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Illegal storage containers continue to spread across Japan

Illegal storage containers that were removed in the past are pictured in this photo provided by the Yokohama Municipal Government (image partially modified).

As the rental of outdoor storage containers continues to gain popularity in Japan, the use of illegal units which do not comply with necessary standards is spreading.

    In response to this problem, the Consumer Safety Investigation Commission of the Consumer Affairs Agency has pointed out the need to strengthen measures against illegal containers, on the basis that they "fall short in terms of fire safety and earthquake resistance, and are therefore dangerous."

    Recently, it is fairly easy to come across these containers. For example, in a commuter town that is 40-50 minutes away from central Tokyo, there is a collection of uncouth-looking containers in a quiet residential area. These units are not being used by a particular firm. Instead, they are being rented out for private storage purposes.

    The containers here are stacked in a two-story formation, with about 40 to 50 individual storage units in total. Each unit has a door, and users can go in and out whenever they like.

    According to a trade group, it is estimated that there are about 6,600 "rental box" locations across the country, and approximately 270,000 units in total. Although these are not official figures, the demand for these storage containers is reportedly increasing and the market is expanding on an annual basis.

    At the same time, there are issues surrounding the structure of these kinds of containers. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism stipulates that these containers, which are used for storage purposes over a continuous period of time, need to be firmly attached to the ground because they are considered as buildings. In reality, however, not many of these units have the correct foundations or have gone through inspections based on the Building Standards Act -- making them at risk of collapsing in the event of disasters such as earthquakes.

    The containers also need to comply with Japanese Industrial Standards (JIS), but the truth is that many secondhand containers made outside Japan, that do not comply with JIS, are being used across the country for storage businesses. Also, the cost of containers that meet the latest JIS regulations is four to five times higher than secondhand containers that are not compliant. Speaking on this issue, several people involved in the industry have told the Mainichi Shimbun that there are hardly any vendors who do business using only legal, compliant containers.

    Meanwhile, in December 2014, the ministry sent out a notice to local authorities across the nation demanding that they crack down on these kinds of illegal rental boxes. The notice stated, "There is a fear that these containers will fall over in the event of an earthquake, and cause harm in the immediate surroundings." However, because these containers are illegal and have not been registered properly, it is difficult for local governments to find them all.

    A municipal official who works just outside Tokyo, says, "The only way to find the containers is to go out looking for them, but we don't have the manpower for that." A large number of local authorities also only take action if local residents file a complaint. Furthermore, it is rare that the containers are actually removed even if they are identified.

    In a survey of 31 municipal governments across the country, some replied to say that the vendors refuse to comply with authorities' guidance, insisting that the containers don't count as buildings.

    The storage containers differ to "trunk rooms" which people can use to store luggage, and firms that rent out the containers are not required to register their services under the category of "warehouse business." So long as one has the land and the containers, anyone can enter the market, without too much initial cost, and as a result, the rental of illegal, non-compliant storage containers is continuing to spread.

    At the end of June, the results of a survey looking into this issue were revealed by the Consumer Safety Investigation Commission. The findings pointed out that many of these containers are in residential areas and it will be too late to act after a serious accident occurs. The report also demanded that the ministry adopt stricter measures to make the storage space operators comply with regulations.

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