Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Rural Time and the Politics of Home Construction

The home renewal project taking place in my home is proceeding in leaps and bounds. The only problem is that it isn't leaping or bounding anywhere near quickly enough. We are over budget, behind schedule, and getting fed up with living in half a (dusty and cluttered) house with more than half of our worldly possessions boxed up and piled into corners. That's not meant to be any judgment on the work being done by my uncle-in-law, the carpenter who is overseeing the whole thing. He has been doing his job as best he can, but I'm sure he would tack a "considering the circumstances" onto that. He's getting even more frustrated than we are.

He has been a carpenter all his life. (Heck, he first built this house back when he was 19!) Up in Hokkaido, where he has lived most of his life, he mainly builds buildings for commercial interests, i.e. shops and office blocks, with a whole team of workers. Enlarging a house with only occasional help from a relative or two (who may or may not know what he's doing...or understand what he's saying...) isn't his usual cup of tea. Then there are the facts of home building here in this part of Ibaraki Prefecture. His frank opinion on the matter has been less than complimentary.

When he first arrived here to start work he quite naturally began by going to building supply shops to scope out materials. Ignoring dad-in-law's usual insistence on doing everything as cheaply as possible, he headed straight for the most reputable outlets...and dismissed almost everything he saw with a sigh of disgust.

"Don't people in Ibaraki know how to build houses?" he railed. "Up in Hokkaido no one in his right mind would use this kind of cheap junk!" He wasn't kidding, either. He went ahead and got most of his supplies locally, but he ordered a lot of things, such as the bathroom fixtures, doors, and windows, from outlets up in Hokkaido. Yes, it wound up driving the cost up more than a bit, but frankly I was happy. We have a heavy, insulated front door with triple locks, real wooden interior doors instead of fiberboard (read "heavy cardboard"), and shatter-proof, double-paned storm windows, something which has already caused some of our neighbors to do double-takes with disbelief. We're paying for it, but it's still a lot cheaper than getting a whole, new house...even though that's practically what we're getting.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, the quality of available materials isn't the only problem with home-building here in Ibaraki. You have to understand that Hokkaido is to Japan what Alaska is to the U.S.. It is the largest province, but it has a small and very spread out population with lots of beautiful wilderness in between. In summer, while the rest of Japan is withering under punishing heat and humidity, Hokkaido is comfortable and gorgeous, but in winter it is a frigid, snow-covered, lower plane of hell. Perhaps it is no surprise that the people up there, including my uncle-in-law, tend to do everything like they mean business. Not so here in Ibaraki. Ibarakiites have a long-standing reputation around the country for being stubborn, cantankerous, and having a tendency to do things only when they damned well feel like it. My uncle-in-law has been learning the hard way just how accurate that assessment can be, especially around here.

Take the plumber, for example. When our toilet and bathroom sink were disconnected and hauled away we were told that the new ones would be up and running in three days. Then three days turned into four, five, and then a week. Now it has been nine days, and the plumber only arrived to start the work today. The problem? Well, the man is not only a plumber but also a farmer (common around these parts). When the weather turned ornery and then suddenly mellowed last week, he decided it was time to do the planting. All his plumbing projects got put on hold until the thing with his fields was done, contract or no contract! (Unfortunately, his contract is with my father-in-law, not me. I might have threatened a lawsuit, since living with a two-income family of four in a bathroomless house for over a week is a damned nuisance, but dad-in-law will do anything and put up with anything to keep his reputation intact.)

The roofer was only a little better. It took him a while to get started, but once he did he showed up regularly and got things done quite well (and gave us a "preferred customer" discount to boot). Unfortunately, in the process he accidentally broke the connecting frame of our new skylight (an expensive one ordered from Hokkaido), so he took it home to fix it. It has now been over a week. The roof is more or less finished, but his tools and ladders are still all over the place, and our empty skylight is still covered with a vinyl tarp (which at least keeps the rain out...but is damned noisy when the wind blows). While I'm at it, I should also mention the home-delivering lumberman, who keeps forgetting to show up unless we call and remind him, but at least he's a nice guy...and the wood he brings is of excellent quality, one of few things that has made my uncle-in-law happy.

We've had the worst problems with the electrician. My uncle-in-law has explained to me that, in Hokkaido, the builders and the electricians involved with a project work independent of each other, but they still work together. The builders build the frames, the electricians put in the wires, the builders put up the walls, the electricians install the switches and outlets. It's that simple. They do their respective tasks, but they cooperate. Not so here, apparently. My uncle-in-law and a few helpers built the frames, and then they had to wait and do other things until the electrician decided to show up and put in the wires. (The arsewhole refused to acknowledge my uncle-in-law's existence, let alone speak to him, even though he casually helped himself to my uncle-in-law's tools without permission. He would only communicate with my father-in-law because he hired him.) Then my uncle-in-law got tired of waiting and started putting up the walls, and when the electrician finally showed up again a week later he immediately threw a fit because the locations for the holes for the switches and outlets hadn't been clearly marked out...technically HIS job...and he had no idea where he'd put them. My uncle-in-law offered to locate them for him, but the guy ignored him...and (over my uncle-in-law's protests) proceeded to punch holes in the wall where he guessed they might be...with my father-in-law standing nearby urging him on! I'm just thankful that only one of his holes was off I now have a 2cm-diameter hole in my bathroom wall. Needless to say, both my uncle-in-law and I were furious. (Again, I probably would've insisted he give me compensation or face me in court, but his contract is with "kiss their asses till they bleed favors" dad-in-law, not me.) We figure it'll be at least another week before the guy decides to show up again actually to hook up the switches and what-not.

The good news is that it's looking to be pretty good. The new main entrance and foyer are done, and the living room actually looks like a room now. There's not much more to go, and aside from the missing skylight and the hole in the bathroom wall, it actually looks pretty good. Hopefully we can get it all done soon without any nervous breakdowns, aggravated assaults, or murder in between.

Now if only I had an easier time understanding my uncle-in-law's instructions. He speaks with a very strong Tohoku dialect...

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  • Hmm, sounds like you actually have French workers, cleverly disguised as "hard-working" Japanese!

    Not that everything runs smoothly here in the US either, but we had great luck with the guy that redid our bathroom - he was neat, fast, and on budget. I'd recommend him in a second, which is how we heard about him (word of mouth).

    By Blogger ladybug, at 11:43 PM  

  • You've been tagged again by me!!! Hahaha...

    Sorry.. I just can't help it at all! :D

    By Blogger Selba, at 12:08 AM  

  • It will be nice when you get your home back. When our bathroom was being redone, we had to impose on others for showers, but having a beautiful new room was worth it. When your house is done, it will be worth it.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 3:33 AM  

  • You really are fortunate that your uncle in law is able to do all this for you, just imagine what it would be like if you had to guess from thousands of listed contractors from a phone book like we do here. I think the listings are pretty much a waste of time, most jobs are come across by word of mouth, or referall services. The contractor we had working for our house in rural Washington suffered from a heart attack. Lets hope that doesn't happen to your uncle. Maybe at worst he will blow a gasket!

    By Blogger Pa've, at 8:10 AM  

  • Good grief, the more I read the more Monty Python it became!

    How did you end up in Ibaraki and not Hokkaido?

    By Blogger Olivia, at 10:47 PM  

  • Ladybug
    Actually, the Japanese aren't necessarily as "hard-working" as they're made out to be. I've commented about this before on this blog (to the point of nausea), but the Japanese work ethic is based on loyalty rather than productivity. It's true that Japanese businessmen (and teachers) often work ridiculously long hours, but I've found a lot of that "work" time is often really spent chatting with coworkers, smoking/drinking tea, and napping. The key point is that the workers are giving all their time and effort to their workplace even if the total amount of effort isn't all that much.

    In the case of these contractors, the plumber and electrician in particular would probably be considered worthless in the U.S. (if not sued), but that's not the case here. The plumber may be neglecting his work here in favor of his fields, but he shares his produce with us every year, so the loyalty requirement is satisfied. As for the electrician, he is a friend of a close friend of the family, so, again, the loyalty factor is there. I'm not very happy with it, and neither are my wife and uncle-in-law, but my father- and mother-in-law are totally happy and satisfied that everyone is doing what he should.

    I guess that makes two tags I need to work on. Gee...I didn't think you cared about me that much! ;-)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:24 PM  

  • Snabulus
    Yes, I am looking forward to it. Actually, things are shaping up nicely. It's starting to look more and more like a house again, and what a big change! It's hard to believe I'm in the same house...till I go upstairs and find the same old bedroom/studio. I hope to post some pics soon.

    Word of mouth is about the only way I'd be willing to do it here. Japanese businesses give you very good service and products in most fields, but home construction is not one of them. The housing industry here is rife with institutionalized corruption. I know for a fact (partly from personal experience) that many if not most construction outfits and real estate agencies in Japan have mob ties if they're not actually owned by gangsters. I've heard scary stories about people that ordered homes built by well-established housing firms and wound up getting royally shafted (as in serious breach of contract and substandard work coupled with mob intimidation to discourage complaints). I'd rather not deal with that. I trust my uncle-in-law, and if I couldn't get him to do it, I know other carpenters in my neighborhood (some related to my mother-in-law) that I'd probably turn to next. If that failed, I'd probably do what my friend Steve did and actually bring a carpenter over from America!

    I think it was fate, m'lady. The very first time I came to Japan, which was with my college symphonic band in 1987, I came to Ibaraki. Hokkaido is more like Oregon than Ibaraki is. (Actually, I've heard from several people that Ibaraki is a lot like Louisiana in terms of climate and character.) However, Ibaraki does have a certain, gritty sort of charm. Ibaraki's location is also much more convenient than Hokkaido's. Both Narita Airport and Tokyo are relatively close, and there's nicely little snowfall!

    Lemon curry?!?

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:39 PM  

  • Hi Moody Minstrel.

    Your ‘New Build’ sounds, [when it’s finally finished] as if it’s going to be a dream house.

    I can sympathies with you about the disruption, boxes everywhere and the dust although I don’t have any experience myself.

    I did help out my son in law when he had an extension built on his bungalow, both him and I would always be present during the building to chivvy the ‘workers on’. The building materials would be purchased by Stev [son-in-law] and me and would receive and unload the materials on the delivery date. On site we became the ‘gofer's’.

    Needless to say the extension was built in record time well within budget and up to a high standard.

    Having to deal with the different tradesmen, ‘brickies, plasterers electricians, plumbers and roofers’ a bit tricky at first when they first came on site but they soon got used to us overseeing them. When their respective ‘job’ was finished and we were satisfied with their work, would pay them off, cash in hand. They admitted they had never worked so hard before.

    Eventually you will be very pleased with your ‘new house’ and look forward to a good house warming celebration.

    By Blogger Mick's Page, at 3:58 PM  

  • Good to see you here, Mick! I wish your comment had come about a month ago!

    I've been being an on-site "gofer", too, and have even been helping out with some of the work when I'm able. As far as the tradesmen are concerned, the biggest problem is that they were hired (and wined and dined) by my father-in-law rather than me, and he puts his social issues (i.e. his reputation) before everything else, so he's more than willing to inconvenience us to make them happy. (For example, I've just been told that the plumber came today, drank tea with them for an hour, said he'd install our toilet next Monday, and left again. Dad-in-law says that, since our toilet is "only a luxury", we should be more then willing to make the sacrifice for the sake of neighborhood harmony!)

    Yes, it will be a dream house. Still a small one, true, but a dream house nonetheless. :-)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:18 PM  

  • oh dear.. sounds like u are suffering

    and enjoying it.. I hope.

    By Blogger Robin, at 12:44 PM  

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