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RBM: the comprehensive real estate planning company

Interview - December 7, 2022

RBM’s strengths in real estate leasing in central Tokyo and internationality through their local subsidiary in the United States, has seen the company garner high praise as an independent forward-thinking real estate planner.

MASAYOSHI SAKAI, PRESIDENT OF RBM JAPAN
MASAYOSHI SAKAI | PRESIDENT OF RBM JAPAN

Since the introduction of Abenomics in 2012, a sense of stability has been created in Japan through both fiscal stimulus packages and monetary policies. We have seen land and properties increase in value alongside commercial and residential building property values too. But then, two years ago, of course, we had the Coronavirus bring a lot of disruption to the real estate sector. Can you tell us though, what is the state of play of the current real estate market, especially here Tokyo which is the leading market in Japan?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tokyo real estate market for office, multifamily, and condominium sectors had been flourishing. Office markets in Tokyo had historically low vacancy rates hovering at around 1.64% (2019 4Q) and an advantageous seller’s market commanded high per square foot sales. The Tokyo market had high interest from foreign investors and condominium sales had reached peak prices higher than the real estate bubble in the 1990’s.   

The pandemic then shifted the real estate landscape in both Tokyo’s office and residential sectors. The spread of remote work has prompted companies to reconsider their need for office space and to strategically downsize. This has been reflected in the vacancy rates for Tokyo’s office market of 6.49% (August, 2022), which is a 7-year high for central Tokyo. For Tokyo’s multifamily residential market, there has been a small10.80% uptick of vacancy rates (June, 2022). Perhaps work from home policies have eliminated the need for a short commute, allowing employees to live further from their workplaces and to leave the urban multifamily sector. 

We may continue to see a residual increase in vacancy rates in both office and residential markets, but I believe that the vacancy rates will slowly begin to decrease in 2023. We believe that attendance back in the office has slowly resumed for the majority of companies based in Tokyo. While remote work is suitable for tech driven companies, many Japanese companies will continue to rent office space because they rely on face to face collaboration. Many industry leaders still believe that the office environment brings the brightest ideas and innovations to the world due to the collaborative aspects of mentorship and company culture. However, we do believe that traditional office spaces will no longer be the same and will need to adapt and cater to a more flexible office space for their employees. For some companies relocating or downsizing their office space may be a priority due to the changing landscape and business operations however, areas such as Minato, Chiyoda, Chuo, Shinjuku, and Shibuya wards will continue to have high demand due to their centralized prime locations. The residential market will go hand in hand with the office market, so I predict vacancy rates will steadily decline as employers ask employees to return back to the office.

 

One of the big misconceptions in the West is that because of Japan’s decreasing population, the demand for real estate or properties is falling too. However, if you go down and look at the numbers, the population of Tokyo, Osaka, and even in Fukuoka is increasing and expecting to peak in 2030. How do you believe that this influx of people or the increase in the population of large metropolitans will affect the real estate markets? What are some of the wards of the areas that you believe will benefit most from this influx?

The influx of population growth in the urban cities of Japan is primarily due to young adults’ attraction to the urban lifestyle. Metropolitan cities of Japan continue to have steady job growth and more opportunities compared to the rural cities.  Tokyo and Osaka are desirable to live in because of easy access to high quality education, medical care, beauty amenities, and other entertainment facilities. When an area becomes more convenient, more people come to live and work there, and there will be more demand for real estate in both the office and residential markets.

As a result, the cost of rent in metropolitan locations rise and make it challenging for families to live in the city. The urban Tokyo residential market has already been optimized with large tower condominiums and new land to build on is scarce. Consequently, the suburbs of major cities will benefit from Tokyo’s overflow.

 

When we spoke with the president of Tokyo Tatemono, he told us in years gone by Japanese home buyers were very conservative. They generally bought one home and just stayed in their home prefecture for life and they would not go to buy homes in a bigger city. But, nowadays, we are seeing a change in cities like Tokyo where we see older people purchasing properties in Central Tokyo to be closer to facilities such as hospitals, clinics, and shopping facilities. Can you comment please on the type of buyers that are moving to cities like Tokyo?  What change are you seeing in the buyers’ market?  

As much of Japan’s population is aging, there is an increase in services targeting the large elderly demographic. The real estate market is no exception, from nursing homes to serviced luxury apartments. It is advantageous to be closer to excellent hospitals, entertainment, and shopping centres. For the older generation, it is especially beneficial to be closer to healthcare facilities. 

We have been observing a shift in movement from country-side to central Tokyo. Anecdotally, the young adults drawn to the urban lifestyle and working in Tokyo encourage their parents to sell the residence in their home prefecture. Moving to Tokyo would allow families to be closer together. However, living in Tokyo is expensive so it is a choice that can be made only by those who can afford it.

 

Another kind of demographic that has been attracted to Tokyo, before the Coronavirus, was foreigners. We saw that foreign investors in the Japanese market have increased historically since 2010. In more recent years, the Suga administration had made Tokyo a global financial city with the priority to attract multinational companies and foreigners. Despite this, the peak trade volume for foreigners was always around 18 to 20%, never more, lower than other major cities such as New York or London. I have two questions for you. (1)How important do you think it will be for the real estate market to count on foreign buyers? (2)What can be done, in general, to attract more foreign investors to put their capital in Tokyo?

(1) The rising real estate prices in Tokyo are no longer in a price range that small and medium-sized domestic companies can afford, so there are more cases of large-scale real estate deals involving foreign buyers. When compared to other major cities in the world, Tokyo real estate is still considered a bargain as interest rates from local banks continue to be at an all-time low.  The entry of foreign buyers is important as they bring vitality to the market, but inventory of available assets continues to be low in this competitive market. Furthermore, the rapid depreciation of the yen since the beginning of 2022 will make the Japanese market even more attractive to foreign investors. I believe that awareness of foreign buyers will invigorate corporate initiatives such as ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) and SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals).

(2) Tokyo is known to be one of the safest cities in the world, but more is needed beyond its stellar reputation to attract more foreign investors. While cultural gaps and high barriers of entry into the Tokyo market cannot be eliminated, perhaps more transparent processes and open-minded communication will allow for more collaboration between Japan and foreign investors. Strong and positive relations will continue to support the backbone of the world’s third largest economy.  



Your company was only founded in 1990, yet you have some prominent residences through your RBM residence services, your signature RBM Residence Series such as RBM Meguro, RBM Tsujiki Residence, or your RBM Ginza Building – I could go on because there are so many. Could you please tell us which is your favourite and closest to your heart?

Each of our development projects comes with its own challenges and rewards, but at the moment we are most proud of our latest commercial development project in Ginza established in November,2021. The RBM Ginza high-rise office building is a milestone for our 32-year-old company, as Ginza is a prestigious and world renown district of Japan. Ginza is not only one of the most prestigious and world-renowned districts in Japan, it is also where our predecessor, Shuwa Corporation, was founded. The RBM Ginza Building is a redevelopment of a commercial building owned by Shuwa Corporation, and was developed by acquiring the surrounding land to expand the building, which has been a favourite for 50 years. We are delighted to have once again created a building that is the pride of Ginza, in a location with such deep emotional attachment.

I also have fond memories of Kayabacho Tower. Adjacent to the Sumida River in Chuo Ward, it is a mixed-use development with an office building in the main and residences on the upper floors. The site of the property, which boasts approximately 50,000 ft, was created over a period of 14 years, bringing together the rights of dozens of landowners into a single entity. It continues to be a much-loved landmark in the New River area.

 

I would like to ask you more about your operations in the United States. You opened RBM California in 2012, so it has been ten years. Looking at the future, what is your strategy in the United States of America?

Currently, the greatest focus is on investment in the United States of America. It is estimated that the population of Japan will decrease to 95 million by 2050, while the population of the United States will increase to 400 million in the same year. We believe that the US is one of the best investment destinations in the world because it has a reserve currency, has the rule of law, and is a free economy that allows ownership of real estate. We are currently promoting office and residential business in Los Angeles and we aspire to expand our business throughout the US.

 

With regards to the American market, the Japanese Fudosan market, especially in your case, as you are a comprehensive service provider, is different from the American ones. In our previous interviews, people kept talking about the Japanese omotenashi service to the overseas markets and sometimes cultural barriers prevented them. From your nine-year experience in the US, what are some of the gaps that you have identified in the market that makes your company unique? What are some of the unique features that you bring that your local competitors do not have?

Our greatest strength is our extensive experience in supplying office and residential buildings not only in Japan but also in the USA. Since around 1978, our predecessor, Shuwa Corporation, has built more than 60 landmark large-scale developments in major cities across the USA.

In addition to large-scale developments, we have also developed expertise in optimising limited space through the development of properties in Japan. In Japan’s multifamily apartment complexes, a 250 square foot studio is the most typical living space for single working professionals. While our specialized knowledge in building such microunits may be common in Japan, it is not widespread in the US where space is plentiful. A typical one bedroom apartment in Los Angeles is roughly 790 square feet, but our focus is on smaller studio and one bedroom units ranging between 500-600 square feet. Our architects collaborate with locally based US architects to create units with efficient floor plans for smaller spaces, which makes it more affordable for our target demographic of young professionals who want easy accessibility to entertainment, dining, and shopping.

Drawing on the diverse experience we have gained, our LA subsidiary currently owns eight properties in Los Angeles, with two development projects underway.

 

Here in Japan, you provide office buildings as well as building management. You do not only have residential management that involves accounting and repair, but also urban redevelopment where you purchase land areas or refurbish existing buildings. What are some of the synergies you were able to create between these four distinct yet similar business segments? As you expand into the United States, are you able to export that portfolio of services to the properties in the US or do you adopt a simpler business type?

Our vertically integrated real estate development firm consists of experts in land acquisition, architectural design, construction, and property management. Managing the entire process in-house enables better communication of tenant and resident needs, which provides us empirical insight into how we can improve our current and future developments. We are able to eliminate intermediate costs and provide the market with high quality properties at reasonable prices.

Our US subsidiary has a team of local residents who are well accustomed to the American culture and the city of Los Angeles. We are currently adopting the same principles of our Japan headquarters as a vertically integrated company, and the symbiotic relationship between Japan and the US only helps us to improve our designs and provide exceptional service to our clients.

 

Thank you so much for your time and this thorough interview. I have a last question for you and perhaps a more personal question to get to know you better and your vision better. Let us imagine that we come back five years from now to have this interview again. What objectives and vision would you like to have achieved by then? It can be both from a professional or personal perspective.

Our vision starts with exceeding the expectations of our current and future tenants, establishing our company as a community contributor, and then growing beyond our current locations. Our primary focus is our customers and providing excellent service and property management. Beyond our property lines, we have found it important to maintain positive relationships with the neighbourhood and stay connected to the communities surrounding our buildings. In the United States, our primary focus has been Los Angeles but we are looking to evaluate and potentially venture to other American cities. We will continue to invest in both Japan and America because we are eager to be a part of such promising real estate markets.

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