July 8, 2014


Lessons from Community Design in Japan's Showa Era: Urban Design for Living Well

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JFS Newsletter No.142 (June 2014)

In this issue of the JFS Newsletter we introduce an article titled "Lessons from Community Design in Japan's Showa Era: Urban Design for Living Well" by Naoki Tani, director of the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living, that was published in the M.O.H Journal, Vol. 42, Winter 2014, and appears here with permission of the author and the journal's editorial team.

Osaka Museum of Housing and Living
M.O.H Journal (in Japanese)

We hope you find it of interest on how the Japanese tradition of living in row houses actually nurtures culture and facilitates interaction among residents.
(Note that the Showa era was the period under Emperor Showa, from 1926 to 1989.)


Lessons from Community Design in Japan's Showa Era: Urban Design for Living Well

1. A Town of Alleys and Row Houses

Waga Machi ("My Town" in Japanese), published in 1943, is a masterpiece by author Sakunosuke Oda (1913-1947), popularly known as "Odasaku." The novel was set in Gataroji Alley in Osaka, Japan, where there were "an awful lot of alleys -- maybe 70 to 80 -- in the town. By nature, it is a town of poor people. The number of families living along the back alleys is more than that of families living along the main streets." Among the alley residents is the lead character, Tayan of Benguet, who is a rickshaw man, an umbrella repairer, a tobacco pipe doctor, a teller of Rakugo comic stories, a silent film voice actor, a speculator, and a seller of cheap, deep-fried food. Although it was known as a town of poor people, the residents could still afford to dress their children in summer kimonos during the town festival. And people could overhear whatever their neighbors said in their houses. When Tayan gave his daughter a severe scolding, for example, Shimedanji, a neighboring comic storyteller, heard it and rushed in to calm Tayan down.

Odasaku depicted life in Osaka using this town of alleys and people living in row houses, where life before the Second World War, in the Showa era, was very open and natural. Called Daiosaka (Great Osaka), Osaka at the time was typified by a modern landscape along Midosuji Street and the bustling area of Dotonbori, while at the same time having another aspect of a town of ordinary people living along alleys in row houses.

2. A Traditional Japanese Town Featuring a Local Shopping Area, Alleys, and Row Houses

At the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living, where I work as director, there is an elaborate miniature model titled "Local Shopping Area, Alleys, and Row Houses" modeled on Karahori Street [karahori means dry moat] that borders the Osaka Sango area. It was originally a pit for supplying clay to the roof tile craftsmen under the patronage of the Tokugawa shogunate, and since the middle of the Edo era row houses had been built there. During the Meiji era (1868-1912), the Karahori shopping street was developed. The area was also famous for its alleys and row houses, which were used as a backdrop for a comic story told in the Osaka tradition titled "Rakuda" (camel). The miniature model was designed to depict a scene on August 24, 1938. At first glance, you may think it's a scene from the Edo era. But if you look closer, you will see quaint electric lights called "suzuranto" reminiscent of the delicate lily of the valley flower on the main street and many two-storied houses with cornices. Undoubtedly, it is a scene in Osaka before the war during the Showa era, with the alleys starting on the side of the front row houses and leading to many back row houses. In the alleys, you can see communal water sources, communal toilets, and small shrines for Jizo [guardian deity of deceased children].

Masaya Masui, a professor at Nara Women's University, was in charge of designing the miniature model, and he conducted thorough research before starting. He first determined the shape of the house lots by using cadastral maps. Then he measured land elevation and conducted a survey of some houses on the spot, a common technique used for designing miniature models. But Masui did more. He made a list and interviewed all residents whose families have been living in the targeted area since the early Showa era. He also interviewed former residents who had moved away. As a result, the stories of almost every resident and their family structures became clear. The information he collected was not only about the appearance of their houses or room layout, but also about neighboring houses and the town landscape. For example, the shooting angles of old photographs were confirmed, and the grid patterns of back row houses were selected from among the many designs seen in the vicinity by old people. Even the spot where soap was located at a communal washing site was identified.

The miniature model was created by literally reproducing the memories of local people gathered through interviews. For instance, there's a girl watching from an upstairs window as a horse pulling a carriage is whipped by a packhorse driver to climb up the stone-paved slope called Zennansuji. You can also see an old woman selling cheap sweets at the entrance of an alley, a child acting up in front of a dentist's office, a man cleaning a vault toilet, and housewives having a gossip session. Other scenes show what happened on that day, the day of Jizo-bon, the annual memorial day of Jizo Bosatsu (Bodhisattva), known as the protector of deceased children. People would erect a small temporary roof in front of the Jizo statues, where children in summer kimonos made a circle near a Buddhist monk and recited a long rosary with many large beads. A paper fan craftsman living in a row house made lanterns hung under the eaves of the houses. All these fine details of the popular scenery of Jizo-bon before the war in the Showa era show the neighborhood precisely recreated in the model.

Today, Karahori is a rare area in Osaka that is free of damage from war and still retains its traditional living environment. In recent years, projects that utilize the face of the row houses have been actively encouraged. We may be able to gain various useful lessons for modern town planning by using this miniature model to examine the lifestyle wisdom of the Showa era, which lasted for 60 years.

3. Life and Culture in Toyosaki Nagaya (Row Houses)

Here I would like to introduce the lifestyle and culture of Toyosaki Nagaya, which is now drawing attention as a renaissance project of row houses located about 20-minutes-walk from Osaka Station. In the middle of the 1,000 cubic meters of land runs a dirt alley, along which are located the landlord's house and 15 row houses for tenants. Although built at the end of the Taisho era (1912-1926), they still retain the original cultural and built environment, nurtured by both the landlord and tenants before and after the war in the Showa era.

When I first visited the landlord of Toyosaki Nagaya, he was taking good care of his wooden house and living comfortably. The kitchen was partly renovated and included a wood floor laid on top of the dirt. Although the rest room and bathroom had been remodeled, he has maintained the other rooms as they were originally built, complete with "shoji" (paper screens), "fusuma" (sliding doors), and "tokonoma" (alcove). In his house, I could feel the rich culture still alive. There was the traditional tokonoma display, "sudare" (bamboo blind), and "furin" (wind chime) -- which helps us sense the change of seasons -- "ofuda" (a talismanic strip of paper to protect from fires in the kitchen), "kamidana" (a household Shinto altar), and a "butsudan" (a Buddhist family altar) where water and sakaki (a species of evergreen sacred to Shinto) are offered up.

Most of the row house tenants, with generations having lived there since before the war, also enjoy the same traditional Japanese-style of living as their landlord. They also take care to maintain their common space by cleaning and watering their alley and taking care of the bonsai trees growing in pots outside. They raised their children there from the 1950s to 1960s, taking care of other people's children too.

Today they are all seniors, but they are leading a peaceful life with people who know each other well. This traditional living system makes this situation possible, supported by the twin factors of the spatial position of row houses along an alley and the good relationship they cultivate, enjoyed by people living there for a long time.

Another attraction of the row houses is that the area still maintains the living space where people can live without vehicles, although it's located in the middle of a city filled with towering buildings. It's a place rich with highly convenient facilities, all located within 500 meters, the walking distance widely accepted as comfortable for elderly people. There's a shopping street with inexpensive shops, allowing face-to-face interactions, hospitals and clinics that seniors can't live without, and important public facilities, such as a subway station, post office, and library. These conditions allow residents to live there without owning a car, and in fact none of the residents do.

Before the start of the renaissance project, Toyosaki Nagaya was already over 80 years old. The buildings were timeworn and the number of vacant houses was increasing. Under these circumstances, the professors and students from the Graduate School of Human Life Science at Osaka City University conducted a seven-year research project on life in Toyosaki Nagaya in cooperation with the landlord and his tenants. Then, the Osaka City University team engaged in the actual renovation work, namely, the design and construction. From their research results, they became convinced that living in wooden buildings, not concrete ones, is most suitable for elderly people.

So the team decided to renovate Toyosaki Nagaya for enhanced residential housing, instead of turning it into commercial buildings. That's a main feature of this project. To enhance the merits of the wooden buildings, they tried to make Toyosaki Nagaya look as traditional as possible. They also conducted seismic retrofitting and interior renovations using the latest technologies and materials. Based on the design produced by the professors and students of the housing design lab, they renovated the row houses to be as attractive as any modern living space.

After the renovations were complete, some of the students involved in the project actually moved into Toyosaki Nagaya as tenants, showing that young people could find a new lifestyle there along with the seniors. These students were previously living in studio apartments and used to come home late at night just to sleep. Now, they enjoy a new life in the row houses; they come home earlier, let some fresh air in, display their doll collections, read books, and so on. Every Wednesday, they gather to enjoy meals together, and they make it a rule to break up the gathering by 10 o'clock at night so as not to bother their neighbors. They also participate in sweeping the alleys and maintaining the common space. This means that community rules are created and upheld among the young people. It's surprising that the Japanese-style communities living in row houses, discarded as a housing model during the "modernization" of society, have spontaneously rebounded and been nurtured. The details of these processes were compiled into a book entitled "Living Nagaya -- Construction of the Osaka City University Model" by Naoki Tani and Yoshiji Takehara, published by Osaka Municipal Universities Press this spring. As the title suggests, Toyosaki Nagaya has been reborn as a living row house community.

4. Lessons from Community Design in Japan's Showa Era: Urban Design for Living Well

Many local communities and residential buildings in Japan are now required to be renovated to protect heritage resources. History is not just something from the past; it informs the present and serves as its basis. Over the years, Japanese people have abandoned a huge accumulation of historic resources without hesitation; we even assumed that this is a typical aspect of modernization, unaware of the fact that a unique culture is created by history itself.

In a country sharing borders with adjoining countries, people tend to think that the accumulation of historic resources distinguishes their country from neighboring ones. In particular, they value historic architecture and towns as symbols of their country or city. History may be a tool to foster a sense of belonging or identity, but such a notion was not overtly prevalent in Japan, an island nation surrounded by the sea.

The city of Osaka, where my office is located, has failed so far to make a detailed self-assessment as a historic city, placing too much attention on modernization. Now, it may need a different mindset and look at the lifestyle culture that citizens created during the 60 years of the Showa era. This culture is reproduced in the miniature model, depicting everyday life in Karahori Street early in the Showa era, on display in the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living. This culture has been passed down to people now living in and around Karahori, although they are being threatened by a new wave of redevelopment. These people are building their community while thinking a lot about their history and culture. In Toyosaki Nagaya, the community created in the alleys is still alive and well. Thanks to the refurbishment of the interiors, young people have started moving in.

The attractiveness of Karahori and Toyosaki is that both communities retain the culture of ordinary people's lives, which has been almost lost in other areas. This is a type of wisdom for daily living accumulated during the 60 years of the Showa era. Karahori and Toyosaki are places that bring back memories for elderly people who knew the old Osaka, and are also the places that provide a chance for the young, the artists, and foreigners to experience an unknown culture. It may be necessary in today's society to make more creative use of historic resources by spotlighting the culture of life in the Showa era.

(Note that Toyosaki Nagaya is not open to the public since it is residential space.)

Naoki Tani, Director, Osaka Museum of Housing and Living Courtesy M.O.H Journal, Vol. 42, Winter 2014