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Sunday, Jan. 19, 2003


The danchi and postwar society

Special to The Japan Times

At the time, they were homes most Japanese could only dream about. Within their thick concrete walls, they were equipped with such mod cons as flush toilets and stainless-steel kitchen sinks, and they even had separate bedrooms -- for parents and children.

News photo
High-rise living, danchi-style GEOFF BOTTING PHOTO

These dream homes were the danchi (public-housing complexes). From the mid-1950s, they began appearing throughout Japan, their multistories often rising amid rice paddies on the outskirts of big cities.

Today these concrete housing projects may appear oppressive and even slumlike. But for many Japanese of the 1950s and early '60s, they represented progress almost beyond their imagining.

The danchi were created in response to a severe housing shortage at the end of World War II. With the nation needing more than 4.2 million homes, the government set up the Japan Housing Corp. (now the Urban Development Corp.) in 1955 to supply low-cost housing, mainly for the growing urban middle class.

For the next few years, demand for the danchi was staggering. Applicants had to enter a lottery, a practice that continues to this day, and being chosen was akin to winning a $1 million draw. In 1957, the Mainichi Shimbun reported that the odds of getting into the spanking new Hikarigaoka Danchi in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, were more than 25,000 to 1.

A construction binge over the next couple of decades eventually eased the pinch, to the point where these housing projects are now features of the urban landscape throughout Japan.

According to the UDC, about 2 million people now live in its 740,000 rental units. There is also similar housing administered by the various municipal governments throughout the country. Tokyo alone has 260,000 of such units.

Meanwhile, the sociological impact of the danchi and other postwar collective public housing has been enormous. Previously, most Japanese lived on farms or in inner-city areas. But as the country began to rebuild and rapidly industrialize in the postwar period, millions of people headed toward the suburbs. The danchi were there to absorb the flood.

"This is a new breed of middle-class person, who lives within newly created urban areas," said the Shukan Asahi magazine in 1958, when it identified a new segment of society it termed danchi-zoku, meaning "public housing tribes."

According to Susumu Kurasawa, a sociology professor at the TV-and-radio-based University of the Air who specializes in community relations, danchi were a key factor in the breakdown of the traditional extended family in Japan, which often saw three generations living under the same roof.

"The housing policy back then was to construct the 2DK [a floor plan of two rooms plus a dining/kitchen room in a total area of around 35 sq. meters], in which the parents and children were able to sleep in separate rooms. That promoted the development of the nuclear family in Japan," he says. "As a result, the children had to leave home after they married, because they couldn't be accommodated anymore."

By the early 1970s, a slew of social problems associated with living in large-scale artificial communities had emerged.

One complex, the Takashimadaira Danchi in Itabashi Ward, Tokyo, gained notoriety around this time for the inordinate number of people who committed suicide there. The tabloids talked about how, in a single month, dozens of people jumped from the top of the building. It was even (somewhat improbably) claimed that families sitting down to dinner became so accustomed to the sight of people flying past their windows that they wouldn't even bother to interrupt their meals to investigate. The danchi, commentators began to say, were lonely and sterile places, where neighbors rarely bothered to communicate with each other.

On the other hand, communication of a certain type became notorious in the form of danchi-tsuma (danchi housewives), who became the theme of many salacious movies and novels. As their menfolk commuted off early to work, only to return exhausted late at night, these bored and frustrated women sought "companionship" with the opposite sex wherever they could -- whether through side jobs or making eyes at delivery men.

"The danchi reflect the era in which they were constructed, which is why I find them so interesting," says Satoshi Hase, a 37-year-old computer graphics designer who has traveled the country from Akita Prefecture in the north to the south of Kyushu to study them. Much of the research goes into his Web site (ham.m78.com/danchi), titled Danchi Hyakkei (100 views of danchi).

"I used to live in one of these places as a kid, which is why they give me a warm and friendly feeling," he says while poking around the Mure Danchi in the western Tokyo city of Mitaka on a recent weekend.

Built in 1956, it's Tokyo's oldest danchi. Although its buildings are dilapidated, it's a pleasantly spacious and tranquil place, with generous areas of grass, playgrounds and gardens. Typical of Japan's housing projects -- and unlike many of their Western counterparts -- there is nary a sign of graffiti nor any sense of threat there day or night.

However, the Mure Danchi's buildings are slated to be torn down and replaced with new ones from 2006.

Satoshi Hatanaka, an official of the reconstruction section at the UDC's Tokyo office, says there are no plans to preserve either the Mure buildings or any other danchi buildings of that early vintage, regardless of whatever historical importance they might have.

"The biggest problem is that they are too small to satisfy tenant expectations these days," he says. "Also, the equipment, like the baths, is old and needs to be upgraded. However, our budgets limit the extent to which we can get things fixed."

The government, meanwhile, has been trying to wean the public off danchi and other forms of public housing, instead encouraging people to buy their own homes.

The state-run UDC plans to supply just under 10,000 units in the fiscal year that starts in April -- down 9 percent from the current fiscal year, and a mere 12 percent of the peak figure in 1971. What's more, the government plans to phase out the UDC by 2005, and replace it with a more independent agency.

The move will mark the end of an era in which public housing not only met the needs of a rapidly industrialized nation, but also played a key role in defining its social makeup.

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