October 2023 | Japan Media Watch

Tower condos wrestle with disaster readiness and concerns over quality of life

Photo by Takashi Miyazaki on Unsplash

In late August, just before Tokyo was set to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake, the Tokyo metropolitan government (TMG) said it would work to "reduce the areas where old wooden houses are concentrated to zero in the 2040s", according to a report by Jiji Press. More than 90,000 people in Tokyo died in fires that swept through neighborhoods filled with wooden houses in 1923. Local governments wanted to redevelop these areas after World War II, which left many parts of the city in ruins, by widening streets, confirming property borders, and renovating dwellings. But the speed of reconstruction outpaced the authorities' more rational plans, and for the most part the areas filled up again with densely packed wooden houses. After designating these neighborhoods as being at heightened risk in a disaster, in 2013 Tokyo started “actively promoting the rebuilding of old wooden houses by providing subsidies and tax breaks”. The effort has been successful up to a point: There were still about 8,600 hectares of districts packed with unreconstructed wooden houses in Tokyo as of 2020. 

Most collective housing in Tokyo – apartment buildings and condominiums – are considered safer in an earthquake because of strict construction codes that have been in place since 1981. Arakawa ward, in fact, has asked large apartment complexes to temporarily accept neighbors whose homes have been destroyed or damaged in the event of an earthquake, but it is often difficult to persuade condo owners’ associations to open their doors as evacuation centers. Earlier this year, the TMG revised its disaster preparedness plan, asking residents of well-constructed apartment buildings to not evacuate to shelters in the event of an earthquake so as to allow more room for others in shelters. Tokyo Prefecture has about 4,700 places designated as evacuation centers whose total capacity is about 3.18 million people. The number of Tokyoites living in collective housing is about 9 million. 

An article that appeared July 14 in the Tokyo Shimbun explained the concept of “evacuation at home”. Disaster experts believe that residents of even so-called “tower mansions” (high-rise condominiums) would be better served by staying put following a major quake, since their buildings can withstand such disasters. However, given that elevators automatically shut down in the event of a quake, residents have to be well prepared by stocking up on necessities. Usually, elevators can only be turned back on by trained technicians, who will likely be very busy. Moreover, if electricity is knocked out in the disaster, residents will need to be more prepared, even if their building has a backup generator, which, due to fire laws, can only provide emergency power for limited periods. 

The public relations plan to spread this idea has been dubbed Tokyo Todomaru Mansion, which can be translated loosely as Tokyo Stay-put Condos. The idea is to officially certify those buildings that have put into place disaster preparedness measures that allow residents to remain in their units following a disaster. These measures include the creation of a preparedness manual for all residents, installing a backup generator, and stocking three days' worth of provisions for all residents. But though this plan was initiated 11 years ago, as of May only seven out of Tokyo's estimated 140,000 apartment buildings have received the certification. In response, the government decided in June to encourage applications by offering a subsidy of up to ¥660,000 for the purchase of disaster preparedness goods, such as portable toilets. 

One development that has complicated this plan is the sudden proliferation of high-rise condominiums and apartment buildings, which are defined as being at least 15 stories. Consequently, many media outlets have focused on tower mansions in their reporting on disaster preparedness, because the taller the building, the more difficult it is to remain there for an extended period of time. Alhough the TMG insists that these buildings are safe, and as long as residents are prepared for a disaster they can survive comfortably until services are back to normal, high-rise living comes with its own peculiar conditions that might make it more difficult than the authorities imagine. 

A preview of these difficulties came in 2019, when Typhoon Hagibis caused storm surges in the Tama River that in turn caused sewage systems at two of the 10 high-rise condos near Musashi Kosugi station in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, to back up. The sewage swamped the basement floors of the buildings, where all the electrical facilities are located. As a result, residents were deprived of elevator use and electrical power for a month, so almost all of them ended up having to evacuate, in particular elderly people who mainly lived on the top floors. What was notable about the flooding and loss of power was how unexpected it was. The company that built the condos admitted it was a development they hadn't anticipated.

Prior to the Musashi Kosugi troubles, the general opinion, at least in the press, was that tower condos were not only the safest places in Tokyo when disasters strike, but also the future of collective living in urban Japan. However, a strange kind of schadenfreude accompanied the extensive coverage of the Musashi Kosugi evacuation. Writing in Newsweek Japan, Atsushi Manabe said that a survey of social media showed that the public expressed little sympathy for the residents of the affected condos, deriding the rich for thinking that tower condos would protect them from disaster. The units in this particular set of condos were notably expensive, starting at ¥70 million. The reasons for the high price were many, but a central one was access to convenient public transportation. Musashi Kosugi is the nexus of three major train lines that service central Tokyo and central Yokohama, and while covering the storm surge reporters noticed that, during morning rush hour, long lines of commuters would snake out of the stations, sometimes as far as the front entrances to the condos. This situation was not caused by the disaster, but had existed before the typhoon. Just as the developers did not anticipate what a typhoon could do to their buildings, they didn't think about the strain that constructing so many new residential units in such a short time would place on local infrastructure. Consequently, new owners who paid premium prices for residences that were only five minutes on foot to their train station ended up having to leave their homes 30 minutes earlier just to get to work on time. (Due to improvements subsequently carried out by the affected train lines, much of this wait has been alleviated, but the trains themselves remain very overcrowded.)

Since then, media coverage of the high-rise boom in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures has been mixed. The most remarked upon drawback is being stranded on upper floors in the event of an extended power outage. One point that seems especially difficult is repairs and renovations. Conventional wisdom says that apartment buildings and condos should undergo extensive renovations every 15 years. That is a problem, especially for buildings with resident-owned units, since owners associations and building management companies have to devise and approve repair schedules that are likely to cost much more than their repair funds can cover. (Monthly contributions to repair funds – shuzenhi – are initially set low by developers in order to attract buyers for new condos.) Once that hurdle is overcome, they have to carry out the renovations, which may involve replacing elevators and plumbing, work that becomes quite difficult in collective housing. Tower condos simply compound these difficulties because of their height and the larger number of residents, but since the tower trend didn't really take hold until about 10 to 15 years ago, these problems haven't emerged just yet. 

One of the perceived merits of tower condos is their relative sustainability: one thousand households in a contained building exerts less of an environmental impact than 1,000 single-family houses. However, this argument warrants scrutiny due to the rapid pace of construction in Japan's larger cities. A recent discussion about the resilience of the Tokyo skyline on the web news program Democracy Times centered on the capital's notorious continuum of "scrap-and-build”, which started with the surge of development surrounding the 1964 Olympic Games and peaked during the late 1980s bubble. After the bubble burst and the economy settled into a stagnant period, the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi tried to jump start it with its "city renaissance" policy, whose central act was changing laws to increase local capacity rates so that higher, larger buildings could be constructed. The result has been a sea of high rises covering the central Tokyo landscape, especially on waterfront properties, which are almost all built on landfill. As a result, developers, according to Democracy Times, have become addicted to high rises since they are so profitable in the short run. The government likes them because they are useful for clearing out all those single-family wooden house neighborhoods that would collapse and burn in a major earthquake. 

But Junichiro Yamaoka, the financial journalist interviewed for the Democracy Times discussion, believes that tower condos have a lot of latent problems that no one is willing to address. In June 2021, excerpts from a book he wrote about high-rises were posted on The Gold Online, a website for "protecting, increasing, and leaving behind your assets". Tower condos, Yamaoka writes, were once exclusively marketed for the rich, but now anyone can buy them. He cites Tokyo's Chuo ward as an example. The ward's population went from 170,000 right after the war to 70,000 in 1997, so the ward government greatly increased capacity rates to encourage construction of larger, taller residential buildings, and it worked: The population had grown to 165,000 by June 2019, with 80% living in collective housing. In line with that increase, the ward government boosted public services, and as the population invariably ages there will be fewer children, which means schools opened or reopened recently to serve the new families will have to be repurposed or discarded. Other facilities will have to be merged in the face of depopulation in order to save maintenance costs. 

Yamaoka's point is that the bubble of economic growth occasioned by the high-rise boom is bound to burst sooner rather than later. Chuo ward has already reversed course by reducing capacity rates for new residential buildings and shifting priorities to commercial development, such as luxury hotels. Koto ward is doing the same after it saw a big jump in its population due to a wave of high-rise construction. And it isn't just Tokyo. The city of Kobe in western Japan is now restricting tower construction because of the congestion that high-rises are causing in popular neighborhoods. 

Tower condos also create "value gaps". Upper floor units are more expensive and bought by wealthy people, often as investments, while lower floors are occupied by households of lesser means, thus potentially leading to a two-tier system of management – one residents union for the rich, and another for the not-so-rich. As already mentioned, renovations for tower condos are much more difficult and expensive, and, in Yamaoka's words, the result could mean a "sustainable paradise" on the top floors versus a "slum" on the ones below. 

Besides the economic questions posed by tower living, there is a more immediate question about quality of life. The obvious appeal of high-rise life is the view, with its attendant feeling of luxury, of being above the fray. But such a feeling could come with an unexpected cost, especially for households with school-age children. Another sticking point for people who bought condos in Musashi Kosugi was the paucity of parks and other ground-level areas where children could play, a problem that was solved initially by allowing local kids to play on the roof of a nearby shopping mall. And then there's proximity to the ground – the higher you live, the more effort you need to get out of the building. A common complaint among people who live on upper floors is that it takes them longer to get to the ground because on the way the elevator makes more stops, and during rush hour these delays can become frustrating. Newer high-rise complexes come complete with retail and other facilities, so residents don't necessarily have to leave the building to do their daily chores. Convenience is the key, but only time will tell what psychological effects such self-isolation can have on residents.

Philip Brasor is a Tokyo-based writer who covers entertainment, the Japanese media, and money issues. He writes the Japan Media Watch column for the Number 1 Shimbun.