Living on the Edge
Living on the Edge: Despair and Destruction of Tokyo's Aging Community
Hanahata (literally means Field of Flowers in Japanese) apartment complex is located on the very edge of northern Tokyo's Adachi-ward. It was constructed in 1964 by the Japanese Government to solve a huge housing shortage in Japan's post-war rapid economy growth (1). The Hanahata community contains 80 buildings (each building is a five-storied, has no elevator), nursery school, post office, shopping square, and two community centers on about 19 hectare (about 47 acre) land plot. When they were built, the concrete flats and its community were considered superior suburban chic for the middle class echelons and even extremely competitive to win a residential ticket alone under public lottery. It has a capacity of 2725 units in 80 buildings.
Today, the Hanahata Danchi (apartment complex) is nearly half empty, more than 1000 units are unoccupied and the exodus of residents has no end in sight. It has been 10 years since it stopped accepting new residential applicants for the reasons of its aging building structures and a future renovation (or gentrification) plan. Approximately 65% of the remaining residents are over 65 year old. As a result, an eerie marginalized ghost town-like atmosphere is overwhelming.
Aging residents feel that they are left behind, have been anxious for the past 10 years, but hang in there with all their might and strong sense of commitment to the remaining community which has been nurtured for the past 45 years (2). Yet, an elder's solitary death called Kodokushi (3) which is mainly caused by one's social isolation and weakened ties to community and family was befallen to one of the Hanahata Danchi units a few years ago. The body of a lone 76 year old man was found dead inside his flat a week after his death. Today, the government-affiliated independent corporation, called UR Agency which administrates the Hanahata Danchi has a plan to demolish the half of the complex and sell the real estate, and finally to remove the rest of residents to the renovated other half, yet its plan is still uncertain for the foreseeable future due to lack of a blueprint for both environmental and economical infrastructure. Prospects for real estate buyers in this stalled economy and already depopulating community remain dim as well. The UR Agency is still in the middle of negotiating with the remaining residents.
The issues facing the Hanahata Danchi community reflect the coming of Japan's graying society, the Japanese government's incompetent bureaucracy, the crumbling rights of tenants, and the collapse of a tightly held community, as Shouji Watanabe, 80, teacher of the Hanahata Danchi Go club, said, "I didn't know I could live this long,....It is very rude to say like this, but seems they (the UR agency) expect us to die out right here, right now."
(1) Similar numerous apartment complexes called Danchi were constructed during the 1960s in Tokyo, Osaka, and other major cities under the government agency, Japan Housing Corporation. The Japan Housing Corporation was originally established in 1955 under Prime Minister, Ichiro Hatoyama, grandfather of current Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama. Since Japan's economy bubble was burst in the '90s, the government organization has been changed to more free-market oriented, quasi-privatized independent administrative, renamed as the UR Agency, acronym of Urban Renaissance under Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi's wing in 2004. Today, the UR Agency manages about seven hundred and seventy thousand (770,000) units in its Danchis nationwide. The UR Agency has been criticized as one of hotbeds of Amakudari, institutionalized top-down bureaucratic practice where Japanese senior servants retire to the private and public sectors linked with their ministries or agencies. This Amakudari practice, however, will be restricted under the new Democratic Party of Japan regime. It may also have an impact on the UR Agency's budget and its uses, and consequently the Hanahata Danchi's future.
(2) According to 2008's Hanahata Residents' Association survey, 63.8% of the residents wanted to stay in the Hanahata Danchi, only 5.1% wanted to move out. Also,in this February 2009, there was a small protest march of union for the working poor who immediately needed a shelter and questioned the UR agency's vacant policy in the Hanahata Danchi.
(3) According to UR Agency data, in 2008, more than 600 cases of Kodokushi were confirmed in the UR housings alone. About 400 cases were over 65 years old. The figure is increasing every year. So far, no national records are kept of the number of Kodokushi but it is one of Japan's understated serious problems in addition to high rate of suicide or the youth's social isolation, shutting out behaviors called Hikikomori. In part, one can say that Kodokushi results from an elder's version of Hikikomori and is similar to committing gradual unconscious suicide. Overall, these problems could be attributed to Japan's culture of shame and stoicism, and the social stigma attached to one's shame.