Eminent Domain in Japan

Eminent domain may be an inherent government power all over the world, but Japan is different. There, the cultural attachment to land is so strong that forcing people off their land is a bad idea because if you do that they are likely to fight back. And when we say “fight,” we mean physical violence. We were reminded of that when we came across this item from a Japanese real estate blog whose pseudonymous author does not identify himself. Still, it’s interesting information.  

The development of Narita Airport is Japan’s most famous example of how an intricately thought out development plan can be run amok by land owners unwilling to sell.

Slated to open in 1971, protests by local land owners, student militants and left wing opposition successfully delayed the opening of the airport until May 28, 1978. Rather than a joyous opening day ceremony that would usually mark the end of a momentous project, the birth of Narita Airport was attended by almost 14,000 police officers and over 6,000 protesters. While taxis carrying passengers where being checked by police one by one, protesters were exploding firebombs and throwing rocks while police responded by firing water cannons to keep the protestors at bay.

The fun didn’t stop there either. Narita Airport quickly grew to capacity in terms of how many flights and passengers it could handle and needed to expand. The process of expansion reignited the protests as more land was forcibly expropriated to increase flight capacity. In fact, the lengthy and violent disputes displayed at Narita Airport during initial construction and later in subsequent expansion efforts were the major factor in building Kansai International Airport in the open water of Osaka Bay rather than on established terra firma. Weak Eminent Domain laws affect private projects just as much as public ones. Roppongi Hills is another example of how long it can take just to acquire the land necessary to break ground on a project. Opened April 23, 2003, Roppongi Hills sits on 27 acres of land amalgamated from over 400 smaller plots of land that took 14 years to acquire. During the land acquisition, Mori Building (Roppongi Hills developer) had to offer unusually high inducements to existing land owners and in some cases offered replacement dwellings in the Roppongi Hills Residences, sacrificing the ability of the donated dwelling to generate any rental income at all. Eminent Domain Laws, by Adam, realestate.co.jp, September 10, 2010, go to http://www.realestate.co.jp/2010/09/10/eminent-domain-laws/

Judging from our own observations, this is an accurate depiction of reality. We were struck during our visit to Tokyo by the heavy presence of the Japanese National Police at Narita. Those weren’t your friendly local beat cops keepng an eye on the neighborhood from their little koban. This was a paramilitary force armed with heavy machine guns and armored cars. Evidently, when you take people’s land in Japan, you buy into some serious problems.

So how do they do it over there? How do they acquire land for public projects without using eminent domain? Mostly by persuasion and negotiation. The Japanese are less individualistic than we and are more community-minded, so that helps in persuading them to go along with government demands. Also, under Japanese law, people whose land is taken for public projects are fully compensated. None of that damnum absque injuria moral crap, or lamenting that if the owners are indemnified for their economic losses the world will surely come to an end. 

What is even more fascinating to us gaijins is how the Japanese go about negotiating with owners of land in the path of public projects. We happen to own one of the very few copies of a book entitled PROCESS OF LAND ACQUISITION AND COMPENSATION, Published by the Hanshin Expressway Compensation Center, and translated into English by Professor Tsuyohi Kotaka of Meijo University. The book is written Japanese style in the form of cartoons – like a comic book. We learn from it that when a Japanese public project is about to impact a community, those folks don’t just send those “sell-or-else” lowball offers to owners whose land is targeted for acquisition. Instead, acquisition teams, each consisting of two right-of-way agents (one senior and one novice) move into the targeted community, and get to know the head of the local council, as well as the people in the path of the project. Then, by a process of patient persuasion the latter’s consent to a sale of their property is secured. The compensation is based on fair market value; the owner may move his building(s) but need not do so if doing so is very expensive. It also covers business losses.