Why Japan is Crazy About Housing _ ArchDaily

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  • Why Japan is Crazy AboutHousing

    House NA / Sou Fujimoto Architects. Image Iw an Baan

    Japan is famous for its radical residential architecture. But

    as Tokyo architect Alastair Townsend explains, its

    penchant for avant garde housing may be driven by the

    countrys bizarre real estate economics, as much as its

    designers creativity.

    Here on ArchDaily, we see a steady stream of

    radicalJapanese houses. These homes, mostly designed

    by young architects, often elicit readers bewilderment. It

    can seem that in Japan, anything is permissible: stairs and

    balconies without handrails, rooms flagrantly cast open to

    their surroundings, or homes with no windows at all.

    These whimsical, ironic, or otherwise extreme living

    propositions arrest readers attention, baiting us to

    ask:WTF Japan? The photos travel the blogosphere and

    social networks under their own momentum, garnering

    global exposure and international validation for Japans

  • HouseT / Hiroyuki Shinozaki Architects. Image Hiroyasu Sakaguchi

    outwardly shy, yet media-savvy architects. Afterall, in Japan

    the country with the most registered architects per capita

    standing out from the crowd is the key to getting ahead

    for young designers. But what motivates their clients, who

    opt for such eccentric expressions of lifestyle?

    An unconventional home requires an unconventional client,

    one whos willing to take-on, or can afford to ignore, one or

    more types of risk: privacy, comfort, efficiency, aesthetics,

  • House in Saijo / Suppose Design Office. Image Courtesy of Nacasa&Partners


    etc. But Japans experimental commissions arent

    necessarily luxury villas for a wealthy cultural elite. Many

    are small middle-class homes, not a typology where we

    expect to find bold avant garde design. So, what is it about

    Japan that encourages such everyday risk taking?

    In the West, deviation from societal norms can jeopardize a

    homes value, since it may prove impractical or distasteful

    to future buyers. Bold design decisions can present

    investment risk, so clients usually temper their personal

    tastes and eccentricities accordingly.

    At least thats enshrined Western logic. Safe as

    houses,right? Travel to Japan and this home truth is turned

    on its head, largely because the Japanese can not expect

    to sell their homes.

    Houses in Japan rapidly depreciate like consumer durable

    goods cars, fridges, golf clubs, etc. After 15 years, a

  • Kumagai House / Hiroshi Kuno + Associates. Image Courtesy of Hiroshi Kuno

    + Associates

    home typically loses all value and is demolished on

    average just 30 years after being built. According to a

    paper by the Nomura Research Institute, this is a major

    obstacle to affluence for Japanese families. Collectively,

    the write-off equates to an annual loss of 4% of Japans

    total GDP, not to mention mountains of construction waste.

    And so, despite a shrinking population, house building

    remains steady. 87% of Japans home sales are new

    homes (compared with only 11-34% in Western countries).

    This puts the total number of new houses built in Japan on

    par with the US, despite having only a third of the

    population. This begs the question: why dont the Japanese

    value their old homes?

    Here, without wishing to resort to clichs, a little cultural

    background offers some insight

    Firstly, Japan fetishizes newness. The frequent severity of

    earthquakes has taught its people not to take buildings for

    granted. And impermanence is an enshrined cultural and

  • House of Aw a-cho / Container Design. Image Eiji Tomita

    religious value (nowhere more so than at Ises Grand

    Shinto Shrine, which is rebuilt every 20 years). These oft-

    repeated truisms nonetheless fail to offer a sufficient

    economic rationale for Japans ingrained real estate

    depreciation. Its disposable attitude to housing seems to fly

    in the face of Western financial sense.

    In the countrys rush to industrialize and rebuild cities

    decimated after WWII, housebuilders rapidly spawned

    many cheap, low quality wooden frame houses shoddily

    built without insulation or proper seismic reinforcement.

    Older homes from this period are assumed to be

    substandard, or even toxic, and investing in their

    maintenance or improvement is considered futile. So,

    rather than maintain or upgrade them, most are simply torn


    Depreciation is also a holdover from the collapse of

    Japans economic bubble in the late 1980s. Then, the

    ballooning price of land shot up so rapidly, buildings were

    considered temporary installations. This perception

    persists today, propped-up, in part, by policies that

  • House N / Sou Fujimoto. Image Iw an Baan

    artificially sustain land prices, despite years of economic

    stagnancy and population decline.

    The quality of todays typical homes most of which

    arerobotically prefabricated has greatly improved, but the

    earlier mindset remains entrenched as market logic.

    Depreciation is the mantra of housing appraisers. Yet,

    theres no material reason why, if properly maintained or

    improved, these homes couldnt provide shelter in

    perpetuity, like in the West, where reselling and moving

    homes several times throughout ones lifetime is


    Japans army of loyal salarymen enjoy secure jobs for life,

    and rarely move to relocate to a new job. Although this is

    starting to change, a stable salaried job is still a

    prerequisite for a mortgage, which borrowers slowly repay

    in full over the course of their careers. Selling up much

    less profiting from the resale is out of the question, since

    no one wants to buy a pre-owned home. As the salaryman

    dutifully slaves away to pay off the mortgage, his or her

    propertys value is all the while depreciating, eventually

  • leaving only the value of the land (minus the cost of

    demolishing the house). In other words, negative equity is

    the norm. Grinding economic and, consequently,

    geographic immobility is an entrenched reality for most

    Japanese homeowners.

    Compared with other developed economies, where, mainly,

    the wealthy hire architects, many more young Japanese

    first-time homeowners buy land and hire an architect to

    build their new home, perhaps because for all the

    economic reasons just discussed theyre resigned to

    living in it for the rest of their lives.

  • Wall less house / Tezuka Architects. Image Katsuhisa Kida / FOTOTECA

    House in Kohoku / Torafu. Image Daici Ano

    So, how do Japans bizarre real estate economics influence

    its architecture? Clients need not contemplate what a

    potential buyer will think 8-10 years into the future. This

    gives them and their architects greater personal freedom.

    Without property values to safeguard, Japan, generally

    lacks planning scrutiny or incentives to protect and

    preserve local character. Neighbors are largely powerless

    to object on aesthetic grounds to what gets built next door.

    This is a boon to architects creative license, but it also

    reduces the collective incentive to maintain and beautify

    communities by, say, nurturing greenery or burying

    overhead power lines.

    The freedom to build homes that are a highly personal

    expression of lifestyle, taste, and aspiration, makes Japan

    a fertile environment for architects and their clients to test

    the limits of residential design.

  • House in Hiro / Suppose Design Office. Image Toshiyuki Yano

    For architects, it also helps that civil lawsuits are rare.

    Unlike their litigation-wary European and American

    counterparts, Japanese architects rarely fear claims of

    negligence, emboldening them to take greater risks.

    Japans younger architectural clientele may be more open

    to risk-taking at the behest of their architect, for whom each

    project presents an opportunity to test new and innovative

    ideas. Perhaps theres also a measure of youthful navet

    as to the long-term consequences of design decisions that

    they, as end users, will have to tolerate for the rest of their


    It may seem sad that Japanese families slave, scrimp, and

    save to build a home, only to see their investment rapidly

    vanish over the ensuing 15 years. In this light, some of the

    avant garde houses seem like fatalistic last hurrahs

    follies to the futility of home ownership in Japan. Resigned

    to their predicament, but needing somewhere to live and

  • Library House / Shinichi Ogaw a & Associates. Image Courtesy of Shinichi

    Ogaw a & Associates

    raise a family, its little wonder that Japanese clients reclaim

    control and quietly rebel in the best way they can through


    Besides theyll eventually tear it all down anyway.

    Alastair Townsend (@AlaTown) is co-founder of Tokyo

    Architects BAKOKO. He also writes about architecture and

    housing in Japan at alatown.com. He was the former editor

    of the website ja+u (Japan Architecture+Urbanism) and

    editor of JA Yearbooks 1990-2011.

  • Cite:

    Alastair Townsend . "Why Japan is Crazy About Housing" 21 Nov

    2013.ArchDaily. Accessed 21 Nov 2013.

    * Location to be used only as a reference. It could indicate city/country but

    not exact address.