In postwar Japan, the desperate need for housing resulted in the mass construction of concrete tower blocks of varying heights and sizes — the initial design and efficiency of which were at least partly influenced by Soviet planned Khrushchyovka. Known as danchi, these government projects primarily offered affordable, but at the same time well-equipped apartments for the growing number of young, urban middle class families moving into the suburbs.
In the mid-1950s, when these new danchi began to appear, they were seen as the accommodation of the future. Along with modern fittings, they had the benefit of separate rooms for parents and children, although at the same time not enough space for different generations of the same family — an element that was a key factor in Japan’s gradual break with the long-held tradition of extended family members living under one roof.
The rush to build, and the similar rush of people wanting to move into these futuristic, concrete estates, eventually peaked in the early 1970s, when the authorities officially determined that the housing crisis was over. A decision that, planned or otherwise, resulted in the slow, perhaps inevitable decline of the once fabled danchi, both in regards reputation, and actual real estate.
Yet to this day a huge number of buildings still remain, and having initially moved in with their young, or soon to be young families, a considerable number of those early residents decided to stay. Nowadays though they are old, often alone, and their surroundings are far from ideal when it comes to the needs of the elderly. Isolation due to limited mobility and a dwindling network is an obvious problem, and along with other hardships, it has given rise to the terribly sad phenomena of kodokushi, or lonely, unnoticed deaths.
However, despite such issues, and to a certain extent stigma, some danchi are once again at the forefront of change by providing accommodation to Japan’s growing number of foreigners. For starters, such apartments are relatively cheap, especially as they don’t demand the often large, up-front payments that private property does. And arguably even more important is that for a section of society that suffers considerable prejudice when it comes to finding somewhere to live, public housing is on the whole far more open-minded. An element that in many ways takes these ageing complexes back to their original, and indisputably idealistic beginnings.
Plus separately, and on a decidedly more superficial level, some of these structures can still make one stop and stare. Like this bold, striking, and once optimistic monument to modernisation completed in 1972. A danchi that seen in the present feels genuinely poignant, as the future it once pointed towards is now irrefutably in the past.
I really like the second picture a lot. I have always been fascinated with the architecture from this time period and it captures it so well. Something about it always seems to encompass the whole space race/ fascination with space attitude of that time.
Interesting post btw. I’m assuming you met or saw people there. How was the atmosphere?
Yeah, that’s probably my favourite as well. Definitely my favourite vantage point. Just something about that big, open entrance way.
That’s a really good point about the space race. Hadn’t really thought about it, but yeah, I couldn’t agree more. Personally very apt too as I’m currently enjoying the ’13 Minutes to the Moon’ podcast. Highly recommended if you haven’t listened to it.
Cheers. Good to hear. Must admit I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the area, taking the photos and also doing the necessary research after. And atmosphere-wise, it was simply very quiet. Not many people about at all considering the scale of the complex. But those that we did see were neither friendly or unfriendly. They just pretty much ignored us as they went about their daily lives.
I’ll definitely give that a listen 😊
This is very interesting. Cool but kinda sad……
Thanks. It was definitely an interesting place to visit. Quite a structure without a doubt, but yeah, there’s certainly a poignancy about the place.
A fascinating read and most interesting gallery of photographs.
Like Coli I get a “space race” vibe for to place, especially in the cavernous entranceway.
Whilst there are some outward signs of age in general they look very clean and well maintained, unlike many of their London counterparts.
Whilst trying to hunt it down (you know I love the challenge) I seldom saw people in view (GoogleMaps) around danchi (of which I found loads, especially in itabashi – but not this one – yet :-)) and when I did it was usually some works guy cleaning or attending to the small green areas.
I mentioned before a 70’s housing project in London worthy of a photoshoot and have now remembered the name. Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate. Search in google pictures and you will see what I mean and doubtless recognise it as it has been the setting for many a UK drama.
Thanks. A series I thoroughly enjoyed both taking and putting together. That entranceway really is something, isn’t it? And with it being so distinctive, I’m sure you’ve found it by now!
I know what you mean about the lack of people. Or at least a lack of people considering how many apartments there must be. Can’t say for sure why that is, although I’d guess that at least a part of it is down to the lack of families now living in such places. Near me there is a big danchi complex with a shopping street built into it. You see a few people out and about there, but almost all are elderly. Very different to how it must have been back in the day…
Ah, that name didn’t ring any bells, but as soon as I did a search I recognised it immediately. Totally agree, that would make for a fantastic photoshoot, or even better a long-term project.
KC Lancaster says
Great article! I’m glad some of these are finding a new use with foreigners being accepted to use them as living spaces.
It’s sad about the rise of kodokushi, thank you for mentioning that. Has the public’s fascination with those who die unnoticed spurred action for programs to check on the elderly who live alone?
I’m curious, who pays for the general upkeep of the vast building itself? Is it the government or do the residents pay a stipend toward maintenance?
Needless to say the change in demographics is causing some tensions, misunderstandings and so on, but that sadly seems to be inevitable. There again, it’s understandable considering the age of many danchi residents. It’s simply a world they don’t understand, or at least have very little experience of. A situation that will hopefully change with time and familiarity.
From what I’ve seen, the residents of at least some buildings have gotten together to do regular checks, so the awareness of kodokushi is at least there. That’s important.
And yeah, as far as I’m aware, just like with private property, on top of the rent there’s an additional maintenance fee every month. It’s not a huge amount, but multiply that by all the residents, and it’s presumably enough to keep on top of repairs etc.
I really want to see this building someday. Also, searching around while wishing I could see inside, I discovered that there’s a by-appointment-only danchi museum in Mitaka that I now want go to. Maybe I could get by without an interpreter if I study up in advance all the vocab for things in apartments, I mean, how much else will there be for the guide to talk about?
Interesting. Never heard about that, and it’s not far at all from where I live. Will have to look into it. If it’s a Japanese guide though, I’m sure there’ll be lots to talk about, or at least a lot of information to impart!
this is the place https://www.ur-net.go.jp/rd/index.html
I learned about it from this video – he shows part of the tour about ten minutes in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ave4FiC2k8I
I guess it’s not danchi in general but also this outfit’s other types of apartments? But the interiors seemed interesting and probably the only possibility unless there’s someone out there giving tours of actual apartments.
Cheers, that was very interesting, especially seeing the older designs and fittings. And yeah, pretty much the only way to see such things.
I like the sound of that museum, though I’d be hard pressed not to get diverted to the Ghibli Mueum there 🙂
I went to the Yebisu Beer Museum recently and missed the English Language tour (wednesdays only), but the staff said as all the exhibits had english and japanese information panels and access was free we should just go and show ourselves around – which we did. We did see the Korean Tour in progress and as you thought about the Architecture tour, there didn’t seem to be much , about beer, they were adding outside of the panel information. Mind you, if the danchi to be visited is a living one there probably won’t be many panels of information, english or otherwise.
At the beer museum there was also a bar with very cheap beer sets to try available to all. As Mrs Cdilla said – a good place for a cheap date!
Wow! Really great pics!
Reminds me somewhat of the famous manga by Katsuhiro Otomo, “Domu”. Not really, but kinda sorta.
Thank you. It’s really quite a structure. Not my usual kind of photography at all, but with all those lines and concrete it’s a wonderful place to shoot.
I can see that connection. Different yes, but at the same time there are lots of similarities.
Loving these, that building is cyberpunk as hell – looks like something straight out of “Night City”, just needs some “moody” lighting setup.
Thanks. Yeah, it really is, isn’t it? A genuinely fascinating place to both photograph, and explore.
Rohan Gillett says
Very nice pics! When I first came to Japan I wanted to live in a danchi, but not now. I get the feeling most of them have rather thin walls, and it would require a lot of perseverance living in the them with the other residents so close. Do you think some of them will eventually become ghetto-like communities?
I guess it depends what kind you live in, but being concrete I’d have thought they’d be fairly quiet.
On the whole I’d say no, but some are definitely worse than others…
An interesting photo essay and read. The phenomena of kodokushi is not just a Nihonjin issue. The aging population of many nations is apparently giving rise to this issue. I am personally not convinced that governments should be the one to address or possibly correct it. As cities increase in density, we will no doubt see more of this in the future.
That’s very true. Ageing populations and predominantly urban living mean it’s sadly all but inevitable.
Not at all sure what the best way to address it is, apart from an attempt to instill a sense of community/responsibility, especially in such kinds of accommodation. But that of course is far easier said than done.