(Damon Coulter)

(Damon Coulter)

Musashi Koyama was a uniquely Tokyo neighborhood. Leave its train station, and you were immediately met with stands selling yakitori grilled-chicken skewers, standing-only bars, and tiny restaurants lovingly run by chefs devoted to their craft. Its winding alleys evoked a different age. Its shopping arcade, called Palm, was built during the economic miracle in the 1950s, when the Japanese economy was at the beginning of three decades of economic prosperity. It housed butchers, fishmongers, and a host of other specialty stores.

Buta Hoshi was among the businesses operating in the neighborhood. Its grilled skewers of pork were a favorite among locals and even brought in commuters from other parts of the city. But in November 2015, the town embarked upon a huge redevelopment project. Work started on a 466-foot (142 m), 40-story tower housing about 640 apartments, as well as shopping facilities and offices for the local community on the lower floors.

To make way for the tower, a significant part of the old neighborhood is being demolished. Buta Hoshi had to close. “On the plus side, Musashi Koyama is likely to get more lively,” says Naoto Kuroda, who managed the restaurant. “But there is also a negative side as it may come to look just like any other part of the city. Lots of places have gone through redevelopment in Tokyo.”

Others also lament the redevelopment. “It’s the end of an era,” says Yuta Omura, who heads the office of the Palm shopping arcade. “Quite a few people from other parts of Tokyo came to see the old buildings and drinking holes. They may stop coming. And all the entrance area for the arcade, that’s going to be replaced by a wall. It’s sad, really.”

The Palm shopping arcade is a popular destination in Musashi Koyama, although many stores are now closing. (Damon Coulter)

The Palm shopping arcade is a popular destination in Musashi Koyama, although many stores are closing. (Damon Coulter)

In restaurants throughout the town, many can be heard uttering the same phrase: “Zannen,” or, “That’s life.” For while there is sorrow that the way of life in this small town is about to undergo a dramatic transformation, many are realists. The buildings being demolished to make way for the new skyscraper belong to a different era in more negative ways. Many of them were constructed before building codes in Japan aimed to ensure safety in the event that the earthquake thought of as “the Big One” struck the city; notices outside the demolition area informed the public that asbestos had been found in the walls that were being knocked down.

As Hidetaka Yoneyama of the Fujitsu Research Institute explained last year, “Within Tokyo’s urban centers, some neighborhoods consist chiefly of wooden houses. These structures were in accordance with the building code at the time of building, but they are now illegal structures.” The same applies to suburban areas. Tokyo after the war was built at a breakneck pace and in a slapdash manner.

The city’s center, inside the circular Yamanote Line, has seen massive redevelopment in recent years. In downtown Tokyo, office rents grew at the fastest pace of any city in the world—2.3 percent—between April and October 2015, according to the Japan Real Estate Institute. Major buildings, including Roppongi Hills, Shibuya Hikarie, and the skyscrapers of the Marunouchi financial district, have become new anchors for the capital, attracting major businesses and sophisticated retail. Now, the developers are looking further afield.

Alastair Townsend of Bakako Architects says this process has a long history. “To some extent, this is just the continuation of postwar development,” he says. “It’s just that things get rebuilt at a high rate and it is hard to protect buildings in Japan. The construction and development industry is . . . able to build quite effectively along the transportation networks.”

Down the Line

A 14-story building looms over a shrine in Musashi Koyama. (Damon Coulter)

A 14-story building looms over a shrine in Musashi Koyama. (Damon Coulter)

From Musashi Koyama, jump on the train and head away from Tokyo and you can see the fruits of the recent wave of construction and development. Futako Tamagawa, an area 20 minutes from central Tokyo’s Shibuya Station, has a huge new retail and residential complex on the former site of a theme park that closed in 1985. Work on redeveloping the area began in 2007 and ended in 2015. The new area sits on 28 acres (11 ha) of land and has 4.6 million square feet (424,000 sq m) of floor space. Rakuten, a major Japanese online retail company, has its headquarters on the grounds. Rise, as the Futako Tamagawa complex is known, offers facilities including a ten-screen cinema, restaurants, supermarkets, and a large retail area. Those living in the 1,038 apartments built as part of the project have a level of convenience once found only in central Tokyo.

Another rail station, Musashi Kosugi, offers access to central Tokyo and the cities of Kawasaki and Yokohama within 15 minutes, and has similarly been redeveloped. While it has less retail space, its residential capacity has expanded sharply. Six tower complexes went up between 2008 and this year, making up a total of 295 stories and providing about 3,700 new condo apartments. The new towers offer a new way of life. As well as modern apartments, the lower floors often have facilities such as social rooms, where young families can take their children to play, study, and relax. At night, the rooms can be used for neighbors to get together and eat and drink. “American developments have caught onto that, too,” Townsend says. “But I think that the Japanese version is a little more sophisticated, and the quality is higher in those properties.”

Such developments have an impact on the wider area. “Musashi Kosugi, about ten or 15 years ago, was not a residential destination; it was just factories and small office buildings,” says Koji Naito, research director of capital markets at JLL in Japan. “Then, Mitsubishi Jisho built high-rise residential schemes, using old company housing. The area has fantastic access to Shibuya; it takes about 15 minutes to get there on the Toyoko Line. It was convenient enough to attract residents, and Musashi Kosugi shot up on the residential market really quickly. Mitsubishi Jisho’s brand image helped reevaluate the value of Musashi Kosugi itself, and lots of new supply came onto the markets. And sales per tsubo [3.3 sq m] rose 15 percent or 16 percent. Value has gone up in the town as a whole.”

Similar developments have sprung up across the city, funded by easy money being poured into real estate investment trusts by the Bank of Japan and overseas cash. “Japan is a good destination,” Naito says, “even though transparency issues remain and the language barrier is difficult. Property is cut-price at the moment because of the weaker yen. So investors from all across the world are heading to Japan because it is cheap and the quality is fantastic, even compared to Australia, in terms of offices and residential.”

In Ikebukuro, located in the less lauded northern area of the city, famed architect Kengo Kuma’s Toshima Ward office combines administrative facilities on the lower floors with a 322-condo tower block above. Tokyo SkyTree in the east looms over the shitamachi, or traditional city, area at 2,000 feet (634 m). Along with nearby buildings increasing residential, office, and retail space, the tower attracts tourists in droves. The southern part of the city is being redeveloped for the 2020 Summer Olympics. In all of the areas, land values have risen. However, something has been lost as older communities make space for new developments.

Workers began fencing off the area for demolition in December. (Damon Coulter)

Workers began fencing off the area for demolition in December. (Damon Coulter)

Economic Reasons

The wide-ranging and constant destruction and rebuilding of Tokyo would be out of the question in cities like Paris, New York, and London. Part of the reason it can happen in Tokyo is the condition of housing there.

“Homes built during the nation’s high-growth era, when quantity was more important than quality, are becoming increasingly obsolete by today’s standards,” Richard Koo of the Nomura Research Institute wrote in 2008. “They are also significantly smaller than the typical new home and no longer in tune with the needs of homebuyers.”

Abandoned homes have become a scourge in some parts of Japan. Tokyo, however, has escaped such a fate, in large part because the city’s population continues to grow. According to government data, Tokyo in 2013 had the lowest rate of abandoned housing of any area of Japan, at 2.1 percent. By contrast, more than 10 percent of houses are abandoned in three rural areas—the Kagoshima, Kochi, and Wakayama prefectures. In addition, while the rural population shrinks, Tokyo’s population is expected to expand until around 2030.

Koo wrote that buildings in Japan tended to be built using lower-quality materials, and are essentially worthless within 15 years of construction. By contrast, property in the West appreciates with time.

Does the trend in Tokyo for redevelopment outside the central area offer a solution to this problem—for the city, if not for Japan? “Secondhand prices are going up in Greater Tokyo,” says JLL’s Naito. “So the condominiums built in difficult times are a good destination for the typical salaryman. The typical Japanese salaryman needs to buy a secondhand scheme. So the secondhand market is currently booming.” New properties, Naito says, will go to the wealthy.

This, however, is unlikely to end Tokyo’s tendency to destroy and re-create itself. Older buildings across the city are likely to still be demolished and replaced, as developers look to raise or maintain land and property values. While the consent of around 75 percent of owners in condominiums is needed to tear down and rebuild, as buildings get older, the motivation to upgrade to a more modern apartment, or to sell to a developer, increases. “Often in Japan, we don’t see buildings torn down due to obsolescence; we see them torn down because there’s a possibility to increase the income for the property by demolishing it and rebuilding something that’s newer and often bigger,” Townsend explains.

Demolition work on Musashi Koyama’s old town commenced late last year. (Damon Coulter)

Demolition work on Musashi Koyama’s old town commenced late last year. (Damon Coulter)

Changing Landscape

Beyond the nostalgic yearning for a more romantic, albeit asbestos-filled, past, there are other reasons to be concerned about the direction in which Tokyo is heading. Back in January, snow “broke” east Tokyo’s rail system. Trains were delayed after the snowfall. Condo developments, housing more people, have increased the number of commuters on trains to the point that the delayed trains were too far beyond capacity for the rail networks to handle. Those further down the lines had to wait hours in the freezing cold for crowds to thin and rail cars to empty.

And then there is the matter of community. Tokyo’s new vertical cities lose something, says Christian Dimmer, an assistant professor at the Urban Design Lab at the University of Tokyo. “If you have apartments, it’s difficult to do structural changes with them,” he says. “It’s difficult to change the function of apartments. But Japan has very inclusive zoning. In the West, we have [historically had] exclusive zoning, which is strictly regulated, so you only have housing. Here, almost everything is possible everywhere. You have your 300 houses, and someone wants to open a clinic or a hair salon and they can do it. You have tremendous choice and adaptability that you do not have with a tower.”

These zoning laws, which have helped make Tokyo a city where every area has its own feel, as well as its own retail and restaurant experiences, have also helped keep property prices down—a person with a business is less likely to want to redevelop or upgrade his or her property. This has been instrumental in keeping Japanese growth down, extracting wealth from homeowners, and keeping purse strings tied. Without increasing property prices, it is difficult to see how one can get the typical household to be more adventurous with its money.

High-rise developments offer one way out of the situation, but at the cost of some of the city’s romance and character. As developers offer a next-generation style of housing, higher quality and often closer to rail service, it is up to the restaurant, bar, and store owners to ensure that areas stay vibrant, unique, and easy to live in, even if they are forced to operate further away from stations. Zoning laws are on their side, and development away from stations could help Tokyo. “All these developed places in Tokyo are not connected to each other,” Weber Shandwick’s Takeo Nishitani told Urban Land in 2013. “There are interesting spots, but nothing in between.”

In Musashi Koyama, many businesses began opening further from the station as news of the coming redevelopment spread. Kuroda, the manager of Buta Hoshi, also found a new place from which to offer its grilled pork. “Now that it has been decided that Musashi Koyama will be redeveloped,” he says, “I just want to be a part of helping the town become a livelier place.”

Areas such as Shinjuku in central Tokyo have been constantly developed and redeveloped. (Damon Coulter)

Areas such as Shinjuku in central Tokyo have been constantly developed and redeveloped. (Damon Coulter)

Richard Smart is a Tokyo-based freelance journalist who writes on business, society, and the economy.