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Sunday, Dec. 11, 2005

MEDIA MIX

If you want to build a home for the future then do it outside of Japan


Shortly after the quake-proofing scandal broke, Shukan Bunshun referred to the "hairstyle" of architect Hidetsugu Aneha as being just as much a "fabrication" (gizo) as the structural calculations he drew up for all those doomed condominiums. The joke was a telling one. Publicly exposing wig-wearers is a media taboo on the scale of outing homosexuals, and Bunshun's use of this less-than-relevant revelation in one of its headlines indicated that the gloves were off. Aneha's sins were so grave that anything could be thrown at him.

As the scandal has developed and implicated more and more people, Aneha has come to look like the unfortunate schmuck who got caught first. When he was the sole focus of enmity things were easy, but now that it appears the whole system is rotten, the media's coverage has become a babble of accusations, buck-passing and engineering jargon.

What the average person takes away from it all is something the media usually only hints at: Substandard dwellings are the norm in Japan. The country's housing construction industry is a racket that the government tolerates because it advocates a policy that places home-ownership at the center of the country's economy. Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe inadvertently said as much when he declared that something had to be done about the scandal right away "or the Japanese economy would be ruined." Some media criticized the remark, saying that Takebe was more concerned about general contractors than about homeowners, but it didn't change the truth of what he said. If consumers take the scandal seriously and stop buying homes, the country could be looking at a recession. The government is chiefly to blame since such a scandal was inevitable given its hands-off approach to the construction industry.

That much can be gleaned from a discussion between three architects which appeared this week in Aera. Elaborating on Aneha's suggestion that his falsifying earthquake-proofing data to save construction costs represented a "trend" (fucho), the three experts said that construction companies and developers now make structural judgments on buildings and simply hire architects to comply with those judgments.

Generally speaking, if you want to reduce construction costs you first cut non-essentials such as external tiles and other decorative features that have nothing to do with the structure. But according to the logic contained in Aneha's remark, structural elements, such as reinforcement rods, are eliminated first because developers insist on these decorative aspects to sell buildings.

Norihide Imakawa, a professor at Tokyo Electrical University, points out that Huser Ltd., one of the developers caught up in the scandal, seems to use the same designs and calculations for many of its condominiums in order to save money. The features are dictated by Huser based on one strategy: give consumers large units with the appearance of something high-class while saving money on every other consideration, including, presumably, safety. So-called "designer mansions" are, according to architect Norihiko Dan, simply "boxes with makeup." Developers want to sell the illusion of a custom-built condo to people who can't afford custom-built condos. They look pretty on the outside and have lots of bells and whistles on the inside.

The three men condemn this "trend" from on high. Designing condominiums and homes, which are essentially the mass market merchandise of the construction industry, doesn't sound like a particularly interesting job for architects. Real architects, it's implied, do office buildings, public spaces, etc. Developers and construction companies call the tune in the housing market and only corruptible architects -- i.e., those more interested in money than in "professionalism" -- become involved in it. These three wouldn't be caught dead designing a condominium or a business hotel.

The inescapable conclusion is that developers consider housing units commodities before they consider them places where people might want to spend the rest of their lives and raise their children. Their usefulness in terms of economic effectiveness is, conceptually, at least, no different from that of cars or light bulbs. Japanese homes are built to self-destruct in 30 years or less so that there will always be demand for new ones. Planned obsolescence, in other words, is just as important to the construction industry as it is to the automotive and home electronics industries. How else to explain why all residential structures in Japan rapidly decline in value?

In this light, what shall we make of the government's decision to financially support the homeowners who have to move out of their condos because of Aneha's structural data fabrications? If we take the Takebe comment at face value, the reason has less to do with assuming responsibility for the mess than with containing the immediate problem for the sake of the economy.

So even if the government acknowledges its responsibility, it maintains its priorities. Last Tuesday TBS's "News 23" ran a report on a low-income public housing project in Tochigi Prefecture that was found to be full of asbestos. Apparently, it will take some time to remove the carcinogen and in the meantime the residents have not been told by the authorities to move out. The anchorman, Tetsuya Chikushi, wondered out loud why the government would bail out condo-dwellers who live in buildings that might fall in a future earthquake but not help relocate people who are living under hazardous health conditions right now. The answer, of course, is that the latter don't own their homes, and never will.



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