September 23, 2013

The danchi revolution

NHK's Bakusho Mondai science series (hosted by the high-brow comedy duo of Yuji Tanaka and Hikari Ota) recently did a pair of shows on danchi. (Scroll down here for stills from the show.)

Danchi were massive urban housing projects initiated in the late 1950s. They were designed to accommodate the burgeoning population and lure people out of their wooden apartments and single-family fire traps.

The great majority of the deaths in the Great Kanto (1923) and even the Great Hanshin (1995) earthquakes were caused by collapsing wooden buildings and the fires that followed.

At the time, danchi were considered very modern and upscale. The Emperor visited what would become the Takashimadaira housing complex--still the largest in Tokyo (10,170 units)--to lend his stamp of approval.

The image below comes from this detailed photo blog: "You can't talk about danchi without mentioning Takashimadaira."

Courtesy Dhanow.

Bakusho Mondai showed a television ad from the era, featuring a "cool" couple entertaining in their cool new digs, with one cool guy mixing a martini. It was like something straight out of Mad Men.

The big architectural and cultural innovation danchi introduced on a widespread basis was room specialization, bedrooms separate from the dining room separate from the living room.

Though a second look reveals just how tiny those living rooms were. The couch and coffee table in the original Dick Van Dyke Show would have completely filled it with no room left for anything else.

These original structures are now seen as cramped and decrepit. In order to attract tenants, older danchi are combining units and liberalizing leasing requirements and zoning, such as converting ground floors to retail.

Later housing projects like Tama New Town (which grew into an entire city) and Port Town (where I lived for a year) accommodated an "urban-suburban" mix from the start, with larger apartments, green space, and shopping malls.

Port Town, Osaka.

Upscale danchi have been rechristened "mansions" (condos). These days, though, a room of one's own isn't enough. The middle-class dream revolves around "Mai Hoomu" (マイホーム), a house in the suburbs.

Make that new homes and condos in communities close to the cities. The result is a growing surplus of old and abandoned houses in the exurbs (as in The Wolf Children). There's little affection for "this old house" in Japan.

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