Japanese mass housing from the 1960s is a fascinating cross-cultural experiment that merged Western and Soviet modernist typologies with traditional Japanese elements. Once a symbol of a new “modernized” way of life, it has since become a burden for Japanese society. Current living conditions in these housing estates are unsuitable for elderly residents and have given rise to the phenomena of kodokushi—lonely, unnoticed deaths inside of the apartments. Tatiana Knoroz, a researcher of Japanese architecture, explores the tragic fate of this modernist project.
“I feel at peace here. There’s no one I can rely on ever since I cut ties with my family twenty years ago. I am truly grateful to the local government that kindly allowed me to rent this place,” says a smiling Endo-san, the seventy-year-old widow of a low-rank yakuza. After her husband’s death, she moved into a 41-square-meter apartment at a state-subsidized danchi complex in the Mito area, north of Tokyo. Japanese mass housing from the 1960s and 1970s has a colloquial nickname—danchi, which can be translated as “communal” or “group land.”
“I have been extremely lucky so far. Some neighbors from my block are not as healthy as I am, so they have trouble going out and taking walks,” adds Endo, pulling on a massive woollen cloak and moving closer to the portable gas heater. The temperature inside the rooms in December feels colder than outside, but it doesn’t seem to bother the residents. Endo is happy to share how satisfied she is with the abundance of greenery in the area and the ample size of her apartment, which she believes is more than enough for one person.
Seventy-five-year-old Kimura-san from the opposite building confirms Endo’s words. However, he mentions that his knees started to hurt due to the tatami lifestyle, so he had to buy Western-style chairs and a bed, and cover the traditional floors with thick carpets to avoid damaging the original surface.
Kimura doesn’t talk with his family either, but denies ever feeling lonely. “Back in the day, we had an active neighbor community around here and we used to visit each other a lot. Of course, times have changed and we don’t do that anymore, but those good memories are enough. I read a lot, sometimes take photographs of flowers outside, and take the bus to town to develop the negatives—there’s always something to keep me busy.”
Japan is often portrayed as a country where robots, crazy gadgets, cutting-edge engineering, and million-dollar corporations elegantly coexist with centuries-old cultural heritage and striking achievements in contemporary art, design, and fashion. While you might find all of that and more when visiting the most popular neighborhoods of Tokyo, day-to-day life in other parts of Japan is still full of twentieth-century remnants. Most shops, supermarkets, and fast-food chains only accept cash payments. Opening a bank account without a custom-made personal stamp might turn out to be harder than storing all of your money under a mattress. Receiving any kind of governmental service requires a stack of filled out forms and certificates, and some important correspondence can only happen by fax or postal mail.
Japanese urban environments can also be strikingly retro. Leaving the central districts of big cities will get you immersed into faceless rows of cookie-cutter townhouses occasionally pierced by dusty shops with outdated electrical appliances, and faded posters featuring smiling candidates of municipal elections from ten years ago.
If you wander around those suburban areas long enough, you will surely stumble upon neighborhoods consisting of uniform gray concrete apartment blocks which may remind of Soviet khrushchevkas—one of the most famous post-war housing typologies. Thousands of similar projects were built all over Japan in the 1960s and 1970s to solve the housing crisis which took place in the aftermath of WWII. At first, those apartment blocks were considered to be highly desirable living environments. But now, similar to their Western prototypes, they are a source of various social issues and a headache for the municipalities.
The birth of danchi
Unlike Europe, pre-war Japan didn’t have many examples of multi-story mass housing; the majority of the population lived in detached or row houses. Apart from a dozen experimental four-story blocks built in Tokyo in the 1920s which didn’t turn out to be very successful, there was just one common apartment housing typology called nagaya—long wooden buildings, usually two floors high, which rich merchants would construct on their spare land for the urban working class to rent. Apartments in nagayas consisted of one or two multifunctional tatami rooms, with the total surface area measuring around 20 square meters. Kitchens and bathrooms were usually shared and located at the end of the corridor on each floor.
Traditional wooden nagaya floor plans were obviously not appropriate for solving the post-war housing crisis. By August 1945, 19 percent of all residential buildings in Japan were destroyed by aerial bombings—44 percent if only urban areas were considered. Rather than rebuild the housing stock, the Japanese government chose to focus on economic recovery first, and invested in heavy industries that promised the fastest capital return. People flocked into big cities for work, land prices skyrocketed, and urban sprawl became a problem in Tokyo and Osaka.
In the 1950s, seeing the rapid population growth, the government had no choice but to react. The Japan Housing Corporation was established in 1955, tasked mainly with creating a new mass housing typology to accommodate urban middle class families. After several years of rigorous research, the JHC started building danchi complexes all over the country.
Danchi were meant to modernize Japan in order to overcome its imperialist past and shameful military defeat, and to bring it on the same level with the developed countries of the West. Despite a pronounced official course towards the values of American democracy, socialist ideas were very popular among Japanese intellectuals of the time. It is widely known that architect Kisho Kurokawa visited the Soviet Union in the hopes of realizing his utopian metabolist megastructures. Less publicly, JHC officials also came to Moscow in the 1950s to look for architectural inspiration.
The Japanese were impressed by cheap construction methods and the efficiency of Soviet khrushchevka plans, and brought home some technical drawings for more detailed studies. Not surprisingly, the first danchi strongly resemble their Soviet prototypes from the outside, but inside you will find an unexpected reinterpretation of the modernist minimal housing unit, inspired by Japanese vernacular.
Inside a danchi apartment
Most 1960s danchi units measure a total of 41 square meters and consist of a genkan micro-entrance, three multi-purpose tatami rooms divided by movable fusuma partitions, and a dining-kitchen area (popularly nicknamed “DK”) with direct access to a small bathroom. DK became the main engine of domestic modernization in Japan, bringing family members together for meals. Individual bathrooms and metal entrance doors were innovations that were hugely welcomed by many young couples longing for more privacy, which was barely possible in intergenerational traditional houses.
Although apartments in early danchi complexes were considerably smaller than the average detached residence in Japan, and were usually located in distant suburbs, there were so many people willing to rent units in the “houses of the future” that the JHC had to organize a national lottery. For the most popular danchi, the chance to win was calculated to be one in 25,000.
Why danchi lost their popularity
From 1965, the JHC started to build entire satellite cities with danchi of various heights along main railway lines leading to urban centers. These projects were named “New Towns,” paying homage to the British urban planning experience.
However, in 1970, the Japanese government officially declared that the housing crisis was solved and danchi enthusiasm gradually faded away. Many danchi residents, having saved up enough money, started moving into their own detached houses. The rapidly changing tastes of the consumerist society of the 1980s didn’t approve of older danchi unit plans anymore, and in the 2000s the most unpopular neighborhoods started being demolished.
If today you ask any passerby in Tokyo what danchi is, after a few surprised clarifications you might hear something like “old apartment houses for extremely disadvantaged people.” Then the person who was asked will probably become awkward and try to change the topic. Most people are hesitant to admit to having friends or relatives who live or used to live in danchi, even though within Tokyo there are still dozens of such neighborhoods of considerable sizes, not to mention suburban areas full of New Towns.
Housing for the elderly and lonely
After the Japanese economic bubble burst in 1991, most danchi residents who didn’t have the opportunity to move out earlier were doomed to stay in dilapidated rented apartments. Some of the danchi neighborhoods were repurposed as social housing, and now are populated by elderly people, low-income and single-parent families, immigrants from other Asian countries, and sometimes representatives of traditionally excluded social classes in Japan: retired workers of the funeral industry, former low-rank yakuza, or credit debtors.
Previously a highly desirable standard of modern living, with voices of children running around spacious playgrounds ringing between the blocks, danchi are now silent faded monuments of the national economic achievements of the past and a source of various problems for local authorities.
Apart from the rising number of vacant units, inadequate living conditions, and structural dilapidation, the main concern of danchi neighborhoods is the elderly residents that are staying locked up inside their apartments, struggling with the absence of elevators and and being relatively isolated from urban infrastructure. Kodokushi, the phenomenon of elderly people dying in solitude and being left undiscovered for a long time, is especially recurrent in danchi complexes. It is not surprising that ordinary citizens tend to avoid going to danchi districts unless it is absolutely necessary, and danchi residents in turn choose not to join the external environment—mainly because of the embarrassment caused by their social status.
Danchi apartments are poorly insulated. In winter months, tenants try not to move too far away from oil or gas floor radiators, spending the bulk of their monthly income on autonomous heating. Although the absence of insulation is a usual feature of traditional Japanese wooden houses, concrete walls make it more difficult to heat up the air in the room. In the summer months, most people in subsidized danchi cannot afford air conditioning and have to endure the humid heat with electric fans.
The unit plans of danchi no longer fit modern living standards. There is not enough space to store long-accumulated personal belongings; washing machines sit on narrow balconies; tiny entrances and bathrooms are hardly accessible for the elderly and people with disabilities. Often there is no hot water in the kitchen, and walls are covered with mold and cracks—but DIY repairs or interior remodeling are normally forbidden by the house management. However, you will not hear a word of complaint from the residents, no matter how much you ask them about all of the evident difficulties.
It would seem that the issues surrounding danchi need to be at the heart of discussions in the press and the government, but the reality is that most Japanese citizens try to avoid this topic, as if it were taboo, and don’t want to know what happens behind old concrete walls.
Until recently, there was a prevailing public determination to demolish and completely rebuild all problematic areas, but it is becoming more and more evident that a sharp decline is awaiting the construction industry after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It seems that faded danchi districts will continue reminding us of the tragic fate of this massive social housing project for at least a couple of decades longer. But there are signs of hope as young architects and even big companies such as MUJI are starting to propose regeneration scenarios of various scales. With greater media attention, the situation will hopefully change for the better.
Photos by Tatiana Knoroz.