I first became acquainted with Japanese planning laws — or rather, the lack of them — 10 years ago when I lived in a two-story mansion in Kanagawa. One day, I came home from work to find a three-story pre-fab house had been erected next door. All sunlight and my cherished glimpses of Mt Fuji had been replaced by the view of a stranger’s bedroom; our balconies were so close that I could have reached into his washing machine and hung out his laundry if I felt so inclined (which I didn’t). I was outraged. Surely this was impossible? Illegal? Immoral?
Well, not in Japan. Generally speaking, for buildings up to 10 meters tall, there are no restrictions. What’s more, the Basic Construction Standard only requires that new structures in residential zones not obscure natural sunlight to private homes in a southerly direction for a certain number of hours per day, as determined by each municipality. Even a law passed in 1997 for protecting the environment in Antarctica is more stringent and logical.
Most planning legislation here dates back to the postwar period, when the country was trying to rebuild physically and economically. Under the 1950 Comprehensive National Land Development Act, the prime minister drew up a national plan for industry and infrastructure, leaving the private sector to develop commercial and residential areas at a community level, under the jurisdiction of local governments. Therefore, unlike most Western countries, where residential, commercial or industrial areas are clearly delineated, in Tokyo the default model is mixed-use zoning.
Historically, this “market force” approach to planning worked well, especially when earthquake-proofing technology limited building heights to ten floors. But now that construction techniques have become more advanced, regulations have relaxed and skyscrapers are more common.
We’ve all seen examples of construction anomalies: pachinko parlors next to beautiful temples, vending machines on country footpaths. Recently, a Tokyo court ruled that manga artist Kazuo Umezu’s red-and-white-striped, cartoon-character-topped home did “not destroy the harmony of the landscape.” Apparently, 70% of the public agreed it was “not ugly,” but this probably did not include the neighbors who have to look at it every day. The Japanese need for harmony and aesthetics does not seem to apply to architecture.
Of course, what is visually pleasing and acceptable is subjective, but when a building proposal has serious adverse effects on the well-being and daily life of neighbors, but is nevertheless legal, surely something is wrong.
A recent incident involving my son’s daycare center offers a perfect example of the absurdity of Japanese planning laws. The Shinjuku Dai-Ni Hoikuen is a two-story building with all its windows on the east side, overlooking a parking lot. Orix construction company has approval from Shinjuku City Office (who incidentally run the daycare center) to erect a 15-story apartment building where the parking lot now stands, less than one meter from the center. They are able to do this because the part of the proposed structure facing the road will only be two stories high.
Since the center and the neighboring houses are in what is classified as a “commercial” zone, and because they don’t lie to the south of the proposed building, the sunlight preservation rule only applies to the road. In other words, it is perfectly legal for Orix to block all the toddlers’ natural light and fresh air, and to vibrate the babies’ cots with their drills.
The name Orix might sound familiar because this is the group currently embroiled in a scandal involving the purchase of Kampo no Yado inns from Japan Post for well below market value. A glance at the company’s homepage reveals that Orix has received awards for showing compassion towards mothers and children. Possibly these were in-house awards?
Shinjuku City Office recently arranged a consultation meeting for parents and residents to express their concerns directly to the construction company. However, Orix did not attend; instead they sent a professional — but uninformed — PR company to listen on their behalf.
Had Orix come to the meeting, they would have heard concerns about, obviously, daylight, but also air pollution, noise, privacy and safety — anything dropped from the 15th floor could seriously injure a child on the center’s roof garden. Someone reaching across a balcony to take clothes is one thing; being able to harm a child is quite another.
At some point, common sense must be brought into play, along the lines of British Common Law, which evaluates cases from the contemporary standpoint of the average “man on the Clapham Omnibus.” This would negate the need for having a specific civil law that says “Thou shalt not build a 15-story building within one meter of a hoikuen building's windows” before anyone realized that it might not be a good idea.
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today