Property rights in Japan (and America) - updated

Thank you for pointing out the LA Times article about bicycle theft in Japan. As an American resident of Japan I feel you have touched upon one of the most important yet little noticed distinctions between these two cultures -- respect for property.

When I first studied and traveled to Japan I thought this was primarily a respect for law and a fear of getting caught in such a close-knit and crowded country. You pointed out the oppressive conditions in Japanese prisons, but I have come to realize that there is much more to it. The prison conditions may be a deterrent, but I wonder if those in Japanese prisons take much notice of how their lives are observed and controlled. I say this since I doubt if many American property owners take much notice of their own compromised freedoms. Now this sounds like hyperbole, but after moving to Japan it took me some time to fully appreciate the differences, and now the US situation seems unacceptably oppressive to me.

"Kelo" would be unthinkable here -- That is, state mandated transfer of land from one private owner to another for the sake of development. The exercise of eminent domain rights even for public projects is a rarity. New airports are built on reclaimed coastal land, highways are elevated and often follow the path of a river. But mostly property is bought, concessions are made, community pressure is brought to bear, all without resort to condemnation and eviction. The ultimate right of the property owner is maintained.

There is also a marked lack of zoning laws in Japan. I live in a neighborhood of single family homes and one of my neighbors runs a metal shop out of his garage. That kind of thing would be unthinkable in my former home in the Silicon Valley, yet some of the Valley's biggest success stories (HP, Apple) came out of garages at a time when the US homeowner had less regulation and more freedom to use his property without worrying about community regulations, ordinances, state EPA laws, Federal OSHA laws etc. This is not to say that the Japanese property owner is free to be a nuisance to his neighbors, but he must actually be a nuisance before the state gets involved. This is what brought to my mind the comparison between the Japanese prisoners and US homeowners -- both are regulated and monitored in their every move with the assumption that given a chance they will do harm.

Another example: Many Japanese cities are plagued by ancient narrow streets which make automotive access all but impossible. In Nakano-ku (Tokyo) where I live, the city attempts to buy narrow strips of land to widen certain access roads. In many places you can see a small green plaque by the curb where it has been moved 150mm or 200mm and the road widened in front of a single house. The plaque acknowledges the owners contribution to this effort. Of course, this process is exceptionally slow but just like the children filling out forms for a lost coin it is the only legitimate standard if you have not compromised your respect for property.

The lost-coin-ritual is not just a teaching opportunity for children. It is that I imagine, but it is more. If you truly respect others property then there is no justification in pocketing a found coin. It is abandoned property, but just as the police can not ignore any theft - no mater how small - abandoned property must all be processed properly - no matter how small.

Best Regards,

Chris Pagano
Tokyo, Japan

Thomas Lifson adds:

Chris Pagano is absolutely correct to point out that property rights in Japan put our own post-Kelo rights to shame. It is a startling point, but one which we might learn from. Land owner has a nearly mystic hold on the Japanese mind, for those farmers who owned their fields were much less likely to starve than those who were tenant farmers during a millennium+ of feudalism. The miserable lives of tenant farmers often saw them paying rent in the form of bushels of rice as their own families lost members to starvation.

When Japan's land prices inflated to insane levels in the late 1980s and early early 90s [the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo were reckoned to be worth more than the entire state of California, it was often reckoned], I spoke with many friends in Japan who owned homes worth millions of dollars. I would ask them why they didn't sell and retire to Hawaii or some other paradise. None of them ever would even consider selling, for that would mean that their families would become landless.

Very often, when builders seek to assemble a package of land for a condo tower, they will "trade" ownership of a certain number of units for the land underneath formerly belonging to families. That maintains at least the appearance of property ownership.

I think that a major turning point came in the 1970s, when the government used eminent domain to force farmers off land in Narita in order to construct New Tokyo International Airport. The result was a pitched battle between farmers who refused to vacate their land and the authorities. Construction of the runaway was delayed for something like a decade, and holdouts continued to live in huts on the airport grounds for at least a decade more. At one point farmers and their radical supporters stormed the control tower of the as yet unopened airport and destroyed millions of dollars of electronic equipment.

The Japanese public was comparatively supportive of the protestors, at least to the point of understanding their passion. Following this disaster, Osaka and Nagoya decided to use landfill to create island airports.

Update: Ed Waage writes:

There is another part of the story which includes General Douglas MacArthur during his tenure as Supreme Commander Allied Powers in Japan following WWII. MacArthur instituted a program of land reform where the tenant farmers were allowed to purchase land from absentee landowners. The result was an increase in food supply during a time of great deprivation.

If you experience technical problems, please write to