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How Tokyo crushed the Nimbys Property ownership is not a religion

Eyesore? What eyesore? Dukas/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Eyesore? What eyesore? Dukas/Universal Images Group/Getty Images


June 1, 2023   4 mins

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).

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.”


Philip Patrick is a lecturer at a Tokyo university and a freelance journalist.
@Pbp19Philip

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Simon Neale
Simon Neale
11 months ago

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.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? six hundred feet above the Hackney Wick shanty-town, the roar of incessant construction plant vying with the imam’s call to prayer and the African drummers six floors up. You’re a bit worried about that ex-army chap with the facial tattoo who shouts in the lift, but I suppose he has to defecate somewhere, and he does at least keep to the corners. You’re getting a bit bored with that app that shows you pastoral scenes of England from fifty years ago to a soundtrack of Vaughan Williams and Delius, but they’ll bring out the new version soon. The government will sort it. They sort everything, including the building planning permissions, and imposing the new building quotas while maintaining the nature and leisure corridors across Southern England for the racing cyclists and marathon runners. You need permits now, of course, but it’s still nice to watch the lycra flash past amid the greenery.
God, do you remember when people had “backyards” and stuff like property rights? When Conservatives thought that you had to conserve things like culture and nature? The dark ages, indeed….

Last edited 11 months ago by Simon Neale
Simon Neale
Simon Neale
11 months ago

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.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? six hundred feet above the Hackney Wick shanty-town, the roar of incessant construction plant vying with the imam’s call to prayer and the African drummers six floors up. You’re a bit worried about that ex-army chap with the facial tattoo who shouts in the lift, but I suppose he has to defecate somewhere, and he does at least keep to the corners. You’re getting a bit bored with that app that shows you pastoral scenes of England from fifty years ago to a soundtrack of Vaughan Williams and Delius, but they’ll bring out the new version soon. The government will sort it. They sort everything, including the building planning permissions, and imposing the new building quotas while maintaining the nature and leisure corridors across Southern England for the racing cyclists and marathon runners. You need permits now, of course, but it’s still nice to watch the lycra flash past amid the greenery.
God, do you remember when people had “backyards” and stuff like property rights? When Conservatives thought that you had to conserve things like culture and nature? The dark ages, indeed….

Last edited 11 months ago by Simon Neale
Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
11 months ago

Perhaps the fact that the Japanese are fiercely protective of their homogeneous society explains why they don’t mind living in such close quarters. Diversity is clearly not a strength to them.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
11 months ago

Japanese is an old society; their obsession with excellence, cleanliness, simplicity has nothing to do with lack of diversity.
Although I am sure if Japan was invaded by 3rd worlders its street will be full of litter.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
11 months ago

Japanese is an old society; their obsession with excellence, cleanliness, simplicity has nothing to do with lack of diversity.
Although I am sure if Japan was invaded by 3rd worlders its street will be full of litter.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
11 months ago

Perhaps the fact that the Japanese are fiercely protective of their homogeneous society explains why they don’t mind living in such close quarters. Diversity is clearly not a strength to them.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
11 months ago

I was in Tokyo a couple of months ago. During my short stay there I found it a wonderful place full of friendly and delightful people. For a people who live in tight quarters they still manage to remain polite and well-mannered. I do wonder at what cost they manage to keep their cool though. I can’t imagine Westerners coexisting peacefully under such crowded conditions.

Stephen Quilley
Stephen Quilley
11 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Very homogeneous country, with the parochial language, very little diversity, I levels of social trust and bonding capital, trust in the state, and society. Never going to work in Britain or America.

Stephen Quilley
Stephen Quilley
11 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Very homogeneous country, with the parochial language, very little diversity, I levels of social trust and bonding capital, trust in the state, and society. Never going to work in Britain or America.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
11 months ago

I was in Tokyo a couple of months ago. During my short stay there I found it a wonderful place full of friendly and delightful people. For a people who live in tight quarters they still manage to remain polite and well-mannered. I do wonder at what cost they manage to keep their cool though. I can’t imagine Westerners coexisting peacefully under such crowded conditions.

Alan Bright
Alan Bright
11 months ago

Japan has a falling population – that will account (partially) for lower rental costs

Alan Bright
Alan Bright
11 months ago

Japan has a falling population – that will account (partially) for lower rental costs

David Harris
David Harris
11 months ago

But then they don’t have an extra half million strangers to house every year do they?

David Harris
David Harris
11 months ago

But then they don’t have an extra half million strangers to house every year do they?

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
11 months ago

The best lesson you can learn is to expect less? Actually it sounds like there’s a different lesson here… that Tokyo’s people and culture and built environment are totally unlike London’s, and that there are very few parallels to be drawn or lessons to be learned. It is anthropologically interesting that a foreign people around the globe has a different way of living; that fact need not be twisted and strained to produce some incoherent ‘insights’ into a totally different situation here at home.

E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
11 months ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

My first thoughts too. The piece was a little too reminiscent of “You will have nothing. And you will be happy.” I lived in a Tokyo suburb years ago as an undergraduate. Leafy, green neighborhood of large houses and gardens, separated by a very Edwardian back service alley. The price was, of course, a long and hellish commute, but one gets used to it, and it was worth it, to enjoy a solitary hour manicuring the garden, with personal space. City dwellers have their conveniences, and suburban dwellers pay for peace by spending hours commuting. The best thing, whatever country, is to have a choice.

E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
11 months ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

My first thoughts too. The piece was a little too reminiscent of “You will have nothing. And you will be happy.” I lived in a Tokyo suburb years ago as an undergraduate. Leafy, green neighborhood of large houses and gardens, separated by a very Edwardian back service alley. The price was, of course, a long and hellish commute, but one gets used to it, and it was worth it, to enjoy a solitary hour manicuring the garden, with personal space. City dwellers have their conveniences, and suburban dwellers pay for peace by spending hours commuting. The best thing, whatever country, is to have a choice.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
11 months ago

The best lesson you can learn is to expect less? Actually it sounds like there’s a different lesson here… that Tokyo’s people and culture and built environment are totally unlike London’s, and that there are very few parallels to be drawn or lessons to be learned. It is anthropologically interesting that a foreign people around the globe has a different way of living; that fact need not be twisted and strained to produce some incoherent ‘insights’ into a totally different situation here at home.

Mike Selby
Mike Selby
11 months ago

I lived in Tokyo for four years in my early 20s (50 years ago) and still have a flat there which I visit all too rarely. I love the way new houses are shoehorned into any available space, no matter what shape, particularly in residential backstreets, such as around Kowazawa Daigaku area (where I have my little place). It encourages inventive, quirky, and efficient modern design.

Last edited 11 months ago by Mike Selby
Alan Gore
Alan Gore
11 months ago
Reply to  Mike Selby

Me too as a matter of fact, 1974 through 78. I was purely a renter though, with my company making all the arrangements, which is how most commercial gaijin do it.
Like Houston, Tokyo has no zoning. From my office window in Toranomon, I could look down on a jigsaw-puzzle maze of houses, shops, apartments, and businesses. Each of those tiny lots is a laboratory for the sort of experimentation this article describes.

Alan Gore
Alan Gore
11 months ago
Reply to  Mike Selby

Me too as a matter of fact, 1974 through 78. I was purely a renter though, with my company making all the arrangements, which is how most commercial gaijin do it.
Like Houston, Tokyo has no zoning. From my office window in Toranomon, I could look down on a jigsaw-puzzle maze of houses, shops, apartments, and businesses. Each of those tiny lots is a laboratory for the sort of experimentation this article describes.

Mike Selby
Mike Selby
11 months ago

I lived in Tokyo for four years in my early 20s (50 years ago) and still have a flat there which I visit all too rarely. I love the way new houses are shoehorned into any available space, no matter what shape, particularly in residential backstreets, such as around Kowazawa Daigaku area (where I have my little place). It encourages inventive, quirky, and efficient modern design.

Last edited 11 months ago by Mike Selby
Ryan Oneglia
Ryan Oneglia
11 months ago

I always imagined the dream was to have a Japanese garden in your backyard rather than a Starbucks

Ryan Oneglia
Ryan Oneglia
11 months ago

I always imagined the dream was to have a Japanese garden in your backyard rather than a Starbucks

Vici C
Vici C
11 months ago

Oh yes, let’s put up more houses, more skyscrapers, more roads more everything! Wonderful, fantastic! And when we have wiped out every other living thing on the planet, let’s go do the same on another planet.

Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
11 months ago
Reply to  Vici C

The ocean is right there….

Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
11 months ago
Reply to  Vici C

The ocean is right there….

Vici C
Vici C
11 months ago

Oh yes, let’s put up more houses, more skyscrapers, more roads more everything! Wonderful, fantastic! And when we have wiped out every other living thing on the planet, let’s go do the same on another planet.

Mike Selby
Mike Selby
11 months ago

Typo? It’s kodokushi, not kodukushi.

Last edited 11 months ago by Mike Selby
Mike Selby
Mike Selby
11 months ago

Typo? It’s kodokushi, not kodukushi.

Last edited 11 months ago by Mike Selby
Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
11 months ago

Perhaps the best lesson we can learn from the residents of Tokyo is that what works in Japan makes little sense elsewhere. In earthquake-free UK, people are not going to expect less, not should they.
That said, yes, there needs to be vastly less tolerance for the NIMBYs when it comes to building on brownfield sites. Also, local authorities need to be cut down to size and granted vastly *less* authority over pretty much everything.

Vici C
Vici C
11 months ago

Ah! That old chestnut “NIMBYs”. An opinion that has to rely on slurs isn’t a valid one. I don’t see anyone objecting to building on brownfield sites anyway. Local authorities have very little power when it comes to new build, no matter how many meetings and protests and discussions them new housing estates just keep on getting built. As decreed by the powers above who think it a good idea to continue giving their donating businesses endless supplies of cheap labour.

Vici C
Vici C
11 months ago

Ah! That old chestnut “NIMBYs”. An opinion that has to rely on slurs isn’t a valid one. I don’t see anyone objecting to building on brownfield sites anyway. Local authorities have very little power when it comes to new build, no matter how many meetings and protests and discussions them new housing estates just keep on getting built. As decreed by the powers above who think it a good idea to continue giving their donating businesses endless supplies of cheap labour.

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
11 months ago

Perhaps the best lesson we can learn from the residents of Tokyo is that what works in Japan makes little sense elsewhere. In earthquake-free UK, people are not going to expect less, not should they.
That said, yes, there needs to be vastly less tolerance for the NIMBYs when it comes to building on brownfield sites. Also, local authorities need to be cut down to size and granted vastly *less* authority over pretty much everything.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

The US should have ‘nuked’ Tokyo in 1945.

It would have restored Western ‘face’ after the earlier catastrophic defeats suffered at Singapore and the Philippines.

Sadly this audacious policy was not followed, and thus the Chinese think they are our equals and a have a chance. They haven’t, but it will be an expensive exercise to put them back in their box!

james goater
james goater
11 months ago

Actually, after the extraordinarily destructive March 1945 firebombing* of the capital by Allied warplanes, there wasn’t much left to destroy in Tokyo. And surely the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki more than compensated for any presumed humiliations inflicted by Imperial Japan in the early 1940s?
*Around 100,000 dead and 1,000,000 homeless.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  james goater

I beg to disagree, two ‘bombs’ were NOT enough as subsequent events have proved.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  james goater

I beg to disagree, two ‘bombs’ were NOT enough as subsequent events have proved.

Andy Martin
Andy Martin
11 months ago

Most of Tokyo was destroyed during the 1945 March USAF incendiary bombing orchestrated by General Curtis LeMay the American version of ‘Bomber’ Harris. Do a search and you can easily find pictures showing a burnt out wasteland. I believe more people died than in the A bombings.
Feel better now?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Andy Martin

All that is well known, what was missing was that moment of ‘theatre’. Now you see Tokyo, now you don’t, and probably half a dozen other major Japanese cities as well.

That would have sent a salutary message to the world, and China and the USSR in particular.

Ancient Rome obliterated both Carthage and Corinth in what we now call the year 146 BC. The result? Centuries of the ‘Pax Romana’.

james goater
james goater
11 months ago

I suggest the “theatre” was when the scrawny emperor, Hirohito, broadcasting the news of Japan’s surrender to a wearied populace (the capital reduced to ashes, two major cities nuked, every other major city blitzed, and around 3 million war dead) solemnly announced that the “war has developed not necessarily to our advantage…” An understatement for the ages.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  james goater

‘We’ should have hanged Hirohito.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  james goater

‘We’ should have hanged Hirohito.

james goater
james goater
11 months ago

I suggest the “theatre” was when the scrawny emperor, Hirohito, broadcasting the news of Japan’s surrender to a wearied populace (the capital reduced to ashes, two major cities nuked, every other major city blitzed, and around 3 million war dead) solemnly announced that the “war has developed not necessarily to our advantage…” An understatement for the ages.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Andy Martin

All that is well known, what was missing was that moment of ‘theatre’. Now you see Tokyo, now you don’t, and probably half a dozen other major Japanese cities as well.

That would have sent a salutary message to the world, and China and the USSR in particular.

Ancient Rome obliterated both Carthage and Corinth in what we now call the year 146 BC. The result? Centuries of the ‘Pax Romana’.

james goater
james goater
11 months ago

Actually, after the extraordinarily destructive March 1945 firebombing* of the capital by Allied warplanes, there wasn’t much left to destroy in Tokyo. And surely the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki more than compensated for any presumed humiliations inflicted by Imperial Japan in the early 1940s?
*Around 100,000 dead and 1,000,000 homeless.

Andy Martin
Andy Martin
11 months ago

Most of Tokyo was destroyed during the 1945 March USAF incendiary bombing orchestrated by General Curtis LeMay the American version of ‘Bomber’ Harris. Do a search and you can easily find pictures showing a burnt out wasteland. I believe more people died than in the A bombings.
Feel better now?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

The US should have ‘nuked’ Tokyo in 1945.

It would have restored Western ‘face’ after the earlier catastrophic defeats suffered at Singapore and the Philippines.

Sadly this audacious policy was not followed, and thus the Chinese think they are our equals and a have a chance. They haven’t, but it will be an expensive exercise to put them back in their box!