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After Quake, Japanese Choose Peace of Mind Over Great View

From their spacious 24th-floor apartment here, Masako Tsubuku and her husband had a breathtaking view of Mount Fuji.

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Gyro Photography | AmanaImages | Getty Images

They couldn’t wait to leave.

Their high-rise building, as it was designed to do, withstood Japan’s devastating earthquake on March 11, swaying and shuddering to absorb the worst shocks. But Ms. Tsubuku said she was petrified as the tower waved like a reed in the wind. And the elevators were knocked out of service until the next day, effectively stranding the couple and their two cats.

“I never knew how scary it is to live so far above ground,” said Ms. Tsubuku, who blogs about Japanese housing with her American husband, Philip Brasor. “I no longer think that high-rises are designed for people to live in.”

Neither, apparently, do a growing number of other people in and around Tokyo, which is more than a hundred miles from the areas worst hit in the disaster. Sales of high-rise apartment units have plummeted in Tokyo. And some renters like Ms. Tsubuku have moved out.

The new wariness threatens to halt a redevelopment rush that has been a rare bright spot in Japan’s residential real estate market and has transformed the city’s waterfront from an area of warehouses to a gleaming new skyscraper district.

With new or planned development worth billions of dollars at risk here and elsewhere in Japan, troubled real estate could prove to be yet another blow that the March 11 disaster has rendered to the already frail Japanese economy.

The earthquake also exposed the instability of land reclaimed from the sea, which in the last decade has become home to hundreds of thousands of people along Tokyo Bay. In Urayasu, a coastal city just 10 miles east of central Tokyo, the quake tore up pavement and tipped over houses as the ground quickly turned to mud in a phenomenon known as liquefaction.

The jitters and actual damage are unwelcome reminders of the tenuous ways that land-scarce Japan has continually sought to expand its habitable areas.

Over the last century, the nation has undertaken big land-reclamation projects in cities across the country to meet its industrial and residential needs. And since the early 2000s, reclamation has focused on Tokyo’s waterfront, where cheap land had opened up after shipbuilders and other heavy industry gave way to rivals elsewhere in Asia. One popular new neighborhood, with multiple apartment towers, used to be a shipyard operated by the industrial conglomerate IHI.

Now, second thoughts about high-rises and waterfront properties in Tokyo and other cities are casting a shadow on Japan’s $29 trillion real estate market.

In May, unit sales at apartment buildings with 20 or more floors in greater Tokyo fell 39.5 percent from a year earlier, after plunging 82.8 percent in April, according to the Real Estate Economic Institute, a private research center in Tokyo.

The numbers have put a damper on overall apartment sales in metropolitan Tokyo, which grew just 3.6 percent in May — well below analysts’ expectations — after falling 27.3 percent in April.

Stringent building codes meant that the quake caused little actual damage to high-rises — even in the disaster zone up north, where most of the destruction was caused by the tsunami. But since the earthquake, homebuyers prefer low-rise apartments, developers say, and are looking inland where ground tends to be firmer.

“Nobody cares so much anymore about a good view,” said Toru Matsumura, head of the real estate investment team at the Tokyo-based NLI Research Institute. “Instead, they’re asking what will happen when the next big quake hits.”

At first sight, Masaru Isogawa’s 12-story apartment building in Urayasu, just east of Tokyo, appears to have escaped the quake unscathed. But the quake jolted the reclaimed land that makes up much of his neighborhood, contorting underground gas, water and sewage pipes.

Immediately after the quake, water gushed from manholes, while roads ruptured and mud erupted from the ground, covering everything in a thick silt. The parking lot in front of Mr. Isogawa’s apartment sank more than 20 inches.

“It’s become extremely difficult for us to live here,” said Mr. Isogawa, who is 68 and a retired city planner. “This land turned out to be a ticking bomb.”

Developers have tried to reassure worried residents that despite the damage, the buildings themselves are safe because they are fitted with reinforced concrete pilings that anchor the buildings to the ground. Since the disaster, ads for new apartments throughout Japan come with detailed diagrams of the building’s structure and assurances that the land it stands on is secure.

Are buildings really safe?

But some experts question whether buildings in the liquefaction areas really escaped structural harm. Shuji Tamura, an expert at the Disaster Prevention Research Institute at Kyoto University, worries that the pilings on buildings have been damaged, making them vulnerable to future quakes.

“These possible dangers lurk all over Japan,” Mr. Tamura said.

And even if buildings are structurally safe, the March quake has shown that skyscrapers can teeter more than many engineers had previously thought possible.

“These buildings aren’t going to collapse,” said Yoshiaki Hisada, a professor of architecture and director of the Research Center for Urban Disaster Mitigation at Kogakuin University. “But the earthquake has forced us to think more seriously about how to protect people inside — for example by making sure the ceiling doesn’t fall down and hurt someone.”

During the March earthquake at the 48-story building occupied by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, sections of ceilings and walls came loose as the building swayed for 15 minutes in an arc of up to four feet. The city will now spend about $50 million to equip the building with about 150 oil dampers — giant hydraulic shock absorbers — to better withstand earthquake vibrations and reduce the swaying.

Andy Hurfurt, of the real estate services company CB Richard Ellis, said office buildings’ investments in antidisaster safeguards were paying off. The 54-story Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, which counts Goldman Sachs and Google among its tenants, spent 10 billion yen (nearly $126 million) on an underground gas power plant to provide backup electricity in emergencies. It also stocks 100,000 emergency meals.

Shu Takeuchi, a spokesman for Mori, said that the tower’s occupancy rate had climbed by several percentage points — to about 95 percent — since March 11.

Some high-rise apartment buildings have adopted similar measures. The two-year-old, 48-story City Towers Toyosu, with 1,063 apartments in two towers, is fitted with emergency elevators powered by backup generators that can start automatically and operate for up to seven hours. The complex also has at least three disaster response workers at a central control room, said Kazuyoshi Tanaka, spokesman for the developer, Sumitomo Realty and Development.

“There have recently been fears over the safety of apartment towers,” he said. “But our message is that our buildings are absolutely safe.”

All well and good, perhaps. But Ms. Tsubuku and her husband have had their fill of heights. In June, they left their Mount Fuji view and moved with their cats to a three-story apartment building outside the capital.

“I finally feel stable,” Ms. Tsubuku said.