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”.

A close up of a smiling man leaning over a desk and looking at a map.

Mr Almazan, who sits in front of the Tokyo current land use map, says the residents of Tokyo are accepting of development.(ABC News: Yumi Asada)

“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.


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