Much has been written about Japan’s “disposable home culture,” which impacts not only the value of housing, but also the environment. So why is it that the homes so quickly depreciate? The answer isn’t quite so simple.

Credit: m-louis; Flickr; CC BY-SA 2.0.

I recently relocated to Columbus to write about and promote the greater ceramics and glass community and those who work in it. And though I don’t currently own my own place and enjoy the freedom renting affords me, someday—after exploring the eclectic neighborhoods of this central Ohio city—I’ll commit to the decades of dead batteries, DIY projects, and dividends that result from home ownership.

But I need not own a home to understand this simple concept: If I’ve made faithful payments on anything—let alone a house—for 30 years only to be told my monthly monies were for naught, well, that’s enough to make even the most mild-mannered man or woman insane.

In Japan, where the typical home lasts just three decades and is *worth nothing after 15 years, it’s common that homeowners have nothing to show for their 30 years of mortgage payments. (*Worth is referring to the home itself, not the land, although land values, as in the U.S., aren’t what they used to be.)

Pinpointing the origins of and solutions to the country’s “disposable home culture,” however, is an insanity-inducing study that reveals a stormy (literally) past and partly sunny future.

Despite a stagnant economy and population decline, statistics from the International Union of Architects show that the country has almost 2.5 architects per 1,000 residents (compared to 0.33 architects per 1,000 residents in the U.S.), and construction employment there is 2.1 times greater (though, due to an aging and shrinking population, able-bodied workers are in short supply.)


There isn’t a shortage of construction in Japan. Here, a sea of cranes dot the skyline near Futako-Tamagawa Station in Tokyo. Credit: ykanazawa1999; Flickr; CC BY-NA-SC 2.0

Though sluggish, Japan’s economy is the world’s third largest. Frequently building and tearing down homes might add to the country’s economic bottom line, but a 2008 report by Richard Koo and Masaya Sasaki of the Nomura Research Institute (NRI) finds that doing so has only hindered the nation’s housing investments.

More recently, Koo participated in a Freakonomics podcast during which he more explicitly explained how a country quick to demolish, rather than retrofit, its homes is essentially undercutting the creation of wealth.

“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,” says Koo in the podcast’s transcript. “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. And if you do a certain amount of maintenance you can expect to sell the house at the higher price. But in the Japanese case, once you expect to sell it you expect to sell at a lower price 10 or 15 years later. And that’s no way to build an affluent society.”

Why would anyone expect—or accept—selling their home for less than what they paid, if anything at all?

Turns out, the answer isn’t so simple.

Given its temperate yet temperamental climate, as well as a propensity for serious natural disasters (typhoons, volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis) and the fires that result from such acts of God, Japan has a definite need for building codes and structural standards.

However, a large amount of regulatory red tape—including several tiers of regulation that dictate where, when, and how new buildings can be constructed—equals increased construction costs. As they do anywhere and in any construction project, increased costs force contractors to make cuts somewhere, often in the quality of the materials used. But with a limit on floor space that impacts not only living quarters but land value, any cut, no matter how small, can contribute to issues of quantity over quality.

“Once ridiculed as ‘rabbit hutches,’ Japanese homes would appear to have made substantial gains in terms of floor area,” the report’s authors write. “From a different perspective, however, this implies that homes built during the nation’s high-growth area, when quantity was more important than quality, are becoming increasingly obsolete by today’s standards. They are also significantly smaller than the typical home and no longer in tune with the needs of homebuyers. Consequently, they are either left vacant or torn down to make way for new homes.”


A home in Osaka shows some wear. Credit: m-louis; Flickr; CC BY-SA 2.0

The ones that aren’t left vacant or torn down seem to simply deteriorate to the point where vacating or tearing them down is the only option. More than 60 percent of all Japanese homes were constructed after 1980—and half of all the houses constructed are expected to be demolished after 38 years.

This expectation found roots when the Japanese were forced to quickly rebuild after World War II, when many of its cities were quite literally leveled.

But according to Jiro Yoshida, assistant professor of business at Pennsylvania State University, even today buildings that are built to last aren’t given the chance. “The government updates the building code every 10 years due to the earthquake risk,” he says in a recent interview. “Rather than spending money on expensive retrofitting, people just build new homes.”

All that construction may be good for Japan’s economy, and an advantage for architects, but not-so-great for its homeowners or the environment.


Architects abound in Japan and create beautiful and “out-of-the-box” homes, but floor-area ratios and tiers of regulation impact the cost and quality of construction. Credit: N. Fujii; Flickr; CC BY-NC 2.0

Without permanency, architects have the ability to dare, dream, and do, designing homes that can only be described as both beautiful and bizarre.

Likewise, without permanency, construction waste becomes a huge issue for the island nation, where close to 70 percent of illegal dumping is attributed to such waste.

Even after implementing the 2000 Construction Material Recycling Law (which called not only for the recycling of construction wastes but an expected 95 percent recycling rate by 2010), statistics from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development show that Japan generates 77 million metric tons of construction and demolition waste each year. Of that, close to 80 percent of it is recycled. Even so, recycling requires more energy and results in “less valuable materials than the ones being discarded.” Concrete, for example, is recycled and used as roadbed gravel, but its supply far outweighs its demand. (For some related reading, check out these recent CTT articles on a longer-lasting, greener concrete that stands tough against cracks and new attitudes toward cement clinker).

Construction also greatly contributes to Japan’s carbon emission problems, made all the greater by the shutdown of the country’s nuclear program after Fukushima.

Rather than regroup, the world’s fifth-largest producer of carbon dioxide actually slashed its carbon-cutting targets for 2020, despite the fact its manufacturing and construction industries alone emitted 245 million metric tons of CO2 in 2011.

But the country is making strides toward a greener Japan—and more sustainable housing practices.

In an effort to meet its reduced CO2 emission targets, Japan has since announced the restart of its nuclear program, with plans to open shuttered plants deemed safe by as early as summer.

It also is continuing to support legislation and programs that ensure new housing is greener and leaner.

A law passed in the Japanese Parliament in 2008 “aims to supply long life housing in Japan from now on, in addition to using the existing houses much longer.”

And like the United States’ LEED, France’s HQE, and the United Kingdom’s BREEAM before it, Japan’s green building management system—Comprehensive Assessment System for Built Environment Efficiency or CASBEE—is pushing to develop more sustainable construction. Created in 2001, CASBEE uses four tools to assess each building and determine the building’s impact on both its neighborhood and the environment.

Greener buildings will benefit more than just Japan’s environment. While the initial investment in green homes may be greater, so too may the long-term rewards.

Findings by Yoshida and co-author Ayako Sugiura, “The Effects of Multiple Green Factors on Condominium Prices” (DOI 10.1007/s11146-014-9462-3) published in The Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics, indicate that “the initial green premium can be negative but becomes positive as the building ages if a green building has a higher life-cycle cost and a longer economic life.”

Whether or not Japanese homebuyers buy in to buying green—or steps toward a more sustainable housing culture stick—the country’s army of architects will stay busy, helping to create cat-friendly communes and build communities with smaller carbon footprints.

To read about Japan’s first “zero energy” neighborhood, click here.

(I’d be remiss if I failed to mention this recent CTT post on a sustainable NYC. Go there and read it, if you haven’t already.)

Feature image credit: D. LaSpina; Flickr; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0