If Vienna, thanks to its extensive, high-quality social housing programme, is a renter’s heaven, where would one find a renter’s hell? London and New York spring to mind, but how about Tokyo? Long associated with tiny living spaces and exorbitant rents, some might imagine it a candidate. But in fact, Tokyo has become a Yimby paradise that the UK would do well to learn from.
What makes Tokyo so enviable is its abundance of housing and the ease with which new building projects can get off the ground. An astonishing number of homes are built every year in the city — 145,000 in 2018 — which is more than in the whole of California (with roughly three times the population) and, in some years, than in the whole of England (with about four times the population).
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Nimby Tokyoites may object to new projects, but their protests can be swatted away by the determinedly pro-housing central government, which wields almost unlimited power. Local government rarely gets a look in. And unlike in Britain or the US, new housing tends to be squeezed efficiently into existing neighbourhoods rather than built on empty land, of which there is little. As policy expert Alan Durning writes, Japan’s process of approving housing projects is “simple, uniform, and markedly more welcoming to homes of many sizes than other nation’s policies”.
With earthquakes an ever-looming threat, Tokyo homes are knocked down at a much faster rate than elsewhere to keep them secure (Japanese buildings have the same lifespan as an American car, about 30 years). But rather than being a nuisance, Durning points out that this creates more opportunities to replace a house with a block, which tend to be far more capacious; “pencil buildings” make efficient multi-story use of a very small footprint. Tokyo has tripled its housing stock in the past 50 years. Only Singapore and Seoul have done better.
The Japanese government’s aggressively pro-building policies stem from an attempt to boost the economy after the collapse of the real estate bubble in 1992. A steady eradication of housing regulations over the next decade culminated in Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Urban Renaissance project, which allowed fast-track approval of high-rise inner-city developments. Now, Japan’s cities seem to be in a dizzying state of flux and thrum to the sound of construction.
This is not to say that there is no opposition to the permanent vista of cranes or the occasional fightback when the government overplays its hand. There was spirited, if unsuccessful, opposition to the demolition of the much-loved Nakagin capsule tower in Tokyo last year, and music legend Ryuichi Sakamoto campaigned against the redevelopment of Meiji Jingu Park — one of Tokyo’s few central green spaces — up until his recent death.
It should also be noted that though Japan has ample housing, much of it is uninspiring and characterless. Built to last a couple of decades at most, even the better-quality blocks lose their shine quickly. Like seedy nightclubs, they are given glamorous English names like “Suginami Deluxe Heaven” or “Ogikubo Princess Stage” in an attempt to give a veneer of sophistication to mundane steel and concrete cubes. Almost no one has a garden, a spare room, or a pleasing view.
It’s not always easy to find a home in Tokyo as a foreigner. Most long-term residents will have a tale of entering an estate agents and noticing an immediate froideur (think of the slaughtered Lamb scene in American Werewolf in London). I was denied entry to one letting agent in Urayasu, a Tokyo suburb which, rumour has it, is entirely closed to foreigners. The woman behind the counter leapt up and raced to the door as she saw me approaching, crossing her arms and shaking her head.
It has been estimated that only 10–20% of real estate companies in Tokyo will rent to foreigners, though few will openly admit this. Prejudice may be a factor, but a more likely explanation is caution: landlords don’t want to take a chance on a tenant who probably can’t read the rental agreement or understand the subtle, unwritten neighbourhood rules.
Stigma is less of a problem when it comes to social housing, which Tokyo has in varying quality. The once-cherished “Danchi” — Soviet-inspired blocks known in the Sixties as the “homes of the future” — are now dark, dingy, and depressing places that house only the desperate and the elderly. They are infamous for being the most common location of kodukushi or “lonely death”, whereby someone living alone will pass away and lie undiscovered, sometimes for years. More attractive are the Urban Renaissance homes, which are usually of decent quality, though there are only 740,000 of these nationwide and competition for one may be intense.
Could the UK profit from emulating Tokyo’s housebuilding success? To an extent. The lack of red tape for perfectly uncontroversial projects is admirable. But Japanese cities have very few historic buildings whose demolition anyone would object to, nor do they have extensive green areas to preserve. A similarly permissive regulatory regime could hardly work in Bath or Oxford or Edinburgh.
It is also uncertain that Brits would be satisfied with the often very modest, unadorned dwellings that Japanese people live in, sometimes all their lives. The Japanese invest very little of their personality in their homes, spend less time in them than other nationalities, and frequently see them as places to sleep in and little more. (Tokyo’s suburbs are often referred to as “bed towns”.) An indicator of the Japanese attitude to their homes is that even at the height of pandemic restrictions, the figure for home-working only hit 20%. In the UK it is currently 44%.
Perhaps the best lesson we can learn from the residents of Tokyo is to obsess less over property: to expect less. Thanks to the threat of earthquakes, property is not a good investment; and living anywhere too grand, or renovating or extending your home, would be considered ostentatious and threaten the precious societal harmony. City-wide safety and a clean, reliable, and inexpensive transport system means there is less of a postcode premium or stigma. People just aren’t that interested in where, or how well, you live.
With lower expectations and less emotional attachment, it’s perhaps no wonder that Tokyo has solved its housing conundrum. I once asked a student to describe her dream home and after a lengthy, bemused pause, she shrugged her shoulders and said: “I don’t know, somewhere near a Starbucks.”