If you take away the quakes, Tokyo is an awesome place to live

It may be pricey, crammed and situated on one of the world’s most unstable seismic zones, but Tokyo has its benefits, namely being one of the safest, cleanest cities to live

David McNeill, who has been living in Tokyo for 20 years, with his wife, Nanako, and son Luka

David McNeill, who has been living in Tokyo for 20 years, with his wife, Nanako, and son Luka


At first blush, Tokyo is hardly the most welcoming property market for renters, or buyers. The city is home to hundreds of thousands of cramped buildings wedged together in crowded neighbourhoods that appear to heed few standard rules of urban planning. Houses are pricey and don’t hold their value. The whole edifice sits atop one of the world’s most unstable seismic zones: Japan’s government estimated recently that a strong earthquake directly under the city would destroy 610,000 buildings.

Europeans used to having more space – and living on solid ground – often find these conditions trying. Then there are the odd rules of the rental market. A long-standing and idiotic tradition obliges tenants to pay “key money” to landlords on the signing of contracts, along with a renewal fee every two years. Add in a deposit, often equivalent to two months rent, furniture and appliances and the cost of moving into a new one-bedroom apartment in Tokyo can approach an eye-popping $10,000.


Other quirks lie in wait for foreign visitors. Landlords typically demand Japanese-only guarantors, who must foot the bill if the tenant hops it. Many landlords prefer not to go there at all.

My first, brief encounter with a real estate office, in Tokyo’s northern suburbs, ended when a clerk looked up distractedly from a file and barked: “No foreigners.”

Blow-ins from abroad, I learned, are too much trouble because landlords assume they break the rules, don’t pay their bills and won’t speak Japanese.

Perhaps Nigerian or Polish immigrants looking for flats in Dublin can tell similar stories. In any case, things have improved. Japan’s government is trying to ensure that Tokyo lives up to its rhetoric as a global city ahead of the 2020 Olympic games.

More companies have sprung up to cater to foreigners who want to rent or buy. For a fee, they’ll negotiate with landlords or banks and vouch for the client. Some will waive the demand for that infernal key money.

The good news is that Tokyo’s reputation as the world’s most expensive city has taken a pounding. The nearly two decades of deflation that followed the 1980s bubble economy sent prices of land and property plummeting in some places by up to 80 per cent. Meanwhile, Asia’s booming hub cities, notably Hong Kong, Singapore and even Beijing, are catching up.

Even Ireland’s capital can give Tokyo a run for its money these days – the average price of a city centre apartment in Tokyo is about €4,290 euro per square meter, within shouting distance of the €3,248 demanded in Dublin, according to cost-of-living database Numbeo.com.

Why live here?

Irish people often ask me why I live here. The fact is, put aside the odd, nerve-jangling seismic event and Tokyo is for its mammoth size (33 million people, if you include the greater urban area) a pleasant, remarkably well-functioning city. Neighbourhoods are generally clean and safe. Street crime is lower than any comparable urban centre, and certainly lower than Dublin.

Hundreds of thousands of children ride the public transport system alone every day to schools across the city. There are no sink-estates, drug corridors or no-go areas to dodge on the way home.

Every housing complex and local area boasts a neighbourhood association, semi-government funded, that shares local information and organises annual festivals, usually in the summer.

The associations are a faint remnant of the old cooperatives that used to run villages across Japan. In the countryside, some associations can be intrusive, an excuse for busybodies to exert the moral pressure of the group. But here I take them as a sign that local people are expected to look after each other.

Several times a year they put on disaster drills, pulling in hundreds of local people, to rehearse for when the Big One arrives.

Cost of borrowing In the

20-odd years since I’ve been here, these attractions have persuaded some of our friends to settle down and buy houses. Most have simply grown weary of shelling out 130,000-200,000 (apx €940- €1,400) yen a month and bi-annual “gifts” to landlords.

The cost of borrowing has been near zero for years so cobbling together a deposit is one of the few obstacles. The real difference is the status of the asset you’ve purchased. Houses decline in value sharply and before the end of their life cycle – usually 30 years or so – they become liabilities.

Why? Some say the impact of regular shaking from weak earthquakes means rebuilding is the only safe option. But it is clear that Japan’s mammoth construction industry has learned to churn profits from the constant turnover of new buildings.

Either way, I’ve always enjoyed the reaction when I tell Tokyoites that century-old Irish houses are common – almost unheard of here. Most housebuyers check first to see if they are leasing or purchasing the land on which it sits. Land holds its value – or did until the post-bubble years wiped away billions of dollars.

Property recovery

Analysts have started to talk recently about a property recovery, largely the result of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s inflationary policies. The prices of an average Tokyo condo rose by more than eight per cent in 2013 to about €360,000, according to the Land Institute of Japan. Inevitably, that has pulled in some of the capital sloshing around Asia looking for investment opportunities. The weaker yen has made these properties cheaper and return on rental income is high, typically eight per cent, according to analysts.

These developments, for now, hardly affect the rest of us mere mortals, but if they continue they will eventually pull up our rent after two decades of staying flat. That will add to the incentive of buying, though the thought of being saddled to a 35-year mortgage is daunting.

After all these years, we still seem to have one foot inside the city, and one foot elsewhere.

Tokyo living

Highs – Safe, clean and one of the most crime-free big cities in the world – Two decades of deflation have brought prices down from the stratosphere

Lows – Quakes. Swizerland-based insurance company Reinsurance this year put Tokyo and Yokohama at the top of 616 cities at greatest risk of natural disaster. A major quake is expected in the next 30 years

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