Looking back on the final days of the Dojunkai apartments


All cities change, but the 20th century saw Tokyo undergo more destruction and rebuilding than in any other period since its founding.

The capital was devastated first by natural disaster and then aerial bombardment, and was subsequently re-imagined in the frenzy of construction that typically follows such calamity. Today, the city reads like a quilt, with new patches supplanting the threadbare structures of bygone eras.

Tokyo’s traditional enemy is fire. On winter nights local volunteers still amble through residential beats in pairs or small groups talking quietly. As they walk they knock together two pieces of hardwood, sending sharp timber notes through the streets. It’s an old tradition, a reminder for denizens of this huge metropolis to extinguish kerosene heaters, candles and other fire hazards before they sleep.

On Sept. 1, 2016, Japan observed Disaster Prevention Day, marking the 93rd anniversary of Tokyo, Yokohama and the surrounding area being struck almost simultaneously by the Great Kanto Earthquake and a strong typhoon. In 1923 as in 1603 at the dawn of the Edo Period, Tokyo was made almost entirely of wood. The cooking fires loosed by the quake, stoked by typhoon winds and a freak tornado, created a storm that consumed huge swath of both cities and, combined with tsunami, killed about 140,000 people.

More than 3 million people were displaced by the catastrophe. Camps were thrown up and relief funds diverted to the problem of settling a tide of refugees. In the year following the Kanto earthquake, the government set up an organization called Dojunkai (the Mutual Prosperity Association). Its architects, planners and builders first put up temporary wooden barrack-like housing, which soon gave way to experimental structures in reinforced ferro-concrete that came to be called the Dojunkai apartments.

A few months prior to demolition in 2013, all but a few of the Uenoshita apartments
A few months prior to demolition in 2013, all but a few of the Uenoshita apartments’ units had been vacated. | BEN BEECH

The 16 Dojunkai complexes built between 1926 and 1934 (13 in Tokyo and three in Yokohama) were harbingers of the danchi accommodations that were ubiquitous during the decades of explosive growth after World War II and presaged the massive collective housing units so common today. The Dojunkai apartments embodied a pivotal moment in the conception and construction of urban residences in Japan.

The Uenoshita apartments were completed in 1929 in a northeastern district east of Ueno that falls in what is now Taito Ward. It withstood not only the Allied carpet and fire bombings of World War II, but also the considerable shaking of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. In fact, it was the last of its kind still in use, and with its demolition in May/June of 2013, Tokyo turned the page on a formative chapter of its history.

Four years later, Tokyo is in the throes of yet another construction boom, this time in preparation for the 2020 Olympic Games. This fresh wave of activity will likely spell the end of other links to the city’s past, highlighting the need to make records of all such places before it’s too late.

With this in mind, photographer Ben Beech and I made several trips to the Uenoshita apartments in the months before they were demolished. Through these photos and interviews with the building’s last few tenants, it’s possible to get a feeling for what it was like to live in the last of the Dojunkai, and even catch a glimpse of its heyday.

The facts of the Uenoshita apartments are simple enough: Set on a 1,147-square-meter lot in Higashi-Ueno, they comprised two four-story buildings that

The hallways of the Uenoshita apartments were in use for more than eight decades.
The hallways of the Uenoshita apartments were in use for more than eight decades. | BEN BEECH

together occupied 493 square meters and had 76 private units. The smaller structure sat on a busy street and had tenant-run shops on the ground level and apartments the rest of the way up. The other extended behind the first along a quiet side street. Its fourth story protruded, overhanging the floors below like an eave, and featured smaller apartments designed for singles.

Like all the Dojunkai, the Uenoshita apartments were built to withstand both earthquakes and fire. At a time when most people in Tokyo lived in wooden two-story tenements, much as they did in the Edo Period (1603-1868), the apartments were utterly modern, built in reinforced concrete to the best Western standards of the time and boasting garbage chutes, communal areas for cooking, washing and recreation, and some of the first flush toilets and gas lines in Japan. Inside, the units varied in layout and size, from single to multiple rooms, with hardwood floors and tatami. Doors and fixtures were built low, even by Japan’s current standards and, although the walls were concrete, the wood used in doors, windows, cabinets and trim lent a wholesome, if antiquated, feel.

The staircases of the Uenoshita apartments were in use for more than eight decades.
The staircases of the Uenoshita apartments were in use for more than eight decades. | BEN BEECH

In a book titled “Tokyo: A Spatial Anthology,” Hidenobu Jinnai, a professor of engineering and design at Hosei University, makes it clear that the 1920s, at the tail end of which the Uenoshita apartments were built, was a time when Western notions of urban planning — in addition to construction techniques — were taking hold in Japan, including the concept of communal spaces such as parks and courtyards.

“It is no exaggeration to say that the prototype of Tokyo as it appears today emerged during this period,” Jinnai writes. “Many of the Dojunkai apartments carried out planning that was eminently suited to urban group housing; it ensured a good living environment oriented toward the neighborhood while allowing ample space for an inner courtyard.

“Whereas the low city hitherto had been a world of threading alleyways and lines of wooden tenements, these apartment blocks with their central courtyards helped to bring modernity to the atmosphere of the low city,” he writes, referring to shitamachi, the low-lying eastern part of Tokyo characterized by waterways and densely packed neighborhoods.

“These common spaces could be used effectively and their open-air activities could continue because the low city’s traditional sense of urban habitation remained relevant. The plural character of common space found in the low city’s alleys and streets was passed on (through the Dojunkai), though in changed form, to their modern successors,” Jinnai concludes.

A room in a freshly vacated apartment.
A room in a freshly vacated apartment. | BEN BEECH

Visiting the Uenoshita apartments even in its final days was really something, like encountering an echo of a way of life that has all but ceased to exist.

A visitor surfacing onto bustling Kiyosubashi Street from Inaricho Station on the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line was met with a slice of modern-day shitamachi, a counterpoint to the yamanote, the high grounds in the west that were home to sprawling samurai estates in the Edo Period. Once on the side street, the noise of the main drag seemed immediately to recede as the hallmark Dojunkai architecture came into view.

A short wall marked off a courtyard extending from the street to the building itself. A picturesque old hand-pump for a well stood in the shade of ginkgo biloba trees that were taller than the building itself. The grounds had the hollowed-out quiet of large places that have long since ceased to bustle. But it was not a ghost town: Wet laundry hung heavy in the spring air outside a few of the units.

The hallways inside were quiet and dimly lit, but sunbeams streamed in from the windows of the staircases, which were lined with beautiful wooden bannisters that could have been at home in Paris.

Some of the vacated units were in very bad shape, damaged by mold or fire and altogether otherworldly. Others had been well kept and were only dusty. But all had been abandoned with some haste, leaving traces behind.

A photo in the barber shop on the first floor of the Uenoshita apartments.
A photo in the barber shop on the first floor of the Uenoshita apartments. | BEN BEECH

People tend to pour themselves into their homes, where such traces settle like sediment. Moving out, on the other hand, is a little like trying to gather liquid by hand. No matter how you go about it, there is always some residue, a lingering essence by way of things, marks and scars of use.

The halls and rooms were full of such details and captivating objects, totems of the bygone Showa Era. Walking the halls, it was just possible to sense what it might have been like to live in the Uenoshita apartments when they were full of kids and working people and the country was on the upswing.

“The Dojunkai apartments, with their basis in a Western model, did produce a revolutionary living space. And yet they were not simply imitating something foreign,” Jinnai writes.

“Admittedly, unfamiliarity with ferroconcrete buildings led to a certain immaturity in the structural planning in the pillars and beams, and to discordance in the exterior design. Nevertheless they display throughout — perhaps unconsciously — a subtle Japanese sensitivity in the handling of the exterior space and the layout of common areas.

In addition, their large complexes arranged around a central court and divided into smaller, conveniently numbered dwelling units suggest a consideration for patterns of social relations that was typical of the low city,” writes Jinnai — and some of the last tenants of the Uenoshita apartments, people who had been there in its heyday, agree.

A light bulb hangs on a washing line in a hastily abandoned apartment.
A light bulb hangs on a washing line in a hastily abandoned apartment. | BEN BEECH

In interviews conducted just months before the demolition in 2013, they spoke about their feelings and experiences.

“Everyone has their own feeling, and everyone adores this apartment and has a sense of familiarity with it,” said a man who gave his name as Kasumi, who spent decades of his life there.

He recalled the 1960s and ’70s, when people gossiped as they did laundry together on the roof and women in the building organized weekly lunch outings.

“In the old days, everyone was friends with each other,” he said. “Now, people don’t know who lives next door, so the neighborly atmosphere gradually and naturally faded away. That neighborly atmosphere was already gone 15 years ago, but even though there may be only one resident who has always lived here, and others may have scattered around in other neighbourhoods, the old group of friends seem to still have meals together from time to time.”

When he heard about plans to demolish the Uenoshita apartments, Kasumi was against it. “This area is extremely quiet, and although it may be a block of concrete, you can still get an earthy feeling from it,” he said. “The new structure that will be built in its place will have no wooden materials.”

A community signboard at the Uenoshita apartments.
A community signboard at the Uenoshita apartments. | BEN BEECH

A woman who gave her name as Tsunoda moved to the Uenoshita apartments in 1957 and began working in the barber shop on the first floor. Her regional dialect was strong, and sometimes people asked how long she had been in Tokyo, to which she would reply, “Oh, about 60 years.”

She, too, remembered the vibrancy of the Uenoshita apartments in their prime.

“The bonds between people were definitely a lot stronger 30 to 40 years ago,” she said. “That was because everyone was always around, the same people were around. Now the elderly people have passed away, the landlord is gone and new people have come.”

Tsunoda first heard of plans to demolish Uenoshita 10 years before it happened. The remaining residents were split over whether to go along with demolition or resist it, but as people moved away, selling their units to the developer as they went, the scales eventually tipped.

Although she admitted to a nostalgic feeling about the place, Tsunoda, who had agreed to take a unit in the planned 14-story building, said she was looking forward to the update, and wanted to leave a modern dwelling for her son when her time came.

The Saitos are photographed on the last day in their apartment by their young son, En, using Ben Beech
The Saitos are photographed on the last day in their apartment by their young son, En, using Ben Beech’s camera. | EN SAITO

The Saitos, a young family that had lived in the Uenoshita apartments for 11 years, also had mixed feelings as the building’s demise neared. Mr. Saito recalled watching the Sumida River fireworks on the roof back when there were more tenants, and said he’ll miss the camaraderie of going to the neighboring sento bathhouse to bathe.

“It was only for a short while, but being able to raise a child in the Uenoshita apartments was a very valuable experience,” he recalled. “I’ll be truly happy if the apartment I loved remains in the memory of my child, even just a little.”

For further notes on the history of the Uenoshita apartments and photos from its heyday, visit bit.ly/2qvNs8o.

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