We are rapidly approaching the eighth year living in our little house in Okubo. The place is holding up pretty well, mainly because we don’t have any kids to run around tearing things up and leaving little marks of love everywhere. Still, as we get closer to ten years, we expect that little things will start to crop up that need to be dealt with.
Houses in Japan have evolved more rapidly during the past thirty years or so. Fifty years ago houses were a luxury item, and they weren’t exactly built to last. Even today, it is far more common to knock down an old house built 30-40 years ago and start over when buying property. Probably the houses built these days will last longer. They have more strength and safety features, but in the end they are wood structures that are built for only one generation of living. This is due to culture as much as anything – old things are not as desirable here in disposable Japan. Since old houses have always been seen as falling apart it has created a market for new houses, and there is little motivation to build now houses to last since few people want a used house. Kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
House prices tend to drift downwards at a steady pace over time, so there is no market for fixing up houses and flipping them. The prices that don’t change or go up are the land prices, the piece of dirt sitting under your house may actually go up in value, although usually not enough to make any kind of substantial profit.
Our neighborhood was born about ten years ago, but between our neighborhood and the main road there are neighborhoods built a generation or two before. The closer we get to the main road, the older the houses (and their occupants) are. The oldest houses now are starting to empty out, and we’ve seen two get knocked down in the past year as the people who used to live there have either passed away or have moved to live with their children to be taken care of.
It is a little sad to walk by these empty lots and think about all the hope and joy that was there when the house was built.
I had made a chance acquaintance with an older gentleman living in one of these houses. He was excited to hear that I was from America, and he brought out some ancient black and white photos of him on a ship sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The picture showed a man staring solemnly at the camera, but the older version showing the photo had a wide smile on his face as he recalled his trip to America. Now he and his wife are gone, and there’s just an empty patch of dirt for me to remember them by.
Life is a cycle, and soon enough I imagine those empty spaces might be bought by new families hoping for a good life in our little town of Okubo. In the meantime, it is just a little sad to walk through the withering outer edge of our neighborhood.