Romancing the sponge

The atomization of society has inevitably led to more and more elderly people living alone and, consequently, dying alone, too. In 2006 in Tokyo, 357 old people died in public housing units without anyone knowing until days or even weeks after they passed. One of the biggest “danchi” (apartment house complexes) in Tokyo is the Toyama Danchi, located about 10 minutes from Takadanobaba station in the center of the city. This particular complex is for low-income people, which means a fair number of older people live there. At present, almost 52% of the residents are over 65. This is not accidental, however. It has been very carefully planned.Toyama Danchi was built in the 50s and 60s, and as with any such housing complex, it underwent extensive renewal in the early 90s. Basically, the buildings were torn down and replaced with higher structures–the complex went from about 1,200 units to a present total of 2,321 units comprising 16 buildings. There was a good reason for this increase in rooms. Other public housing complexes in the vicinity were also “renovated” to the point where they were actually torn down completely, and the older residents who had nowhere to go were sent to Toyama, thus increasing the complex’s concentration of elderly. 


They increased the number of units not only by adding more stories, but by decreasing the average floor areas of the units as a whole. New rules for low-income public housing stated that families of less than three people could not live in apartments for more than three rooms, and in fact 35% of all the units in Toyama are now 1DK–meaning a room and a dining/living/kitchen area, which sounds nice but whereas 1DKs used to be 43 square meters in the old danchi, the new ones are only 32 square meters. The old people who live in them say they are not much bigger than jail cells. 


The effect of all this concentration of the elderly into cell-like public apartments is similar to what is happening in rural areas, a phenomenon known as “genkai shuraku,” which means young people are leaving for the cities, thus leaving behind towns and villages that are just filled with old people. Tokyo will soon be dotted with islands of lonely old folk living on top of one another. But since they’ll all be in the same place, when they die it will be easier to superintend. 

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