I’m absolutely certain that no one among those who dream of Japan’s houses with the tatami flooring, the sliding doors and the windows with the paper and wooden lattices can’t comprehend that until 60 years ago, a big part of Japanese society was eager to live in a square apartment with laminated floors in a concrete building redolent of the workers’ housing projects in the Soviet Union and their implementations in the industrial -and often underdeveloped- areas of the big cities of the West. But it’s true: the pressing housing needs brought by the end of the war was the driving power for the proliferation of a phenomenon that had started after the great 1923 earthquake, oddly enough in some of the very “good” areas of modern Tokyo like Aoyama. Even today, the Japanese over 40 remember, often with not a small dose of nostalgia, the “danchi” (団地), the public housing projects that didn’t just offer a solution to the problem of millions of homeless and internal immigrants but practically changed the attitude of Japanese society in general.
Seen with today’s standards, these projects and the apartments that make them up, look claustrophobic, anachronistic and hardly practical -and for the most part, they are. But for the generation that grew up after the war, they were the first chance for a modern, private house (their administration was done by the national and local governments and they were offered for rent or sale to families with lower income -often the demand was so high that the offering procedure included a lottery) in the suburbs of Tokyo, Yokohama and the other big cities, made of durable materials and capable of supporting a lifestyle with tables, chairs, beds, electric appliances, flushing toilets, bathrooms and kitchens using electric power or gas. The basic unit, the “2DK” i.e. one dining room-kitchen and two separate rooms might have been small (and considering the number of apartments in a danchi, often very small) but it was big enough to roof the dreams of millions of people who had no other alternative but move to the cities. Thanks to the danchi, the housing problem that 20% of the Japanese people faced in the early 1950s had been completely solved in less than 20 years.
That first generation, the “danchi-zoku” (団地族) or “danchi tribe” has aged enough for some of those buildings’ (non) features, such as the lack of elevators, to make their lives difficult while the opulence of the 1970s and 1980s has helped their decedents to leave the danchi and buy detached houses in better suburbs; furthermore, the plan about strengthening social ties and smoothing social injustice probably didn’t work as intended by those who came up with the idea in the first place: the danchi rather helped the, already introverted, Japanese to protect even more their private lives while in the cases where micro-communities were indeed formed, they functioned more as vehicles for the rise of postwar consumerism and the preservation of hierarchical relationships both within the projects and between their members and the inhabitants of the areas surrounding them. Still, it would be a mistake to think that the danchi have died. Not only because newer and with more facilities are still being built, nor because the older ones are being now seen as a good, cheap solution by many younger Japanese. But mostly because the changes they caused to the way of people’s thinking spread roots and still influence Japan’s society; if customs allowed for an age to take its name from other factors than the reigning emperor, the two decades between 1950 and 1970 would certainly be called the “Danchi Era”.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.