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New buildings can take the sunshine out of life

by Louise George Kittaka

In a country where houses are built in close proximity and where the majority of people still hang out their washing to dry, sunlight (nisshō) can be a big deal. The term “nisshōken” means “a right to sunlight” and as citizens, most of us probably expect that our right to sunlight is protected by law. However, as reader Y found, that isn’t exactly the case. In fact, getting any concrete information on sunlight rights in Japan seems to be a challenge.

Y and her family have lived in the same residential area for more than 30 years, enjoying good relationships with their neighbors. Last year, however, things changed when one family moved out, selling their land to a building firm for development. The old house was torn down, and a new one was swiftly erected and subsequently sold to brand-new residents. To Y’s dismay, the new house has adversely affected the amount of sunlight their home and garden receives. Another neighbor has been similarly affected.

The local city office said there was nothing they could do. Y’s family then consulted a lawyer and tried to negotiate with the building firm, but their overtures were ignored. As far as the building firm was concerned, they had made their money and moved on. The legacy of this unfortunate situation is that Y and the other neighbors cannot bring themselves to associate with the new residents, who were not actually responsible for the design of the troublesome house.

Y writes: “Having had a rather horrible recent experience, and now with a building very close to us, blocking sunlight and making winter depressing and miserable, not to mention more expensive to heat, I do not understand why there have been no recent court cases. I assume the developers donate generously to the politicians, but why are there no efforts to fight this? Many people are adversely affected. Why can I find no association of people fighting this?”

Although queries about similar problems crop up on various Internet forums, there is very little in the way of helpful information when it comes to sunlight laws. I began by calling my local city office and talked to the Town Planning Section. They confirmed that city office does not individually check every single building site.

“When it comes to buildings less than 10 meters in height, as long as they adhere to the most basic level of building standards, we let them get on with it,” I was told. “And sorry, but we don’t deal with complaints about sunlight here. That is up to individual homeowners.”

After phoning around, I was eventually directed to the Tokyo Association of Architectural Firms (Tokyo Kenchikushi Jimusho Kyoukai, or TAFF), which offered the most in the way of helpful information. With the caveat that they were not experts in sunlight laws, the spokesperson at TAFF confirmed what Y has learned from bitter experience—once a building goes up in your neighborhood, there is very little recourse for action.

“The best thing I can recommend is to make enquiries as soon as you notice that building is about to take place in your area,” the TAFF spokeman said. “When a builder is hired, they will place their firm’s sign prominently on the lot. That is your cue to contact them and ask about the building plans and make them aware that you are a concerned resident and will be monitoring them.”

He confirmed that cases like Y’s are the hardest, because there is no established connection between the newcomers and their neighbors. There are generally less problems when a current resident wants to tear down their old house and rebuild, since they presumably have more incentive to maintain a genial relationship with their neighbors.

When the new building going up in the neighborhood is a larger structure, such as a mansion or a factory, current residents may have more leeway to ask for change. In such cases, building firms are supposed to distribute information on their plans in advance and give residents a chance to ask questions before construction commences.

This was the situation faced by reader T, who stood to have a lot of sunlight blocked when a new mansion was slated for construction across the road from her house. Like Y, her family live in a well-established residential area where neighborly ties are strong. The city office was of no help; in fact, the land belonged to a relative of the mayor.

Along with other concerned neighbors, T’s family launched a campaign to stop the developers. Although considerable time and effort was involved, not to mention some financial outlay, they were ultimately successful in their bid and the mansion developers abandoned the project. Eventually, a much smaller building was erected on the site. While such feel-good stories are few and far between, sometimes the little guys can win.

Have any readers experienced problems with blocked sunlight or similar issues? Do you know about a citizens’ group or any other helpful resources? Please share your stories! Send comments and questions to lifelines@japantimes.co.jp. Kiwi Louise George Kittaka has been based in Japan since she was 20. In the ensuing years she has survived PTA duty for three kids in the Japanese education system and singing live on national TV for the NHK Nodo Jiman show, among other things.