Original plan for the Ikeda Muromachi housing development

Original plan for the Ikeda Muromachi housing development

Because Japan as a country didn’t make housing starts an integral part of its economy until after World War II, we’ve tended to believe that housing developments didn’t exist before the war, but, of course, that isn’t true. Recently we came across a 2009 article by a professor named Ken Shibata who teaches at Kyushu University’s graduate school. In it he describes several prewar housing developments.

Shibata writes from the standpoint that “suburbs in Japan are in trouble,” meaning that they are increasingly filled with vacant properties and are losing value along with residents. He blames the policy–which we’ve mentioned many times in our own blog–of focusing on new developments rather than maintaining existing ones, and he cites three prewar housing developments that today have good value even though they are quite old.

One is Denenchofu in Ota Ward, Tokyo, which sounds like a ringer. Denenchofu is famously upscale, with large, extremely expensive properties. Celebrities and rich executives live there. Though it’s not exactly Beverly Hills, it is as close to a Japanese cognate as you’re going to get. Another, more down-to-earth housing development is Tokiwadai in Itabashi Ward, which was first developed more than 80 years ago. Both these neighborhoods are in Tokyo proper, and even though they were relatively rural areas at the time they were first built, right now they have high property values simply because of their location and not so much because of the quality of their housing stock.

A third example seems to reinforce Shibata’s thesis with more strength. Ikeda Muromachi was and still is a suburb of Osaka, and it was built in 1910 by the Mino Arima Railway Co., which is currently called Hankyu Railway. Shibata calls it Japan’s first suburban housing development in that it was all planned and built by one company. The idea of one man, Kazuzo Kobayashi, who wanted to create dependent customers for the railroad he led, Ikeda is built around the Goguko Shrine in an area that was not an “urban zone” and not an “agricultural zone.” Basically Kobayashi got the local authorities to create an entirely new classification of land use, a kogai (suburban) zone, which is specifically designated for residential housing.

All the lots were square and a uniform 100 tsubos in area, or about 330 square meters, which, by today’s standards, is large. In the middle, near the shrine, was a retail district. There were four housing models that buyers could choose from and four only, but all followed a distinctive L-shape. Two of the models had the foyer (genkan) on the north side of the structure and the other two had foyers facing south.

The people who bought these houses were relatively well-off, and, in fact, many employed housekeepers. But they weren’t what we would call wealthy. The size of the lots afforded some privacy and everyone made gardens. Kobayashi also stressed a community feel to the development; the streets and general landscape design was conceived to emphasize social interaction, in much in the same way that the great urban critic Jane Jacobs described as being the ideal for major cities in North America. The fact that this was “suburbia” (though that phrase and even that concept had not really been invented yet) and not a city perhaps points up the Japanese character of the project. So while the community was “created” by Kobayashi and Mino Arima Railway, it was eventually managed by the residents themselves as an association.

One hundred years later, when Shibata was writing, Ikeda Muromachi still exists and thrives, but with some significant changes. The retail district has become “fully commercialized,” meaning, presumably, that it also now contains non-retail businesses. Most importantly, the uniform 100-tsubo lots over the years have been subdivided even more. There are now 50 percent more parcels of land than there were when the development was built. The reasons are easy to figure out. When an original owner died, perhaps his children wanted their own piece of the property, but what that meant was the community became denser and more cluttered. In some cases the original houses were torn down, but it seems that in most cases they weren’t. The gardens were removed and smaller “annexes” were built. Also, a lot of this subdivision was carried out strictly for profit, since there were no local laws preventing the slicing up of lots.

But if the area looks different from how it looked originally, it also looks very different from modern suburban subdivisions, where uniformity is stressed not so much for aesthetic or social reasons, but for purely economic ones: developers save money if everyone builds the same house. Shibata says that Ikeda now resembles an upscale “shitamachi,” the term for the dense, ramshackle residential area in the eastern part of Tokyo where the hoi polloi traditionally lived. And because of that, the area has somehow retained its property value. Houses in Ikeda Muromachi, especially the oldest ones, are in demand because of their superior construction and design, as well as their nostalgic cachet. Planning did not lead to this outcome, but it wasn’t as if it came about by accident, either. It pretty much happened organically, which is its own economic ideal. Of course, Ikeda is relatively close to Osaka–the commute is bearable–and that consideration is usually paramount when it comes to property values in Japan. For what it’s worth, before Kobayashi built the development, no one wanted to live there.

Shibata believes that Ikeda Muromachi is a fitting model for a sustainable suburban housing development, but it seems almost impossible in today’s economic climate to build such a thing. A developer would either have to target wealthy people only, or forego a good portion of potential profits.

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