Iconic Nakagin Capsule Tower’s final curtain call as decision made to sell

The iconic Nakagin Capsule Tower building in Ginza is reaching the final stages of its saga as the capsule owners have voted in favor to sell off the building and land leasehold rights. The few remaining residents will move out in the coming weeks, leaving the dystopian landmark empty and awaiting an uncertain fate.

On April 21, the Mainichi Shimbun reported that owners association obtained necessary votes in favor of selling the land, or the leasehold rights since the land is under the old leasehold system. Typically this would require 100% of apartment owners to agree, but exemptions can be made for buildings that don’t meet current earthquake safety codes that can reduce the required vote to 80%. 

Under this process, the capsule owners will sell their ownership rights to the owners association (a corporate structure made up of all the capsule owners). That corporation will then sell the building and land to a buyer, with the proceeds from the sale to be distributed to the capsule owners based on their ownership share. 

Based on the limited information reported in the newspaper, it seems like a buyer for the building and land has yet to be found, leaving open the slim possibility that a buyer could come forward to rescue the building. The cost of restoring the dilapidated and unsafe structure and bringing it up to code has been prohibitively expensive, and adding additional fire escapes may be impossible with this design. Potential buyers that have appeared in the past have all backed away once they had an idea of the costs involved. The more likely scenario is that a developer will tear it down and redevelop the prime land. 

Even replacing the capsules one-by-one, as originally planned by the architect, is not as easy as it seems. To remove a capsule on a lower floor would require moving all the capsules above it. Ideally the capsules were to be replaced every 25 years, as Kurokawa envisioned. However, not a single capsule has been replaced in the 50 years since its completion.

Built in 1972, the 140-capsule building was designed by Kisho Kurokawa and intended as a city crash-pad for busy office workers. The compact capsules are just 10 sqm (108 sq.ft) in size. When new, they were priced around 4 ~ 5 million Yen each, and had sold out within the first 6 months of sales. Buyers could choose from several options including shag carpeting, built-in stereo/tv/phone desks, and circular window blinds for the building’s unique round windows. The standard windows were fixed, but openable ones were provided as an optional extra.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, capsules were re-selling for 20 ~ 25 million Yen each as the property market soared. By 2012 and 2013 they had dropped to just a tenth of that price, selling for closer to 2 ~ 3 million Yen. The most recent report sales from 2016 ~ 2018 were selling for between 6 ~ 8.8 million Yen. 

This building is cited as a leading example of Japan’s metabolist movement spearheaded by Kurokawa in the 1960s and 1970s. The capsules were constructed off-site at a factory in Shiga Prefecture, trucked 450 kilometers to Ginza and attached by bolts to two concrete core shafts. 

Large-scale repairs and maintenance, usually required at 10 ~ 15 year intervals, were never carried out. An estimate in 2014 put exterior repairs at 100 million Yen. Plagued with water leaks, asbestos, a broken hot water system, rust and condensation, the apartments became increasingly unlivable. In recent years only around 20 or 30 of the 140 capsules were in use. Some of the owners or tenants used them as small offices, meeting spaces, storage, or even as a DJ booth for online streaming. 

There have been some outside efforts over the past few decades to preserve the building. In 2002 and 2006 Kurokawa’s architectural practice submitted two proposals to the owners association for restoration plans. One involved removing all the capsules, conducting repairs to the building core, and then re-attaching the existing capsules. The second involved removing the old capsules and replacing them with new ones. Replacing the capsules was estimated to cost 8.8 million Yen per capsule, a price out of reach of the capsule owners and far exceeding the amount saved up in the building’s repair fund. 

Redevelopment discussions began back in 2005 with owners voting in favor of redevelopment in 2007. The construction company chosen to lead the project filed for bankruptcy shortly afterwards, a casualty of the global financial crisis, and plans were put on hold. Discussions were raised again in 2010, but by that time a movement to preserve the building had gained traction and the necessary vote could not be reached. Nevertheless, the discussions continued reaching a final consensus to sell. 


8-16-10 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo

Source: The Mainichi Shimbun, April 21, 2021.

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