Commentary / Japan

It should be home sweet home, but not in Japan

by Kevin Rafferty

Special To The Japan Times

In London my friend lived in a house that was 220 years old, and he was not allowed to change the color of the door — black — or to touch a single branch of the trees in the garden or the local council would impose heavy fines and insist he repair the damage. In Osaka friends bought a piece of land with a 30-year-old house on it, with the expectation that they would demolish the old house and spend half a million dollars building another.

Japanese media have recently been preoccupied by revelations that Asahi Kasei Construction Materials Corp. fabricated piling data in 360 buildings, or 11 percent of its projects, since 2005. Luckily, so far only a condominium building in Yokohama has been found to be defective.

The admissions raise awkward questions whether other companies have falsified data and not been found out, and whether there was collusion between construction and public officials. Japan is not the only country where the construction industry is bedeviled by shoddiness, substandard work and political wheeling and dealing. In the United Kingdom, the Ronan Point 22-story housing block in East London infamously collapsed in 1968 because of poor construction. In developing countries like Bangladesh and China, construction is a byword for corruption, shoddy work and inferior materials, with sand often spoiling the concrete.

In most advanced countries, including the U.K. after Ronan Point, disaster leads quickly to public inquiry and action to raise standards and ensure compliance.

In Japan it is surely time to cast a wider spotlight on the construction industry, murky links with bureaucracy and politicians, and the multibillion dollar loss to the economy every year because of this collusion and a perverted desire for shining new construction.

At a time of budget stringency, with a rapidly diminishing and aging population, when Japan has 8 million empty homes, it hardly makes sense for the government to be handing out subsidies for even more houses to be built. Yet it is doing so. It is especially nonsensical when the money is going into the pockets of well-heeled architects and politically powerful construction companies. Of course, that complicates the entrenched difficulties of doing something about it.

In the most desirable parts of London, or New York and Boston, the most expensive houses will be anywhere from 100 to 250 years old. That is leaving out the grand stately homes of England, which are 500 or more years old, but cannot be counted as ordinary family homes.

In the middle of the 19th century, the painter JMW Turner lived in London’s Marylebone. “Turner’s Den,” as the house was called, was damp, dilapidated and dirty. One visitor noted that the house “presented the appearance of a place in which some great crime had been committed,” paint peeling from the door, “the windows grimed with successive coats of dust and rain.” Visitors to the gallery where Turner hung his masterpieces were advised to use umbrellas inside when it was raining because there were so many holes in the roof and windows. The building was swarming with enormous Manx cats (which have no tails).

Today, 150 years later, Turner’s house and others in the area sell for £10 million plus each, if they come to market. Can you imagine Japanese planners having the courage to tell homeowners or construction companies that they could not demolish or change the facade of a house that was even 30 years old?

U.K. houses are protected by stiff planning regulations. One owner in a northern English town wanted to put a small satellite dish on his roof to get the best television reception; he was sternly told “no” because it would spoil the eye-line of the row of houses on the street that was built in the 1930s.

Another owner, in a conservation area of London was caught between two council departments: one told him that he must rip out his diseased cherry tree for fear that it would infect neighbor’s trees; but another department told him he absolutely must not touch the tree because its removal would interrupt the green view from the road. In the end, the tree came out but had to be replaced with other greenery.

It is hard to see any similar prohibition happening in Japan. Indeed, I sometimes wonder — looking at the ugly sprawl of used car lots and hideous signs on roads outside, say Kyoto or Nara, or at slummy blocks of public apartments — whether Japanese local bureaucrats have any sense of beauty or taste or fine town planning.

The bureaucrats are full of persnickety rules and regulations, many concerned with extracting taxes. If, in building your new house, you want a garage or covered carport, it costs extra. If you want to install a lift for elderly parents, that will also raise your property tax.

The style and shape of the house, whether it blends or sticks out like a sore thumb, is up to you, provided that you obey the building codes and severe restrictions on the floor area as a percentage of the plot — often 40 percent — and the number of stories, some places only two. It is as if the bureaucrats jealously believe that if you can afford a house rather than the ugly flats that litter Japan’s urban space, you must pay for it.

Renowned architect Shigeru Ban, who won the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, defends Japan’s building practices. He takes the view that it is different strokes for different folks, and Japan’s way has led to a great flowering of architects offering imaginative designs.

Ban deserves the praise of the world for his imaginative use of novel materials to bring relief to millions of displaced people. His paper church at Takatori, Hyogo Prefecture, provided refuge after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, and is still in use as a church on Taiwan. His new cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, to replace a building toppled in an earthquake is a masterpiece of cardboard, glass and wood. Refugees in places as far apart as Ahmedabad in India, Rwanda, Turkey and Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, have Ban to thank for rushing to their rescue with instant, imaginative shelters.

But he is wrong. Japan has 2.5 architects per 1,000 people, five times as many as the U.K. and eight times as many as the United States in terms of population, which is surely too much of a luxury. Should a country’s house-building policy be judged by whether it gives employment to architects?

Japan is trapped in a vicious whirlpool. The question is where to interrupt and how to make the system more beneficial.

In U.K. or U.S. houses, old age can be beautiful and valuable. My friend bought his house for £185,000 in the mid-1980s; this year, it was valued at £1.5 million. In up and coming areas just outside London’s Circle Line, similar old houses are worth £3 million or more, depending on transport access.

My Japanese friend bought a flat in a new eight-story Osaka block for ¥45 million 15 years ago; today he has been told it will fetch ¥25 million or ¥26 million.

Quality London houses are often part of a terrace of townhouses — or row houses as they’re called in the U.S. The U.K. prime minister’s house at 10 Downing Street, originally built between 1682 and 1684, is a leading example of how to care for a house so that it becomes a valuable national treasure.

In Japan houses tend to be individual higgledy-piggledy designs, separate and separated from one another. If a homeowner dies or decides to move, developers often buy the house, raze it and split the land into two or three smaller plots, on each of which they will hope to persuade potential owners to build an expensive house.

At their best, Japanese houses can be idiosyncratically fun, but it is surely time to say “enough.” Hidetaka Yoneyama of Fujitsu Research Institute says the number of vacant homes is rising and is 18 percent of the total national housing stock. Even with the mismatch of empty houses in depopulated rural areas, this is wastefully high. In the U.K., the figure for vacant homes is about 3 percent. But Abe’s policies have extended tax breaks on new homes until 2017.

Richard Koo, chief economist at Nomura Research International, wrote a seminal paper in 2008 criticizing Japan’s housing policies. He told the Freakonomics podcast recently: “And so you tear down the building, you build another one, then you tear down the building, and you keep on building another one, you’re not building wealth on top of wealth. … And it’s a very poor investment. Compared to Americans or Europeans, or even other Asian countries where people are building wealth on top of wealth because your house is (a) capital good.”

Japanese houses become consumer durables, much like cars or refrigerators with diminishing value. This is good for construction and house-building companies, which are in clover, with rising sales and profits. But it is negative for the economy, for beauty and sensible planning, as well as for ordinary Japanese.

It would help if Japan’s local officials could undergo a course in modern city landscaping and town planning. But it is unlikely that anything meaningful will be done unless and until Japanese have the courage to challenge the destructive nexus between construction companies, bureaucracy and politicians.

Kevin Rafferty has been watching the changing Japanese cityscape since 1976. He is a journalist, commentator and Quondam Professor at Osaka University.