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When New Towns Grow Old: The Solitary Seniors of Japan’s Bedroom Communities

Hirayama Yōsuke [Profile]

[2018.03.02]

Dozens of suburban “new towns” sprang up around major metropolises during the period of high growth in Japan to accommodate the influx of workers from outlying areas. Many of the current residents of these bedroom communities—once touted as “dream homes”—are those who first moved in more than half a century ago. They often live alone, as their children have moved out and spouses have passed away. Measures are needed to ease the social seclusion of these solitary seniors.

Aging Bedroom Communities

During Japan’s high-growth years, the government advanced a “new town” development policy to accommodate the rapid influx of workers from rural to urban areas. The 1963 New Housing and Urban Development Act outlined plans for not only new residences but also roads, parks, schools, hospitals, and commercial establishments. Forty-six planned communities were built on hillsides and other suburban areas by municipalities around the country in accordance with this law. Since 1955, some 2,000 bedroom communities—spanning over 16 hectares and with 1,000 or more households (or 3,000-plus residents)—have been developed, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport.(*1)

A growing share of residents in these once-dynamic communities are senior citizens living alone. They moved in when the neighborhoods were first built, along with other young, nuclear families of their generation. The children who grew up there attended local schools, but as they entered the workforce and had families of their own, most chose to move out. As their parents have aged, so, too, have the communities in which they still live. An increasing share of these elderly residents live alone, following the death of their spouse.

An Asahi Shimbun survey (published December 3, 2017) of the 46 new towns modeled on the New Housing and Urban Development Act found that 31 communities had higher shares of 65-and-older residents than the national average (which was 26.6%, according to the 2015 census). And 27 had higher shares of single-person elderly households than the average (11.1%); the share exceeded 20% at seven new towns: 37.6% in the Tsurugaya housing complex of Sendai, 25.3% in the Akashi-Maiko community of Kobe, and 24.0% in the Momijidai district of Sapporo.

Cut Off from Society

Elderly, solitary residents of new towns are especially at risk of becoming cut off from society, leading to financial hardships, weaker health, a narrowing of information sources, feelings of estrangement, depression, and even loss of dignity. Measures to prevent the isolation of such residents are a big priority for aging neighborhoods.

New towns were developed based on postwar housing and urban planning principles that sought to maximize privacy for nuclear families. Being social animals, humans need to interact with others; planners, though, gave priority to encouraging conversation within individual families, with little thought being given to interaction between households. As nuclear families aged and children moved out, the insulated units of planned communities provided few channels of communication with neighbors.

When these communities were built, many of the apartments were five-stories high and did not have elevators. For those on the top floor, climbing down and back up again is no easy task. As a consequence, an increasing number of aged residents, particularly those living alone, wind up spending their days holed up in their rooms. Even when living in detached, single-household units, people have tended to venture outside less frequently as they grow older. The hilly terrain of many planned communities presents yet another obstacle to getting out and about.

Modern urban planning is premised on the zoning of districts according to function, and new towns were developed primarily to fulfill a residential function. Since breadwinning fathers were away most of the day working downtown, communities were designed to meet the needs of mothers and their young children and were organized around the school district. Major thoroughfares ran outside the neighborhoods, inside of which instead were parks, community halls, and shops. As children grew up and moved out, though, older residents found very little that catered to their needs; retired men, in particular, had nothing to do and no one with whom to talk, and a large share simply stayed shut up at home.

Attaining a Balanced Demographic Profile

Can these communities be redesigned to slow or reverse the aging trend? A number of initiatives have already been launched, the first step commonly being to induce younger families to move in to attain a more balanced demographic profile. Housing units have been renovated with modern amenities, and some are offered under house-sharing arrangements to students looking for cheap rent. While these measures will not induce wholesale changes in the age structure, they can at least inject some vigor into a graying landscape.

In addition to inviting youths into the neighborhood, ties among older residents should be strengthened and made mutually supportive. Arrangements have been introduced whereby seniors who are relatively young and healthy look after those who are older and physically weak—taking out their trash, for instance, or changing lightbulbs and helping with their shopping.

Important, too, is increasing opportunities for the elderly—particularly those living alone—to interact with others in the neighborhood, encouraging them to step outside by creating places where they can drop by and have a chat. Rather than narrowing the community’s functions, they should be broadened so as to enable many different uses of the spatial environment.

At one new town, for example, a nonprofit group opened a coffee shop on the first floor of a residential building. Serving coffee and tea at reduced rates, the shop has become a hub for casual conversation among older residents. Other initiatives worth considering include expanding the use of community meeting halls so they host not just formal, scheduled events but also ad hoc gatherings; building benches with roofs along pathways; converting vacant dwellings into salons that anyone can use; and placing tables and chairs in open ground-floor spaces.

New towns once supported Japan’s economic “miracle” by meeting the housing needs of young families migrating to large cities. Now, these communities need to fulfill a broader range of functions for the country’s super-aging society, promoting interaction among older residents and enabling a slower, quieter lifestyle. Preventing the isolation of senior citizens is a challenge faced by not just new towns but also all communities developed far from downtown areas. Such residents often have very little income and cannot afford to move to more convenient locations. Similar problems of isolated seniors may emerge a few decades from now in the high-rise condominiums that have become so popular today—whose market value lies precisely in their sequestration from the surrounding neighborhood and their fortress-like security that guards the privacy of inhabitants. Urban planners must give more thought to mitigating the social seclusion of the growing ranks of Japan’s seniors.

(Originally published in Japanese on February 16, 2018. Banner photo: A farewell party on July 23, 2011, for a building in Tama New Town scheduled to be torn down and rebuilt. © Jiji.)

(*1) ^ The list, published by the ministry in 2013, includes privately developed communities that are not based on the 1963 law.

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  • [2018.03.02]

Professor in the Graduate School of Human Development and Environment, Kobe University, with expertise in housing policy and urban development. Is the author of Toshi no jōken (Criteria for a City) and Jūtaku seisaku no doko ga mondai ka (Issues in Housing Policy) and co-author of Housing in Post-Growth Society (with Izuhara Misa).

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