Many municipalities in Japan have local natural history museums, and the one in Matsudo, a Chiba Prefecture bedroom community about 45 minutes by train from central Tokyo, is typical even if its summary explanation of purpose may sound inadvertently funny: “From the birth of humanity to the Tokiwadai housing complex.” It’s the juxtaposition of the epic with the plebeian, but the exhibit itself, which does exactly what it claims to do, provided a thorough encapsulation of socioeconomic development in Japan from the standpoint of what can only be described as “the average person.”
As with all natural history museums, Matsudo’s traces the area’s geological makeup and how its proximity to the river that flowed from the north into what is now Tokyo Bay, which shifted greatly over time, determined its economy. However, with no natural resources or development of special technologies that could take root and turn into ongoing regional industries (salt processing and pear growing were successful endeavors, but only for short, isolated periods), Matsudo’s most salient feature was and still is its topography: valleys called “yatsu” etched between plateus called “dai” and lowlands that straddled rivers called “shitaya.” Each was distinct geographically (dai were at least 30 meters above sea level, yatsu 10 meters, and shitaya 2 to 5 meters) and economically. Rice farmers lived in the shitaya, which often flooded during the typhoon season. The houses and, especially, grain storage facilities were built on man-made elevations to keep them dry. They were also built close to one another and in columns that stretched north to south, with the entrances facing south, often in “terrace” formations. The direction was important because the often destructive winds that would seasonally race through the lowlands came from the north and the west. This might explain the Japanese obsession with positioning housing is a southward orientation, regardless of the view such positioning provides.
With Japan’s industrialization push following the war, Matsudo’s topography lent it some appeal as a Tokyo bedroom community. The rolling landscape was quickly developed, but not in the current fashion of generic subdivisions. Walking through Matsudo’s residential neighborhoods I was struck by the variety and relative luxury of the homes, which were not only larger than those in comparable neighborhoods of other bedroom communities of Chiba and Saitama but seemed more settled, as if the people living in them had been living in them since they were built, probably in the 1960s. For sure, lot sizes were puny compared to Western middle class standards, but the close proximity did not preclude a sense of privacy, and the city planning, which demonstrated enough foresight to not only plant cherry trees along almost all the residential streets but also preserve abundant park space, gave the city more character than many bedroom communities I’ve seen north of Tokyo.
But what really highlighted Matsudo’s profile as a model bedroom community was its public housing, specifically the Tokiwadai housing complex mentioned at the entrance to the museum exhibit. Composed of four sections that cover a huge expanse of land along the Keisei train line, Tokiwadai has not changed appreciably since it was built in the late 1950s and early 1960s, except for a fetching gray-and-yellow paint job that looked pretty recent. In addition to the usual block-styled apartments, there were star-styled buildings, with units radiating out from a central staircase. And as with the private residential areas, the public housing areas had lots of trees and open park space within the area itself. Most public housing projects I’ve seen, especially those built within the last twenty years, place the park area on the periphery.
Tokiwadai is sort of a mecca for kodan moe, meaning geeks with a fetish for vintage public housing. Like the Tama New Town complex in Western Tokyo, it was considered progressive at the time it was built, a model of modern convenience for all Japanese. Now it may merely seem quaint, but the museum has recreated an apartment from the era, a 2DK unit complete with old black-and-white TV (showing a loop of that infamous Bireley’s soft drink CM with the chimpanzees), miniature refrigerator, black rotary telephone, and wooden bathtub. Though it would be way too cramped for a family of four nowadays (the crib in the one bedroom indicates that everyone sleeps together) it has a lot more charm than the majority of new 2LDK “mansions” I’ve seen. In the scheme of things, these apartments were not meant to be lifetime abodes: the assumption was that young families who didn’t have the advantage of company housing could live in public housing and save their money so that they could eventually buy their own homes, but as it turns out a lot of people who moved in never moved out. Many of these older public housing projects are filled with elderly people living on their own. The upshot is that local governments that may have wanted to tear them down and either sell the land or build something more modern haven’t been able to, but recently I saw a report on NHK about enterprising souls who buy individual units from local governments or the semi-public Urban Renaissance Corp. and fix them up to sell. For a single person or a young couple they’re perfect, and perfectly priced; and what’s special about them is that the enterprising souls make an effort to retain their period charm. The irony of Tokiwadai, and Matsudo in general, is that a community of dwellings that was probably not designed to last more than a generation has come to represent the best things about Japanese postwar housing.