Immigration and Aging in Japan’s Public Housing Projects

Society Lifestyle

A familiar sight in cities throughout Japan, the public housing projects known as danchi, with their aging Japanese residents and growing foreign populations, present a microcosm of the country’s society and a glimpse of its demographic future.

The public housing projects or danchi that are a common landmark on the urban landscape throughout Japan today have their origins in the housing shortage of the immediate postwar era. In 1955, the Japanese Regional Development Corporation (now the Urban Renaissance Agency) was established, and Japan’s first public housing project the Kanaoka Housing Complex opened the following year. Danchi sprang up around the country in the years that followed, becoming prominent symbols of the postwar era of rapid economic growth.

These developments marked a revolution in Japanese housing. One difference was the new layout of the apartments, with separate spaces for eating and sleeping. This represented a major shift away from the traditional Japanese home, where the same space was often used throughout the day, with people pushing the table to one side and spreading out their futons to sleep after the evening meal. Outside the home, danchi drove the creation of new suburban lifestyles, as shopping centers, schools, and hospitals were constructed, providing all the necessities of daily life within walking distance of the front door.

Today, these symbols of Japan’s urban landscape are undergoing another period of rapid and fundamental change.

Saitama Project Becomes Hate Speech Target

I started visiting the danchi in 2010. In the spring of that year, around 20 members of a nationalist group arrived as uninvited guests at the Shibazono danchi in the city of Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, marching through the grounds with placards calling for the expulsion of “harmful foreign elements” and freely taking pictures as part of what they claimed was a “survey into the conditions of the ongoing invasion.” Many of these photographs were later posted online.

The group’s blog featured an article with the headline: “On the Frontlines of a Demographic Chinese Invasion,” using an outdated term for China now used almost exclusively by members of the revisionist right wing.

“Chinese and Koreans are destroying the Japanese way of life, insisting on living according to their own cultural norms. This is an issue of national security, a threat to the safety and lifestyles of all Japanese people. We need to understand it for what it is: an invasion of Japan by Chinese and Koreans.”

Beyond any doubt, this was hate speech directed at foreigners, fueled by discrimination and prejudice.

The Shibazono danchi was completed in 1978. It is a large housing project, with room for around 2,500 households. Today, more than half the residents are foreigners, most of them Chinese “newcomers.”

The danchi had already featured in certain sections of the media with criticism of the Chinese. Coverage generally described the situation in terms of a simple conflict between Chinese residents who ignored the community’s rules and their nervous Japanese neighbors. The articles described the danchi as a kind of “little China,” and talked up the perceived “threat” that the newcomers represented to a traditional Japanese way of life.

The tone of these articles began to grate. I was sick of the xenophobic, insular attitude of Japanese society, fed up with its tendency to see growing numbers of resident foreigners as a “problem” to be solved or as a threat to law and order.

The representative of the group that had marched through the danchi spewing hate speech was a man who had belonged to neo-Nazi groups since his youth, and had frequently called for foreigners to be expelled from Japan. When I interviewed him, he explained his group’s decision to launch an “attack” on Shibazono by claiming that an anti-foreigner protest was the only way decent Japanese people could fight back against the foreign invasion. “These foreigners are steadily taking over our danchi, turning them into no-go areas for law-abiding Japanese people. Launching this movement was the only way we had of facing up to that threat.”

This man was a xenophobic bigot whose mind was made up long ago. I knew that his words, driven by prejudice, were unlikely to reflect the reality of what was really happening in the danchi. Perhaps some incidents had been caused by the behavior of foreign residents, I thought: but surely marching through the danchi carrying openly xenophobic slogans was a much more serious offense against public order. 

Perhaps the biggest problem is that this kind of rhetoric can spread like wildfire online, attracting considerable numbers of sympathizers to the cause. Some of the mainstream media make the situation worse by irresponsible or careless reporting.

A Growing Community of “White-Collar” Chinese

What did I find when I visited Shibazono? It was certainly true that the danchi had plenty of “Chinese” atmosphere: notices and signs often featured Chinese alongside Japanese, and there were many Chinese-run stores on the shopping street where little Japanese was understood. Most of the restaurants seemed to be Chinese restaurants. As I walked the streets, the Chinese language seemed to be everywhere, as I overheard mothers chastising their children and people standing around chatting.

I stopped to talk with one group of young Chinese women chattering happily in a local park. They were enthusiastic and pleased to talk about the positive aspects of life in the danchi. “I love living here,” one of the women said. “All my friends are here. It’s great.”

Everywhere around me, people were going about their ordinary lives. I shouldn't have been surprised. That’s what a danchi is: a place where people live. The residents were ordinary people going about their lives. The women I had spoken to were obviously happy. No doubt if I kept on looking I would meet others who were unhappy. Just like anywhere else. But nowhere did I find any hint of the lawlessness I had read about in the screeds put out by the nationalists.

There were some signs of friction. On one of the community notice boards I came across a hand-written sign with an aggressively worded message for the community’s foreign residents: “Warning: Illegal Chinese and other third-country nationals [daisangoku-jin, an anachronistic term for people from Japan’s former colonies in Korea and Taiwan] and people living here on false pretenses. Leave now before you are deported.” The characters were written with a thick black indelible marker in a rough scrawl that seemed to embody the violence of the writer’s hatred and prejudice.

According to one Chinese journalist friend, it was around the turn of the new millennium that Chinese residents started to become a major presence in the Shibazono danchi.

“Most of the Chinese people who live there are company workers and their families—people who graduated from Japanese universities and found jobs with Japanese companies after graduation. The Shibazono danchi is close to the city center, and the size of the units is pretty good for the rent you pay. But the biggest factor is that Urban Renaissance housing is public. As long as you fulfill the income requirements, nationality isn’t an issue. Private rentals often have strict screenings for foreign applicants, and quite a few places openly discriminate against foreigners. That’s not a worry with public housing. Growing awareness of this among the Chinese community was one of the factors that helped to drive the popularity of Shibazono as a place to live, particularly among white collar employees working in the center of Tokyo.”

An example of this trend was a Chinese man I spoke to who works at a Tokyo IT firm. He came to Japan as a university student in 1998. For a while after he started working, he rented an apartment from a private realtor, until he heard positive stories about Shibazono from his Chinese friends and decided to move to the danchi.

“One of the attractions is that you don’t need to pay key money or expensive renewal fees,” he says. “And unlike in a lot of the private condominiums, they don’t knock you back just because you’re a foreigner. The fact that there are a lot of other Chinese people living here makes it easy to settle in too. My wife quickly made friends with the other Chinese moms in the danchi. She loves it here now.”

But it was also true that some of the Japanese residents weren’t exactly thrilled to be sharing their living space with their new Chinese neighbors, complaining that many of them were too loud or didn’t follow the rules about segregating their trash. These complaints seemed to come mostly from older residents. Recently, the residents’ association had even submitted a petition to Urban Renaissance, requesting the management not to allow the number of Chinese residents in the danchi to increase any further. There was an unmistakable note of wariness and suspicion about the foreign residents.

The Role of the Media 

I have since visited many other danchi, and have found the same thing happening almost everywhere: the number of foreign residents is increasing rapidly in most danchi across the country.

In the Kantō and Kansai regions, Chinese residents make up half or almost half of the total population in many danchi. In danchi in the Tōkai region around Nagoya, home to many auto factories and related industries, the bulk of the foreign population consists of people of Japanese ancestry from Brazil and other South American countries. At one danchi in Edogawa in Tokyo, I met growing numbers of Indians who work in IT companies. The Ichō danchi, a prefectural public housing complex between Yokohama and Yamato in Kanagawa, is home to residents from more than 20 different countries.

And not surprisingly, in most danchi I encountered prejudice among people who don’t like the idea of being surrounded by so many foreigners.

But I found little evidence of the “damage” that some in the media make such a fuss about. Articles in the media and racist postings online by people who do not know the true situation inside the danchi are fanning fears of foreign residents as a “threat” or “invasion,” and this has made some residents suspicious of outsiders. Over and over on my visits, I found the same pattern. The xenophobia prevalent in Japanese society, where many people remain suspicious of foreigners and fearful of the outside world in general, has contributed to a touchy situation in many danchi, so that minor incidents can easily lead to a sense that residents are facing a serious problem with “foreign crime.”

One Japanese resident of the Shibazono danchi, for example, told me the following story. “There’s an open public space in the danchi that has always been a popular hangout spot for the local toughs and some of the rough kids from the neighborhood. It’s been that way for years. But today, some residents are putting it about that the Chinese are to blame for every antisocial act or nuisance carried out by these young people. There was one incident when the paper lanterns put up for the bon odori dances were vandalized the night before the summer festival. Witnesses who saw what happened made it clear that a group of Japanese junior high school kids from outside the danchi were responsible. But that didn’t stop rumors going around and many people were happy to put the blame on the Chinese.”

Another put it like this: “It’s true that there have been some incidents of trouble about putting out trash and things like that; little things arising from different customs, basically. But even if they don’t know how to behave when they move in, they pick things up as they live here for longer. But we still get people from the media coming to ask if we have any problems. When I tell them that’s all old news they look disappointed. It’s almost as if they actually want there to be problems.”

And there’s the rub: the sense that foreigners pose a “threat” is often created by outsiders with their own agenda, looking to find a situation in which the danchi are being “invaded” and “taken over” by foreigners.

Japan’s Aging Population and Hope for the Future

A more serious problem in most danchi is the other aspect of the wave of demographic change currently sweeping Japan. In many places, almost all the Japanese residents are 65 or older, and many of them are elderly people living (and dying) alone. This is the new reality of life in the projects.

In many danchi, the summer festivals and sports days that were once highlights of the community calendar have been abandoned because so many of the residents are elderly. Formerly vibrant neighborhood activities have become few and far between, and in most of the danchi I visited, the residents’ committees were headed by people in their seventies and eighties.

Even so, I believe that there are reasons for hope that these marginal communities with rapidly aging populations can be revitalized and saved: by their new foreign populations.

Today, there is still a deep divide in many communities between the Japanese residents and their foreign neighbors, kept apart by mutual disinterest or wariness, even where there is no open hostility or conflict.

But in 2015, university students and other volunteers in the Shibazono danchi organized the Shibazono Kakehashi (Bridge-Building) Project, holding a variety of events to encourage more interaction between people from different cultural backgrounds. In 2018, the residents’ association got its first foreign members. These proactive efforts to encourage more exchanges and community activities are bringing new energy and youthfulness to the danchi. Similar efforts are underway in other danchi around the country, helping to turn the tide and reverse the slide into tired old age.

In a sense, the danchi, with their combination of elderly Japanese residents and growing foreign populations, are a microcosm of contemporary Japanese society today. And from these communities are emerging encouraging signs of a new movement to turn back the senescent atmosphere of the danchi and revitalize them as something new and vigorous.

I am hopeful that the danchi, once the hopeful symbols of a new way of life in postwar Japan, will once again become optimistic pointers toward a brighter future for the country.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 29, 2019. Banner photo: Brillia Tama New Town in Tama, Tokyo, in 2013. © Jiji.)

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