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Inheriting land in Tokyo is a nightmare for many


TOKYO -- It sounds like a dream come true. Inheritance brings a big chunk of the most valuable land in the world. Most dreams would call for a life of ease ever after.

Real life is different.

In real life, the highest-assessed land in the world is in Tokyo's Ginza shopping and nightclub district.

"The family business has been the soul of Ginza since the end of World War II, but it will be a thing of the past, the victim of Japanese inheritance taxes, in another 10 or 20 years," says Yuuji Ishimaru, head of the Ginza Street Association, the district's equivalent of a chamber of commerce.

Ever since Japan's "bubble economy" burst in 1990, land prices have been shrinking faster than tax officials can reassess. Taxes run as high as 70 percent on the assessed value of inherited assets, but these days Ginza landowners often can't find buyers at any price. Heirs who do rarely can sell for a price anywhere near their tax bill.

Hideaki Niimoto inherited Tenshodo, a prestigious Ginza watch and jewelry firm he helped his father run, five doors from Ginza No. 4 Crossing, the world's highest-priced intersection.

"My brother and I inherited this place when my father died January 13, 1990, precisely as the bubble was bursting," he says.

"The inheritance tax was 70 percent of the value the tax office assessed at that time, but the real market value already was less than the tax, even then," he says. "Today, even at half that assessment, nobody . . . could find a buyer."

Japan's inheritance tax law dates from 1905. At the time, it had two purposes: to raise money for the army and navy, and to cut off an upsurge in newly rich families that was bringing back still-fresh memories of domination by feudal lords.

After World War II, U.S. New Dealers who ran the occupation loved the tax's leveling impact. They praised it as an example the United States should follow.

The tax isn't getting much praise these days.

Ginza is only the most visible of many places where Japanese helped their elders build up kimono shops, bookstores and noodle stands but are now losing them to the tax man when the parents die.

In Tokyo's prestigious Denenchofu suburb, a couple committed suicide when the wife's mother died, leaving them the house where they lived. They left a note saying the inheritance tax doomed them to a life of poverty.

"My mother and I ran this vegetable shop together for 30 years," a middle-aged woman in downtown Tokyo said last month, weeping into a TV microphone. "If I sell it, I can pay part of the inheritance taxes, but then I have to move the business, and I won't be near my customers. It all seems completely hopeless."

One little-known way out is to turn the property over to the tax office, then demand the right to use it at a modest rent to live in or keep the family business going.

As families discover that loophole in the law, an unwilling Ministry of Finance is steadily becoming one of Tokyo's major landlords. Tax bureaucrats have begun to cooperate with a handful of politicians who are out to rewrite the law.

Meiji Watanabe inherited Ichibankan, a Ginza tailoring business he helped his father build to international fame, half a block from the Sony Building.

"My father died a year ago, and the truth is I still don't have any idea what I'll do when the inheritance taxes on this building come due next year," he says.

"When I went to Saville Row [London's famed street of tailors] to learn the trade and join my father, the shop was a traditional Japanese wooden house, our home as well as our business," he says.

Today's 9-story Ichibankan Building went up after the tailoring shop profited along with many other Ginza businesses from traffic that came with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

"I think I'm typical of people in this situation," he says. "I'm the eldest son of a successful Japanese. I have to keep my father's business going, and keep his more than 100 employees working. For a Japanese eldest son, there is no such thing as choosing to sell out to pay the taxes and then go into retirement."

What about giving up the land to the tax office and renting it back?

"My mother said she could never face her friends and relatives," he says. "She cried and said I didn't care how much my father sacrificed to own land at Ginza."

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