A home for Seiichi’s family: Ninety-two-years of Japanese Housing History
By Yuka Aota, on 5 July 2022
This housing story will explore the housing history of my grandfather named Seiichi Aota. Throughout his 92 years (1928-2019), Japan experienced WWII, economic rise and fall, globalisation, and big earthquakes. The housing policies and land use have changed confronted changing socio-economic and political situations. From the perspective of my grandfather, this essay aims to highlight Japanese political context on housing. Interviews with his children (Aota family 2020, personal communication, March 2020) tell his housing story and livelihood. This story shows the transformation from the past housing programmes in a rapid population growth period to the current ones with more vacant houses in a hyper aging society.
Tough time due to WW II (1928-1951)
In 1928, my grandfather Seiichi Aota was born in Kobe City, Hyogo Prefecture, in the western part of Japan. After a period of isolation from 1639 to 1853 when Japan only traded with the Netherlands, the Japanese government opened a port in Kobe in 1868 which is one of a few ports in Japan that allowed foreign trade. Railways were also established in late 1874 (Kobe City 2020), and this made Kobe accessible to the other business areas in Western Japan, such as Osaka.
At the age of six, Seiichi lost his mother and was adopted by his uncle Yutaka and aunt Mikao, who did not have children. Seiichi was moved to their house in Kitano, where the government had designated the area for Western-style residences built mostly for early foreign settlers (Kobe Ijinkan 2020). In 1939, WWII began, and he was forced to work in factories to produce weapons as part of the mobilization of students for production labour by ceasing his studies. The Japanese government banned the building of wooden houses that were more than 100 square meters (Nagano 2007). While Seiichi volunteered to be a soldier several times, as the only son of the family he was considered the single heir so his application was not passed. In 1945 there was a massive air raid that burnt down many of the traditional wooden houses, as well as almost all the houses that Seiichi’s uncle had bought before WWII. After Japan lost the war in August of 1945, it suffered terrible damage 3.1million people were killed in total and at this was also the start of the US occupation (Hirota 1992).
Part of this damaged included the 2.1 million houses that were burnt down, and it also left many people in need, there was 4.2 million houses were in urgent need to be built (Nagano 2007). The Japanese government provided temporary housing to victims of war, but the speed of provision was not enough to reach the demands. The U.S. General Headquarters (GHQ) introduced American democratic ideas to Japanese housing policies. The GHQ’s guidance led the Japanese government to establish the Housing Loan Corporation for providing housings with low long-term interest rates. Due to the shift to a free economy, Japan faced inflation, which pushed up the price of building materials. The GHQ judged that Japan could not produce enough timber for housing. In order to promote less flammable buildings, they let Economic Science Bureau submit the comments indicating that reinforced concrete structures would be the most practical (Nagano 2007). This was the beginning of Japan addressing the issue of building less flammable housing in collaboration with private firms. These housing initiatives focused on efficient use of building materials whilst ensuring the minimum strength and promoting the use of non-combustible materials.
Seiichi’s family had all survived WWII. Because of the high demand for housing after the war, his uncle sold the remaining properties in Kobe. After that, his family left Kitano for Amakusa in Kumamoto Prefecture in the Southern part of Japan. His uncle became an investor in a relative’s shipbuilding business and negotiated with timber dealers for constructing ships in the mountains which were undamaged by the war. Seiichi also worked in the same business. Difficulties obtaining affordable building materials led to the bankruptcy of the business. His parents went back to Kobe in 1950 and decided to open a candy store in Suidosuji shopping street in Kobe. They borrowed money from his aunt’s younger sister, who ran a restaurant close to Omuta Station in Fukuoka Prefecture. The City of Omuta was flourishing because of the coal industry and the population was the highest in 1959 (Omuta City 2020). Seiichi worked at the restaurant to reduce his uncle’s debt and earn a little pocket money. He started dating Kyoko, who was the daughter of his aunt’s eldest sister. Kyoko went on to become his wife. The loan was paid off by his parents afterwards.
Aotayashoten headquarters and branch (1951-1970s)
Around 1951, when the Security Treaty between the United States and Japan was signed, Seiichi’s parents opened a candy shop named Aotayashoten (Aota’s shop) on the east side of Suidosuji shopping street. Literally, in Japanese, Suido (water) Suji (street). It was developed by installing water pipes in the 1920s and was filled with lively scenes along with a market street (SUIDOUSUJI CO., Ltd 2020). His parents rented a house from the owner of a nearby shoe store.
The rental house had a shop front used for Aotayashoten with showcases of commodities and a dwelling area. Behind the shop front, there were four-tatami mats room, a small kitchen, a storage room and a toilet, there was no bathroom, so they used public bathhouses. The room was too small for the family and their employees to take meals together. Seiichi’s parents slept in a cramped tatami room that was very cold in the winter and was infested with mice. A classic example of the poor living conditions that was a result a state focused on increasing the numbers of houses and not the quality.
There was a period of economic growth from 1953 to 1973. Japan gradually started boosting up the economy by launching an economic growth policy and income doubling policy. The rapid population growth generated a housing shortage which resulted in soaring land prices, environmental problems, land sprawl, and many other issues (Nagano 2007). The government focused on housing policies and established four branches of Japan Housing Corp. in major Japanese cities, in 1955. The Corp. promoted housing estate development and land readjustment project. It launched 10,000 rental houses and 10,000 subdivisions of houses in half a year and created 35,000 new residences by the end of 1957 (Nagano 2007). In 1960, the income doubling policy led to mass-production and cost-cutting in housing. Additionally, the Ministry of Construction established the councils for prefabricated and public housing as well as financing systems which encouraged fast construction and the use of cheap materials. Due to this high demand in housing, private firms began industrialising the production of housing materials (Nagano 2007). This resulted in the creation of low-quality housing below the current standard (Suzuki 2008)
Riding on this economic wave, Seiichi’s parents rented a store on land belonged to the City of Kobe and opened a branch of the Aotayashoten in 1953. The branch was close to the east exit of the Higashi-Hatahara market, which connected to Suidosuji shopping street. The first floor had a store front with a showcase and a living quarter of around three to four tatami-mats, a kitchen, a toilet, and an entry way. There was no gas available, and they used a briquette brazier for making hot water. When they used a small heater in winter, the circuit breaker frequently tripped. So, they could not often use the heater. On the second floor, there was a six-mats tatami room and an eight-mats tatami room, a toilet, and a small wooden floored room. After Seiichi and Kyoko held their wedding at the restaurant, they left Omuta for Kobe to support Aotayashoten in Kobe. They rented a six-tatami mats room on the second floor of the apartment adjacent to the Suidosuji shopping street. Following the birth of their first son in 1954, the couple had their first daughter in 1957, the second son (my father) was born in 1959 and the second daughter in 1964. After the births they started living in the store. After living in the space, Seiichi bought the rented branch.
A house for Seiichi’s family (1970s-1980s)
The Japanese government predicted that the baby boomer generation after WWII would need residences that could accommodate their families and spouses, and the houses built after the war would need renovation. In response to the demands, the government established the five-year housing construction plan in 1960. This plan was renewed every five years and considered the foundation of Japanese housing policy, which mobilised the private housing market.
The first phase began in 1966 through to 1970 secured an increase in the average dwelling space to more than nine tatami-mats per small household (two-three people) and more than 12 tatami-mats per general household (more than four people) (Nagano 2007). As Figure five (Nagano 2007, p28) shows, housing provision was permeating, and the government started more weighing on the housing quality. In 1973, the ratio of the average housing standard with insufficient facilities such as no bathroom was 72.7%. Then, the Ministry of Construction started the Industrial housing performance certification system, in which users can check building standards. The oil crisis boosted up the price of building materials which caused a shortage in supplies. However, owing to the improved construction methods, during the third phase from 1976 to 1980, the ratio of people living below the minimum dwelling size standard with complex criteria (e.g.,19.5 tatami-mats per general household) decreased to one third (Nagano 2007, Uesugi & Asami 2009).
Mass produced housing built after the war needed renovation in the fourth phase. The fourth phase, from 1981 to 1986, was aimed at securing the housing quality above the renewed minimum housing standard with more space per household. It was the beginning of introducing initiatives focusing on renovations and harmonisations with local areas (Nagano 2007). In 1982, the building performance certification system was launched to guarantee the building of long-lasting houses and to make maintenance of these houses smoother. The housing strategies were created to respond to the various demands from customers and local needs.
Aotayashoten gradually made profits owing to economic growth of Japan. The development of the area surrounding the store increased the number of customers. This led to the hiring of more employees who were introduced to Seiichi by his relatives in Shimabara. Seiichi rented rooms in the apartment near the store in front of Hankyu railroad crossing. His employees lived in a six tatami-mats rooms with a kitchen and shared toilet.
In order to accommodate his growing family, Seiichi decided to buy an existing house in Kuraishi within three to four minutes walking distance from Aotayashoten in the 1970s. The house was on land leased by a private owner which cost around 8 million JPY (around 62,000 GBP). The house without land tenure usually costs from 60% to 80% of the housing with land tenure dependent on the market price of the land, as the landowner pays real estate acquisition tax, property tax and city planning tax and housing costs (Iecon 2020). It was much cheaper to rent land and buy the house, than buy both the land and house together. With the permission from the landowner, he refurbished the house, which was built before the Pacific War in 1941. The newly renovated house had a Western-style room, a tatami room, a dining room and kitchen and a toilet on the first floor, and two tatami rooms on the second floor. They still used public bathhouses. Since his aunt had already passed away, he invited his uncle to move from the store to the house with him. Seiichi would often stay at the store to ensure the business ran smoothly.
Rise and Fall in the late 1980s, and the Hanshin Earthquake in 1995
In 1985, the U.S. invited Japan, U.K, Germany, and France to hold a G5 Summit and agreed with the Plaza to depreciate the U.S. dollar by intervening in currency markets. This caused a sharp yen recession in Japan. Although the Bank of Japan adopted a thorough low-interest-rate policy, the result was an unprecedented “money surplus”. The surplus funds flowed into the stock market, and asset prices began to rise. The real estate market no longer played such an essential role, such as land speculation, which became a social issue. In 1989, the Bank of Japan suspended the low-interest rate policy, and the government regulated the lending. There was a rebound that had risen too sharply, and then stock prices and land prices entered a prolonged slump. This was the burst of the Japanese economic bubble. It took a long time to recover from the aftermath, and it was later called the “Lost 20 Years” (Nihon Sangyo Keizai Shimbun, 2013).
Reflecting the social and economic situation the birth rate started declining, the housing policies started to focus more on the elderly from 1986. The sixth phase of the five-year housing construction plan changed directions leaning towards integrating the housing programmes into a housing master plan. This showed the reconstruction of housing policies and the combining of the private and public housing sectors together as a commercial housing market. This encouraged local governments to reflect locally on their housing policies. The government promoted housing supply initiatives targeting the middle aged and elderly people through new town projects.
Once Seiichi’s children became independent. He decided to close the Aotayashoten in 1987, and his first daughter rented the same space and opened her own accessory store. However, the rental fee per month suddenly increased from 40,000 JPY (310 GBP) to 80,000 (620 GBP) in a half year and the impact of the economic bubble forced her to close the store.
After the Japanese economy experienced inflation and deflation, the Great Hanshin earthquake occurred (Kobe earthquake) at a magnitude of 7.2 on January 17, 1995, at 5:46 a.m. This caused more than 6,000 deaths and over 30,000 injuries (NIST, 2017). Although Seiichi had renovated his house and put in place measure to strengthen it against earthquakes the year before, it was still damaged. As carpenters were in high demanded after the disaster, he was unable to fix them. The revised building standard act did not allow him to have a house of the same size, and he needed to leave as he did not own the land. Seiichi gave up rebuilding the house on the same site. They had no choice but to stay at a designated evacuation area in an elementary school and got allocated to a flat in a prefabricated house after some time. He applied for the restoration housing fund several times but with too many applicants he was unable to receive it. Finally, he was able to access public housing in June 1998. This was a small flat with a six tatami-mats room, a small western room, kitchen, balcony, a toilet, and a bathroom. That was the final abode for Kyoko and Seiichi.
After WWII, Japan experienced rapid economic and population growth. In response to the housing demands, the government established regulations, initiatives, and institutions for housing provision. As time passed, they encouraged private sectors to invest in housing materials and housing constructions for improving the housing quality.
Whilst globalisation has both good and bad sides, the Japanese economy was badly damaged by the Plaza accord. This put Japan into an economic recession for a long time which led to low birth rates and triggered an aging society. In 2018, 27.7% of the population was over 65 years old, and 13.6% of Japanese houses became vacant without maintenance (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Japan, 2019).
The Japanese livelihood has changed a lot over the 90 years of my grandfather’s life. In association with many life events and unavoidable circumstances such as work-related transfers, family and disasters, he lived in many different types of homes. After he cared for Kyoko who had dementia, he passed away of blood cancer last June, just one day before I got the unconditional offer from the University College London. He lived his life to the fullest.
Note – It is necessary to clarify a uniquely Japanese way to measure floors with using the unit of “tatami”. The original meaning of tatami is a rectangular mat for floor covering, which consists of a thick straw base and a soft, finely woven rush cover with cloth borders from ancient times. A Danchi tatami measures approximately 170 by 85 cm and is about five cm thick (Magokorotatami 2020). Six tatami-mats room is Six tatami-mats room considered a standard size in Japan. While 4.5 mats can be recognised as small or cramped, an eight-mats or ten mats room is a quite large room in general (H&R GROUP 2018). The most Japanese houses request people to take off their shoes in the entrance.
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This housing story is part of a mini-series revealing the complex ways in which personal and political aspects of shelter provision interweave over time, and impact on multiple aspects of people’s lives. Space for strategic choice is nearly always available to some degree, but the parameters of that choice can be dramatically restricted or enhanced by context. The wide range of experience presented in this collection shines a light on the wealth of knowledge and insights about housing that our students regularly bring to the DPU’s learning processes.