Unlike many other capital cities around the world, Tokyo isn’t experiencing a housing shortage.
Instead, decades of acceptance of development and density has fuelled a surplus of housing.
The Japanese capital is renowned as a city where nimbyism, short for “not in my backyard”, is rare. Some even proudly declare it a ‘yimby’ city, where the needs of the whole city are prioritised over localised activists.
The result is that Tokyo is able to react quickly to changes in rental demand.
Japan’s ageing and shrinking population contributes to excess stock, but compared to other major cities, like New York, Paris and London, Tokyo has consistently outperformed in generating new housing supply, which has helped prevent rental prices from spiking.
“It’s not the traditional approach,” said Jorge Almazan, a Tokyo-based architect at Keio University.
“You don’t have so much of top-down control, it’s more like a bottom-up process.”
So, how does Tokyo’s property market compare to Australia’s?
Here are four unique lessons, from loose zoning laws to smaller dwelling sizes, an advanced public transport system and an openness to development.
Tokyo’s loosely defined zones allow housing to react ‘organically’
Tokyo experienced rapid growth in its housing market after large swathes of land were destroyed in World War II, but its initial expansion was a touch unruly.
Rather than respond with rigid zoning rules, the government adopted a “lighter touch” to planning, where further guardrails were established but developers still had lots of freedom.
Japanese cities have 12 zones covering various levels of residential, commercial, and industrial development.
But these zones are loosely defined.
Residential property can be built in every zone, except in ones reserved for heavy industry, while small commercial operations can also be established in the quietest of residential areas.
This is in stark contrast to “Euclidean zoning”, common in the United States or Australia, where zoning laws only allow for one type of use.
As a result, Tokyo has a much more decentralised and mixed layout, compared to Australia’s style of a city centre surrounded by suburbia.
Mr Almazan described Tokyo’s approach as “inclusive”.
“The city can react organically to demand,” he said.
“If there is demand in a certain area, of course, you can provide housing. Even in that most residential zone, you can have small workshops, a small bar, small restaurants, small boutique, so it’s still mixed.”
It’s for this reason the Tokyo metropolitan government publishes a map that shows what has actually been built, rather than simply showing the zone.
The sheer explosion of colours demonstrates how mixed Tokyo is, while zoning maps in Australia, with sprawling suburbia, would be much simpler.
“I think this map probably doesn’t exist in many other cities,” Mr Almazan said.
“Because basically, in other cities, the zoning is what you get, but not in Tokyo.”
Cheap dwellings are possible because of smaller apartment sizes
Prices in Japan have been in a bit of a time warp, after decades of slow economic growth, stagnant wages and low inflation.
Only recently have property prices in Tokyo started to accelerate.
While the cost of living is also going up in Japan, due to the pandemic and global inflation, price increases for apartments in Tokyo have remained lower than the average for Australia.
“I would say that renting in Japan is very affordable compared to other countries,” said Tokyo Portfolio real estate agent Alex Shapiro.
“People will generally pay about a third of their salaries in terms of rent.”
There can be hidden costs when renting, like “key money”, which is a one-off fee valued at one months’ rent. Often you must install your own lighting, sometimes even air-conditioning.
But it is still possible to find affordable apartments to rent closer to the city.
The key point of difference is the size of Tokyo’s dwellings, with the average house size in the city an estimated 59.9 square metres, according to the Housing and Land Survey.
In Sydney, the average site area of new houses is 423 square metres, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
For single bedrooms, 30 square metres is middle of the road, Mr Shapiro said.
“People don’t really have guests over to their own houses,” he said.
“So, you don’t really need a big living room or anything like that. You can just go out and have a great meal for not that much money.”
But there can be other downsides that are harder to overcome. There is no minimum size for apartments, meaning they can be as small as eight square metres.
Such micro apartments are often occupied by underpaid workers or students, or those just wanting to be in the trendiest neighbourhoods and willing to sacrifice on space.
While earthquake standards are very strict, cheap housing is renowned for poor insulation and sound proofing.
“I would say it’s much more diverse,” Mr Almazan said.
“So, if you want to get some standards, you will get them.”
Reliable transport makes it easier to live further away
Another key strength to the city’s diversity and cheaper rental costs was its intricate and reliable public transport network, according to Mr Almazan.
It means those who move further out for cheaper prices or seeking larger apartments can still reliably get to where they need to.
“If you want to live in the city centre, [it] is going to be expensive,” Mr Almazan said.
“But if you don’t mind living a little bit outside the central 23 wards, or even in the outskirts of the 23 wards, you can get quite reasonable housing.
“The secret, of course, is transit. Everywhere in the Tokyo metropolitan zone, you can get in less than one hour.”
The city has one of the most advanced transport systems in the world, though it regularly experiences overcrowding during rush hours.
Japan’s residents even have a phrase for it: tsukin jigoku, which translates to commuting hell.
Less nimbyism, but fewer ways to complain about development
Nimbyism is commonly associated with residents who campaign against higher density or commercial development, stating such projects will ruin the “character” of a neighbourhood.
But such community-minded advocates can be accused of stifling much-needed development.
Mr Almazan said the residents of Tokyo are far more accepting of development and density, as people recognised its benefits, with services often available much closer to home.
“I would say [nimbyism] is less prominent than [in] Australia or also the United States,” Mr Almazan said.
Tokyo is a city that is constantly in flux. But the rise of “super towers”, more than 50 storeys high, is sparking some concern.
In these cases, residents have little to no rights to state their objections. If a ward’s master plan is changed to allow bigger development, residents are given just two weeks to complain.
“People in Tokyo [work] very hard, they don’t have time to check the website of the municipality,” he said.
“I suspect that very often developers and also the administration is kind of not doing their best in order to let citizens know that communities are going to change drastically.”
Last year, demolition began on the architecturally important Nagakin Capsule Tower after it fell into a state of disrepair. The quaint Harajuku Train Station, built in 1924, was also demolished for a bigger station.
Campaigners are now trying to overturn a decision that will see a pair of 200-metre skyscrapers built in the historic Jingu Gaien.
Dozens of 100-year-old gingko trees will be destroyed and damaged in the process.
Already, 1,500 of the trees were destroyed to make way for the Tokyo Olympics stadium.
Adjacent rugby and baseball stadiums will also be demolished.
The Japanese body of the United Nation’s peak cultural body, UNESCO, has called for the project to be reviewed.
“I think citizens in Japan, in Tokyo, they should be allowed a little bit more of participation,” Mr Almazan said.
“I think that will be positive for the city.”