Dealing with ageing pains: The rise and maintenance of the condominium in Japan

By Brian Webb
Brian is a Senior Lecturer in Spatial Planning at Cardiff University

Throughout our site visits in Japan we explored a range of high-rise neighbourhoods, including several condominium neighbourhoods. Compared to some of the public housing complexes we looked at, condominium developments differ in their private ownership structure where an individual owns their unit but also owns a portion of the shared interior and exterior spaces, such as common rooms, hallways, and private open spaces. Prior to the 1980s, most high-rise buildings in Japan were either office or commercial properties or large public housing complexes. Since the 1980s however there has been a residential condominium boom in Japan. This is particularly true in Tokyo where since 2000, 60% of all buildings over 60 metres have mostly been built as residential condominiums targeted towards middle- and high-income residents.

The multitude of high-rise development in Tokyo became clear in this model of the city

We visited one of the first of these condominium complexes, Sun City, built between 1977 and 1980 by Mitsui Fudosan – one of the largest real estate developers in Tokyo. The former campus of a research institute, the development occupies a 9.7 hectare site in the northwest corner of Tokyo. It is made up of 10 high-rise, and several low-rise, buildings composed of 1,872 units of 2-4 bedrooms, along with several retail units, a cultural centre, public pool, health clinics, clubs, green spaces, and a school. It is managed by one large management body but with representation from 11 different condominium committees. Mr Hatakeyama, the chairman of the association, and Mr Kamiya, the vice-chairman kindly showed us around and explained some of the successes of the complex as well as difficulties it is facing.

Green park spaces extend throughout Sun City

What is immediately evident when entering the development is the expansive and well-maintained green space. This is a defining feature that we were told continues to prove to be a key selling point for potential buyers and is one of the reasons for the very low vacancy rate. The seamlessly connected greenspace is particularly popular with parents who have children as it allows access to the school without having to cross any streets. Unlike many recent condominiums in Tokyo, when Sun City was built a contract was signed between the developer and the municipality to keep the space open for public use for those living in the surrounding community in exchange for allowing the developer to build higher than originally permitted. The award-winning green space is maintained by the residents themselves and therefore they avoid having to pay higher maintenance fees that would typically be paid to a landscaping company for it’s up-keep. They also foster a sense of community and pride.

Finding ways to keep the maintenance fees low is proving challenging, as the key source of income for the condominium complex is on the decline. In 1999 a new parking garage was built on the site and it currently subsidises’ about half of the maintenance fee that residents have to pay for the up-keep of the wider complex. But as driving becomes less popular in Tokyo, residents and those from the surrounding neighbourhood that make use of the parking, are turning instead to the convenient subway station located just across the street. As a result, parking spot vacancies are rising, with 300-400 spots now vacant. This has resulted in declining income for the condominium association.

On site workshops provide spaces for community engagement

The threat of rising maintenance fees also comes as the population of Sun City ages, and with it more retirees on fixed incomes. The condominium complex previously had 6,000 residents but as children have grown up and left and older single persons occupancy rates increased, this has now dropped to 4,500 residents. To maintain a sense of community, the condominium association arranges lots of activities for residents, including pottery classes, festivals, and parades by the children, as well as 19 different club activities. These activities help to develop a shared understanding of what it is to live together in a condominium as a shared living space. This is supplemented with a twice-yearly community magazine and a practical rulebook for residents annotated with hundreds of small cartoons that depict day to day do’s and don’ts in the complex.

While the condominium association has done a fantastic job managing the built environment and creating a lovely sense of place, they are still struggling with the ageing population and constantly working to adjust practices to meet this challenge. There are now four health clinics on the property to meet increasing demand. But there is also a rise in dementia amongst the residents which has led to mounting pressure on the property management company’s resources to assist them. This has been identified as a key long-term problem that needs to be addressed.

Sun City is well placed to manage these financial demands in part due to the strict rules around condominium management in Japan. While in Tokyo Dr. Taro Hirai arranged for us to meet with the Condominium Management Companies Association where they explained the various rules and regulations designed to ensure the long-term viability of condominiums in Japan. Particularly important is the requirement for a detailed, fully funded, 30-year maintenance plan for all buildings. This includes an automatic renewal of the core features of the property approximately every 15-20 years. Separate dedicated funds are allocated to the daily maintenance and management of the property as well as reserve funds for maintenance and management. The long-term time horizon of the maintenance plan means that monthly maintenance fees to residents are set at appropriate levels from the start of the process and new purchasers are aware of exactly what needs to be done, when, and how much it will cost now and in the future prior to purchasing.

Detailed maintenance plans form a key strategy to manage ageing condominiums

A major renewal was just about to start over at another condominium development we visited, River City 21. This project was one of the first urban brownfield redevelopments in Tokyo 30 years ago. Comprising a set of buildings at 54, 40, and 31 stories the development was also one of the first to include supertall condominium buildings in Japan. Along with the condominiums it also includes two rental towers at 14 and 40 stories. Built for higher-income residents, this development is about to undertake a long-planned renewal of its exterior facade. While funding has been allocated and the property has been extremely well-maintained, this will be one of the first supertall building facades in Japan to be extensively repaired. This has led to concern among the property management company and residents about the potential risks involved due to a lack of construction experience with supertall residential cladding and therefore difficulties in projecting the overall cost.

River City 21

In both Sun City and River City 21, the condominium associations and property management companies have sought to develop a sense of community to help facilitate dialogue between residents and management. As the populations in both developments continue to age, difficult issues of income generation, changing amenity needs, and resident care will require compromise. Similarly, as the buildings age the long-term maintenance of the built environment will need constant attention and consensus among residents about what needs to be done and when. What we discovered in visiting these developments is that residents seem to have a strong sense of what it is to live in a condominium. This emphasis on community over individual ownership comes through strongly and positions the developments well to collectively manage their future challenges.


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.

Double-Ageing Future Proofing

By James T. White
James is a Lecturer in Urban Design at the University of Glasgow

Takashimadaira Housing Complex

The double-ageing team’s excursion to the Takashimadaira Housing Complex in north-west Tokyo was the first in a week-long series of field visits and presentations that we undertook in Tokyo to learn more about the challenges and solutions associated with ageing populations and buildings. Our visit took place on the 20th May 2019 and was led by Dr. Sayaka Fujii, one of the double-ageing team members from the University of Tsukuba.

Takashimadaira was completed in 1972 during a sustained period of investment in public housing by the Japan Housing Corporation, a quasi-public national agency that was established soon after WW2 to address Japan’s post-war housing crisis and provide affordable accommodation for its growing population. The Japan Housing Corporation is now known as the Urban Renaissance Agency or ‘UR’. It manages a portfolio of over three-quarters of a million public housing units and is also an active developer of new residential accommodation, often working in cooperation with the private sector to deliver mixed-tenure developments.

In light of Japan’s chronic ageing crisis, UR is increasingly grappling with the issue of how to repopulate ageing high-rise complexes that currently have large numbers of elderly residents and growing levels of vacancy.

Takashimadaira is one of many such housing complexes across the country. Due, in part, to its proximity to central Tokyo (only 30 minutes via the Toei Mita subway line) and because of the scale of the ageing challenges it is facing, Takashimadaira was identified by UR as a pilot project for a series of ‘future-proofing’ initiatives.

Before discussing these initiatives, it’s probably helpful to give a sense of the urban fabric at Takashimadaira. Walking through the neighbourhood you are immediately struck by its sheer size. There are just over 10,000 units in 64 high-rise buildings. 34 buildings are located on the western half of the complex and contain nearly 2,000 owner-occupied apartments, while the remaining 30 buildings on the eastern half of the complex are of a much higher density and contain approximately 8,000 public housing units. Our visit focused on the eastern half of the site.

The modernist built form of Takashimidiara Housing Complex

Like much of the housing constructed during the 1970s in Japan, Takashimadaira conforms to modernist design principles. It is comprised of near-identical 14-storey long-thin slab blocks organised in a largely regimental fashion east-west across the site. The aesthetic is essentially uniform. All of the buildings are finished in a bright white render and are punctuated by continuous balconies that extend along each of the main facades from the second floor upwards. Despite the height of the complex, the strong horizontal emphasis of the buildings generates a pleasant sense of enclosure at ground level. The spaces in between the buildings are softened and enlivened by a generous network of linear park space that is enjoyable to walk through. Few roads penetrate the site and the generally well-maintained landscape, which has gently matured over the past forty years, generates a sense of permeance.

A network of linear public spaces creates a pleasant green environment at street level

At the time of our visit, on a warm and sunny day in May, the spaces between the buildings were well-populated. Groups of children attending nursery played in the abundant play parks, older people were found tending to plants and shrubbery, while people of all ages were walking and cycling through the park network as they went about their day. Despite the considerable size and density of Takashimadaira, the complex imbued a sense of tranquilly and community in stark contrast to the grim and often dystopian image of modernist social housing development from this era. Our party of visitors felt safe and welcome in the public realm.

Two members of a residents’ group that tend to flowers and plants in the public areas of Takashimadiara

Although I might have painted a colourful portrait of Takashimadaira, it’s currently facing a significant ageing crisis. During her tour, Dr. Fujii explained that 44.7% of Takashimadaira’s residents are aged 65 or older (2018 numbers). To appreciate this figure it’s helpful to look back to when Taksahimadaira was a new neighbourhood.

A 2015 study published in the Japan Times stated that the average age in 1972 was 25.5 (Reiji, 2015). During the mid-1970s, 30,000 people lived at Takshimadiara, of which 10,000 were aged 14 or younger. Today, the population has slumped to just 15,000 and only 644 children reside in the entire complex (Reiji, 2015). The study also noted that more than half of the population live alone.

These dramatic demographic shifts have created a series of challenges for UR. Vacancy rates in the complex are growing rapidly because demand is low. The broader ageing population crisis in Japan is the primary cause of this problem, but it’s also compounded by the fact that modern Japanese families no longer want to live and raise children in the relatively small apartments available at Takashimadiara. Moreover, in Japan, there remains a persistent cultural aversion to living in an apartment where someone might have died.

The growing residential vacancy rate at Takashimadiara has also impacted the viability of retailing and commercial businesses within the complex. Many shops and service have closed as the population has dropped. As we witnessed on our visit, a large number of the ground floor retail units in the complex are shuttered. Together these various changes, both social and physical, mean that loneliness and a sense of isolation is a growing problem for those elderly residents who reside at Takashimadiara. From the perspective of viability, Takashimadiara is also increasingly expensive for UR to maintain because the collection of rental income is decreasing as the vacancy rate increases.

Vacant ground floor retail units caused by the declining population in the area

As I mentioned earlier, UR is currently trying to address the challenges facing Takashimadiara by trialling various ‘future proofing’ initiatives. Its aim is to use the neighbourhood as a test case for projects that might then be employed at other housing complex facing similar challenges around Japan. The initiatives are bi-directional and aim to establish more mixed and supportive communities.

While UR’s primary focus has been on trialling new ways to support the existing ageing population at Takashimadiara, it has also looked for ways to attract younger people to move to the area.

During our visit, Dr Fujii showed us a number of these initiatives, including: new medical and support facilities for the elderly that have been opened in retail units left vacant by the depopulation of the area; retrofitted apartments to provide barrier free access for older people; and, ‘Cocokara Station’ an innovative safe space for dementia sufferers that has a café and other community-orientated services We had an opportunity to visit Cocokara Station and witnessed the excellent support and care offered to those suffering from dementia. One of the staff members explained that the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology is currently undertaking research on the Station’s work with the hope that it leads to more centres opening across Tokyo.

Material available to residents at Cocokara Station

In addition to its support for the elderly at Takashimadiara, UR is also looking for ways to reduce the stigma associated with living in older housing complexes and encourage younger people to repopulate the area. Considering its relative proximity to Tokyo city centre, as well the abundance of safe play space for young children at Takashimadiara, the complex has the potential to, once again, be an attractive place for families. With this in mind, UR established a partnership with Muji, a popular lifestyle and furnishing company in Japan, to renovate a series of apartments and market them to younger people and families.

Rents for the renovated apartments are set lower than a typical private rental apartment and the quality of the internal space is very high. Nevertheless, the scheme has only had limited success since it was established just over five years ago. Dr Fujii explained to us that between 2013 and 2017 approximately 45 units have been converted and updated. When compared against the many thousands of apartments in the Takashimadiara complex this level of uptake appears quite low and it’s clear that UR are facing an uphill battle when encouraging young, metropolitan Tokyoians to repopulate the neighbourhood.

Our fascinating visit to Takashimadiara gave us a real sense of the scale of public housing development that accompanied population growth in the mid-twentieth century in Japan, and the present challenges associated with maintaining that housing as demographic changes have taken hold. In a sense, Takashimadiara is a microcosm of the complex and multi-faceted challenges facing public housing in Japan, but also an example of the innovative opportunities that exist for social and physical renewal and revitalisation, even if the scale of the problems sometimes appears insurmountable.

Yoshida, Reiji (2015). Japan’s population dilemma, in a single-occupancy nutshell. Japan Times, December 31st, 2015, avaibale online: Accessed 12th June 2019.

Tokyo Program for “Workshop of UK-Japan Joint program”, 22-23 May 2019

Aging of high-rise houses and the decline of cities

To register your interest in attending the workshops please contact Dr. Sayaka Fujii (

[May 22th]

10:00-12:00 Presentation on Planning in Tokyo

Meeting Point: Harumi staion

Meeting Time:

Meeting Room: UR Harumi Island Trinton Square


Akihiko Osawa (Takasaki City University of Economics) and Sayaka Fujii (University of Tsukuba)

12:00-14:00 Walk to Okawabata and Lunch

14:00-16:30 Site Visit in Okawabata River City 21, double aging in urban project

Click to access ookawabata.pdf

[May 23th]

10:00-12:00 WS1, Planning challenges to aging neighbourhoods

Meeting Place: Myogadani Station, North Exit (Marunouchi line M23, larger exit)

Meeting Time: 10:00

Meeting Room: Room 116, Otsuka Campus, Univesity of Tsukuba


Kimihiro Hino (University of Tokyo)

Rina Yamamoto (Seijo University)

Jooho Park (University of Tsukuba)

12:00-13:30 Lunch

13:30-14:30 WS2, Redesigning double aging neighbourhoods


O’neil Miller (University of Tsukuba)

Dr. Michael Short (University College London)

Dr. James White (University of Glasgow)

MTG, Closed research project meeting to discuss our collaboration

Aging of high-rise houses and the decline of cities

First workshop announced for Japan-UK joint programme! To register your interest in attending please contact Professor Yoshimichi Yui

[ May 14th]

13:00-16:00 Excursion in Motomachi

         Guide: Hiroshima City, Urban Development Bureau staff

        Meeting Point: Motomachi Nursery School (20-5 Motomachi, Naka-ku, Hiroshima)

[May 15th]

10:00-12:00  Workshop 1 “Aging in city”

Meeting Place: Satellite Campus Hiroshima (Hiroshima Prefectural Citizen’s Culture Center)

                        1-5-3 Otemachi Naka-ku, Hiroshima City   tel: 082-245-2311


Brian Webb (Cardiff University): Towards a research agenda for ageing high-rise neighbourhoods

Yoshimichi Yui and Yaqina Tong (Hiroshima University) : Housing trap in public houses in Japan: aging and diversification.

Shuang Wang and Sayaka Fujii (University of Tsukuba) : Challenges of public housing in Japan: Aging and increase of foreign residents

Taro Hirai (Hirosaki University): Beyond the Aging of Owners of Condominium in Japan : possibilities and limits of Ostrom’s scheme

13:30-15:30 Workshop 2 “Shrinking city”

Guest speakers

Norioki Ishimaru (Former professor, Hiroshima University): The process of redevelopment project in Motomachi

Sophie Buhnik (French research institute on Japan (CNRS-MoFA)): Shrinking Cities Finally on the Agenda? About the recent implementation of revitalization policies for mid-size cities in France


Maxwell Hartt (Cardiff University): Is there such a thing as a prosperous shrinking city? Exploring depopulation, prosperity and quality of life in US cities

Akihiko Osawa (Takasaki City University of Economic): The history of cultural landscape preservation in the world heritage site around Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Dome