Monday, December 22, 2008

As I walked around the neighborhood yesterday in 18 plus centigrade weather trying to convince myself that it was not the 2nd month of what always seems to me to be a 5-month long March in Tokyo, I came to a plot of land now for sale. I was saddened to see this, for the house which had once stood there was a house that I had fantasized buying.

The house had been vacant since we moved into the area 2 1/2 years ago. I had heard that the land was probably worth more than 2 million US dollars, which put an end to any thoughts of living there but not the desire.

It was a huge house by Tokyo standards. In the rear was an overgrown garden with a small porch on which I could imagine myself sitting on frigid winter day enjoying a nearly equally imaginary heavy Tokyo snowfall.

Then, about a month ago, a real estate company set up a sales table in front of the house. I knew then that even the fantasy was gone, but I was surprised when the real estate company did not return the following week. Had the house sold so quickly? Perhaps the price had been reduced for a quick sale. The fantasy returned. Should I have checked how much it really was, just in case?

A few days later, workmen arrived. They immediately went to the overgrown garden and cut down every single tree and shrub. Then they cut down the tree on the corner that had blocked the view of the nearby intersection for both pedestrians and drivers, but which when gone was immediately missed. What kind of people would do that, I wondered. I feared that the new residents might do what another neighbor did when he bought his house---he paved the large garden in front and made it into a rent-by-the-month parking lot.

But no, this was worse. By the end of the week, backhoes had been brought in. They tore down the wall near the garden and began to dig it up. Scaffolding went up as they began to dismantle the house. They were tearing the whole thing down.

It progressed more slowly than a lot of house demolitions. I can walk down a street in some areas and see a house one day and by the next week there will be no trace left. This one took about 3 weeks to entirely demolish and remove, leaving nothing but a plot of soil. It is nice looking soil though, and it seems that one could raise a good vegetable garden there.

Then came another shock. The real estate company came back and again set up a sales table. It seems that nobody had bought the house after all. The owner or real estate company had for some reason torn it down.

I don't know if the house was old and had serious flaws---though I had noticed that there was absolutely no insulation in the walls ---but it looked fine from the outside. I did know, however, that houses and land are viewed differently in Japan (or at least Tokyo) as compared to where I come from.

This morning I saw that Philip Brasor has written an timely article about The Japanese art of useless houses and the government's "200-year housing plan" meant to encourage the building of longer lasting homes:

[Former PM] Fukuda explained something everybody knew at least intuitively: Japanese homes were not made to last... ...With the price of land so high, people couldn't afford better quality homes, and cheap, poor quality structures became the norm. What Fukuda didn't mention is that the housing industry was addicted to this cycle, which is referred to as "scrap and build." The average new house loses its value completely 15 years after it's occupied...From the Japan Times

That's a shame for the "old" house that was just torn down. Had I the money, I might have given 2 million US dollars for it. But now, if I could disregard the resale value, I could not imagine giving much more the 100,000 for it. One hundred thousand yen. The fantasy is gone and it is just a big vegetable garden to me. I find the older houses much, much more attractive than the shiny newer ones which look as if they were mass-produced in a house factory.

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