It was in 2001 when my friend, Chikako Sakamoto, paid ¥9.8 million for a six-tatami-mat apartment in Tokyo’s central Minato Ward. The apartment was inside a 長期滞在者用 (chōki taizaisha-yō, long term resident’s) wing of an old hotel in Roppongi, with a very low ceiling and no kitchen. Chikako was 32 and single — she said her down payment consisted of her entire 貯金 (chokin, savings) and this was her 大博打 (ōbakuchi, big gamble) to strike out in the world of the rich and privileged.
A week after she moved in, Chikako threw a party and the people assembled — there were six of us crammed into that tiny sliver of space — all congratulated her on being able to afford actual 不動産 (fudōsan, real estate) in Minato Ward, famously known for being so expensive that only embassy people and corporate-sponsored expats could possibly afford the rents or the ¥380 lettuce sold at National Azabu Supermarket — ナショナル (Nashonaru, National), as it’s referred to by the locals. Chikako started shopping at ナショナル, while sometimes bicycling over to Aoyama Kinokuniya on the 国道 246 (kokudō niyonroku, national highway No. 246), marveling at items like 本物のベーグル (honmono no bēguru, real bagels), 生ハム (namahamu, prosciutto) and Lay’s Potato Chips, which in those days were an exotic novelty.
On that day, Chikako seemed wildly happy, though she was a bit apprehensive about Minato Ward’s super high 住民税 (jūminzei, inhabitant tax), and the fact she would have to 外食する (gaishoku suru, eat out) most of the time and carry her clothes to the nearest laundromat, which was a 15-minute walk away. Still, she had become that fashionable 港区民 (Minato-kumin, resident of Minato Ward).
In another two years, 六本木ヒルズ (Roppongi Hills) would open its doors. 東京ミッドタウン (Tokyo Midtown) would wow Tokyoites in 2007, and in 2014, Toranomon Hills would open on “MacArthur Road,” named because of an alleged order issued by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had a hankering to build a road there. マッカーサー通路 (Makkāsā Dōro, MacArthur Road) by the way, took 68 years to complete and is said to be a major congestion buster, which should help during the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
Minato Ward’s land prices have soared with the completion of each of these projects, however. The median annual income per household is the highest in the 東京23区 (Tokyo Nijūsan-ku, 23 wards of Tokyo) area at a whopping ¥9.02 million. This is a full ¥1 million higher than 千代田区 (Chiyoda Ward), which ranks second place and is home to the 首相官邸 (Shushōkantei, Prime Minister’s Office).
At that party long ago, Chikako said: “港区が高いのには訳がある” (Minato-ku ga takai no ni wa wake ga aru, There’s a reason why Minato Ward is so expensive). “住むだけで人の価値をあげてくれる” (Sumu dake de hito no kachi o agete-kureru, It increases a person’s value just living here). Indeed, Chikako has since gotten married, sold her tiny apartment and is now living with her family in another Minato Ward locale, in a significantly larger マンション (manshon, condominium). She has become a member of the 勝ち組 (kachigumi, the winning team), and the heroine of her own, 港区成功物語 (Minato-ku seikō monogatari, Minato Ward success story). Over the years, she extolled the virtues of living in Tokyo’s poshest ward お金を遣わないとお金はたまらない! (O-kane o tsukawanai to o-kane wa tamaranai! You have to spend money to get money!) and has tried to get all of her girlfriends to move into the area.
These days, Minato Ward is more popular than ever and has spawned a phenomenon called 港区女子 (Minato-ku joshi, the Minato Ward girl). These are young women adamant about living in the ward, though they may have little or no savings of their own.
If that’s the case, what should they do? The quickest route is to marry a 港区男子 (Minato-ku danshi, Minato Ward guy who is working in, or has personal ties to the area), preferably already a resident in one of the Hills complexes, or the ever-coveted タワマン (Tawaman, abbreviation of Tower Mansion) in Odaiba. The Minato-ku joshi have their pick of イベント (ibento, events) and パーティー (pātii, parties) going on daily inside the ward, but by many accounts, plucking a wealthy, committed marriage partner from the choppy waters of these gatherings is not easy. Mina Tomoda, who used to be a 読モ (dokumo, a reader model or amateur model) for a women’s fashion magazine, said: 港区男子は口だけのことが多いし、ケチな人も多い (Minato-ku danshi wa kuchi dake no koto ga ōi shi, kechina hito mo ōi, A lot of Minato Ward guys are all about sweet talking and not much else, and they’re apt to be cheapskates).
A distinct trait of the Minato-ku joshi is that they aren’t career- or business-oriented, and would rather leave all that to their future husbands. Unlike Chikako, the Minato-ku joshi is never a 頑張り屋さん (ganbariya-san, hard-worker) in her own right, she’s too busy working on 自分磨き (jibun migaki, self-improvement), in anticipation of becoming the suitable wife of a successful entrepreneur.
In any case, the path to Minato Ward residency is a job in itself. You have to put in a lot of work, and spend a lot of cash. Whether Minato Ward is worth the effort, though, is another story.