Naomi Foster, Senior Sustainability and Energy Analyst

Japanese Architecture: Navigating Resilience, Sustainability, and Global Trends in a Changing World

In many cities of the world, you can find copy-paste design and concrete monoliths, but the style of Japanese buildings has remained distinct. When walking through any of Japan’s cities, you can easily recognize the Japanese style in the sloping roofs of temples and the iconic neon lights.

However, Japanese architecture and real estate is still evolving, being influenced by global sustainability trends, the changing climate, and the needs of both Japanese citizens and foreign investors.

Japanese architecture has become extremely resilient to natural hazards, making them innately efficient and able to harmonize with the natural space around it. However, there is still a long way to go within some aspects of ESG and in the way that Japan is paving its own path forward.

The style, culture, and utility of buildings in Japan has been developing uniquely since people first populated these islands. Japanese architecture was influenced early on by Chinese and Korean styles, as travelers from the East Asian continent came down through the Korean peninsula and over to Japan. As Buddhism grew in Japan through the sixth century, temples became focal points for local communities, and were some of the most impressive buildings at the time. They were typically made from wood and had large sloping roofs, which is still a distinctive trademark of Japanese architecture today.

As towns and cities sprung up across the developing nation and as Japan’s population grew, buildings not only had to house and shelter the people, but also had to deal with another threat – earthquakes.

Japan experiences more earthquakes than just about anywhere else in the world. Around 1,500 earthquakes occur in Japan every year, as Japan lies in an area where several continental and oceanic plates meet. This serious and ever-present threat has defined how buildings have developed throughout Japan’s history.

We can see the consideration of earthquake resistance even in very early Japanese buildings. For example, the choice of wood over stone for additional flexibility is seen countless times. Wooden buildings can sway and bend where stone ones would crumble, so wood was the predominant material used throughout much of Japanese history.

In later years, as business boomed in Japan and buildings climbed ever more ambitiously, the Japanese shunned the reinforced concrete structures that other parts of the world favored. Instead, buildings with steel cores were often seen, as they had the ability to flex under sudden forces from the ground.

The Building Standards Act formalized earthquake-resistance requirements and set high standards for compliance. The first regulations were imposed in 1924 after the devastating Kanto earthquake which killed over 100,000 people, and has been updated and improved ever since. The current Building Standards Act is one of the most stringent in the world and ensures a high level of climate resistance in Japanese buildings. Under the act, buildings are classified as earthquake resistant structures (the basic level required by law), controlled vibration structures, or base-isolation structures – achieving the higher levels of protection often makes an asset more desirable to potential tenants.

More recently, more astonishing techniques are being used to protect buildings from the risk of earthquakes. Air Danshin have developed a technology which literally allows a house to rise above the chaos. The technology uses sensors to detect a quake, after which air is pumped from a tank down to the foundations of the house, to create a cushion which the house floats on top of. As the house is no longer connected to the ground, it’s less affected by the shaking of the earth, meaning the house as well as the people and belongings inside are relatively undamaged.

In other parts of the world, more communities are seeing their exposure to climate risks increase as extreme environments become more common: wildfires in Australia, heatwaves and droughts in Europe and extreme monsoons across Africa. Inspiration can be taken from Japan on how innovative technology can be used to make buildings safe and secure in the face of climate change.

Japan has also faced other forces of nature which have influenced the development of the built environment. In 1978, a severe drought shocked the southern city of Fukuoka. Only fed by small rivers and limited reservoirs, the city survived using water trucks and emergency supplies.

Since the drought, Fukuoka has become highly aware of water usage and has implemented policies to prevent thoughtless waste. The city promotes the use of water-saving devices, like low-flow tap attachments, and raises awareness on water use. Since 2003, all newly built large buildings are required to install a water system which recycles rainwater or reuses greywater.

Similar systems are now becoming more widely implemented worldwide in buildings that are seeking to cut their utility water consumption to meet sustainability goals. It is of interest to note that these have been required in some parts of Japan for many years, contributing to keeping water-usage low, – and that there has consequently been no repeat of the 1978 drought in Fukuoka.

As we can see from these examples, extreme natural events have impacted the development of Japanese real estate, but financial conditions have also had significant impact.

The current imbalance between the US Dollar and the Japanese Yen makes investment in Japanese real estate an attractive opportunity for international investors. The relative lack of regulation for foreign investors compared to other Asian nations has long made Japan an attractive proposition and this additional financial incentive tips the scales further in Japan’s favor.

The prospect of increased foreign investment creates the need for Japanese assets to adhere to new global sustainability norms. In Europe, it’s common for investors to screen new assets to check ESG credentials and ensure the new asset is in line with global policy. This screening might come in the form of checking for green certifications, carrying out sustainable due diligence, or auditing energy use.

To stay attractive on the international market, Japanese asset managers will need to be aware of these key markers, which may be deciding factors in upcoming acquisitions.

It’s interesting to speculate on how Japan may change to keep up to date with an ever-evolving international marketplace. For example, currently home-grown certifications, such as CASBEE and DBJ Green Building, are the commonly seen ones in Japan. However, we could see a shift in the future to more internationally recognized standards such as BREEAM, WELL and LEED.

Further to this, as the climate changes in Japan and hot summers become more common, as shown by the 2022 heatwave, buildings in Japan may also have to adapt to another climatic threat. Indeed, increased need for thermal modelling and low-energy cooling methods may be seen.

Finally, more ambitious energy efficiency measures can be expected over the next years. International energy insecurity along with the push for greener living will drive more responsible and thoughtful energy use.

Whatever happens, we can be sure that Japan’s response to the climate emergency will continue to build over the coming years. Known around the world for its quality engineering which has helped companies like Mitsubishi and Hitachi become household names across the world, there is significant expertise in Japan to innovate in this area. As low-carbon technology becomes an increasing focus, exciting new solutions may emerge.

Just as Japanese buildings have evolved over the centuries to face a myriad of challenges, we can be sure they will continue to develop to face this latest challenge.

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