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Life in Japan: To buy or not to buy a house in Tokyo

By David McNeill

    Central Tokyo is seen in this photo taken in the capital's Shibuya Ward on Aug. 23, 2021. (Mainichi/Kimitaka Takeichi)

    Despite living in Tokyo for two decades, I've resisted buying a house -- till now. One reason is prices: apartments for a family our size sell for $1-million-plus in our old neighborhood of Meguro. Another is the city's unusual real-estate market. In my native Ireland, house prices have risen 88% since 2013. In parts of the capital, Dublin, prices have quadrupled since the 1990s. Ditto London and many other big Western cities. My mother bought a house in 1988 for about 30,000 euros and sold it 14 years later for 420,000, allowing her to retire to the countryside with cash in her pocket.

    Leaving aside the ethics of such an overheated market (many young British and Irish people have effectively been shut out of buying and must live with their parents), the expectation abroad is that your house will grow in value over the years. I see no such expectation in Japan. Typically, the price of a new home declines once you put your key in the door. Thereafter, the property falls to almost zero over the life of the owners. If they are lucky, the land holds its value -- but land has deflated since the early 1990s. In effect, I am chaining myself to a depreciating asset for the final years of my life, which to be honest I found a bit terrifying.

    A model room in a high-rise residential building in front of Musashi-koyama Station on Tokyu Railways Co.'s Meguro Line is seen in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward on July 16, 2021. (Mainichi/Hajime Nakatsugawa)

    In addition to being an investment, houses in Ireland and the UK tend to be older. Our two previous properties (in central Dublin and Liverpool) were both built in the late Victorian era. By contrast, Japanese houses are often rebuilt during the lifetime of the owner. Earthquakes are the ostensible reason, though I wonder if the demand for real-estate profits doesn't play a major part. Construction companies need to deliver a constant supply of new houses to stay in business. Construction technology has vastly improved in the last two decades and houses are less likely to collapse.

    Several factors tipped us in favor of buying. One is our mixed experience of renting. I am constantly amazed that tenants pay a 'gift' (reikin) to landlords so that they will be allowed to rent from them. My first encounter with real estate offices in Saitama, as a student, ended unhappily when I was bluntly told 'no foreigners.' Landlords sometimes assume we can't speak Japanese, follow rules, or pay our bills. The landlord of another family apartment in Setagaya demanded to know my nationality and see my passport, would only accept my Japanese father-in-law as a guarantor and bombarded us with petty rules for four years. He used a security camera in the apartment entrance to spy on my guests and sometimes question who they were.

    Dublin, Ireland, is seen on March 5, 2020. (Mainichi/Mikako Yokoyama)

    But the biggest issue in buying was space. Our three children shared a single bedroom in our Meguro apartment and they were starting to fight like cats in a bag. Moreover, the economics of renting tend to favor buying. The rent for our apartment (230,000 yen per month) was roughly the same as our new monthly mortgage repayments. Borrowing here is cheap and, unlike Ireland, banks will lend without a large deposit. And, once we moved away from the city center, we were surprised to find that houses are as large as typical Dublin or London family homes. The cliche of Japanese rabbit hutches is exactly that -- a cliche.

    So, we are now the proud owners of a four-bedroom house in Mitaka, west of central Tokyo. Our kids have enrolled in local schools and our neighbors have welcomed us.

    A forest of high-rise residential buildings is seen in Seoul, South Korea, on April 13, 2020. Soaring housing prices have been a social problem in recent years. (Mainichi/Hirohiko Sakaguchi)

    Irish people sometimes ask me why I live in Tokyo. The fact is, put aside the odd nerve-jangling seismic event and bigoted landlord, and it is a pleasant, remarkably well-functioning city. Neighborhoods are clean and safe. Street crime is lower than any comparative urban center, certainly lower than Dublin or London. Hundreds of thousands of children ride the public transport system alone every day across the city. There are no ghettos or drug corridors for them to avoid on the way home.

    There is another reason for taking a risky dive into Tokyo real-estate, which I have only realized since we moved. Buying a house means we have finally put down roots. For complex reasons, Japan struggles to retain a sizeable foreign population. Roughly 2% of the population here is 'foreign' -- the figure for Ireland is 13%. Many of my friends have drifted back home since 2011, often trailing Japanese wives and children. It is a constant feature of our lives here that we lose foreign friends. As houseowners, we are less likely to leave. Our children are Japanese and our lives will be in Japan for the foreseeable future. We are here to stay.

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    David McNeill, a professor at the University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo and a former Tokyo correspondent for Britain's The Economist magazine is seen in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on Dec. 20, 2021. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)

    David McNeill was born in the U.K. in 1965, and has Irish nationality. He received a doctorate from Napier University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He lectured at Liverpool John Moores University, and later moved to Japan in 2000. He was a visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo, and has been a Tokyo correspondent for The Independent and The Economist newspapers, among other publications. He took up a position as professor in the Department of English Language, Communication and Cultures at University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo, in April 2020. He is co-author of the book "Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan's Earthquake, Tsunami and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster" (with Lucy Birmingham), which was published in 2012 by Palgrave-Macmillan. A Japanese version was published in 2016 by Enishi Shobo. He enjoys cycling and sometimes travels around the Miura Peninsula in Kanagawa Prefecture and Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture.

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