Commentary / Japan

Building dreams in Japan

by Kevin Rafferty

Special To The Japan Times

Priory Cottage in the heart of London’s Islington borough was more than a house and a home; it was a slice of history. To sell it was a wrench; but to buy a property in Japan was a weird and wonderful adventure through a series of misadventures on the other side of a perverse looking glass.

The old classical brick house was built in 1798, and briefly featured in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House novel. An extension in the 1970s turned it into a three-story cottage; at the back it added a sloping glass roof commanding a long drawing room with a floor of black Welsh slate. On a fine day, this was a wonderful place to be with a book or good companions and a glass of something inspiring. In the morning there was sweet birdsong from the trees and bushes, apple, plum and cherry (not the raucous cawing of greedy crows that is the signature of Osaka).

After 215 years the house was strong, with deep foundations built to last. National and local rules ensured that it would last. We were told that we would need permission to change the color of the front door — so it stayed, shining black with a lion knocker, and solid enough to resist a battering ram. We needed special permission to cut down a diseased cherry tree because the gap it created would change the eye line of the street. The value of the house increased, from £7,500 in the 1970s, £190,000 by the late 1980s to more than £1.5 million.

Osaka was a different story, where the typical life of houses is just 30 years.

My wife perceptively remarked after returning from an extended period of research in Manchester that as her aircraft turned for its approach to Osaka, “I wanted to weep. Some giant had tipped a huge can of garbage over Japan’s countryside.”

Town planning is not a strong Japanese suit. Electricity pylons rampaging the landscape, endless concreted countryside, dammed rivers reduced to trickles, ugly advertisement boards for used cars proliferating like mushrooms, squalid blocks of flats and houses that seem to have been built of tiles stolen from lavatory walls or disused shipping containers are not a pleasing sight, but are common.

The factors leading to the early death of a Japanese house are varied. Severe death duties, and the shift of young people from rural areas to the bright lights of the cities are among reasons for building new. There is also the poor quality of many houses built in the last decades, and the destructive nexus between construction companies, bureaucrats and politicians, who scratch each other’s backs with funding. Bureaucrats regularly update building codes for fire and earthquake prevention, and big house-builders say it is tedious and costly to update existing properties.

Japanese often disdain “pre-used houses” and sometimes claim that earthquakes make old houses with wood frames, the most common material, unsafe. Yet some of Japan’s most beautiful structures are wooden temples that have withstood the ravages of nature for centuries.

Japan is damaging itself and its economy by this attitude that turns houses into consumer durables, like cars or even refrigerators with steadily declining value, rather than as capital goods that store and increase value. Yet the government of Shinzo Abe has extended tax breaks on new homes until 2017, even as the number of vacant houses has risen to more than 8 million, or 18 percent of the national housing stock. What a waste.

But we had to live in the real world, not one of our wishful imagination. We began searching for houses that looked unlived in or land already leveled, but were always too late. Developers always had a head start and usually leveled a house and parceled the land into two or three lots. The inheritance tax may be the push factor, but developers’ quest for profits is a powerful pull cutting urban land into almost rabbit hutch sizes.

We looked at apartments. A new block was going up near Osaka University, but the new flats were uniformly 69 to a maximum 79 sq. meters and the rooms were cramped and uncomfortable, as if the developers wanted obsolescence built in. The house agent predicted that the flats, selling for upwards of ¥45 million, would lose a third of their value in 10 years.

Eventually we found a piece of land with a shabby house crying for demolition, little better than the prefabricated shacks I used to see going to school in my bomb-ravaged English city in the 1950s.

So was this the dream opportunity to build a dream house? Dream on. We had foolishly imagined that a local council that builds regiments of public flats with no individual character except their rank numbers — memorably D14, C26, H15 and so on — would allow us a free hand in creating something special.

Local bureaucrats have no interest in good taste or aesthetics, but they are wedded to their rules and regulations and love to impose taxes. They decreed that the house can cover only 40 percent of the total plot with a maximum of two stories. Of course the council’s own flats do not conform to any of these restrictions. The council collects a tax for supervising the demolition of the old building, a tax if you want to include a garage or even a carport, a tax if you install a lift to help elderly parents. On the other hand there is a banquet of concessions mostly inspired by the national government for building a new house for energy saving, and even for having a handrail in the bath.

Given the maze of planning restrictions, we decided it would be foolhardy to go it alone. We approached the big house-building companies, which dominate the market, have experience in dealing with the tedious bureaucrats and offer an in-house architect.

We rejected the pushy young architects offering a steel frame and a how-smart-we-are design that used only 80 percent of the possible area, guarded by a concrete wall blocking prying eyes. Its price was more than the cost of the land.

We chose Mitsui Home, whose local executive Yoshihisa Harima had the wit to learn that we were looking for a house and followed us in our quest, giving generally sensible advice about the advantages and pitfalls of the sites we were considering.

Harima-san put together a team including architect Yoshitaka Takahashi and interior design coordinator Ryoko Kashihara. We then had multiple two-hour sessions in Japanese discussing everything from the grand matters of the structure and construction materials, the energy system and planning of rooms down to the location of electrical outlets, the furnishings and the exact hue — bright white or soft yellow — of the lighting in specific rooms.

This was meticulous Japan at its careful best, impressive attention to the big picture and the smallest detail. After each session, we signed a list summarizing the discussions. Work started only after two months of these discussions.

Big brother bureaucrat frequently bugged us. I suggested an oven, not a microwave or a toaster, but a proper oven for cooking and baking, where we could put a dish and leave it to slow-cook for hours. But Japanese homes don’t do ovens. Almost all kitchens have a stove top with three — not four — burners, whether gas or electric. Below that is a fish grilling unit, and below that storage space. This Japanese ultra-conformity is disturbing. In the end, we got the oven, but settled for a maximum capacity of 45 liters or the bureaucrats consider it to be a restaurant or commercial establishment and subject to endless extra health and safety and security requirements. In the United Kingdom, 70-plus liters capacity is normal.

Construction started in October. The brickies, like their British counterparts, like stopping for cups of tea and cigarettes. When I arrived to photograph progress, one brickie was ladling cement in a carefree manner and had a large handkerchief on his head. After colleagues spotted me, he scuttled away and put the regulation safety helmet on top of his kerchief.

On the other hand, Japanese building standards are the highest in the world, especially with a wooden frame like ours. The outer walls are of ceramic concrete that is supposed to be ivory white but looks yellow in the sun. The layers of inner cladding are so well insulated that Mitsui Home boasts that heat will not escape to melt snow on a Hokkaido roof in winter. We were also impressed by the on-site inspections of architect Takahashi and his teams of specialists checking that the work was on schedule and to quality.

Now we have a home with almost 240 meters of space, proper room to cook, dine and entertain, or just sit and read and think with a glass of something inspiring. Maybe not the Dream House we imagined, but a house fit for dreaming in. I pray that it will last.

Kevin Rafferty is a veteran journalist and former World Bank official.