Inside Japan’s Disposable Housing Market - Pacific Standard

Inside Japan’s Disposable Housing Market

In a culture obsessed with newness, no one wants a "used" home—which makes the Japanese real estate market almost unrecognizable to an American.
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Do these houses in Kobe, Japan, look disposable to you? (Photo: leodileo/Flickr)

Do these houses in Kobe, Japan, look disposable to you? (Photo: leodileo/Flickr)

Philip Brasor just wanted a place to call home in Japan.

The 58-year-old writer, born in a sleepy bayside suburb on the north shore of New York’s Long Island, had lived in the country for more than 15 years. He and his wife, Masako Tsubuku, 57, scoured the home market for something affordable and livable, only to find dilapidated houses that even the real estate agents expected them to demolish and re-build upon.

Since few Japanese homeowners plan to sell the home and flip it for profit, there’s little incentive to maintain the house.

“We were surprised at just how bad so many of these used homes were,” he says. “We were expecting small, cramped, little land, and certain amount of normal wear and tear, but we were seeing places that were dark, smelly, falling apart.”

The low-quality housing stock in Japan is a product of a real estate market that’s very different from that in the United States. The Japanese rarely buy homes that were previously owned, whereas existing home sales are the vast majority of U.S. real estate transactions. Only 429,000 newly constructed homes were sold last year, according to the U.S. census. Compare that to the 5.1 million existing homes sold, as reported by the National Association of Realtors.

In Japan, the majority of home sales are of new construction. Sales of existing single-family homes in the densely populated Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa, and Saitama prefectures hit just 36,432 last year—a record-breaking number for them, according to Japanese government statistics.

And while this market allows for a lot of fun experimental architecture, the process was getting frustrating for Brasor and Tsubuku, who spent two years searching for their dream house.

“Most real estate companies didn’t really expect us to buy them, of course,” Brasor says of the homes he and his wife saw in disrepair. “It was more or less a way to get us on their list for potential new homes. That’s a fairly common strategy. Most of them knew these homes were unsellable.”

IN THE UNITED STATES, people buy homes as an investment. The year of construction does not matter as much as the quality and condition of the home, its location, and other factors that influence resale value. Over time, the house accrues value as homeowners redo a bathroom here, add hardwood floors there. Young homeowners then sell their houses for profit, which allows them to buy nicer, larger ones in more desirable neighborhoods. Some do this multiple times before retiring in a dream home.

Not so in Japan: “People bought houses when they were relatively young, in their 30s, and they had to work their whole lives to pay them off,” Brasor says.

Since few Japanese homeowners plan to sell the home and flip it for profit, there’s little incentive to maintain the house. “This whole DIY concept that’s super popular here [in the U.S.]—you have TV shows devoted to it, you have Home Depot and Lowe’s and all these things that are devoted to building equity in your home—none of that exists in Japan,” explains Johnny Strategy, pen name of the Japanese art historian behind the Tokyo and New York culture site Spoon & Tamago. “Even making slight modification, changing your wallpaper, painting or remodeling a bathroom—it’s a huge thing that no one usually does [in Japan].”

If you want a cheap apartment in Tokyo, he suggests, look for suicides among the death notices in newspapers: "If someone killed themselves, that apartment is very cheap."

By the time the homeowner dies and a new person is ready to buy or inherit their property—as Jiro Yoshida, a professor at Penn State University, said during an appearance earlier this year on the Freakonomics podcast—the house would have deteriorated and would likely be knocked down to clear the way for a new home.

THE ROOTS OF THIS phenomenon go as far back as the Tokugawa shogunate, which ended in the mid 1800s. The country was sprung from centuries of cultural isolation, and the Japanese devoured Western goods and ideas ravenously as they fought to catch up, Strategy says.

Previous to that, “they were receiving zero influence from overseas,” Strategy adds. “Then you have this very sudden change in which the floodgates basically open and you have this huge pouring in of Western culture and influences. There was this urgency that they needed to catch up to the West and the rest of the world.”

This cultural moment is sometimes cited as the reason for the deeply rooted Japanese desire for newness—an urgent need to stay abreast of modernity and a competitive consumer culture. That’s one reason Japanese homebuyers seek the most cutting edge design with the most recent construction date.

Another root could be the old Shinto belief in kegare—a long-held taboo that a previous resident’s spirit or disease haunts a space after death.

“People are afraid of bad spirits after people died unhappy. The spirit can be floating around and can do harm to people,” says Yutaka Takiura, an architect born in Kobe, who now teaches at Pratt University in New York. “This dirtiness, or ruin, or stained feeling is really scary.”

If you want a cheap apartment in Tokyo, he suggests, look for suicides among the death notices in newspapers: “If someone killed themselves, that apartment is very cheap.”

FOR TWO YEARS, BRASOR and Tsubuku’s house hunt was fruitless. “There was something almost exhilarating about finding all this crap," Brasor says, "because it confirmed what we had been writing about on our blog for so long—that Japan’s housing stock was junk.”

Last year, he and his wife caved. They found a 220-square-meter triangular plot of land in Chiba, about an hour outside of Tokyo. Unlike most of the houses in the area, which are large, rectangular, and filled with walled-off rooms, his home is small, oblong, basic, and, just as he likes it, filled with windows. Those features make the home undesirable to native Japanese, but quite fine for Brasor and his wife.

“We will, of course, keep it up as well as we can," he says, "but we’re both in our late 50s, so this is probably the last place we’ll live, at least in Japan.”

Like the homes around it, it isn’t made to last forever.

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