Question:  You often here that the lifespan of Japanese houses is quite short. Is it true?

Answer: Yes, for now.

The references that I found indicate that the average life of a detached wooden house in Japan is between 30-40 years. Some of the data indicates that the average life has been increasing over the years; however, Japanese houses are still young by Western standards. One source notes, “homes last an average of 30 years in Japan, 55 years in the US, and 77 years in the UK.”

The young age of Japanese houses is due largely to their rapid loss of value: old houses are essentially worthless, falling to zero in 15 to 25, or 30 years. An article in The Guardian succinctly explains this:

“The origins of this unusual approach to sturdy structures are the result of a long history featuring earthquakes and fires. The second world war exacerbated the situation.

Jiro Yoshida, an assistant professor of business at Pennsylvania State University, specialises in the Japanese housing market. “Most structures in, for example, Tokyo were destroyed, so everything had to be rebuilt from scratch,” he says. “The new buildings weren’t very good, so after a while many had to be knocked down.”

But today’s buildings are demolished even though they could last. That, says Yoshida, has a cultural explanation: “The government updates the building code every 10 years due to the earthquake risk. Rather than spending money on expensive retrofitting, people just build new homes.”

This explanation seems reasonable enough. I suspect, though, that the average age of houses will continue to increase as time passes, partly due to the maturity of building standards and code. In the 25 years from 1960 to 1985, construction methods and building codes likely improved greatly, especially in relation to earthquake. In the following 25 years, from 1985 to 2010, I don’t believe that the changes were as significant, though I could be wrong. I will leave this for another pot.

Enough speculation. Here are the sources:

(1) Lifetime and Life cycle cost estimation of Japanese Detached House” KOMATSU Yukio and ENDO Kazuyoshi (2000), per 1997 data:

As seen in the following chart, the average lifetime of a Japanese wooden, detached house is  41.16 years, and 43.44 years for reinforced-concreted (RC) apartment buildings.

(2) Freakonomics podcast“Why Are Japanese Homes Disposable?” GREG ROSALSKY (2014):

“half of all homes in Japan are demolished within 38 years — compared to 100 years in the U.S.  There is virtually no market for pre-owned homes in Japan, and 60 percent of all homes were built after 1980. In Yoshida’s estimation, while land continues to hold value, physical homes become worthless within 30 years. Other studies have shown this to happen in as little as 15 years.”

(3) 1994 data, 50.6 years: SURVEY ON THE LIFE OF BUILDINGS IN JAPAN, Y. Komatsu, Y. Kato, T. Yashiro (1994)

This study, using 1987 data, estimates average life of 38.2 years for wooden residential houses, 34.8 years for reinforced-concreted (RC) office, and 50.6 years for RC apartment buildings (based on incomplete data).

Japan wooden house life estimate

(4) “What is the lifespan of an apartment in Japan?” Japan Property Central (2012):

Anecdotal evidence from this  property buyer’s agency writes, “Why are some apartment buildings rebuilt within just 40 years?…There are approximately 100 cases of apartments built in the mid 1970s that have been, or are currently being rebuilt (not including reconstruction following the 1995 Kobe earthquake). 40 years is a considerably short lifespan for a building, but many of these buildings were not torn down because of decay as they were still structurally sound…Many older 5-story buildings also did not have elevators, leading to a functional decision to rebuild for the sake of the inhabitants

(5) Obstacle to Affluence: Thoughts on Japanese Housing (Nomura Research Institute – NRI, 2008)

This articles writes, “The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport estimates that homes last an average of 30 years in Japan, 55 years in the US, and 77 years in the UK.”

(6) Why design buffs must visit Tokyo, ‘an architectural riddle of a city’ (The Telegraph, 2017)

“As we walk, Darryl surprises me with facts. “Twenty-six years,” he declares. “Just 26 years. That’s the average lifespan of a Tokyo building. As a result, there are fewer historical landmarks in Tokyo. In places like Kyoto, there are more traditional buildings, but everything that is really vital in Tokyo is so because of its newness and its sense of change. The environment here transforms constantly to make way for the future.'”

Other Resources: