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New housing options get smaller in the city

by and

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Last month this column discussed how lack of city planning in the suburbs had led to an over-supply of new housing that exacerbated the well-publicized vacant-home problem. It should be noted, however, that populations in suburbs throughout Japan are declining — some slowly, others rather rapidly.

Several factors contribute to this decline, the main one being that residents who have lived in these suburbs for most of their adults lives are dying and not being replaced. Another reason is that many children who grew up in these suburbs and came of working age in the last few decades have moved out, and in many cases into the cities where they work.

According to a series of articles Atsushi Miura wrote last fall for the business magazine Toyo Keizai, the last census conducted in 2015 showed that the three prefectures surrounding Tokyo — Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba — all lost population since the previous census in 2010 with regard to people in their 20s and 30s. In Tokyo, however, there was an increase of 356,000 people, with the bulk of that increase, 327,000, in the 23 central wards. This statistic becomes even more significant when you check the shift over the past 10 years. The 19- to 34-year-old population of the 23 wards increased by 695,000, while the total decrease of this demographic in all other prefecture that lost population was 949,000. This raises the possibility that 70 percent of Japanese people aged 19 to 34 moved to central Tokyo between 2005 and 2015.

The population shift is similar to something that happened in the 1950s and ’60s, when many people in rural areas of Japan moved to the major urban hubs to work in factories and offices as Japan rapidly industrialized. The end result of this shift was that the population of Tokyo’s 23 wards peaked in 1968 and then slowly began dropping. The baby boomers eventually married and had families, and in the early ’80s they started moving out to the suburbs where they could afford single-family homes. The high-asset bubble period was exacerbated, which drove land prices higher and forced home-buyers in the Tokyo metropolitan area to venture farther from the city center in search of affordable residences.

Now it seems the children of these homebuyers are moving back to the city center. Since 2000, the under-40 populations of Chiyoda, Chuo and Minato wards have been increasing, and Miura thinks it’s because of the punishing commutes. These “suburban juniors” watched their fathers spend up to 90 minutes just to get to work in the morning and then arrive home late at night exhausted. Since both private and public sector employers are still concentrated in the cities and not the suburbs, most of these young people also work in the cities. They don’t want to commute because the situation hasn’t substantially changed since the ’70s and ’80s.

A 2014 survey by the housing website At Home asked salaried workers who live in the Tokyo metropolitan area and bought a house sometime in the previous five years their normal commute times. The average was 55 minutes one way. Among the 583 respondents, 57 said they traveled more than 90 minutes and 17 said more than two hours.

This situation has given rise to a new form of city housing: tiny rental apartments in the center of Tokyo that cater to young people who work there. In one of his columns, Miura focuses on a popular trend among real estate companies and developers to build small apartment buildings very close to stations in the 23 wards of Tokyo. The size of these apartments start at about 7 sq. meters, the equivalent of 4.5 tatami mats. Such small spaces were very common in the ’50s and ’60s and were usually rented by students and artists. The main difference now is that the new apartments are modern.

In the ’60s, a cheap apartment meant no private toilet or bath, but the new ones have toilets, showers and built-in heating. Some even have small refrigerators and gas burners, but as Miura points out they aren’t really necessary because the kind of person who rents such a room isn’t that interested in cooking. They are more likely to eat out or buy prepared meals from convenience stores. In fact, these people don’t have much of anything, which is part of the appeal of such apartments. There isn’t room for furniture anyway. All a young person needs, according to Miura, “is a smartphone.”

These apartments are not cheap, either. Rents tend to be around ¥70,000 a month, depending on location and size. For just a bit more and a willingness to walk or commute a little longer, you can get a one-bedroom apartment. The most prominent builder and manager of these small apartments is a company called Early Age (www.early-age.co.jp), whose units tend to be slightly larger and less expensive. The main concern of the young people whom Early Age targets is effective use of their time, not material comforts. They want to sleep as late as possible and get home from work as early as possible. Like most Japanese people, they don’t entertain at home so they don’t require much in the way of size or amenities. Early Age is so far doing great business. Vacant units are snatched up right away.

Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku blog about Japanese housing at www.catforehead.wordpress.com.