Archive for May, 2012

Field diary: Yukarigaoka

May 20, 2012

Monorail at rest

Centrally planned communities have been around in Japan since the 60s with the advent of the “new town” movement, based on the similarly named British social housing policy. The idea is that housing and commerce are engineered to work together. Theoreticians of the Jane Jacobs school of organic urban environments may look down on the concept because of its artificiality: everything is supposed to work because it’s been programmed carefully beforehand. The new towns we’ve looked at in Japan are predictably old-fashioned, like snapshots of the 60s and 70s but ones that evoke no feelings of warm nostalgia except for so-called kodan otaku (public housing freaks). They just look old, mainly because most of the people living in them are old, but also because they are simply superannuated. Though the term “public housing” needs to be qualified in the case of new towns, for the most part the architecture and design of the communities were carried out by public or semi-public entities, and today the buildings and neighborhoods still have a utilitarian quality that many people find quaint at best, ugly at worst. It all depends on what’s been done with the residences in the meantime.

Yukarigaoka, a community in the north-central Chiba city of Sakura, isn’t stricly speaking a “new town,” but it was extensively planned. The difference is that the planning was done by a private company, Yamaman, which started out as a fabric wholesaler in Osaka in 1951. They moved their headquarters to Tokyo in 1965 and for the next ten years became a full-scale real estate developer for residential communities. Their first large-scale project was in Yokosuka, a project that was historically notable for being the first Japanese address written in katakana. They started the Yukarigaoka project in 1971, and even after the initial development phase was completed, have stayed on for the expansion, which continues today. The first sale of single-family homes was in 1979, the first condominium in 1982, the same year they opened a monorail that circled the project and connected to the Keisei Honsen train line. In fact, they convinced Keisei to build a new station just for the community called Yukarigaoka. Naturally, the company had to work closely with the Sakura municipal government in order to purchase land for development, but they also built the area as a community with a future. According to one of the company’s real estate agents, Yukarigaoka is the only similarly sized project in Japan completely overseen by a private company. Because it’s built on a hilly plateau with lots of farmland, the usual expanses of cramped housing developments are broken up by huge swaths of green forests and fields. (Though public parks are relatively scarce.) It has its own “downtown” with a major city hotel and department store complex. There’s even a university with one of the most attractive campuses we’ve ever seen. (more…)

The enduring stigma of renting

May 4, 2012

In April, the government decided to extend its subsidy for temporary emergency housing in the Tohoku region by one year. Originally, they allowed for two years, so that means people who are currently approved to live in temporary (kasetsu) housing can remain where they are until at least April 2014. Most of the media coverage of this issue centers on the new housing that was built specifically for the refugees of the March 11 disaster, but in truth most of the units being used for this purpose are existing houses and apartments that the government is leasing from their owners. According to Tokyo Shimbun, in Miyagi Prefecture alone, there are 26,000 minashi–units being rented from landlords–units in use and 21,500 specially built units.

Not everybody was pleased when the government announced the extension. A group of people who own the land on which some of the temporary housing was built expressed concern that they wouldn’t be able to sell their land for another year, and are worried that the government could continue extending the period of habitation indefinitely, which is what happened in Kobe after the Great Hanshin Earthquake. Another dissatisfied group is an association made up of Miyagi realtors and landlords. One would think that landlords would be happy with the extension, since it guarantees income for another year, and probably at inflated rates since the government is paying. However, one Sendai realtor told Tokyo Shimbun that many of the refugees who are living in these minashi units are not homeowners who lost their houses but rather people who were renting apartments or houses that were destroyed or damaged. The realtor says that local governments assigned these renters to minashi dwellings “without properly checking their situations,” meaning, presumably, that the temporary housing program does not discriminate but it should, since there is a difference between renters and owners. Some “adjustment” (merihari) should have been made before the government decided to extend the program another year. Exactly what “adjustment” means in this case isn’t spelled out, but the only natural conclusion is that the renters should be evicted. (more…)


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