Nov 26, 201312:55 PMPoint of View

The Economics Behind Japan's Obsession with Housing

The Economics Behind Japan's Obsession with Housing

House NA by Sou Fujimoto is a pile of toothpick-thin columns and shifting floor plates.

Courtesy Iwan Baan

(page 1 of 2)

This article, by Tokyo-based architect Alastair Townsend, originally appeared on ArchDaily as “Why Japan is Crazy About Housing."

Architectural fads come and go, but in Japan, the single family home remains a primary site for reinvention. But the country's penchant for avant-garde housing may be driven by the country’s bizarre real estate economics, as much as by its designers’ creativity. These homes, mostly designed by young architects, often bewilder with their structural leanness or formal inventiveness. It can seem that in Japan, anything is permissible: stairs and balconies exist without handrails, rooms flagrantly cast open to their surroundings, or, in some cases, homes are built with no windows at all.

Photos of these whimsical, ironic, or otherwise extreme living propositions travel the blogosphere and social networks under their own momentum, garnering global exposure and international validation for Japan’s outwardly shy, yet media-savvy architects. After all, 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 who’s willing to take-on, or can afford to ignore, one or more types of risk: privacy, comfort, efficiency, aesthetics, etc. But Japan’s experimental commissions aren’t 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 home’s 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 that’s 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 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 Japan’s total GDP, not to mention mountains of construction waste.

The Garden House by Ryue Nishizawa (2011) does away with facades altogether.

Courtesy Iwan Baan

And so, despite a shrinking population, house building remains steady. 87% of Japan’s 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 don’t the Japanese value their old homes?

Here, without wishing to resort to clichés, 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 religious value (nowhere more so than at Ise’s Grand Shinto Shrine, which is rebuilt every 20 years). These oft-repeated truisms nonetheless fail to offer a sufficient economic rationale for Japan’s ingrained real estate depreciation. Its disposable attitude to housing seems to fly in the face of Western financial sense.

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