Too much sharing

A share house in Adachi Ward, Tokyo

A share house in Adachi Ward, Tokyo

The Western, or, at least, American, idea of communal living has never caught on in Japan. It’s common for college students in the U.S. to rent a house together and share living expenses, and many continue this sort of living arrangement until they get married or make enough money to live alone. In Japan, it’s more common for college students who live away from home to rent small rooms if they don’t live in dormitories, but in any case, out of school they tend to live with their parents until they marry or may continue renting small apartments by themselves. The concept of small-scale shared abodes is rare, not so much because it’s not popular but because the housing market has never been accepting of such a situation. Landlords tend to be uncomfortable with multiple renters.

But for at least a decade now, something called “share houses” have become more prominent in Tokyo and other major cities. In most cases, they are commercial enterprises, houses built and maintained by companies for the express purpose of making money, and in that regard there’s very little difference between them and traditional Japanese apartments where individual units share toilet and kitchen facilities. What you usually get is a number of bedrooms, a communal living space that includes a kitchen, a communal shower, and a toilet or two. The tenants are coed and may or may not interact with one another. Of course, there has also been an increase in the number of conventional houses renovated so as to accommodate multiple individuals and which are closer to the American “roommate” style living situation, but share houses are more common.

But not common enough. A story that Tokyo Shimbun has been following since last fall shows that the authorities still don’t know what to do about share houses in terms of legal administration. An article that appeared in the paper in January described an anonymous, 41-year-old single woman and her daughter who started living in a share house in Kunitachi, Tokyo, in the spring of 2013. The woman makes a living as a freelance illustrator, but her income is not stable, so she applied for child allowances from the Kunitachi city office and received two payments, the jido fuyo teate, which is provided by the central government, and the jido ikusei teate, which is provided by Tokyo Prefecture. Combined, these two allowances, which in principle go to the children of single parents, amounted to about ¥40,000 a month. The money was approved by Kunitachi, which administers both allowances. Read More

Where there’s smoke

Last Sunday morning at about 7 o’clock, a fire broke out at the Rose House Higashi apartment building in the Okubo section of Shinjuku, Tokyo. More than half of the two-story structure was destroyed. Four residents died and two remain in critical condition. Of the 26 units in the building, 22 were occupied by 23 residents. That means one unit had two people, which is sort of remarkable since each apartment is only 4.5 tatami mats in size, or about 8 square meters.

Rose House is fifty years old. Each room has a cold water faucet and a gas burner. The toilets are communal. There is no bath, which is characteristic of these kind of wooden apartment buildings. Rents were between ¥51,000 and ¥53,000 a month, which is cheap for Shinjuku but quite expensive for this kind of residence. For ¥10,000 more you can probably find a six-mat apartment not far away with its own private bathroom, but as media have reported 17 of Rose House’s residents were on welfare, and most of them were “very old.” The Shinjuku welfare office told reporters that they did not “recommend” Rose House to any of the people they administer, but it’s common for welfare recipients to “live in the same building.” That’s because their incomes are extremely limited and most landlords will not rent to welfare recipients. As it happens, welfare recipients in Tokyo tend to receive a higher housing allowance than people in other cities in Japan, the maximum being ¥53,000. Rose House apparently catered to welfare cases, which makes sense. Landlords usually can’t demand that much money for such old, cramped apartments, even in Shinjuku, and public housing is usually off-limits to single people; but since welfare recipients don’t have a lot of choices the Rose House landlord could ask them to pay that much. Also, Rose House didn’t demand a guarantor. Even at less than full capacity the place makes more than a million yen a month.

So far the police have not isolated the cause of the fire. Some media initially suspected it had something to do with “old wiring,” since there was a small electrical fire in one of the apartments several months ago, but the Asahi Shimbun has reported that theory has been discounted. Though the building was situated on the edge of a parking lot, Rose House is what is called a saikenchikufuka, a structure that “can’t be rebuilt” because it was erected in the middle of block, thus making it very difficult for firemen to gain access. Nobody will be moving back in, which means the surviving residents now have to find some other hovel to accept them.

Staying alive

According to the 2005 Japanese census, there are 14.5 million single-person households, twice as many as there were twenty years earlier. What’s more, 30 percent are seniors. Almost five times as many men in their 50s and 60s live by themselves now than lived by themselves twenty years ago. The same goes for women in their 40s and 50s. Of these, slightly more than 10 percent have incomes of less than ¥1.5 million a year.

Obviously, most of these single householders fear for their futures, since Japan has no real safety net for such people. However, according to Asahi Shimbun, there is a network that was established in 1998 called SSS, which stands for Single Smile Senriors. Basically, it is a support service for older women who live by themselves. It has grown from 20 members to its present 900. These women take care of one another as they grow older because they have no families to do so and they know they cannot count on the government. The Asahi provides an example of one member who was diagnosed with terminal cancer in her 60s and who was comforted by other members of the network until she passed away. Of course, the obvious question is: Why isn’t there an equivalent network for men?