Examining the role of architecture in revitalizing Japan's declining communities

This time, I interviewed Nancy, who has studied architecture in various countries such as New Zealand, California, the Netherlands, and Japan, about architecture and community design in Japan.

Nancy's Instagram

Nancy was born in China and moved to New Zealand with her family as a child. She graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture at the University of Auckland, which is a 3-year bachelor (undergraduate) degree. During these three years, she spent one year studying at the University of California, Berkeley. 

After that, she completed a Master of Architecture at the University of Melbourne, including one semester spent at TU Delft in the Netherlands. During her studies, she visited Japan twice to do a summer internship first at Atelier Bow Wow and then at Kengo Kuma and Associates. After graduation, she started working at a local architecture office in Melbourne, Bates Smart Architects, on mostly multi-residential and commercial projects. Then in 2019 she started Doctoral Studies at Keio University and lived in Tokyo. 

At the start of 2021, she moved to Kamijima to undertake one year of fieldwork to research local vacant houses and other revitalization projects in the Shimanami area (until March 2022). In parallel to research and study, Nancy has also been teaching at the University of Melbourne since 2015. As classes transitioned online she has been able to continue to teach remotely and has based the past four semesters of teaching on Japan, called Studio Japan, where she wrote an original syllabus to introduce students to rural Japan and design new proposals with the aim to revitalize the area. Though these projects are speculative, she hopes to start a conversation with the local people by exhibiting the students' work in Japan.

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Nancy Ji

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A view of the Studio Japan exhibit, Picture from Nancy's Facebook page.

Yamamoto: Could you tell me more about your research in Japan?

Nancy: My doctoral research in Japan is on rural revitalization, with a focus on examining the role of architecture in revitalizing declining communities in Japan. I started by researching architect-designed projects and well-known cases such as the art museums on Naoshima island, but then noticed in addition to the art museums which were drawing in tourists, the small cafes, guest houses, and shops transformed from older houses were also worthy of study and were often a better reflection of the locality they were in. Many were completed by urban-rural migrants who decided to move to more rural areas and start their businesses and live a more self-sufficient life. I then refocused my research to examine these small projects and how they can play a role in rural sustainability, as opposed to the need to ‘re’vitalize or return to growth. In particular, I am looking at how vacant houses are being reused, and the process of transformation such as who is involved, and how local people/citizens themselves are involved through processes such as DIY.

Yamamoto: What are the characteristics and interesting aspects of Japanese DIY culture and community design from your point of view?

Nancy: Many of the DIY projects in Japan involve the regeneration of vacant houses, many of which are old Japanese houses built in traditional ways such as wooden construction, tatami floors, tokonoma, tsuchikabe walls, etc, which are interesting to see how they are updated to reflect contemporary lifestyles and thinking. The process of DIY is also varied but the ones most interesting include those such as Onomichi Labyrinth house where a group of diverse people comes together to work on a common project - how these people gather and what motivates them to volunteer their time is interesting as it shows the social benefits of DIY. I also enjoy seeing specific Japanese practices such as doing radio-taiso in the morning. As the people involved are mainly amateurs and young people - I get a sense there are some shifting attitudes and new ways of thinking in Japanese youth who want to seek alternative lifestyle compared to previous generation e.g. the salaryman route where you are expected to work for one company for life and then buy a house. For example, one recent high school graduate I spoke to who volunteers at the Labyrinth house project says he isn’t drawn to a normal 9-5 job and instead works at various places and projects where he can gain skills in areas he is interested in, including DIY projects as he aspires to build his own house one day.

Nancy participates in the renovation of the Labyrinth house. Picture from Instagram of Onomichi Labyrinth house 

Yamamoto: Do you see a close connection between DIY and creating community spaces as in Japan?

Nancy: We have things such as community gardens where people in the neighborhood work on the garden together e.g. some neighborhood streets have veggie patches. In terms of working on community spaces together, there is not so much that involves volunteers for a long time such as Labyrinth house. 

DIY is mostly common for private homes at the moment, which is why the cases in Japan are very interesting. 

Maybe rather than creating a space, the act of DIY can still help social cohesion within smaller groups such as friends, family, neighbors as it is common for those who do DIY to hold working bees, where friends and family come to help out. 

Yamamoto: Are there any distinctive differences between Japan and other countries about DIY culture and community design?

Nancy: Nancy: DIY culture in NZ is more about the concept of weekend ‘home improvement’ style attitude, mostly families building small additions such as an outdoor deck or planters for the garden. Homeownership, being house proud, and obsession with real estate (real estate values continue to rise unlike Japan) has driven DIY practices in Australia and NZ. It has also become a part of reality TV as there are many programs showing house improvement. The DIY culture is more widespread amongst middle-aged/families who own a house in the suburbs whereas in Japan it seems hard to do DIY in the middle of the city especially if you live in a mansion-style apartment. 

Yamamoto: I believe that the ease of renovation and flexibility of traditional wooden architecture is some of the factors that have stimulated the creation of alternative spaces in Japan's DIY culture and community design. On the other hand, in general, rental housing in Japan, such as apartments, there are strict rules about returning to the original state, and in some cases it is not even possible to stick pins in the walls, making it difficult for people to feel free to DIY. 

As Nancy pointed out, this tendency becomes more pronounced as you go to urban areas. I feel that these restrictions make it easier for people interested in DIY to join together to create community spaces in vacant houses and old private homes. And it makes a tendency to construct spaces together.

Nancy: Yes, I agree! The rooms in traditional Japanese houses are divided by non-structural walls like sliding panels which make it easy and flexible to reconfigure. I am in the process of collecting case studies to see how old houses are being reused and functions are changed. Guesthouses, cafes, and ateliers are popular typologies for vacant house transformations and are accessible to visit - they can be found in both urban and rural areas but with more variety outside large urban centers. Visitors and tourists also appreciate the traditional qualities, especially foreigners. 

Yamamoto: Buildings in other countries (especially in Western cultures) are made of stone, brick, concrete, etc., so it is difficult to change the structure of a house by DIY. On the other hand, I have the impression that DIY culture is more popular than in Japan, where people do their interior design (maintenance of indoor infrastructure such as plumbing and fixtures, furniture making, painting wall, etc.).

From Nancy's point of view, how interested in DIY does the younger generation overseas seem to be?

Nancy: Yes, that is true to some extent but there are also many homes in Australia and NZ that are freestanding and made of timber construction making renovation relatively easy. It is popular for families to add ‘extensions’ to their houses and expand the living space. Though same with Japan, the new apartments being built are made of concrete making DIY limited to interior and decoration. As more and more of the young generation continue to rent and buy properties later, they are not as engaged in DIY as those who own their homes. The home centers are very big and popular for families to visit on weekends where people can buy all kinds of things to DIY for both home and garden. Maybe that is also another difference is that people in Japan have small or no gardens whereas many people in Australia and NZ have land and gardens to maintain. My dad and many of my friend’s dads also have their tool sheds where they can put their tools and work on projects. I think it is related to having space, if you live in the city you don’t have space to store tools or workshops to complete projects. Plumbing and fixtures are usually left to the professionals, same with electricity. Common DIY activities include interior decoration, repairing and maintaining, small building projects such as building fences, vegetable gardens, making new concrete paths, etc, all under the home improvement category. It is a form of self-expression and the creation of one's identity. I remember my dad built our mailbox. Some people get quite serious about raising the property value to then resell it.

Yamamoto: It seems that in many countries overseas, housing prices are rising and there is a serious shortage of houses. In Berlin, Germany, where I lived for a while, there was a serious shortage of housing, partly due to the refugee crisis, and it was difficult to find a place to live, and I witnessed the situation where rents rose every time the residents were replaced. However, I believe that the situation is different in urban and rural areas. Particularly in Japan, as a result of the concentration of population in urban areas, land prices and rents in urban areas are abnormally high, while depopulation and the increase in vacant houses are problems in rural areas. Are other countries that you know experiencing this kind of increase in rural vacant housing?

Nancy: For Australia and New Zealand, there are not a lot of vacant houses due to depopulation but other factors contribute to vacancy rates. Rural areas in Europe such as small villages in Italy are more similar to Japan where people are moving to bigger cities and houses are selling for cheap prices. In NZ there has been a term called ‘ghost houses’ describing vacant property being left empty not as a result of no one living in them but deliberately left empty as owners invest and wait for the property to increase in value without having to manage tenants (sometimes up to years at a time). There are also many holiday houses which are left vacant. 

With an increase in people who work from home, which has been accelerated by COVID-19, there are more interests in moving to areas outside city centers as people can continue to earn the same amount of money without commuting or living in urban areas. In Australia and NZ this has reversed the urbanization trend with house prices rising in the outer suburbs and regional areas. It will be interesting to see if similar effects may reach rural Japan.

Yamamoto: Until quite recently, owning a home in Japan meant taking out a loan to build a new house or buying a newly built house for sale. But due to various factors such as the increase in the number of vacant houses and the low income of the Japanese people, more and more people are buying used properties and renovating them without regard to new construction. Especially in rural areas, it is not rare-case to find cheap properties for free due to the increasing number of vacant houses. To realize their dreams and goals of creating their own space, such as owning their own home or owning their store, an increasing number of people are moving from urban areas where land prices continue to rise to rural areas where land prices are lower. In addition, in consideration of Japan's stagnant economy and unimproved working conditions, an increase in the number of people who prefer to lead a fulfilling life even on a low income by creating a low-cost living environment rather than acquiring assets such as land and buildings that require loans and poor working conditions. From a non-Japanese point of view, is this stagnant situation in Japan and the non-capitalist orientation that is emerging from it a similar trend to other countries, or is it unique to Japan?

Nancy: In Australia and NZ, it is also common to take out loans to purchase one’s home, especially the first home. Usually, it is an already built home, but can also be an apartment or townhouse that is ‘bought off the plan’ meaning that it is bought before the property is built and will be handed over once the property is constructed. Similar to Japan, it is becoming harder to own one’s own home as house prices have increased so much and wages have not increased to match. In Australia, the price of old homes is not necessarily lower and it is common to buy existing property rather than something new - this is again different from the ‘scrap and build’ mentality in Japan. However, I think the situation is not unique and there are examples of people trading city life for more sustainable and self-sufficient lifestyles in rural areas around including China for example where you can still buy land and houses fairly cheaply. In Australia and NZ as well rural towns are also trying to attract residents, such as this small town in NZ: The countryside town of Kaitangata in the Clutha district.

Yamamoto: Lastly, could you share with me some of the examples of building use and community spaces in Japan that you have seen and found particularly interesting?

Nancy: Yes! I think the Shimanami area where I am staying has many interesting projects - such as ‘Sora no ki’ in Mukaishima where a young lady crowded funded and renovated a vacant house into her atelier and shop where she makes and sells clothes. There is also a place to stay and rental space available next door. She also lives below and holds many interesting events held there too like cooking workshops. 

A local cafe on Sashima island where I live, ‘book cafe okappa’ was renovated from a former childcare center that became abandoned. The new owners who were two young women from Tokyo renovated it by DIY and now it is a much-loved community space as well as a cafe where tourists and island people often visit.

In Ikuchijima a project currently under construction called the ‘0 yen house’ is taking place where the owner envisions a share house where he can lend the house for free to young people for a year - they are trying to reduce their bills to 0 too and have installed a bio-toilet amongst other things in the works.

In Okayama, a former hospital is being renovated into a multi-use work and art space called ‘Ushimado Tepemok’. 

You can view more projects I have visited on my instagram: rural_fieldnotes.

Yamamoto: Thank you very much for taking the time to answer the interview. I am looking forward to the day when Nancy's doctoral dissertation is completed and I can read it.

Nancy: Thank you!


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