In a densely populated country where prime land is precious, changes in the real estate market serve as a handy barometer of economic trends.

A weekly feature titled “Deep Layer Corporate and Economic Report” in Shukan Jitsuwa (Feb. 25) turned its attention to the selloff of company headquarters in Tokyo. Earlier this month, news began circulating that Dentsu Group Inc., Japan’s largest advertising agency, was planning to put its corporate headquarters building on the market. The price tag of the 19-year-old, 48-story building — located in a complex of high-rise buildings in Shiodome, Minato Ward — was said to be in the neighborhood of ¥300 billion.

According to an advertising industry insider, as company staff engaged in working remotely continue to grow, the number of people who report to work at the Dentsu building is said to be only 20% of the company’s 9,000 employees.

“The main reason why Dentsu is contemplating a selloff of its headquarters building is downturn in business,” a reporter for a major national daily was quoted as saying. “In the fiscal period ending last December, the company reported an 11.3% decline in revenue, giving a deficit of ¥928.7 billion. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, conditions in the advertising business have been rough. This is the second consecutive year that Dentsu has finished in the red.”

Nippon Express, a major transport firm, is also reported to be putting its 28-story headquarters on the market. Completed in 2003, it is located in close proximity to the Dentsu building. The company is said to be planning a move to a new headquarters this September.

At the end of last year, entertainment conglomerate Avex announced the sale of its corporate headquarters in Tokyo’s Minami-Aoyama district for around ¥72 billion. The company has been unable to generate new superstars and the coronavirus pandemic forced it to cancel live performances.

The Marubeni trading firm also announced plans to move its headquarters from Nihonbashi to a smaller building in Otemachi.

Still, a management consultant offers some upbeat advice.

“Offices will keep vanishing from the city center, leaving only hotels and commercial businesses,” the consultant predicts. “Investment funds are saying that properties that had been frozen up to now are starting to move due to the coronavirus pandemic. These are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that buyers should grab at any cost, and then start thinking about what to do with them afterward.”

Drive-ins make a comeback

From beginnings in the 1930s, drive-in theaters came to occupy a favored place among American youth. Around three decades later, when private car ownership in Japan began to increase, they enjoyed brief popularity here as well.

As reported in Sunday Mainichi (Jan. 31), the impracticality of only operating at night, and vulnerability to inclement weather, led theater operators to shift to multiscreen complexes, and drive-ins were driven to near extinction.

With the need for social distancing, however, they are back in business. Since last summer Aeon Cinema began operating drive-in movies at 10 locations around Japan. Utilizing the parking lots at Aeon Malls, the movies are projected onto the exterior of the buildings instead of giant screens. Audio is broadcast as a short-range FM signal received on cars’ radios.

Their precautions include body temperature screening of customers, and staff wear both masks and face shields. Tickets may be procured via Aeon Cinema’s website.

The flat ¥3,300 admittance charge per vehicle means a family of four can enter for just ¥825 per person, and customers are also entitled to a container of popcorn and two beverages.

According to Shukan Jitsuwa (Feb. 25), some 20 drive-ins are now operating nationwide. Yoshimoto Kogyo, a major entertainment firm, has initiated a drive-in theater at the Expo Memorial Park in Suita, Osaka.

“Since families watch from their own car, there’s no problem if children spill popcorn or become rambunctious,” a film distributor is quoted as saying. “Likewise for talking out loud. And people are free to bring their own refreshments. So they can enjoy things that are only possible at a drive-in theater.”

Ghost town

With consistently high demand for housing, one would not ordinarily expect to see a ghost town in a central Tokyo neighborhood. That, however, seems to be the case in Harumi, Chuo Ward, where a two-page aerial photo spread in Friday (Feb. 26), evokes something out of a science fiction film. Covering more than 44 hectares — an area equivalent to about nine Tokyo Dome stadiums — 21 buildings with capacity for some 18,000 people that make up the Olympic Athletes’ Village stand empty and deserted, nearly one year since their completion.

Some have suggested a part of the complex would be ideal for isolating people suffering from light symptoms of COVID-19. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike proposed such a plan in March of last year, although nothing came of it.

“I think the project’s developers must have reacted violently,” says Atsushi Sakaki, a journalist who covers the housing market. “If used to house patients infected with COVID-19, some fatalities may occur, and those units would become downgraded to jiko bukken (properties where “incidents” have occurred).

“In such a case, even if the date to take possession had been decided in advance, the seller is obliged to accept cancellation of the sale without any penalties. So that would have had a negative effect on sales.

“The closest station is at least 16 minutes on foot,” Sakaki adds. “If they weren’t part of the Olympic Athletes’ Village, they would just be ordinary condos far from a station, and we might see a string of cancellations due to their being perceived as being ‘under a hex.’ Also, they won’t be ready for occupancy before 2024 at the earliest. By then, who knows what the real estate market and interest rates will be.

“These properties have been risky from the get-go.”

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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