When I wrote Why are Japanese houses so weird? a lot of readers objected to the title and thought I was being a xenophobic American, when I am neither. Now the Guardian has picked up on the story, wondering why a country with a shrinking population is has so much new housing going up. It keeps a lot of people busy:
The disposable-home culture has led to a perverse market, where construction is in almost-perpetual boom without the number of homes increasing much at all. It has also produced a huge number of architects, who are kept busy by buyers wanting a new house that reflects their lifestyle. According to the International Union of Architects, Japan has almost 2.5 architects per 1,000 residents, whereas Britain only has half an architect per 1,000 residents. The US has only 0.33 architects per 1,000 residents and Canada has 0.22%. Japan, in other words, has 11 times as many architects per capita as Canada.
The government also promotes obsolescence in house design by upgrading the building codes every ten years due to earthquake risk. Rather that retrofit, people rebuild.
That's good news for the Japanese economy, but less good for homeowners themselves. They seem to accept the situation, however, often even neglecting to properly maintain a home they know is on track for demolition. But the real victim is the environment: replacing the entire housing stock within a generation means a whole lot of construction waste.
The Guardian links to a study by Richard Koo and Masaya Sadaki, that sees this as a serious problem, an obstacle to affluence.
Housing is clearly an inefficient asset for Japanese households. In addition to being difficult to buy and sell, it is almost certain to decline in value. These characteristics have a major influence on wealth creation in Japanese households.
While these unique circumstances in Japan have helped create some of the most idiosyncratic houses on the planet, there is an inherent wastefulness in the practice of tearing down and rebuilding that might even be contributing to Japan's economic slump. According to Richard Koo, an economist in Tokyo, the continuous cycle prevents families from building wealth on top of wealth, often selling their homes for less than they paid, preventing what he calls the construction of an "affluent society."