Remodeling editor-in-chief Craig Webb is in Japan this week, speaking to remodelers in that country about their American counterparts and learning about how Japanese remodelers and their supporting businesses operate. Here's his day-by-day report.

Sunday, June 28

Raising the Roof, Contemplating the Moon
I can't say I'm totally impressed with Japanese construction techniques--particularly the lack of insulation and HVAC systems--but one area where Japan goes way ahead of us is on their roofs. The tiles on lots of Japanese homes are gorgeous, down to the decorations at the ends. And it's a tradition that goes back centuries. Here are some roofs from an old sake distillery.

Often the family crest sat at the ends of the eaves, such as at Matsumoto Castle, built in the 1600s and 1700s.

These may be old examples, but I saw quality stuff on newly built homes too, such as a renovated house that has just gone on sale in Nagano.

Bell Captain
Have you ever gotten frustrated trying to catch a waiter's eye when you're in an American restaurant? Almost certainly, I'd bet. Then you'll no doubt be impressed how the Japanese do it. Every table has an electronic bell that you ring when you are ready to order food, ask for refills, or request the check. You get better, quicker service and thus happier customers. You'd think that in the U.S., the wait staff would demand this, if only because it likely would boost their tips.

J-Pop and the Boys Who Wear Pink 
The concert hall in Nagano was jammed Friday night with what to an American was a bizarre sight: several thousand people, most of them teen boys, wearing T-shirts and other outfits festooned with those images of big-eyed, high-school aged, school-uniform-wearing, cutesy teens that in the U.S. are entirely the province of preteens who just graduated from My Little Pony. Why? A concert called "Love Live," which apparently involved a group of girls who were meant to be the living embodiment of several popular computer game and comic-book characters. It's part of a school of music in Japan known as J-Pop.

Here's an example of how one fan dressed for the show:

The next day, about 25 miles away in the city of Matsumoto, I walked by some steps leading into a department store and saw what appeared to be a concert under way involving yet another J-Pop girl group. The sign names these girls as "Ol-Like Idol Unit." I think they also are based on computer or manga characters:

As the girls sang, a passionate crowd of boys whooped and chanted. It's as if a Taylor Swift concert was only attended by men. I have a video of the band that I'll post as soon as I am able.

Outside of a special promotion for breast cancer research pro football game, I have never seen so many men wear pink as during these two groups. It appears there's no connotation in Japan that defines pink as a feminine color.

Greeting a Cultural Crossroad
One thing that gets drilled into you before you make your first trip to Japan involves presenting your business card. Get printed a version with Japanese characters on it, you're told, and when you present it hold it in both hands and bow as you introduce yourself. "Hajime mashite" (let me introduce myself), you say, relying on your phonetic pronunctiation guide. "Watashi wah Craig Webb-des" (I am Craig Webb). Then you take their card and inspect it. The Japanese do that so they know the rank of the person they're meeting and thus how far to buy. But when you're an uneducated American, you focus on something else, like pronouncing the person's name.

That's how it's supposed to go. Unfortunately, some Japanese can tell immediately that you're a Westerner, and they're eager to please. So while you use both of your hands to present the card, they're sticking out their hand to shake yours. The two of you then do a strange hand-dance until the two of you have accomplished each other's greeting etiquette.

Watching two Japanese meet, I could see things are much smoother. They don't quite get all the way to presenting their card with two hands, but they do inspect them and they do a great job bowing before and after.

Cute Overload--the Final Edition
On leaving Nagano's train station today, I cam across an exhibit of banners devoted totally to cute images. Given how many there are on the streets, nobody noticed them at the station. In any case, here's a final round of kawaii (cute) images.

Every city has its own character. Nagano's has an apple because this is apple-growing territory. The character is surrounded by mascots for other cities in the prefecture.
Every city has its own character. Nagano's has an apple because this is apple-growing territory. The character is surrounded by mascots for other cities in the prefecture.

And before I go, let me say goodbye to my closest cute friend: Pingy. He's the character on the reloadable fare card that appears to go by both the Suica and Pasmo names. Most people load their cards with about $20 or so and keep them a long time; when you first register it, you put your name on it and other contact information. My first time out, I got confused and loaded the card with $100. Since then, I've used it to pay for subway fares as well as food in the innumerable stores that occupy the train station tunnels. Arigato gozai mas, Pingy. Thanks for being my companion on the trip of a lifetime.

Friday, June 26

Motoring to the Motor City
Amtrak is nothing like this. Today's stop, Nagoya--the home of Toyota--involved a 90-minute ride on one of Japan's bullet trains. Along with the scenery, you get an education into how people operate. Whenever a conductor enters or exits a car, he bows to the riders before proceeding. It's another example of Japan's first rule of business: The customer is God. Yesterday, one remodeler said a customer wanted his waterbed moved without removing the water. It was a near-hernia-inducing experience, but they did it.

The train car is immaculate, and people come by with carts to sell hot coffee--unfortunately, 8 ounces seems to be the limit for anyone cup--as well as snacks. One I have learned to love is mochi, a form of paste made from rice that's filled with something sweet or savory. It feels and squishes like a sticky marshmallow, but the taste is memorable.

7-Eleven on Steroids
Some of you might have heard about how Japanese convenience stores take freshness and convenience to levels unimaginable in the U.S. Today, prior to our seminar, we walked two blocks to a local 7-Eleven to pick up a quick lunch. Here's what $5 buys you:

There are hundreds of thousands of these stores across the country, often within yards of each other. They replenish their supplies many times a day, so the quality is great and the prices are low. Americans should dream that they would have something so nice on their street corner.

"Cool Business" = No Towel Bar Here
June in Japan is a wet, hot, humid time. Rainy season can be an oppressive experience when, as is the case in Japan, you're a buttoned-down society that seems to keep the thermostat eternally near 80 degrees.

What to do? Two things. First is a virtually official dress code called "Cool Business." It's now perfectly fine to go through summer without putting on a tie and to even wear short-sleeve shirts. I brought a couple of ties with me but never needed to wear one.

Cool Business helps you survive the summer, but if you do even a little bit of exertion you'll break a sweat. So to that end, it's common to carry with you a small towel--which the Japanese refer to as a handkerchief--with you to wipe your face while at work and provide an extra napkin when you eat. The vast majority of people I've met at the seminars pack one.

It's Complicated
What are the rules for remodeling in the United States? What are the trends? How do people use tile? Again and again, I found myself needing to say "it depends." America is too geographically diverse, too varied in its economic underpinnings, to give a single answer to such questions. Instead, I would have to point out that there are at least 10 different home styles, not just one, and the prevailing style will vary based on where you live.

My translator, Chris, tried to point out to his countrymen that Japan has its own regional styles of construction and local building product preferences. But he added to me later that--unlike the U.S., where big builders respect local styles when they create models for their projects--Japan's big national builders increasingly are putting up the same type of house across the country. The local aesthetic is literally being demolished.

Kawaii (Cute) Overload, Day 5
Another image from the land of the cute.

Thursday, June 25

The Trouble with the Honey-Do List
Panelists at a Japanese roundtable contemplate their wives' role in driving demand--or lack thereof--for remodeling.
Panelists at a Japanese roundtable contemplate their wives' role in driving demand--or lack thereof--for remodeling.

A lightning bolt of a revelation struck me today during an afternoon meeting with members of the Imported Building Materials Federation, the group that acquires products from the U.S. and other nations for sale in Japan. In America, I said, it would be impossible to conceive of a family not making a single renovation to their house in 22 years. Speaking to a half-dozen men gathered around a discussion table, I asked: Don't your wives ever tell you that she's tired of how the kitchen looks? Don't you get pressed to update the master bath?

The answer, I learned, is no. Unlike in the U.S., where women are often the primary drivers of home improvement and redesign projects, it appears that in Japan it's not all that common for women to push for remodeling their home.

The reasons why are both cultural and financial, I was told. One is that most Japanese don't do much entertaining at home; instead of turning out a home-cooked meal on a backyard deck, they're more likely to go to a restaurant instead. That often means homeowners are more interested in spending their money in other areas, like buying a nice outfit or taking a nice trip, rather than buying a new sofa or upgrading the garden. 

Of course, when adding a new bedroom or swapping out cabinets give your house absolutely no added value, it's impossible to use a payoff in the future as a reason to act today. So the Honey-Do List gets filled with other tasks.  

Pulling Out of the Death Spiral

Rose Braden of the Evergreen Building Products Association and Noriko Ban of Washington state's economic development office welcome participants at a roundtable in Tokyo designed to promote imports of U.S.building materials.
Rose Braden of the Evergreen Building Products Association and Noriko Ban of Washington state's economic development office welcome participants at a roundtable in Tokyo designed to promote imports of U.S.building materials.

God bless immigrants. God bless millennials. And God bless accountants. Without them, America could have ended up with the same kind of demographics and housing market economics that darken Japan's prospects.

Junji Ueda, an official who helps develop housing policy at Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, laid out a dangerous scenario during a roundtable discussion organized by several U.S. and Japanese groups. As I heard them, I compared them to our situation:
  • Japan's population will decline by one-third over the next 45 years. In contrast, the U.S. population is forecast to grow nearly 30% over the same period, largely because of immigration.
  • In 2010, Japan had 2.6 people aged between 20 and 64 for every person aged 65 and up. By 2040, that ratio will decline to about 1.4 workers for each elderly person. That will put huge pressure on the country's social security programs. America's old-age dependency ratio also is dropping, but our starting point is only about half as bad as Japan's.
  • Japan in 2013 built roughly 980,00 homes. That's about the same as the U.S. even though we're 2.5 times bigger. Meanwhile, only 360,000 existing homes were sold in Japan in 2013; here, there were 4.9 million sales. This overemphasis on new-home construction has resulted in roughly 3 million empty homes out of a total housing stock of 60 million. Given the shrinking population, Japan needs to build fewer new homes each year.
  • Decades ago, Japan's banks declared homes to be a constantly depreciating asset, just like an automobile. For tax purposes, they set the depreciation schedule at 22 years. Today that number has become like a ticking clock, constantly reminding people that there's no financial benefit to gain from remodeling their homes. So people don't bother. After 22 years, they go out and buy someplace new, relying on the rising value of the land their homes sit on to provide equity for the next purchase.
  • Or at least that's what they used to do; after the nation's housing bubble burst in the 1990s, land prices haven't risen in the succeeding 25 years. Today, Ueda said, the Godzilla of devaluation has gobbled up roughly 500 trillion yen out of the 893.3 trillion yen invested in the nation's housing stock.

Ueda said this stark scenario is forcing a rethink of the government's housing policies. The administration expects to announce its new policy next year.

Kawaii (Cute) Overload, Day 4
Finding examples of oh-so-cute graphics in this country is like shooting fish in a barrel. Though, come to think of it, I haven't seen many cute fish lately. Here are several other cutesy images:

Cute image from Japan
Cute mage from Japan

Can I Ever Come Home?

Here's a frightening thought: My favorite baseball team has gone undefeated since I left the country. I fear I may spoil our playoff chances if I return.

Wednesday, June 24

Cute Japanese character

Kawaii--aka Cute--Overload, Day 3
More photos proving Japan's passion for cute imagery. But this time I'm using the correct word, kawaii, to describe this phenomenon. Wikipedia says the word originally derives from the phrase that  literally means a "radiant face," but more commonly referred to the blushing of an embarrassed person. Today, Wikipedia adds, kawaii embodies "the quality of cuteness in the context of Japanese culture."

Keeping It Real

Kyoto is one part of Japan that hasn't bought totally into the new-is-better mindset. This city was the emperor's home for centuries in the middle ages, back when the place that was to become known as Tokyo was a humble fishing village. That history--and perhaps more important, the fact that the allies chose not to bomb it during World War II--has left Kyoto as one of the nation's few historic cities.

Kyoto also is home to the Machiya ("townhouse"), a humble type of wooden rowhouse found along the city's innumerable narrow allies. These places, typically about 18 feet wide, 60 feet deep, and more than a century old, are finding a new life thanks to the Hachise Co., a developer that specializes in renovating Kyoto's nearly 48,000 remaining Machiya.

Company president Kohei NIshimura said Machiyas owe some of their longevity in this earthquake-prone country to a construction style that puts the groundsill's foundation on a bed of rocks. As a result, during moderate earthquakes there's less pressure put on the frame than occurs when the sill is connected to a concrete foundation.In addition, mud placed between the wall frames provide modest support to the house during normal times but crumble during earthquakes rather than being so rigid they damage the studs.

The labor crews that Hachise subcontracts (it's more a developer than an actual remodeler), honor that tradition but also implement some 21st century twists. For instance, supports in walls are connected with a piston that makes it possible for the supports to slide a bit when earthquakes move the building laterally. In addition, special metal braces are designed to shift a bit during modest tremblors. And the foundation is reinforced with new beams when necessary.

Hachise does only about 70 to 80 projects per year, and with higher construction costs than for more modern projects, the Machiya is an acquired taste that's likely to be confined to a particular space; as an equivalent, think of the narrow homes on the Battery in Charleston, S.C.. Nishimura says Machiya have been converted into a bed and breakfast, into group housing, and into monthly rentals. One recent project was 190 years old. Renovation can be a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, June 23

Giant saw artwork outside a convention center in Tokyo

Starting from Ground Zero
Imagine if remodeling didn't exist. In this imaginary world, people bought a house, did nothing to improve it over the next 20 years, and then saw their house torn down while they went out and bought another home. And all because a house was regarded as having no financial value; the only thing that matters is the land on which that house sits.

Such a dream world is the the reality for the 75% of Japan's homeowners that never commission a single remodeling project during the entire time they own a home. And it's a big reason why the U.S. remodeling business is up to five times bigger than Japan's even though we're only 2.5 times more populous. 

Given that prejudice, it's remarkable that the Japan Remodeling Industry Fair managed to draw 8,500 attendees and 200 exhibitors to an ultra-modern convention center in Tokyo's harbor that's notable for the giant saw (shown here) outside its doors. Attendees checked out booths selling many of the same materials that you use: housewrap, millwork, Internet security devices, and kitchen appliances, plus new arrivals like Houzz. There's general agreement that the Japanese government wants to encourage the remodeling industry. Tax benefits related to energy efficiency and universal design provide two of the most overt signs of government support.

Hideo Ono, head of Mokutaikyo, the Japanese association dedicated to helping wooden homes withstand earthquakes.
Shaken but Not Yet Stirred

Two earthquakes 20 years ago that took place one year and thousands of miles apart created shock waves that still reverberate in Japan today. California's 1995 Northridge earthquake led to roughly 60 deaths. Japan's 1995 Kobe earthquake killed 6,434. Why? In large part because California homes resisted the tremblors far better than Japan.

Avoiding the deaths caused by the next Kobe-level earthquake is what drives Hideo Ono (pictured here). He's the head of Mokutaikyo, a Japanese association devoted to making wooden houses more resistant to earthquakes. Created three years after Kobe, the association's 1,012 member companies help make it possible for Mokutaikyo inspectors to give free examinations of homes to determine their ability to withstand seismic events.

So far, Ono told me, more than 160,000 buildings have been checked out. About 75% have been rated as having a high probability of collapse if another Kobe--which hit 7.2 on the Richter scale--were to occur.

Once homeowners get the assessment, it's up to them to decide whether to pay for reinforcement work. This work typically involves projects like attaching sheets of multi-density fibreboard to the studs to reinforce them, adding connectors at critical junctures in the frame, and repairing cracks in the concrete foundations. Reinforcement work costs average about $15,000, which the homeowner must pay, though there is some government subsidy.

Trouble is, only about 45,000 of the 160,000+ buildings for which Mokutaikyo has done seismic evaluations have ended up getting reinforced, Ono said. Cost might be a factor, as is the general Japanese attitude that a building's worth devalues to zero over about 20 years. 

"When I started 20 years ago, I thought business would shrink because it would only take 10 years [to fix homes]," Ono said. "Twenty years later, we're still trying." New homes are built much more soundly, he said, in part because of a tougher construction code instituted in 2000. But the ones that are about 15 to 35 years old--i.e., the ones built well before or just after Kobe--are what concern him most. The government has set of goal to make 95% of all homes safe from major earthquakes within the next five years, Ono noted, but he added that this doesn't look likely to happen.

Japanese hand fans

Say Hello to Your Fans

It makes sense that, in a country which believes in heating or cooling only the space immediately around you, public areas can be much more uncomfortable. In a Tokyo summer--especially during rainy season--that means hot, sticky weather. It also means that one common handout at the Remodeling Show is a fan. Here's an example, along with a personal, painted, fold-up version that my counterpart at the Japan Journal of Remodeling presented to me. 

The characters in Japan's kanji lettering system for "building materials"

A Tree Grows in the Lettering

These are the kanji alphabet characters for the words "building materials." My interpreter pointed out to me that the left part of the right-hand character--the word for materials--is meant to suggest a tree. That tree image reflects a culture that, like America, uses wood to build homes. That's a relative rarity for much of the world, and it's one reason why American timber companies have always seen a potential in Japan that they don't immediately find in other places.

Cute Overload, Day 2
Strolling through Japan's Remodeling Industry Fair left me wondering whether there's some requirement that companies use cute symbols to advertise their wares. Here is one of several that I spotted within a few yards of each other. More to come.

Banner for the Evergreen Building Products Association

Monday, June 22

Spreading the Remodeling Mission

Today's opening seminar left me feeling a surprise connection with the small group of gravestones for Westerners that I saw yesterday in Tokyo's Aoyama Cemetery.  Some of those gaijin were recruited by the Meiji government to help open the country to new ideas several decades after Admiral Perry's fleet forced Japan out of its isolation. Others buried in Aoyama include several of the first Western missionaries to work on these shores.

In a sense, I too am a missionary for a relatively new concept for Japanese: Remodeling homes rather than tearing them down and building anew. That notion takes some work to embrace when you operate in a culture that believes a home isn't worth a yen once it reaches 20 years old. In Japan most times today, I was told, it's only the land that has value, not the house on it. 

That notion is changing, and I'm part of it. A West Coast trade promotion group called the Evergreen Building Products Association invited me to come to Japan as part of its trade mission. My job is to help explain how remodeling works in the U.S. and what Japan's would-be remodelers--many of them currently small home builders--need to do if they want to succeed.

My core message: Remodeling can be a great business provided you treat it as such. Too many American remodelers fail today because they don't follow core business practices, I said. The response was a hunger to learn those foundations for success. If you're willing to teach, there are people here eager to learn.

Cute construction barrier in Saitama, Japan

Cute Overload
I have never seen a culture more in love with cute than Japan. Walls and publications are plastered with so many drawings of kittens, puppies, and other small animals that you long for the banality of stick figures; at least they don't try to tug at your heart. For instance, how often do you see frogs used for barrier signs? These were spotted in Saitama, a community outside Tokyo. Be prepared for more cuteness in coming days.

Commuters wear masks on a subway ride in Tokyo

Masking the Truth
Even once you understand the reason, the sight of people wearing masks as they commute can be unnerving. In the U.S., you tend to see pictures like this when newspapers want an image to accompany stories about outbreaks of deadly viruses. That leads you to think the mask-wearers are paranoids eager to avoid germs. In fact, I was told, the opposite is true: People wear masks so that they don't spread any germs that they might have. That's a remarkable show of concern for the community.

Sunday, June 21

In-room HVAC units

8 Things About Japanese Homes and Remodelers That May Surprise You
Often while traveling, it's not the things that I knew would be different that interested me, it was the things that I assumed would be the same--but weren't. Electrical plugs, for instance. So it was when Mitsujiro Garan, editor of Japan's version of Remodeling, sent me some key statistics about the Japanese housing industry and the country's nascent remodeling market:

  • On average, a Japanese home has a lifespan of just 27 years. In the U.S., the average lifespan is 103 years.
  • There's no central heating in most Japanese homes. Rather, the focus is on heating or cooling only the room containing the occupant, using units like those shown above.
  • Consequently, there's scant interest in conditioning the space in a house. Only 40% of Japanese homes have insulation.
  • The vast majority of homes today have only single-pane windows, but in 90% of new homes the standard is double-pane or better.
  • 14% of Japan's homes--roughly 8 million units--are vacant. That's in part a reflection of Japan's aging population and partly because of the migration of young people from rural areas to the big cities.
  • In some ways, Japan is more advanced about aging in place than we are. An estimate 80% of Japanese homes have handrails, 65% don't have any steps leading into the home, 61% have easy entry into the bath, and 21% have hallways wide enough for a wheelchair.
  • When I described the U.S. government's lead-paint rule, Garan was confused. Then he realized why: Most interiors of Japanese homes aren't painted, he said. Instead, wallpaper is used extensively.
  • America has roughly 2.5 times more people than Japan, but our nation's roughly $245 billion in remodeling and repair expenditures is at least triple Japan's.

 Two Continents, Two Styles, One Purpose
I'd bet that, when you travel, you like seeing how others took on the same tasks that you might well face today. I thought of that when I visited the public grounds of Japan's Imperial Palace in the heart of Tokyo. There I saw this guardhouse, one of several homes for samurai who protected the nation's shogun several centuries ago:

Roof of guardhouse at Imperial Palace grounds in Tokyo

That building's roof set me to thinking about a much simpler roof, created for a forester's cottage in the 1800s and now on display at Skansen's, a park in Stockholm, Sweden:

19th Century forester's house on display in Skansen's, Stockholm, Sweden

It seems there's no shortage of ways to put roofs over our heads.