If you believe everything you read, buying a house in Japan is to be treated with considerable caution.
Unlike many properties in Europe and America where the owner can, with reasonable confidence, assume that a property will still be desirable to new buyers many decades — sometimes centuries — after it is built, newly built homes in Japan quickly lose both their sparkle and their building value, often considered disposable and fit for demolition after only 30 years or so. Nobody, it seems, wishes to live in tired old buildings.
Japan’s declining population also means that the outlook for real-estate prices is unclear. In fact, in many ways it seems as if Japan has — both in terms of market value and psychology — never recovered from the enormous trauma of the spectacular bubble of the late 1980s, when the real-estate value of Tokyo was preposterously supposed to be more than that of the entire United States.
If these factors are not enough to put you off, then consider that your precious real-estate investment might be destroyed without warning at any moment by a huge earthquake, overwhelming tsunami, typhoon, volcanic eruption or any other of the natural disasters that periodically assail Japan. Your property might be reduced to a pile of rubble in the blink of an eye.
So who would invest in property in Japan?
Well, I would. In fact, I would like to tell you why buying a house in Japan is one of the best decisions I ever made.
Long road to home ownership
Buying property in Japan is indeed a form of “investment,” but certainly not just in the financial sense of the word. Owning property will impact on your life in social, psychological and cultural ways. It requires a dedicated form of commitment and responsibility that means it cannot compare to passively owning shares in a Japanese company.
I cannot predict whether an investment in Japanese property will work out in financial terms, but I can argue that it might be a profoundly enriching experience in numerous other aspects of your life.
I will never forget the exhilaration and delight I felt when, at the age of 37, I first became owner of my ultra-modest, newly built Japanese home. Knowing I am the proud owner of a postage stamp-sized patch of Japanese land with a skinny, wooden-frame structure on top is a thrill that has never left me. I might be driving across the pampas in Argentina or lost in the wilds of Namibia, but I can look up at the heavens and rejoice that on the other side of the world my little Japanese home is patiently waiting for my return.
But to understand that enduring happiness, it is first necessary to explain the long apprenticeship I endured in the very cheapest and most basic of rented rooms. When I first lived in Japan in 1989 — at the very height of the real-estate bubble — I inhabited tiny tatami mat rooms with no bathrooms or air conditioning, turning my futon sheets yellow with sweat in the furnace of summer heat or watching plumes of white breath rise up from huddled blankets in winter cold.
At that time I seem to recall that the average price of a house in the Tokyo suburb in which I lived was around $1 million, whereas the average price in my home town in England was around $100,000 — 10 times less. If there was one thing that was clear to me as a student in Japan, it was that I would never be able to afford to buy a home there. Living in grotty, primitive digs was the price I’d have to pay for the immense pleasure of enjoying life in Japan.
Those flimsy, cheap buildings nearly cost me my life in 1995, when my basic apāto (apartment) in Rokko, Kobe, nearly collapsed in the Great Hanshin Earthquake. (The building was afterwards pronounced hankai — “half-destroyed” — and demolished).
But gradually I inched my way up the property chain, and by the age of 27 I enjoyed the incomparable luxury of renting my very own “one-room manshon” (from the English “mansion,” but meaning anything but), a reasonably-sized room with its own bathroom and air conditioning. It even had a built-in electric ring for cooking (never used) and a balcony! Oh, the wild decadence of it all. Eat your heart out, Jay Gatsby.
For 10 happy years that “one-room mansion” was my Japanese base. During that period I met not a single person in the apartment building, nor knew any neighbors in the surrounding area. All my attention was directed towards the distant university I attended or the city-center night world that was my weekend escape.
But gradually a shift occurred in my perception of Japanese real estate. Property prices in Japan drifted ever lower, while prices in my hometown doubled, trebled, quadrupled. By 2006, as Europe and America reveled in their own real-estate bubbles, it was actually cheaper to buy a house in Japan than my hometown in England — a phenomenon I thought I would never see.
I decided to take the plunge and bought a narrow, newly built three-story house in the neighborhood. Now my sense of luxury was truly unbounded: I had a ground floor study and a first-floor dining room-kitchen overlooking an expansive (neighbor’s) garden and a second-floor bedroom with views over the rooftops for miles around. I had an electronic bath that played Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” when the water was ready. And a dishwasher and a built-in closet. I even had a garage, too small for anything but a micro car, but perfect for festooning with wet laundry and for parking bicycles. Surely even Bill Gates would swoon if he knew that people lived in such palatial splendor?
But that little house — and the new and growing family I brought to it — completely transformed my life in Japan. From not knowing any of my neighbors in my “one-room mansion,” suddenly I became acquainted with the families on all sides. With one family in particular we became the closest of friends, and not a day passed without the mother calling round with gifts of food or sitting in our kitchen sharing local news. We became intimately involved with their lives, their concerns and their children’s careers. They even came to visit us in England.
My previous interest in the city center receded and I found myself entirely happy instead to potter around the suburb on the bike and spend my waking hours in the house — unlike the “one-room mansion,” which I had mainly used as a sleeping station. I became enormously house-proud and devoted my time to choosing curtains or crockery or dining table sets. We would have guests over for dinner or staying over — before children entirely overwhelmed us and made the quarters seem cramped again.
My small piece of earth
Owning a house in Japan not only dramatically absorbed me into the life of the community, but also required me to think about a great many other things I had never thought about before: how city taxes work; how houses are insured and secured; what social tensions may arise between neighboring houses in local communities. It’s hard to put a financial value on the way in which a home can transform the quality and depth of your life in Japan.
You often hear proponents of traditional Japanese buildings arguing that it is in these repositories of the past that the true spirit of Japan resides. But I would like to argue that it is in the unshowy, bog-standard suburban Japanese homes that the true modern-day magic of Japan lurks.
These days I am away from Japan for the majority of the year, but my Japanese home is a strong magnet constantly pulling me back, demanding that my absences are never too long.
My house is the physical manifestation of my lifelong commitment to Japan, and even if at one point in the future the house is destroyed, what will always endure is the land beneath it. That connection to a very specific place and tiny piece of Japanese soil is for me an almost spiritual bond.
If you wish to “invest” in such a Japanese home, be prepared for the way that the building itself will assume a place in your heart. Your “return” on that investment is best measured in terms of the pleasure it will yield and the doorway to the intimacies of community and the Japanese mind it will lure you into.
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