[Left] The Okuno Building (former Ginza Apartments), c1932; [Center] Warou Flat in Roppongi, c1930 ~ 1937; [Right] The 165+ year old Hosoda Residence in Nakano.

Do Japanese homes only last 30 years before they need to be torn down? Will you be kicked out of your apartment when the building reaches a certain age? There are a lot of tropes floating about regarding the lifespan of Japanese buildings, and the majority of these stories are based on incorrect information.

There is no clear consensus on the average lifespan of housing in Japan, and expert opinions vary. The actual lifespan will be affected by construction methods and maintenance. Some buildings last for less than 20 years before being demolished, while others might be around for 500 years before being redeveloped (yes, there was a case of that in Kyoto recently). A house in Meguro was demolished just 12 months after completion. Meanwhile, the streets of central Kyoto are lined with thousands of machiya townhouses that are over 100 ~ 120 years old. There are even several 300 ~ 600-year old wooden houses still standing in Japan, and the oldest wooden building in the world is the 1,300-year old Main Hall of Horyu-ji temple in Nara.

In 2013, the 84-year old Uenoshita Apartment building was demolished to make way for new high-rise housing. The former apartments, ranging from 10 ~ 39 sqm, were too small for current family lifestyles, while the building had only communal squat toilets, which are not particularly desired by the current generation. The decision to rebuild was made due to concerns about the building’s deterioration, the safety of the structure, its small apartments, and its old facilities which have been degrading over the years. An older structure like this can pose a threat to the neighborhood in the event it catches fire or collapses.

The oldest standing reinforced concrete apartment building in Japan is Building 30, which was built in 1916 on Hashima Island. Harsh ocean weather conditions, poor building materials, and a lack of general maintenance since the building was abandoned in 1974 have seen the building fall into a dangerous state.

Japan’s very first public-housing condominium, the Miyamasuzaka Building near Shibuya Station, was replaced with a new apartment tower in 2020. Redevelopment discussions had been going on for over a decade. Built in 1953, the price of an apartment when new was between 600,000 ~ 1,000,000 Yen, or around 25,000 Yen/sqm. In 2011, when the property market was at a recent low, the average price had risen 50-fold to around 1,270,000 Yen/sqm. Now, units in the newly-completed building are listed for as much as 3,000,000 Yen/sqm and higher.

Miyamasuzaka Building Shibuya
Miyamasuzaka Building / Miyamasuzaka Apaato, c1953.

It is not safe to assume that your apartment building is guaranteed to be rebuilt after X-many years, as there have only been a very small number of successful condominium redevelopments across Japan. As of April 2013, only 183 condominiums across Japan had been redeveloped, representing just 1% of the kyu-taishin (pre-1981) buildings nationwide.

One of the important things to remember is that there is no specific deadline for rebuilding a home or apartment building. Due to re-zoning and disagreement amongst residents, there are doubts as to whether many of the condominiums built during 1960s and 1970s can be rebuilt so simply.

So what are the varying opinions on the lifespan of a house or apartment?

Reinforced-concrete houses or apartment buildings:

120~160 YearsThe service life of a building first defined by the Ministry of Finance in 1951.
117 YearsThe physical lifespan of reinforced concrete as estimated by author Yu Iizuka and published in 1979.
100 YearsThe service life of a Kenzo Tange-designed building (c1966) in Kofu City after retrofitting work is completed. The Kagawa Prefectural Office East Bldg (c1958), another Tange-designed building, is also expected to have a similar lifespan if similar retrofitting and maintenance work is carried out.
68 YearsThe results of a factual investigation by Professor Yukio Komatsu of Waseda University in 2013.
47 YearsThe service life of a residential reinforced concrete building for tax depreciation purposes as currently defined by the Ministry of Finance.
37 YearsAccording to the MLIT, this is the average age of an apartment building when it is demolished. It has little to do with the actual condition of the building, and more to do with demand for redevelopment, especially in urban areas where land is scarce and smaller buildings are often knocked down to make way for newer and larger ones. It does not count the age of existing buildings that are still standing.

Wood-frame houses:

600 Years+Hakogike House in Kobe City is said to be Japan’s oldest standing private home. The exact date of construction is unclear, but experts have estimated that the main house was built sometime during the Muromachi period (1333 – 1573). Radiocarbon dating of the home’s 6 pine pillars found that the wood dates from sometime between 1283 ~ 1307.
400 Years+The Furuike House in Himeji City dates from the late Muromachi Period (1333-1573).
300 ~ 400 YearsThe Yoko-ojike House in Fukuoka Prefecture is said to be the oldest house in Kyushu. It is thought to have been built sometime in the mid-1600s.
64 YearsThe average life expectancy of a wood-frame house according to a survey by Waseda University in 2011.
27 YearsThe average age of a wooden house when it was demolished according to statistics of demolished buildings compiled by the MLIT.
22 YearsThe service life of a residential wood-frame building for tax depreciation purposes as currently defined by the Ministry of Finance.