Housing in Postwar Japan Review

Updated on May 17, 2018
The cover doesn't look like much.
The cover doesn't look like much.

Housing is an important subject, but one which is easy to forget about in a nation's social history. Thus Housing in Postwar Japan: A Social History by Ann Waswo makes for a book which is an intriguing look on the topic, showing the way in which Japanese housing recovered and evolved after the destruction of the Second World War, and the effect which this had on Japan as a whole. A new philosophy of modernism and progressivism shaped Japanese housing, which changed considerably in scope, size, and organization. It generated new modes of thought and social organization, and both affected and was impacted by wider society. It is also a history which is overly impacted by the monopolizing picture of Tokyo, and which varied greatly throughout the country. This book looks at how this story happened, in a both material and social history of Japanese housing.

Chapter 1, the introduction, starts with a brief comparison of Japan to other industrialized countries so the author can introduce the framework in which she sees Japan. It then states that Japan was in a long housing crisis after WW2, not solved until the 1960s and in some areas the early 1970s. By the time she wrote, in the 1990s, Tokyo had highly cramped housing, but in much of Japan the situation was much more normal. A brief mention of the resource materials and traditional Japanese housing concludes the chapter.

Chapter 2, "Experiencing the housing crisis", by Kyoko Sasaki, consists of a primary source of living in Japanese housing in the immediate post-war era. This was something of a constant travail, as they had to deal with bad housing conditions, unpleasant landlords, constant moves, and lack of amenities even in "modern" housing, such as the lack of a bathtub in their house in Osaka. Costs were routinely quite high, running up to 1/3 of the husband's salary, even after he got a good job (previously he had been a poorly paid research assistant during much of their time in Osaka), and space was almost always inadequate. Still, their housing conditions did improve gradually over time. This chapter is an excellent look into the lives of average people during the post-war economic boom, showing the stresses associated with housing, as well as some things which are wrongly assumed about Japan (such as the idea of lifetime employment for workers, when they are often quite mobile). As a personal look into the subject, it is quite fascinating. Furthermore, the book constantly refers back to elements of this to illustrate various points and aspects later on.

Tatami mats would have been an integral part of Sasaki's home, but were gradually replaced by Western-style accommodations over time.
Tatami mats would have been an integral part of Sasaki's home, but were gradually replaced by Western-style accommodations over time.

Chapter 3, "Housing Policy in Post-War Japan", provides a historical overview of housing in Japan, which during the 19th and for much of the 20th century revolved around renting from private landlords for the great majority of urban residents. Most of these landlords were middle class people supplementing their incomes. Although there had been mild government intervention during the 1920s and 1930s, the major shifts occurred during the Second World War, when immense destruction visited upon the Japanese housing stock and much more extensive government intervention into the housing market started to change around this picture towards one with much greater publically owned housing, and even more extensively a much greater degree of privately owned housing. The remainder of the chapter discusses government post-war policies and objectives, and the actual results, including the total number of housing units, with Japanese policies placed into international comparison and concluded to be most similar to France.


Chapter 4, "Towards a Lifestyle Revolution", discusses the mentality concerning Japanese homes, which were simultaneously hailed as modern and striking in the West and denigrated as backwards and feudal in Japan. As compared to Western nations where housing reform had focused on transforming lower class housing standards to match middle class expectations, in Japan even middle class housing was denigrated, viewed as unhygienic and with insufficient family focus, instead being patriarchal and hierarchical, anathema to the new Japanese democracy. In particular, the custom of co-sleeping, where multiple people share the same bed (other than married couples), was scorned by reformists, building off of Western agitation against the same ideal from the Victorian era. The Japanese Housing Corporation, the main public supplier of housing (public housing being called "danchi"), met this with "new" and "modern" large apartment blocks, built with uniform, rational, and scientific apartments inside. These were a great success for the immediate post-war era, but started to become inadequate for consumer tastes and needs by the end of the 1960s, something the JHC had difficulty adapting to.

Danchi, the post-war standard for modern housing, but relatively rapidly surpassed by the 1970s.
Danchi, the post-war standard for modern housing, but relatively rapidly surpassed by the 1970s.

Chapter 5, "Selling the Home Ownership Dream", concerns how the ideal of owning a home became the standard in urban Japan. Waswo does not believe that owning the house in which one lives is an inherent human desire, but instead a constructed one. The ideal of home ownership grew to become the dominant middle-class narrative (and hence dominant general narrative, as the share of Japanese identifying as middle class grew, although this is not mentioned in the book), due to a confluence of factors, including economic trends which made it for a period of time not greatly more expensive to own a home than to rent, and a decline of the immediate post-war development of company-supplied housing. Instead of renting, many Japanese turned to so-called "manshons" - apartements they owned, typically much closer to the center city than JHC buildings. Initially built for elites, they rapidly became a much more accessible housing, which cut greatly into JHC rates, forcing the JHC to adopt many of the innovations from these apartments into its own rentals.

Japanese "manshons"
Japanese "manshons"

Chapter 6, "Housing in Greater Tokyo", covers the housing situation which existed in Japan's capital after the war. Tokyo changed from a low-lying city to one which grew dramatically upwards in height, as land values skyrocketed in the city - especially for housing, where prices were up to 40 times higher than in London by the end of the 1980s, while office space was "only" twice as expensive. In response, housing size in Tokyo was diminutive, the smallest in the nation. The strategies which emerged to deal with this included an increasing exodus of people to the Tokyo suburbs, where they would commute by train into the city center, or that they would only possess a very small "manshon" in the city itself while having a more comfortable house further away in less expensive areas. Regardless, the cost of all of this helped to spark a decline in the homeowning ideal, as housing became too expensive for those of modest means to procure, with the phenomenon of renters spending much of their money on consumer goods instead of buying a house emerging: in part, the decision of the Japanese government to support lower real estate prices after the 1990s bubble was a response to this.

Tokyo: A rather tall city.
Tokyo: A rather tall city.

Chapter 7, "Japanese Housing at Century's End", takes a general stock of the trends which have occurred in Japan by the end of the 20th century. One of the most significant changes has been a transition from a style of life focusing on surface dwelling (such as sitting on mats), to chairs and furniture, which was both a radical change in lifestyle but also took up much more space. By the end of the century, Japan had surpassed its Western European counterparts in housing space available, completing a remarkable housing revolution. Whether this had perhaps, gone too far is questioned by the author, who notes that some aspects such as the democratizing and egalitarian spirit had removed previous elements of balance in Japanese homes, such as a paternal space in the home which no longer exists. But regardless, the housing and even the very mindset of the Japanese had been changed dramatically.

I find Waswo's book to have quite a number of strengths. Although the chapter of "Experiencing the housing crisis" not written by her, it is a wise inclusion given how much it helps to illuminate the lives of ordinary people in Japan in the era. The book covers well the material developments of Japanese housing (including with plenty of statistics), as well as what the ideological elements which influenced it and its perception were. Its history is integrated into a global perspective, and one beyond just the comparison of Japan to the United States. Much more profound than simply a study of Japanese housing policy, or material changes it forms a strong social history of Japan, but one which is well backed up by its extensive statistics. Occasional pictures and diagrams help to illuminate the points discussed. It might be summed up as a holistic book, one which does an excellent job of seeing beyond housing just as housing, and instead being able to link housing into the broader society, and the broader society into housing.

Given the brevity of the book, at barely more than 150 pages, there are however, I feel some important exceptions. The book is good at showing the general trend which happened in Japanese housing, an important one. But what about counter-trends or exceptions, where the normal developments did not occur? Were there any cases like in the United States where public housing led to community collapses? What about conservatives and their relationship to housing: was everyone united behind the progressive, democratic housing ideal, or were there counter-impulses of those who preferred the old, "patriarchical", style? Minorities, those in the counteryside, cities other than Tokyo? The book is an excellent one for showing the development of the prototypical Japanese middle-class, educated family, but for those on the margins of Japanese society and for those who bucked the trends, it has much less light. This isn't entirely bad: there was a steady agglomeration of people into the self-identified urban middle-class of Japanese. Their narrative was the dominant one and naturally should be the principal object of any book. But it would have been pleasant if there was some discussion of those outside this narrative. The same can be said of the masses: their modulation in response to the changes brought about is done very well by the author. But what about their own roles in this development, and the contributions and modifications of common people to the buildings provided for them by planners and builders? We see some of this in Tokyo legal disputes over development, and more would have been appreciated. Furthermore, how did housing itself fit into broader social life: how did cultural life outside houses develop with amenities and urban sprawl? In addition, some photos of things such as the "manshons" (there are diagrams), would have been a good addition as well.

There is little information about individual, family homes in Japan, in contrast to the substantial amount about apartments or public housing.
There is little information about individual, family homes in Japan, in contrast to the substantial amount about apartments or public housing.

Still, this critique asides, I still consider this book to be very good as providing a look into Japanese housing developments. It gives one a strong feel for what occurred and in a memorable way, easily read and learned. Stereotypes and misconceptions about Japan are broken down: As an American I assumed that Japan had limited housing size, but this seems to be mostly for Tokyo (although almost every nation has limited housing size compared to America it must be noted). For a history of the mainstream development and a general picture of Japanese housing, tied into broader developments, ideas, and with an intriguing and relevant memoir, there are few other books which match it on the subject. For those interested in post-war Japanese history, Japanese culture, housing planning in the developed world, and in a social history of Japan, the book makes for an extremely useful source.

4 stars for Housing in Postwar Japan: A Social History

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    © 2018 Ryan Thomas

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