Its been well over a month now since my last post and I am feeling the first pangs of self-doubt regarding my pledge to publish weekly! In my defence, however, it has been a busy month. I last posted on 19 December just over a week prior to the arrival of my family from Australia. At that time I was in the midst of preparations for making us a home. Now one month later, after a fairly rocky transition to family life in Japan, I am back in the saddle. The past month has been both busy and demanding on a personal level but also rich in material for my research. Having written a book on anti-nuclear protest in Japan that focuses on the politics of the everyday, I cannot look at any everyday rhythm or routine without thinking politically. As my family and I struggle to establish new routines for ourselves in a new, and for most of us unfamiliar, environment, potential research questions and topics have been presenting themselves to me wherever I turn. The first major step in this process began with the search for a family home. This meant jumping feet first into the the Tokyo property market. My first impression was one of organised chaos. Although property listings are largely centralised in online computer databases, not all agents can show all properties, though most seem to be able to show most. Inevitably, for an urban geographer the quest to find a home is an ethnographic experience and it raises just as many historical and theoretical questions as it does practical ones. I have had to think about the size of bathrooms and whether or not I can squeeze a refrigerator into the tiny kitchens but in the process I have learned much about housing and about the state of the rental market in Tokyo.
Kunitachi Fujimidai Danchi
After viewing a number of private manshon-style apartments with a couple of local real estate agents I was underwhelmed by the quality of the dwellings and their surrounds. When I finally discovered that UR has its own letting agency on the grounds of the Kunitachi Fujimidai Danchi I hastened there to be shown around a number of the apartments. The buildings are stark concrete monoliths. Row upon row of them stretch across each complex, producing a rather Soviet-era impression on my neoliberal Australian subjectivity.
Nevertheless, on viewing the flats I discovered that not only are they much more spacious than equivalent private manshon flats but they have beautiful views out over the well-tended grounds, large trees and carefully manicured shrubbery. The only view I saw from any of the manshon windows was of a car park. After viewing the danchi it was love at first site. I returned to the letting agency the following day to view some more apartments and settled on a third-floor unit in the No 2 complex bordering Kunitachi’s Daisan Park. We can see the local library from out our window and behind us is the Kunitachi town hall with its famous ‘gorilla park’, where gorilla statues provide my children with entertainment.
Located between Yaho and Yagawa stations on the JR Nanbu railway line sits the Kunitachi Fujimidai Danchi, a large housing project with three separate campuses, each of which consists of a number of large towers. In addition to the attached parklands and play equipment was the appeal of the low monthly rent. Having found these apartments listed on the major real estate index sites, however, I did not realise that they were public housing units managed by the Urban Renaissance Agency (UR都市機構). UR is one of the so-called dokuritsu gyōsei hōjin or Incorporated Administrative Agencies. These government agencies were created under the Basic Law on Reforming Government Ministries and are are permitted to operate autonomously from government ministries along the lines of private-sector corporations. UR manages a large number of public housing units that were built by the Japanese Housing Corporation (JHC) in the midst of the post-war housing crisis to house the new middle class.
One of the hot topics in conversations with my partner in in the lead-up to our family adventure in Japan has been about our desire to experiment with a different way of life than that provided by our spacious detached home in Port Kembla. The fact that we have spent many months preparing our home to be rented out on the private market has intensified a mutual feeling of frustration at the stereotypically suburban nature of our lifestyle. Every weekend without fail we have to spend at least some of our time maintaining our property – whether it be painting the walls, mowing the lawn or installing a new towel rack. I have begun to pine for a more urban way of life—in which apartment living might bring proximity to amenities and parks maintained through our taxes rather than through the solitary labours of myself and my family. It is one of the peculiar contradictions of our positionality as middle class communist home owners 🙂 that our living environment actually reinforces our middle class nuclear family status and seems to take us ever further from the alternative way of life we imagined for ourselves when we were younger. The danchi therefore seemed a perfect place to dabble with apartment living and to see whether ample local parks and the public library could compensate for a significant decrease in internal floor space.
Danchi as Social Movement
From the perspective of social movements and social movement research, my interest in the danchi was further piqued by two banners I saw flying on the grounds while walking past one Monday morning.
The first read 「公団住宅を公共住宅として守ろう。団地の売却・削減・統廃合に反対」 (Keep public housing public. No to the sale, reduction and consolidation of our danchi) and bore the imprimatur of the Fujimidai danchi’s self-governing committee (jichikai).
The second banner reads 「住まいは福祉・住まいは人権。誰もがすみ続けられる住宅政策を」(Housing is a social service. Housing is a human right. For a housing policy that allows anyone to remain in their home). This slogan seems to draw a link between the struggle against the privatisation of Tokyo’s public housing blocks and notions of social rights. It is worth noting that the right to housing is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but like most of the social rights it has been largely ignored by so-called liberal states, who see civil and political rights (or at least those that suit them) as being vastly more important than social rights.
I noticed immediately that the banner is professionally printed but that the name of the local Fujimidai self-governing committee is written in ink in a blank space reserved for this purpose. This suggests a broader campaign encompassing several danchi of which the local organisation is but a part.
There are several similar flags flying from the three campuses of our Kunitachi Fujimidai danchi. I have not yet had time to investigate the background to these slogans and flags but the struggles over the future of these ageing public housing blocks seem pertinent to my current research on social movements and urban space and demand further study. I have taken one step towards this since moving in by joining the jichikai and attending my first jichikai event. This fureai kissa (a gathering for tea and cake) featured two speakers from the local municipal government waste department who came to help us figure out the complex system for dividing and classifying our waste. The need for the lecture has been amplified by introduction of the system of paying for waste disposal which has been introduced since I last lived in Kunitachi. Specially marked coloured plastic bags are sold at supermarkets and other local shops. The city will now only collect most categories of waste (other than so called shigen gomi or resource waste like paper, cardboard, glass and tins) if they are in the correct bag. The fureai kissa was, much as I anticipated, a very grey affair. I would guess the average age in the room was well above 70. When I mentioned I was interested in joining the jichikai to one of my neighbours, who is clearly very active in the life of the danchi, she provided me with a sheaf of reading materials including a recent report from the jichikai that includes the results of a survey they conducted on the residents. Reading the survey results confirmed my suspicions, something in the order of 85% of residents are aged over 65. Turning up with my eight-month-old daughter therefore proved to be a hit with the locals, many of whom were keen to hold and fawn over her. This simultaneously allowed me to overcome some of the initial awkwardness one might expect when an unlikely white newcomer arrives at such a gathering of old friends.
Settling in has thrown up a whole series of new questions that in turn feed back on my research: how do the danchi fit in to the overall picture of civic activism in Kunitachi? Could a focus on the aging danchi population prove fertile ground for exploring that space between social activism and everyday life that I am so keen to explore?