The house we were inspecting in Shiroi, Chiba Prefecture, looked better and larger in the photos that the realtor had posted on its website. Those pictures had been taken with a wide angle lens at the eastern side of the house, which bordered a leafy promenade. To the north and south of the house, however, stood more houses — only a meter or so away on either side.

As we looked out through the open sliding doors at the neighbor’s wall we mentioned our dislike of surigarasu (obscure glass), but the agent told us that according to the law if neighboring houses are less than one meter apart the window glass has to be clouded or pebbled. Obscure glass is common in Japanese houses, but this was the first time we’d heard of a law.

As it turns out, article 235 of the Civil Code states that when a residential structure is built within a “certain distance from the property line” it must have some sort of mekakushi (blind), presumably for the sake of privacy. This is not really a law but a guideline and local governments are free to modify legally binding stipulations “according to custom.” If no one complains, the law isn’t invoked, but builders have systematically taken matters into their own hands.

We once asked a manufactured house company salesman how much it would cost to replace all the standard obscure glass in one of his models with transparent glass and he said it would not cost anything, but seemed bothered by our question. We said we wanted to see outside. He said our feelings weren’t the issue. Maybe the neighbors didn’t want to see us.

Close living is common in cities everywhere, but in Japan even the suburbs feel cramped. The usual explanation is that Japan is a mountainous country with a substantial agricultural sector. Level land is at a premium. As incomes grew after World War II, living standards improved and families demanded larger homes. Japan ranks number five in the world in terms of average floor area for single-family houses, ahead of even Australia, but there has been no comparable increase in residential land size.

Regulations make it difficult to reclassify nōchi (land designated for farming) into shigaichi (land that can be developed as an “urban district”). The American occupation authority carried out land reform, which had the effect of turning farmers who had previously rented the fields they worked into full-fledged property owners, and they’ve been fiercely protective of those holdings ever since. For 50 years, they counted on the Liberal Democratic Party to defend their interests in exchange for unwavering support.

The LDP guaranteed high prices for rice, and when production exceeded demand they paid farmers not to grow food. Property taxes were modified in accordance. Farmland that fell within cities targeted for growth were taxed heavily so as to prod farmers into selling. Elsewhere, as long as land designated for agriculture had the semblance of growing something, taxes were low and farmers held on to their land.

In principle, farmland cannot be sold for any other purpose. The farmers who own it can build homes on it for themselves, but they cannot sell those homes to anyone who doesn’t intend to use the attached land for agriculture. Over time farmers may want to sell their land in order to make money, in which case the decision to reclassify land usage is determined by local agricultural committees known as nōgyō iinkai. When they do make such a reclassification, the land to be developed is called shigaika chōsei kuiki, a “district under urban adjustment.” The farmer can then sell the land and will usually do so with the help of a housing developer who prepares the land by bringing in utilities and carving it into subdivisions. The more subdivisions, the more money there is to be made in housing construction.

A common subdivision method is called fukurokōji, wherein a “dead end” private road extends at right angles to a public road. By law, all housing property must be in direct contact with a public road, a situation that limits the profitability of subdivisions since, theoretically, a developer can only build a single row of houses along a road. But by building shidō (private roads) perpendicular to public roads, similar to cul-de-sacs, and then dividing those shidō into lengthwise strips with individual properties at the end of each strip, the developer can get around the law. The strip of pavement is included in the price of the land though it cannot be “developed.” In practice, the private road is the communal property of the people who live on it, which means they are responsible for its maintenance, not the local government.

This development method has given rise to hatazao (flag pole) lots: properties that, on paper have long, skinny portions of road attached to rectangular lots. Thus, a piece of land that might have accommodated only two houses can be made to accommodate five or six. Depending on the local occupancy and capacity rates, most likely these lots won’t offer much in terms of space between houses, thus limiting available sunlight. Hatazao development has led to a curious phenomenon in the countryside: clumps of large, tightly packed houses surrounded by huge tracts of open farmland.

The cramped feeling is exacerbated by a preference for southern exposures. Because Japan is in the northern hemisphere, people naturally want homes that face south in order to take advantage of as much sunlight as possible. However, when houses are as closely situated to one another as they are in Japan, this tendency can have strange-looking results.

Housing companies sell manufactured units in which the “southern” part of the house is all windows and the “northern” part contains all the mizumawari (water) functions, such as the bathroom, toilet and kitchen. Plumbing is one of the most expensive elements of house construction, so containing it in one area of the structure keeps the price down. Windows also add more to a house’s cost, and it’s assumed that the mizumawari area of the house doesn’t need much in the way of exposure. So in subdivisions, the south-facing part of the house, regardless of its orientation to roads or other geographical features, is always the one with the most windows and it faces, often at uncomfortably close proximity, the north-facing side of its neighbor, which has few or no windows. Individual privacy is thus maintained within the community. Needless to say, properties that front on public roads or have unblocked southern exposures are more expensive than those that don’t.

Of course, a homeowner can have his house designed and situated any way he wants, but as mentioned earlier, the Civil Code article 235 says that if a neighbor complains of such decisions the homeowner must do whatever necessary to guarantee the neighbor’s right not to see what goes on in the homeowner’s house. If he doesn’t, he can be sued, and the neighbor will probably win.

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

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