Tuesday, February 16, 2010

View from the Grave

Yokohama - View from the Sojiji Temple cemetery.

Related: As It Is in Heaven

A Dream Deferred

This is a nice old house bordering a small public garden near my home. It sits adjacent to a Swiss chalet. I have a feeling the owners of these humble and not so humble abodes originally owned the land that is now the public garden.

I'd like to buy this house but unfortunately it's worthless, shelf life: expired. Everything has a natural life span I guess. For a common house fly it's 15-30 days, for a redwood tree it’s typically five-to-seven hundred years. Between that is the expected lifespan of a new house in Japan: 30 - 35 years. I'm not so sure if that span is natural or if the early estimated demise has been hastened by some real estate broker, banker, builder conspiracy, but 35 years is the average, or so I've been told.

That doesn't necessarily mean the house will be uninhabitable after three and a half decades. Just like many redwoods that live to be a couple of thousand years old, many people continue to live comfortably in their houses well beyond the estimated expiration date. It's when you try to resell your house that the meaning of "life" becomes crystal clear. A twenty-year-old house for sale, sitting next to a new house half it's size and on half the property may sell for only half the price of its recently constructed neighbor. Now those big beautiful traditional wooden Japanese houses are a different story. Generally, the older the house, the bigger the piece of property it sits on. A builder is likely to buy up an old house, tear it down and build six or more new ones in its place to make a tidy profit. In my neighborhood, if the house was built before 1940 a builder will likely have room to build a dozen new tiny houses or a huge condominium building in its place.

Then at the bottom of it all is land rent. The properties on which many of the houses sit in my neighborhood belong to the same landowner. I'd like to have that job but I've been told it's strictly a family business. I heard the local landowner in my neck of the woods is a descendant of the last feudal lord to rule over the area. Among the reforms implemented by the occupation era government at the end of WWII was land reform. Land reform coupled with other wartime and post-war developments have helped make Japan's peasantry (i.e. farmers) a political force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately the US occupation government at the time put the brakes on the social reforms all too early and land reform stopped at the city lines. While the nobility system (with the exception of the emperor) was also dismantled, the lordly descendents still essentially hold the reins of power and in townships and cities still collect the tribute that's due them. That tribute in the form of land rent in my very ordinary (or even a-little-less-than-ordinary neighborhood) runs anywhere from 20-50,000 yen (about 200-500 dollars) a month. It's a pretty hefty sum that only goes up every 15 years or so.

It's often difficult to find the bright side of investing in a home and in the close quarters of modern Japanese cities where the sun never shines in there often literally is no bright side. After considering the pluses and minuses of buying a home in Japan, my wife and I decided to defer the dream for now and continue renting. The clincher for us was a dream my wife had that we bought a house and years after we and the house both expired our two sons (who in the dream had remained unmarried) were still living there together, perfectly happy but totally oblivious to the walls crumbling down around them.