How Expensive Is Housing In Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

Cuspy asked:

Affordable housing is a pretty big crisis in the States, but if there's an issue with affordable housing in Japan it certainly isn't shown in anime. Anime characters live on shoestring budgets and manage to find a place to live, typically in the form of the one-room apartment. Hinamatsuri has showed me that homelessness is still a problem in Japan, but just how bad is it? Is there a housing crisis or does anime gloss over the unpleasant subject? How far does your money go in Japan, with regards to housing?

A serious lack of housing and rising rent and real estate prices has gripped many of the biggest cities worldwide, as jobs and young people flock to walkable urban areas, landlords empty entire buildings to convert units into AirBnB rentals, and the ultra-rich buy homes in glamorous locations only to let them sit empty most of the year. Housing prices in cities as far flung as New York, San Francisco, London, Hong Kong, Sydney, Vancouver and Honolulu (not to mention my own Los Angeles) are getting jacked up so high that homelessness is spiking as a result.

But what about Tokyo? Tokyo is famous for being expensive -- especially as a tourist -- but living there can actually substantially cheaper than many other big cities around the world. Part of that is because the declining population has allowed demand to stay relatively stable. It's still not cheap, particularly if you're used to America outside of its big cities, but compared to any of the above mentioned places, it's a bargain!

If you don't mind living simply, you can rent a nice apartment for surprisingly cheap. An 85 square meter (900 square foot) apartment in a nice area will set you back around ¥200,000 (~US$1800) a month in most places around town (though substantially more if you're in a fancy area, as one might expect), but places half that size go for as little as ¥115,000 per month (~US$1,050). Good luck finding anything that cheap in New York or San Francisco!

As for houses, it's a similar story: they're not cheap, but they're not as out-of-control as major cities elsewhere. I'd put them roughly on par with houses Los Angeles -- you're going to need at least US$600,000 to get anything decent.

People's relationships with houses in Japan is very different than that of other places, due partially to tradition and partially to the country's unique circumstances. It's less common to want to buy a used house, with many people preferring to tear down existing structures every generation. Many people would rather buy an empty lot (or tear down an existing structure) and build their own house rather than buy a previously lived-in house.

According to the traditional ideal, couples buy a house with their parents' help once they get married. Once the house is built and everyone is settled, the couple raises their family in that house, and the parents may move in as well. The family doesn't really then tend to move out of that house until the kids are grown and ready to build the next one. As a result, people tended to stay in one house for 20 or 30 years.

And if you look at the recent history of Japan, a LOT happens in 20 or 30 years. Houses built immediately after the war tended to be flimsy, cheaply made affairs that tended to be fire hazards and didn't hold up to the ravages of time very well. Many didn't even have their own baths. As Japan recovered and started to become an economic force, the building got better. Standards for building structures that could stand up to earthquakes got better and better. Elements from Western housing -- things like central heating and insulation -- became popular, and then became necessities.

Until quite recently, most Japanese houses were simply not made to last more than that one generation of ownership. More recent constructions are thought to least double that, and so renovating existing homes is becoming more popular. Existing home prices int he Tokyo area start at around ¥60,000,000 (~US$530,000) and shoot up violently from there.

Of course, smaller cities are cheaper. You can get a very decent 3-story house in Osaka for as little as ¥23,800,000 (around US$210,000), and houses get bigger and cheaper as the locations get less cosmopolitan. The biggest, most internaitonal cities in a country will always be the most expensive place to live.

But in Japan's dense cities, only the fairly well-off are buying houses anyway. Many families buy condos or units in multi-family buildings and are quite happy with that.

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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