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In Japan, too, it's hard to buy a home

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After 10 years of scraping together every spare yen, Kuniyoshi Saito, a Japanese office worker, has given up all hope of ever becoming a homeowner. Although his salary has been rising rapidly over the years, it has failed to keep pace with soaring land and house costs. Land prices, in fact, have increased an average of 20 percent every year since 1960, three times as fast as the rise in consumer prices. In the past 12 months, home prices have gone up 30 percent, putting ownership far beyond the reach of millions of marginal buyers.

Yet in the past decade, Japan has invested more of its gross national product in housing than has any other major industrialized nation. One-third of the country's present 34 million dwellings were built since 1970.

But the dwindeling availability of land and its prohibitive cost, plus the high rate of mortgages and other interest charges, hav plunged the housing industry into deep depression.

An industry survey recently found that the average price of condominium apartments in Tokyo was $130,000. To put that into context, most of the apartments, euphemistically referred to as "mansions," are in reality three-room units with about 60 square meters (about 72 square yards) of floor space.

In the first half of this year, only 70 percent of the condominiums on the market were sold, down from 83 percent a year earlier, when a "mansion boom" was still in full swing. The majority of big-city home buyers would prefer, but cannot afford, a separate house, which usually costs twice as much as an apartment with the same floor space.

So the Japanese home buyer is paying more than his Western counterpart -- and getting less in return.

Although the government has been annually enforcing increases in hous size (new homes now are supposed to cover at least 110 square meters -- about 132 square yards) the average Japanese home still occupies only 56 square meters (67 square yards).

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