Last Saturday I was biking around some back streets in Brooklyn down which I had not wandered before and stumbled across what was clearly a very old fashioned mansion of landmark status, but surprisingly labeled as private property rather than a museum or public building, with no descriptive signage whatsoever.
I found a 2006 New York Times article about the Commondant’s House, formally known as Quarters A of the now defunct Brooklyn Navy Yard, where my grandfather worked during World War II.((The Yard was closed in 1964, but after being vacant for some time is now a city owned industrial park for incubating small and medium businesses.)) The article describes the history of the property as follows.
The land for what was at first called the New York Navy Yard was bought in 1801. It is not clear whether the first officer in charge of the yard, Jonathan Thorne, was there when the house was built, a time frame traditionally given as 1805 to 1806. The archivist of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Daniella Romano, says that Thorne was later scalped and killed by Indians in 1811 while on a campaign in the Pacific near Vancouver.
The building that Thorne (or a successor) occupied is shown in 19th-century photographs as a clapboard house
four bays wide in front and five bays dee
p. The facade rose to a peaked roof and a rooftop observation deck.
The main doorway, on the right, was in an intricate Federal style with a fanlight. The cornice and roof trim also carried delicate detailing.
Charles Bulfinch, the architect for part of the United States Capitol, is often mentioned as the designer, but Ms. Romano believes that was the wishful invention of a 20th-century writer.
In fact, the terms of office in the 19th century seemed to run rather short: Perry’s successor, Joshua Sands, was commandant for only a year. The next commandant, Silas Stringham — who fought the slave trade off the African coast and pirates in the West Indies — served from 1844 to 1846.
It was halfway through his occupancy that The Brooklyn Eagle visited Quarters A and wrote that the house, “with its lawns, terraces and teeming gardens, is a conspicuous object.”
An Eagle reporter returned in August 1872 and wrote that, along with its orchard and vegetable garden, Quarters A had “a look that makes one feel that it must be a pleasant thing to be the commandant.” That was during the four-year term of Stephen C. Rowan, a Civil War veteran.
It is unclear who lives there today. The Times says that the house has been “In private ownership since the Navy Yard closed in 1964”, but the aforementioned Nomination Form, dated July 1969, says that “Quarters A is owned by the Navy, privately occupied, and not open to the public.” It also lists the owner as “Adm. Harry L. Horty, Jr., Vice-chairman, U.S. Delegation U.N. Military Staff Committee”, which I suppose may mean that the house is still owned by the Navy and occupied by an admiral, but sadly the only thing I know for sure is that it remains closed to the public.
As there has been some incorrect and/or incomplete information being circulated regarding the details of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plants in this post I have translated the vital details of the various reactors of both Fukushima Plant #1 and #2 from their official profile pages at the Tokyo Power Company (which is their owner) website.
Apologies for the bizarre amount of white space, something wacky with the table HTML I can’t fix now, but the information itself is completely legible.
In both tables, the numbered columns refer to the individual reactors of the plants. For example, Plant #1, Reactor #1, etc.
Profile of Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Number One: (福島第一原子力発電所)
This was the first nuclear power plant build and operated by the company. It covers an area 75 times as large as Tokyo Dome, about 350,000 square meters.
Boiling Water Reactor(BWR)
% made in Japan
Heat output(10,000s kW)
Fuel assemblies(length in m)
Total weight(metric tons)
Pressure control pool volume(metric tons)
Rotation speed (rpm)
Intake steam temp(℃)
Profile of Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Number Two: (福島第二原子力発電所)
Despite being one of the most famous incidents in all of human history, there is still a surprising amount of speculation, doubt, and conspiracy theorizing regarding the dropping of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Foremost among these is Truman’s real motivation for ordering the bombing; did he really believe that it was the only way to end the war without hundreds of thousands, or millions more deaths, or did he believe that Japan was ready to surrender, but could not give up the chance to show off the awesome destructive power of the atom to the Soviets? I could of course investigate that question all day, but instead I want to briefly look at two other issues related to the morality of the bombing.
First of these is a fascinating, some might say disturbing, questionnaire given to over 250 Manhattan Project scientists in July, 1945, which was first published as “A Poll of Scientists at Chicago, July 1945,” in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 1948, 44, p63. (Link thanks to i09.com)
Which of the following five procedures comes closest to your choice as to the way in which any new weapons that may develop should be used in the Japanese war:
Use them in the manner that is from the military point of view most effective in bringing about prompt Japanese surrender at minimum human cost to our armed forces.
Give a military demonstration in Japan to be followed by renewed opportunity for surrender before full use of the weapon is employed.
Give an experimental demonstration in this country, with representatives of Japan present; followed by a new opportunity for surrender before full use of the weapon is employed.
Withhold military use of the weapons, but make public experimental demonstration of their effectiveness.
Maintain as secret as possible all developments of our new weapons and refrain from using them in this war.
Please read the full post at Ptak Science Books for far more details, including the results of the original poll, the online poll, and links to their long series of posts on the history of atomic weaponry.
A Chinese intellectual credited with saving historic Nara from annihilation in World War II is to be immortalized in bronze in the ancient Japanese capital.
Liang Sicheng (1901-1972), a renowned Chinese architectural historian who was born and spent his early childhood in Japan, is believed to have interceded with the U.S. military to protect the historic former capitals of Nara and Kyoto from the air raids that flattened many of Japan’s urban centers.
The statue was unveiled in Beijing in mid-June in the presence of representatives from Japan and China and is expected to be installed at the Nara Prefectural Cultural Hall by late October.
Liang was known for his efforts to protect China’s cultural treasures in areas occupied by Japan during the Japan-China war, producing a map, at the request of the U.S. authorities, of key sites in the country.
But he is also believed to have used his connections with U.S. officers to plead on behalf of Japan’s ancient capitals.
“He strived to protect cultural properties from war damage, not just those of his own country but those of an enemy,” said Luo Zhewen, a former senior official of the State Bureau of Cultural Relics.
Luo, 86, who worked with Liang on the China map, is an adviser to the China Social-Cultural Development Foundation, which has helped promote the statue idea.
He said the statue would have “great significance for China and Japan’s friendship.”
There are no written records to confirm Liang’s role in preventing the bombing of Kyoto and Nara. The story of his contribution appears to have originated with Su Bai, 87, a professor of archaeology at Peking University.
In 1947 or 1948, Su attended a lecture by Liang, who told him during a break about the map of cultural properties in China and his request to the U.S. forces to refrain from bombing Nara and Kyoto.
Su mentioned Liang’s comment to a Japanese researcher in the 1980s and the story began to spread.
Liang was born in Japan and lived there until age 11. His father was Liang Qichao, a well-known reformer during the late Qing Dynasty. After graduating from what is now Tsinghua University, Liang studied architectural history in the United States from 1924 to 1928.
He worked for wartime culture protection under the Chinese Nationalist government.
Lin Zhu, Liang’s second wife, said he told her about his request to the U.S. forces during the Cultural Revolution, when he became a target of student criticism.
“He loved Japan, where he spent his early childhood. He was so troubled by Japan’s invasion of China,” said Lin, 82.
Lin said her husband had kept his appeal on behalf of Nara and Kyoto secret because he feared his help for the wartime enemy might make him a target of criticism.
There are competing accounts of why the old capitals were avoided by U.S. bombers. Langdon Warner (1881-1955), an art historian at Harvard University and a mentor to Liang while he was at Harvard, is also credited with calling for the cities’ protection. The decision has been attributed by some to U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson.
Liang’s grandson, Liang Jian, 56, says, “I believe my grandfather wanted to protect cultural assets regardless of national borders. It is, however, a fact that no written records exist.”
As far as I’m concerned, that last line is the most important one. While I am willing to believe that Liang “wanted to preserve cultural assets” there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to think that he did, or that Doctor Langdon Warner – who is popularly, and falsely credited for having saved Kyoto despite his own denials – did so, rather than military and political considerations. The fact is that there is no real evidence to suggest that cultural asset preservation was a factor in the decision over where to drop the atom bombs, which is a topic that I plan to make a detailed post on some time in the future.
Really, at it’s core the myth that Kyoto, and perhaps Nara and other historical cities, were saved from the atom bomb due to a strong desire to preserve ancient relics is nothing but a feel-good story for both side. Now, it might sound crazy to some that any aspect of the bombings is a “feel-good story,” but I propose that it actually serves such a purpose for both the Americans and the Japanese. By believing the myth that our government and military was persuaded to significantly alter the bombing plan, we can believe that, even in the midst of a bloody and inhuman war, an appeal by a humble art historian led us to transcend immediate concerns of war between nations for the sake of the historical legacy of humanity as a whole. We can pretend that while on the one hand we possess such godlike power, we also have the humility to use it wisely, and by remembering how we spared history for the sake of a greater good, we can conveniently draw attention away from the decisions to kill hundreds of thousands.
Conversely, for the Japanese side to believe in this myth is to somewhat allay the wounds of defeat by appealing to national pride. After all, for an enemy so terrified and desperate to win that they would unleash the power of the sun itself to, in that very instant of apocalyptic destruction, to deliberately avoid incinerating Japan’s largest concentrations of sacred and historically significant sites can be nothing but a reflection of how truly significant those sites, that culture and history, must be. To believe so strongly in the power of Japanese culture to affect the enemy’s actions in such a moment creates a kind of victory in the face of defeat, much as the common (although, I stress, not universal) portrayal of the bombings as an event of passive victimhood similar to a natural disaster, with neither reason nor aggressor, creates a narrative in which all moral complexity is stripped away, the virtuous suffering, martyrdom, and survival of the victims are the only salient facts, allowing for a sort of moral victory in the face of defeat. The perpetuation of this historical myth may seem innocent to some, but it enables the avoidance of the grave moral and strategic issues that actually were in play, issues of both Japan’s war responsibility and American reasons for the use the atomic bomb (as raised in the survey above), and does a disservice to those who suffered and died.
Korean A-bomb Victims Have Bitter Grudge against US-Japan
Pyongyang, August 5 (KCNA) — Sixty-five years has elapsed since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, leaving hundreds of thousands of innocent people dead. The death toll is about 159,000 in Hiroshima and 73,000 in Nagasaki.
Among the victims of the nuclear holocaust, the first of its kind in human history, were foreigners and many of them were Koreans.
According to a non-governmental organization of south Korea, the total number of the Korean victims is about 70,000 and the death toll about 40,000. A civic organization of Japan made public that the Korean victims in Nagasaki alone total 21,384, 10,278 of them dead.
The figures show that the Koreans account for more than ten percent of all the victims.
Many Korean people, forcibly brought to Japan for slave labor, lost their lives due to the atomic bombs. Even survivors died later or are still suffering from their aftermath.
Some of the survivors have come back to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
They have been harassed by mental sufferings as they have adversely affected their descendants in the second and third generations from the genetic point of view. They are closing their days with a deep-rooted rancor against the United States and Japan.
Nevertheless, Japan has refused to make any apology and compensation or render humanitarian assistance to them allegedly because it has no diplomatic ties with the DPRK. On the contrary, it is seeking nuclear armament with the backing of the United States.
Meanwhile, the United States, far from feeling guilty of having inflicted the unheard-of nuclear holocaust on humans, has stepped up nuclear war preparations near the Korean peninsula and in other regions of the world.
The Korean army and people are determined to decisively smash the nuclear war preparations of the U.S. imperialists, their sworn enemy, and foil the nuclear ambition of the Japanese reactionaries, who are going for reinvasion of Korea, servile with the United States.
I also have another blog post related to the Hiroshima bombing I plan to put up later, whereupon I will replace this note at the bottom with a link.
I am also planning on doing a follow-up piece sometime, discussing a little bit more about the history of Yoshida-ryo and the other self-administered dorms at Kyoto University, as well as some of the “self run” (自治) student activity areas in the university, and the relationship between Yoshida-ryo and the various squatting protests that have occurred on campus over the years, such as the Ishigaki Cafe and the currently still ongoing Kubikubi Cafe. Since CNNGo would not really be an appropriate venue for this sort of piece, I’m hoping readers can suggest or introduce someplace that might be interested!
Little known outside of Kyoto is the fact that Kyoto University has the last remaining truly old style dormitory, constructed in the late Meiji era timber construction style. Opened in 1913, Yoshida-ryo (吉田寮) still exists nearly 100 years later despite decades of attempts by the school to raze it and replace it with a less scummy and earthquake-unsafe bland concrete box. A relic in both architectural and social terms, it exists today in a weird nebulous state somewhere between an official school dormitory and a giant squat-house.
When I took our friend, and current CNNGo editor, David Marx on a tour of the campus during his brief visit to Kyoto some time last year he demanded that I do a piece on Yoshida-ryō for him, and we finally got it done. For my 20 part photo gallery and a brief history of the dorm, check out my article at CNNGo.
Osaka has a problem. (Well, OK — it has lots of problems.) But there is one problem out there that is so big it has been called the “Osaka 2011 Problem” — the massive construction of skyscrapers and other major real estate projects across the city. These projects will come online on a rolling basis for years, but 2011 is considered to be the peak year when the market is flooded with too much new real estate. Hence the new buzzword.
Why are new skyscrapers a problem? Osaka’s city economy is a basketcase, effectively two decades behind the times with a tired industrial sector and trading economy that has not evolved into the modern era. It has failed miserably in competing with Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya and Fukuoka, all of which have found an important niche in the 21st century global and Asian market. So all this premier real estate in Osaka will be finished, but there will not be enough tenants to provide the demand for this new supply.
Yet I discussed this with a learned friend who knows Japan’s real estate market inside and out. He says that, as they main developers are all the big boys, so they be able to entice key keiretsu companies to take space in their new projects to get a head start on income. There will be a flight to quality, as major companies relocating into new projects will give everyone an opportunity to upgrade, while rent levels will come down (think Dubai!), and owners of old real estate will come under pressure to sell assets.
This is the story of urban development elsewhere. Larger companies have cheaper capital costs and as one area’s development cycle completes they look at another area to buy up and re-develop. Some projects in the pipeline have as their business plan the buy out of seedy businesses (and second-rate businesses) to aggregate land and build something nice. In other words, gentrification! This does create value.
Some of these projects can be highlighted and looked at under the microscope, such as the Kita Umeda Yard — check-out insight on the project from the blog Osaka Insider. This could well become the new hot spot, as Shin Osaka loses tenants to Kita-Umeda. And as Shin-Osaka declines, developers may well buy out land around Shin Osaka and re-develop Shin Osaka area, at the same time that one of the trains is extended from Umeda to Shin Osaka. Once again, the gentrification strategy.
My learned friend also some some further insight — this procession is fair. Japan is similar to Western Europe in that there is a traditional landed class that lives off of rent, but they never reinvest and sad buildings last for years without repairs. The Osaka redevelopment should make the property market more competitive, and those landowners that can’t survive will be forced to sell out.
Will this be good or bad? Only time will tell. But from a macro view, this so-called problem may well be the kick that Osaka needs to re-build a sad economy.
It was announced on January 28th that the downtown Kyoto location of the Hankyu department store will be closing in autumn. Sales at the store, which opened in 1971, had fallen to a pitiful 1/3 of peak volume, which was reached back in 1991 on the precipice of the bubble. I had originally begun writing a post on the circumstances leading to the closing, the reaction to it, and the possible impact on the area but a planned paragraph on the larger history got out of hand and I ended up with about 2000 words on the history of the department store in Japan in general. Therefore, I have decided to save the discussion of the current events aspect for another post and publish the history piece right now.
Kyoto’s Hankyu Kawaramachi in the 1970s
The store is located on the SE corner of the bustling Shijo – Kawaramachi intersection, just above the terminal of the Kyoto Line of Hankyu rail that links downtown Kyoto with Osaka’s downtown neighborhood of Umeda. (Trivia time: technically the Kyoto line terminates one stop before Umeda in Juso, with service between those two stations technically running over the quadruple track of the Takarazuka line, but this is an internal technicality and for all practical purposes the lines terminates at Shijo-Kawaramachi one one end, and Umeda on the other.) The presence of Hankyu department store above the Hankyu railway terminal is of course no coincidence, as the confluence of private regional railroads and departments stores is a distinctive and rather unique characteristic of the history of both industries in Japan, which had a profound impact on Japanese urban development in the 20th century. Although the Hankyu department store only opened in 1971 and the terminal beneath it had only opened in 1963, their Kyoto Line had linked Kyoto and Osaka for decades before that, with the section between Saiin (西院) Station and Omiya (大宮) Station (which had been the terminal before the Kawaramachi station opened, and had gone by the name of Kyoto Station) having been the first subway train in all of Kansai. (See timeline here.)
The intersection of Shijo and Kawaramachi street (四条河原町) is the heart of downtown Kyoto, which has long been anchored by large department stores – and in fact Kyoto is itself the birthplace of many of the dry-goods stores known as 呉服店 (gofukuten, roughly “traditional Japanese-style clothing stores” as opposed to 洋服店 (youfukuten) or “Western-style clothing stores”) that eventually evolved into the modern department store goliaths. Even department stores that originated in Edo or Tokyo (same city, different times) had strong ties to Kyoto, which was the center of the Japanese textiles and clothing industry until western style clothing took over as daily fashion in the 20th century.
Hankyu is not just one example of the peculiar symbiosis between Japanese railways and department stores, but its originator. Unlike all of the other department stores that I will be mentioning later, Hankyu was a train company first, only expanding into the retail business later on. The predecessor to the Hankyu Railway Company was Minou Arima Denki Kidou(箕面有馬電気軌道), or the Minou – Arima Electric Railway, and called Kiyu Densha (箕有電車). (kidou is a now rarely used word that translates to “permanent way” in English, referring to the physical infrastructure of railway tracks.) Starting in 1906, Kiyu Densha first ran trains between Umeda and Ikeda, Ikeda to Takarazuka to Arima, and to Minou. After some rapid expansion through both construction and acquisition, they changed their name to Hanshin Kyuukou Dentetsu (阪神急行電鉄) or Osaka – Kobe Express Railroad, in 1910. In 1943 they merged with Keihan Denki Kidou (Kyoto – Osaka Electric Railway, 京阪電気鉄道) and changed their name once again to Keihanshin Kyuukou Dentetsu, (京阪神急行電鉄), which meant the Kyoto – Osaka – Kobe Express Railway. In 1949 the union came to an end, with the Keihan unit being spun off once again into the present Keihan Electric Railroad, and finally became the Hankyu Corporation in 1973.
Hankyu Umeda Station, ca. back in the day
Hankyu’s entrance to the retail market was driven by the company’s founder Kobayashi Ichizo, which naturally has a page of hagiography to him on their corporate site. Although the Hankyu Department Store (阪急百貨店) proper opened in 1929, there were actually two significant stages before that. The first was in 1920, when the Tokyo based Shirokiya (白木屋) rented the first floor of the Hankyu Umeda Station building, sensing the obvious business opportunity of a store directly connected to a major railway terminal. Shirokiya was founded in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district in 1662, when it was still Edo, and became a modern corporation under the name of Shirokiya Gofukuten in 1919, just before opening their store in Umeda. Shirokiya Umeda sold food and other grocery store items, while Hankyu turned the second floor into a large affordable eatery called the “Hankyu Cafeteria” (阪急食堂). After Shirokiya’s lease ended in 1925 Hankyu booted them out and turned the 2nd and 3rd floor into the “Hankyu Market” (阪急マ－ケット), but it is unclear what exactly replaced Shirokiya. In 1929 this was finally developed into the Hankyu Department store, which is widely recognized as the pioneer of the “railway terminal department store” model that can now be seen throughout Japanese cities. In 1947 the Hankyu Department Store was established as a separate company from the Railway, but they remained under the same holding company, although the names have changed slightly yet again following the recent merger between the Hankyu and Hanshin (Osaka – Kobe) groups. (See this Japanese language site for a great history of the Hankyu Umeda station, including many old photos and maps.)
The Hankyu Market
Significantly, Shirokiya would later became the Tokyu Department Store, as Tokyo’s answer to the Hankyu model of retail and railway symbiosis, after being bought by the Tokyo Railway. Presumably this was related to their experience in developing the market in Umeda. Incidentally, although there is no mention that I can find anywhere on official looking pages, I did find a couple of references online mentioning that Shirokiya had originally been a well-known clothing wholesaler (呉服問屋) in Kyoto before establishing a retail store in Edo, a pattern that is seen repeated more reliably in another example below.
The old Shirokiya store.
Hankyu’s retail division was a latecomer to Kyoto, having only opened their store in 1971, but Takashimaya had already had their store on the southwest corner – directly across from Hankyu’s location on the southeast corner – since 1950. The company that would later become Takashimaya was in fact originally founded in Kyoto in 1831 and reorganized as a modern corporation under the name of Takashimaya Gofukuten in 1919, but in 1932 opened their first modern department store in Osaka and made that their corporate headquarters, which it remains to this day.
Just a couple of blocks to the west, along Shijo, one can also find the original Daimaru department store, which like Takashimaya was born in Kyoto, but later moved their headquarters to Osaka. Daimaru was founded in 1717 as the Gofukuten Daimonjiya (呉服店大文字屋), in Kyoto’s Fushimi ward, well south of the current downtown location. In addition to their primary business as a retail establishment they also had a currency exchange counter, which might surprise those who remember that Japan was virtually closed to foreign trade during this period. In fact, exchanged were not being made between foreign money and Japanese money, but between the Japanese gold, silver, and bronze coins, for which a 1-2% service charge was exacted. Daimonjiya (presumably named for Kyoto’s famous landmark / festival) expanded early, to Osaka’s Shinsaibashi in 1726 and Nagoya’s Honmachi in 1728 (later closed), which is when they changed the name to Daimaru. After reorganizing as a modern corporation under the name of Daimaru Gofukuten in 1908, they opened their first modern department store at the current location in Kyoto in 1912. Although this is the location of their first actual department store, the Shinsaibashi site on which they opened in 1726 is their current flagship store, which is doing well enough to have opened a new annex building directly across the street from the original building just last year.
Next I would like to mention Mitsukoshi, even though it was not exactly founded in Kyoto and does not currently even have any locations in the city. It is well known that the future Mitsukoshi department store was founded by Mitsui Takatoshi as the Echigoya Gofukuten (越後屋) in Edo (now Tokyo) in 1673, and was the first semi-modern retail clothing store, leading the way for those mentioned above. Like Daimaru, they also had a currency exchange window, which developed into the Mitsui Bank and later formed the basis for the Mitsui Zaibatsu / Group. (Incidentally, the Kyoto Hankyu building is actually owned by Mitsui Sumitomo Real Estate, and leased to Hankyu.) Less well known is the fact that Mitsui was at the same time operating a location in Kyoto, but rather than a retail store like the company in Edo was a purchaser/wholesaler (仕入店), and this Kyoto office was apparently considered the headquarters in the early days of the company. It was first located in the Nishijin (西陣) district, which at that time was the center of Japan’s textiles industry on Muromachi Street in Yakushi-cho (室町通薬師町), but it soon moved to the south, and became the first Echigoya retail store in Kyoto. Although Mitsui later sold most of the land after the store closed, they kept a small portion at the corner of Nijo and Muromachi, which is now a memorial park to the old Kyoto store, which appropriately contains a shrine to Inari, the Shinto fox god of wealth. (See Google map below for location, and photos plus more info in Japanese here.) Although I couldn’t find any reference to it online, I believe I have also seen a photograph of an ornate Meiji era style Mitsukoshi store labeled as having been at the very same Shijo-Kawaramachi corner as Hankyu and Takashimaya, on the northeast corner. I think the photo was from the 1920s or 1930s, and that it said the store burned down, without being rebuilt.
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The last traditional department store that deserves mentioning is the one with the least history in the city, despite being one of the most visible today. I speak of course of JR-West Isetan, located in tower of the Kyoto Station building. WEST JAPAN RAILWAY ISETAN Ltd., as the company is properly called, is 60% owned by JR West and 40% owned by Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd., but was founded in 1990 before the Isetan / Mitsukoshi merger, and so was originally a joint venture of JR West and Isetan. Remember that since privatization JR West is no longer government owned, but publicly traded on various stock markets. Isetan was itself founded Tokyo in 1886 as yet another gofukuten, and like the rest of the big ones evolved into a modern department store in 1930 when they opened their flagship store in Shinjuku. Isetan never had a store in Kyoto until September 11 1997, when the JR West Isetan department store opened along with the brand new Kyoto Station building itself, which had been newly erected to replace the bland concrete building that had been constructed as a temporary station to replace the classic style station building that had been lost to fire in 1950. For whatever reason, JR West did not partner with a department store chain that already had ties to Kyoto (maybe they tried and failed, I really have no idea), but regardless, the idea that a full size department store was an essential anchor to a new, modern station building reinforces the long union between railways and department stores in 20th century Japan, started at Hankyu Umeda 70-odd years earlier.
The 2008 Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications housing statistics are out. Read them here, or just read my highlight reel below.
57.6 million homes in Japan and 13.1% are vacant
Anyone who has traveled through the countryside of Japan is probably not surprised at this. Several prefectures are now in the 15 to 20% vacancy range, including Yamanashi (the worst at 20.2% vacancy), Nagano, Wakayama, and all of Shikoku.
Stand-alone houses are in the majority, but high-rise apartments are slowly taking over
Of the total home count, 55.4% are stand-alone houses (一戸建). A dwindling 2.7% are row houses (長屋建), i.e. stand-alone houses clustered together sharing walls. The remaining 41.7% are group residences (共同住宅), like apartments and condos. These form the majority of homes in the Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya metropolitan areas (52.1% of the three regions combined), and 56.4% of the housing stock around Tokyo.
Although the group residences were mostly one and two-story buildings back in the eighties, these low-rise units are less than 30% of the total apartment/condo count now. More than 30% of units today are in buildings of more than five stories, and 12.7% are in buildings of more than ten stories. Both proportions are steadily increasing.
More owners than renters
61.2% of Japan’s homes are owned, while 35.8% are rented (the remainder is “unverified”). About 6% of the total stock is owned by the government (public housing and Urban Renaissance Agency “UR” housing, about which I plan to write more in the future).
Owners have a heck of a lot more space
The average owned home has a floor area of 120.89 m2. The average rented home, on the other hand, has a floor area of 45.93 m2 (494 square feet for our American readers), which I find to be ridiculously tiny for anything resembling a “household.” (It would be interesting to see some more stats, like quintiles or something, or at least median numbers.)
Old people are taking over
8.3% of Japan’s houses are now occupied by single people over 65, and that number is rising (up 22.4% in the last five years). This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, since this is one of the most rapidly aging societies on Earth, but one must wonder who will take care of all these people in the event of a really major disaster. Like an extended LDP administration.
Inspired by the news the other day that a Kyoto district court has rules that housing rental contract renewal fees are a violation of consumer rights, I thought I would write a brief introduction to how renting works, based primarily on my own experiences.
I have rented twice in America, three times in Japan, and one time in Taiwan, with an asterisk. As this post was getting quite long, I’ve decided to split it up into three pieces. Since I want to go in chronological order, I’ll first discuss America with a brief mention of Taiwan, then part 2 will discuss how it works in Japan, and finally in the third part I will break down my actual housing contract as specific examples.
I went to college at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, in the small city of New Brunswick. After two years in various dorms I decided to move out, and went looking for a house or apartment to share with a friend or three. The Rutgers campus is surrounded by a zone of houses (with a very few apartment buildings) which are occupied almost entirely by students renting from year to year, formed as if the city were insulating itself from the campus in much the manner of an oyster generating a pearl to protect its soft, fragile body from a piece of grit. Since houses in the area are almost entirely for students, landlords can advertise directly to them quite easily through the housing office bulletin board etc, so there is no need for anyone to involve real estate agents. In most cases, the owner of the house rents directly to students, and are usually very amateurish about arranging repairs etc. The security deposit is equal to 1.5 months rent, as specified by city ordnance, and must be kept in a special bank account which may be used only to store the security deposit. When first moving in, the only thing you pay are first month rent, last month rent, and the security deposit. There is no “renewal fee” or anything similar, and in ordinary circumstances, most of the security deposit is returned.
This is pretty much the procedure throughout the US. While houses may be rented directly by the owner or through a real estate agent (who I presume earns some sort of fee), one often has contact with the landlord (i.e. the actual owner) after moving in, but owners of multiple properties may hire a company to deal with residents for them. Large apartment buildings generally have a superintendent who manages building, particularly construction, although I am somewhat vague about how small apartment buildings generally work. Security deposit is usually legally restricted to an amount of 1.5 or 2 months rent, and contract renewal fees are illegal. There is one big exception in the case of ‘key money’, which I will discuss later.
I should also add that exclusion by race or nationality is highly illegal, to the point where realtors are legally prohibited from even discussing the racial makeup of the neighborhood, should the renter be trying to, for example, avoid living near black people. This is very strictly enforced (at least in some states.) My mother had a good friend who worked as a realtor, who told me that the New Jersey state board of real estate (or whatever the official name is) actually sends undercover inspectors to do random checks of real estate agents and make sure they are following the discrimination guidelines. Realtors who break the rules lose their license.
I lived in one such house for a year (actually the first story of a two family house, as many houses are in the area), went to Japan for two years, where I lived in school dorms, and then returned for my final year at Rutgers, where I shared a second-story apartment of a different two-family house, which had been arranged while I was away by the girlfriend of a good friend (the girl being Jess Rees and the friend being Brian Cervino, both members of the band Huma whose music I recommend), and another guy that she knew. I’m afraid I forget now exactly what the rent was, but it came out to somewhere between $300 and $400 per person, plus some more for utilities. The security deposit in New Brunswick is set by law at 1.5 months, and in both cases most of it was returned, although well after the 30 day window required by law. As a student with no independent source of income, the landlords also required parents to co-sign as a guarantee. This is common in the US in such situations, but is not usual for renters who actually have a stable job. In both cases, everyone living in the apartment signed the lease, but the room and rent allocation was not explicitly spelled out, which in retrospect might have been a good idea, as there were some minor arguments in that area in the first house (although none at all in the second.)
I next went to study in Taiwan for a few months, where had arranged no housing in advance aside from a one-week reservation in a youth hostel, but almost immediately found a promising room advertised on a bulletin board at school. This experience gets an asterisk because as a subleter I never signed, or even examined, a contract and know relatively little about the local procedures and laws. My general impression, however, is that it works more or less the same as in most of the US, with no ‘key money’ or renewal fees, and only moderate security deposits. It seemed to me that rentals often go through agents (at least in apartment building-dominated Taipei) but perhaps in smaller cities/towns there are more landlords renting directly.
CHICAGO (AP) — The Sears Tower, one of the world’s iconic skyscrapers and the tallest building in the U.S., was renamed the Willis Tower on Thursday in a downtown ceremony, marking a new chapter in the history of the giant edifice that has dominated the Chicago skyline for nearly four decades.
The linked story might claim the building is being named after an insurance broker. But that’s just not true. Everyone knows the building was named after the late native Chicagoan and prolific schizophrenic songwriter Wesley Willis.
Rock over London! Rock on Chicago! Taco Bell: Make a run for the border!
As a fan of his since junior high, I was shocked when Willis died in 2003. I couldn’t think of a better tribute than to name a huge building after him!