, is about the money scandal surrounding Liberal Democratic Party member Akira Amari that forced him to resign his cabinet position. The scandal involved a construction company in Shiroi, Chiba Prefecture, which wanted to shake down the Urban Renaissance Agency for a large amount of compensation, since part of the company’s “offices” had to move due to a road construction project that UR was carrying out with the Chiba Prefecture authorities. Takeshi Isshiki, ostensibly an official with the construction company, told various media how he had paid money to Amari and his secretaries so that they would use their influence to get as much money as possible out of UR. One of the themes of the column is that UR, which is called a “semi-private” or “semi-public” organization, depending on which angle you look at if from, is an entrenched bureacratic entity beholden to the government for its very existence. It started out as the Japan Housing Corporation, a clearly entrenched bureaucratic entity, which built lots of housing developments in the years after World War II with government money. Since the end of the bubble era, it hasn’t done much of that and has sunken deeper into debt. Without much purpose in life except collecting rent on UR apartments, UR is seen as a pointless enterprise now and several administrations have tried to privatize it, but UR has resisted because being in the government guarantees incomes. Thrown on the mercy of the market, most of its employees would lose their jobs, or make less money.
The information we used to make these points in the column was taken from an article in Gendai Business written by Yoichi Takahashi, a former finance ministry economist who knows a thing or two about how bureaucracies work and bureaucrats think. His point is that the scandal would never have happened if UR weren’t involved. Had the road construction project been carried out by a genuine private concern, or even by the Chiba Prefecture government by itself, it would have been more difficult for the construction company to extort money, and, in any case, Amari wouldn’t have had as much pull in any related negotiations. But because UR occupies a shaky position vis-a-vis the government, it easily bends to pressure from that government, especially a cabinet member. Read More
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
Though we still look at condos, it’s mostly for academic purposes. We have nothing against condos aesthetically or practically, but collective living automatically brings with it certain restrictions that we don’t really want to buy into. That may sound strange coming from people who still rent, but the responsibilities inherent in owning a property are more pronounced when the property is collective. For one thing, the condominiums we tend to like in terms of layout and design are actually those that were built by the housing authority, now called UR, and most of those still don’t allow pets. (We plan to cover the pet problem in more detail in a later article.) This small but significant restriction is indicative of the condo experience: people who own are understandably more caught up in the collective enterprise and thus pay closer attention to their neighbors. Renters are relatively forgiving, maybe because they tend to think they won’t be staying here forever. Owners have more of a stake and thus there are more rules and the rules are enforced. We’re not against rules, but it seems less stressful to own a house, where you can pretty much do whatever you want, than a condo, where you may not be sure what you can do until you move in. Read More
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
We recently received a DVD screener of “Sayonara UR,” a video documentary by Yumiko Hayakawa. The doc chronicles the situation of a group of residents of Bldg. 73 of the Takahamadai apartment complex in Hino, Tokyo, which is run by the semi-public housing concern UR. The structure was built in 1971 and Bldg. 73 did not meet earthquake standards that were made mandatory in 1981. The company was going to carry out reinforcement work, but in 2007 it announced that the work would cost too much and everyone was asked to move out. The company would help residents relocate to other UR apartments if they needed it. They would also compensate them in part if they agreed to move out within two years of the announcement. Nevertheless, some residents refused to move, saying that they were simply being made victims of UR’s well-publicized move toward privatization. Bldg. 73 was not profitable and so UR planned to tear it down and sell the land to a developer. The quake-proofing story, according to these tenants, was merely an excuse, and not a particularly believable one since there was no inspection made by third parties, even though the tenants asked for it.
It was a classic eviction tale, and Hayakawa clearly sided with the tenants. As advocacy journalism goes, “Sayonara UR” has its good points. Throughout the doc, she refers to UR as representing “social housing,” something she believes is essential to the well-being of a well-ordered and responsible society. UR, as noted thoroughly in our blog, is semi-public, which means their obligations as a public housing provider are limited, and Hayakawa is careful about this point. She shows how UR still uses a lot of tax money in its operations, and interviews an outspoken professor who describes how UR is a money sink, more than ¥1 trillion in the red. The government has been trying to find ways of setting the company free. One of the main reasons they can’t, as evidenced by this documentary, is that people who rent UR apartments, especially those who have lived there a long time, don’t want the company to be made 100 percent private. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that UR does not follow the extortionary practices private landlords are known for, such as charging extra fees–gift money and contract renewal fees–that have no purpose. Hayakawa doesn’t address these reasons or the lack of laws that would protect tenants, but she does an excellent job of interviewing all sides of the story and giving equal weight to each. However, viewers not familiar with Japan’s housing situation may mistakenly equate social housing with low-income housing, which it is not. It’s a difference Hayakawa neglects to clarify, and because she doesn’t specify how much rent these people pay some will think they are poor, when actually they are quite middle class. In fact, given their economic status and the superannuated state of their abodes (most public apartments built in the 1970s for families are less than 60 square meters), many viewers may wonder why these holdouts aren’t jumping at the chance to move to newer, cleaner apartments that will cost proportionately about the same. She also doesn’t clarify that only ten of the 250 households asked to leave refused to do so by June of 2010, when the topic was covered by TBS. By April of the next year, the number was down to 7. Read More
Here’s this month’s Home Truths column in the Japan Times, about UR housing. The article is mainly a how-to piece and doesn’t really get into the details of what the buildings and apartments themselves are like. We’ve written about UR a lot in this blog, as well as in our sister blog Yen for Living, since we’ve been living in UR units since 2000. Below are links to some of these posts that provide more specific information.
Security deposits / Tour of Nouvelle Akabanedai / Amenities / Tour of UR Ogikubo / Matsudo public housing / Japanese needed? / Low-income housing / Tour of Heart Island Shinden / ‘kudokushi’ savings / Tour of East Core Hikifune
The blur of memory: After the cleanup in Tokyo
In the last few posts we’ve ragged a bit on UR, specifically their dodgy ties to outside providers like Tokyo Gas and local cable outfits, but that shouldn’t be interpreted as disillusionment. For all its anal bureaucratic culture and general air of mismanagement, Japan’s only national semi-public housing corporation is also the only place in Japan where renters get a fair shake. We found that out when we received the refund for our security deposit a few days ago.
We moved from a UR high-rise in Tokyo to a low-rise UR complex in northern Chiba Prefecture. UR makes it relatively easy to move from one of its buildings to another one. The tenant doesn’t have to go through the screening process again (unless he/she is moving to a decidedly more expensive residence), and the security deposit (shikikin) that was paid for the former apartment is transferred to the new one, with the difference either being made up by the tenant or refunded to him/her. In our case it was the latter. Though the new apartment is the same size as the one we rented in Tokyo, it is almost ¥70,000 cheaper per month. The security deposits for UR typically amount to the equivalent of three months’ rent, which is a bit higher at the moment than security deposits for private rentals, but the important thing to remember about UR is that they don’t charge “gift money” (reikin) or contract renewal fees (koshinryo), and also don’t require guarantors or co-signers. Read More
#7 & #6 blocks
It’s tempting to wonder what Akabanedai would have turned into had various government bodies not decided to turn it into an almost exclusive zone for danchi, meaning public housing complexes, back in the 1960s. It was the first major danchi complex within the 23 wards of Tokyo, located on a hill that steeply overlooks Akabane Station in Kita-ku, not far from the Saitama border, and it was considered cutting edge by danchi standards when it opened in 1962, on a par with Matsudo. When I lived near Ukima-Funado Station on the Saikyo Line during the latter half of the 90s, I often walked to Akabane Station, which meant climbing the hill from the north side and walking through the danchi, which was huge, a veritable mini-state with its own complement of retailers that, at the time, appeared to languish in a commerical funk. Akabane, which teemed with restaurants and funky little drinking establishments; a large and well-used Ito-Yokado; and even a fair-sized bawdy district with Philippine hostess clubs and “cabarets,” was just a few minutes away, down a steep flight of steps at the edge of the tunnel that ran below the housing complex. Though the danchi was still the home to thousands of families, the dissipated atmosphere characterized by the sad retail component gave it a cast of desperation. I don’t remember ever seeing anyone patronizing these establishments.
But had it not been developed as a danchi, Akabanedai might have attracted a richer sort of homeowner. (It was a factory district on nationally controlled land before the danchi was built) There are lots of trees and vegetation up there and a fairly extensive park system; and the view, when it isn’t blocked by another public apartment building, can be breathtaking. Read More