Devastation, Innovation and Ageing

By Maxwell Hartt
Maxwell is a Lecturer in Spatial Planning at Cardiff University

Motomachi public housing development

On Tuesday 14th May, we had the wonderful experience of visiting, and touring, the Motomachi public housing development in downtown Hiroshima. The site visit, led by staff from Hiroshima City’s Urban Development Bureau, was organised by Professor Yoshimichi Yui (Hiroshima University).

In addition to the core members of the Ageing High-Rise Neighbourhoods network, we were also joined by Shuang Wang (University of Tsukuba), Sophie Buhnik (French Research Institute on Japan) and several local practitioners. Although moderate by local standards, us Brit-based academics revelled in the balmy 20-degree weather (not too hot, not too cold). Thanks to Dr. Sayaka Fujii’s excellent translation skills, we learned a lot, but for the sake of this blog, I will concentrate on three elements that were particularly striking to me: the site’s history, its demographic structure, and its youthification strategy.

My telling of the site’s history will undoubtedly be an oversimplification, but I’ll do my best to recall the details from the oral history explained to us on the day and the various documents we were supplied. The site is unique for many reasons. The first is its geographic location. As you can see from the maps below, Motomachi is very centrally located (maps also show just how dramatically the city has changed over time). Merely minutes from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (and conveniently, our hotel), the site’s history is linked directly to the devastation that occurred on 6th August, 1945.

The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima decimated the city. Beyond the immediate (and lasting) physical and psychological trauma to those living in and near Hiroshima at the time, the devastation also left serious housing issues.

With nowhere to go, an informal, illegal community was built up along the East side of the Ōta river, just north of the bomb site (where the Hiroshima Peace Memorial now stands). Although a large central park was originally planned for the site, the immediate need for public housing outweighed the need for green space.

The Motomachi public housing development began in 1969 and was completed in 1979. The site is composed of several low, mid and high-rise buildings totaling approximately 4,500 units. Despite the new developments, illegal housing persisted along the river until the late 1970s. Eventually the riverside area (where the illegal housing once stood) did become a small strip of parkland (pictured below). However, the stigma of the area remains as evidenced by several proposals to build a bridge in the area were opposed by the more affluent residents on the west side of the river.

Riverside park on site of former illegal housing

The design of the housing development is unique in many ways. I expect that with their expertise in urban design and high-rise buildings, my colleagues Dr. James White and Dr. Brian Webb could deliver a more insightful and nuanced description of the site’s design, but as I’ve volunteered to write this blog, my lay person perspective will have to do.

According to Professor Norioki Ishimaru of Hiroshima University (who gave a presentation on Wednesday 15th May as part of our workshop), Motomachi was innovative in Japan in several ways. First, as is very apparent in the images and schematics of the site (see gallery above), the staggered placement of the buildings was designed to maximise sun exposure. Second, the buildings maximised floor space by having elevators that only stop at alternating floors. Third, a series of beautiful connected community gardens span the entire 17 building structure (see gallery below). As you can see in the photos below, the gardens are very well maintained. The view from the gardens of the Hiroshima castle is also pretty spectacular.

While my colleagues discussed and reflected upon the design features, I marvelled at the demographic composition of the residents and how it has changed over time. At its peak, Motomachi housed approximately 9,000 people. Today, there are only roughly 4,000 residents. According to Professor Yoshimichi Yui, in 1985 only 20% of the residents were 65 years of age or older. And many of the units housed families with 2,3 or even 4 children. But over time, the families became smaller and the number of units with couples or single households grew dramatically. The younger generation moved out and single people moved in. Or in many cases, no new residents moved in once the younger generation departed. Now the majority of the residents are over 65 years of age, and many are well over 70.

Demographic trends also differ by gender. There are almost three times more female older adults living in Motomachi than male.

This is due to gendered differences in life expectancy related to labour participation, traditional gender roles and vulnerabilities of social isolation. Although shrinking, the differences in life expectancy continue today. According to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, over 50% of Japanese women are expected to live to 90 years old, while only 26% of men are expected to reach the same milestone. This suggests that as the population continues to age in Japan and in Motomachi, the discrepancy between gender will also persist. It is also interesting to note that despite Japan’s immigrant population making up less than 2% of its total national population, immigrants make up 22% of the residents in Motomachi.

Over time, Motomachi has shifted from a housing development made up of Japanese families to a mixed community of ageing single and couple households. While such a shift can have benefits in terms of living space and exposure to other cultures, it also comes with challenges – especially for a low-income community. Social isolation, for one, is a very real and very serious risk. The increasing vacancy of shops in Motomachi are only amplifying the risk of social isolation. The lack of community interaction from visiting a shopping destination can have a big impact. As Norimutsu Onishi explains in his New York Times article, ‘a generation in Japan faces a lonely death’.

In order to ensure that current residents remain active and engaged, Motomachi is trying to attract young people to the development (see brochure below). They are hoping that by offering newly refurbished, affordable flats right in the centre of the city they will be able to attract young people (and their families). The low-income cut-off usually in place to reside in Motomachi can even be waived if individuals are willing to participate in and lead multi-generational activities in the community. Only 10 people have moved in through the scheme since it began in 2015, but hopefully a total of 55 new families will eventually call Motomachi home.