A Slow Utopia

Teba Island in Shikoku

Teba Island in Shikoku. Tomohide Sugimoto on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Two miles off coast of Mugi Port in the Tokushima Prefecture of southwest Japan is a small island called Teba, where all of the local inhabitants are aged 65 and over. A fishing village since the seventeenth century, the island reached a population of about 1000 in the early nineteenth century but has since declined to about 98 residents as people gradually moved back to the mainland in search of work. On Teba there are no cars or restaurants and the islanders occupy their time mainly with fishing, growing vegetables, chatting with neighbors and walking around the island. There is no industrial noise on Teba and one could say that time flows very slowly on the island. The elderly residents of the island say that they are happy with their life there, and recently, Teba has started to hold a certain appeal for people searching for an alternative to the hi-tech cities of the mainland. In fact, with an increasingly ageing population in Japan, it is tempting to imagine that every retired or elderly person in Japan could move to a tiny utopia like Teba, where everything they need is close at hand in their tight-nit community, far from the noise and anxiety of the city. However, when we look closer at the population problem in Japan, such a solution seems nearly impossible.

 

Although many countries, whether highly industrialized or developing, are seeing an increase in their elderly populations, no other country is facing a situation as serious as in Japan. In terms of the decline of fertility and increased life expectancy, we might say that the aging problem is one of the biggest challenges for Japanese society today. Not only will the elderly population increase within a few decades, the whole population of Japan is also likely to decline by 20 percent. Where the dependency ratio of over 65 to under 65 year olds was 1.7 to 10 in 1990, it is estimated to be 6.5 to 10 in 2040.1

 

This demographic problem also has certain regional consequences. In general, Japanese seniors prefer to move to the countryside for their retirement, searching for a quiet life, but in reality, the vast majority live in cities and must adapt to old age in an urban environment. With “love marriage” coming to replace the traditional arranged marriage, divorce rates have rapidly increased since 1970 and many couples have started to live separately from their parents.2 This atomization of the family makes an aging society that much more worrisome because most of the elderly are not able to rely on younger, more physically active people and find themselves socially isolated from society. Like the young and middle aged, Japan’s modern day elderly are now required to manage their own life, but with much greater difficulty. Moreover, most seniors have already retired from their jobs so they make their living by their pension or savings. Although they have more free time than they used to, for most retirees there is little money for leisure.

 

Like most industrialized societies, Japanese cities are largely designed around the needs of young and middle aged workers, which poses a number of problems for the elderly urban population. In the past, we could think of this as a marginal issue because the elderly remained a minority, but what if we took these recent trends and projected them into a future where more than half of Tokyo’s population was over 65 years old? How would housing and infrastructure need to change? In films like Children of Men, we can see the worst-case-scenario of a world of adults and no children.3 In this post-apocalyptic future, cities of high-rise buildings and robotic automation, a world without comfort or patience, where ageing is a kind of crisis. But if we want something better for our parents and grandparents, we may have to think more about Teba island and less about technological dystopia.

 

Old Housing/Housing for the Old

The current problems of design start at home. As we know, most people over 65 begin to experience some form of physical impairment, and in a city like Tokyo, this becomes a major concern, especially when it comes to housing. Even though most of the housing in Tokyo was rebuilt after World War II, it still has certain traditional features that are difficult for the elderly such as steep staircases leading to houses and steps around each room. Since earthquakes often occur in Japan, many houses shift and warp over time, creating problems with traditional Japanese sliding doors. Many old people often leave their interior doors open because they fear they might get stuck inside if they try to close them. Even in these postwar houses, the furniture is designed for sitting close to the ground on tatami mats, which also requires people to bend their knees.4 This traditional style originated in the fifth century in Japan, when the life expectancy was about 40 years, which meant people usually died before losing their physical strength. By contemporary standards, such design details would violate most disability regulations.

 

Unfortunately, it seems that physically active young people are more likely to live in modern, barrier-free houses or apartments with elevators and western furniture. These homes are also built in ferro-concrete and glass, which is more fire-resistant. In contrast, fire poses a serious threat to the wooden houses typical of east Tokyo, where the majority of elderly residents live. In a sense it might actually be easier for young and old people to switch their housing situations. The Japanese architecture office Mokuchin Kikaku5 has experimented with this idea by offering vacant wooden houses in the middle of elderly people’s neighborhoods to university students for a very reasonable rental price. Instead of trying to reinvent the house, they have simply offered to make different kinds of spaces available. After this experiment, many young people found that they actually prefered these one- and two-storey wooden houses to the isolated high-rise studio apartments typically designed for students. They also got to know their elderly neighbors and felt more of a sense of community than before. With the current demographic shifts, the same kind of experiment could be done for the elderly, offering them open floorplans and modern ammenities, and by mixing these populations and providing access to these different building types we might arrive at a housing arrangement for all ages.

 

Of course it is not just housing that is being reconsidered, but also other building types that have started to change in relation to this ageing population. Contrary to the number of kindergartens being closed nowadays, the number of nursing homes and crematories are steadily increasing. Developers have tried offer more competitive, updated amenities for elderly clients, and Japanese designers have started to rethink these typologies. SANAA’s Mutsukawa Day Care Center for Elderly in Kanagawa is a good example of this.6 Instead of adopting a clinical or institutional idea of the nursing home, a balanced consideration of mobility and comfort are evident in all parts of the building. It is a one-story community center, designed to maximize natural light, and to allow one continuous relation from room to room. In the nursing home, some seniors are physically active enough to walk around, but some are not. Others have memory impairments or suffer from Alzheimer’s. To accomodate these diverse needs, SANAA did not try to over-program the space, and instead designed the building so that each room allowed for multiple functions. Social spaces and medical needs are treated in a modular fashion, so that carers can respond to each resident’s needs.

 

Urban Mobility

In addition to the materials and spaces of habitation, there are also major issues to consider at the urban scale. As we discussed earlier, many elderly people are now relying less on their extended family for basic assistance. For instance, Tokyo is famous for having a high number of convenience stores, and most people are able to find small shops within a five minute walk, but traditionally they are a place to buy fast food such as cup noodles or hamburgers or chicken nuggets. In other words, they are mainly for young people who do not cook for themselves. Now, many of these stores have started making and carrying products targeted to the elderly, who increasingly come to the convenience stores instead of cooking at home. The Lawson convenience store in the north of Tokyo stocks many nutritious, ready-to-eat foods that are easy to digest, like vegetable porridge and soups.7 It is true that not all the elderly have digestion or chewing difficulty, and still many of them prefer to cook, however, these products give them new options, make it easier for them to eat, and reduce the household chores. When we compare taking a 15 minute walk to the supermarket once a week and cooking everyday, walking 5 minutes and getting prepared food sounds better if it has almost the same taste and nutrition value as the home-cooked meals. 

 

Perhaps one of the biggest changes that could effect Japanese cities with an increasing elderly population is the infrastructure of public transport. The modern city is organized around commercial productivity, speed, and efficiency. An elderly city is a slower city. For example, the Metro in Tokyo has around 20 million passengers per day, which is double the annual ridership for a city like Berlin. The conditions are such that people try to avoid the metro entirely during rush hour. During the six years I lived in Tokyo, I only used the metro a few times during these hours because it is so uncomfortable. According to a report by the Tokyo Institute of Technology, occupancy rates inside rush hour trains are 250%, and the physical distance between each passenger is 1 inch. Only 20% of passengers can take a seat while everyone else stands or is even floated by the density of bodies, barely able to breathe.8

 

When we think of the elderly, it would be a nightmare. If an old man aged around 70 years old tried to take the train for 15 minutes for three stops at 8am, the first difficulty would be the platform: although there are many escalators, most people run or step up very fast during rush hour, so the people who try to remain still on the escalator are pushed by others. Then, although the old man is able to reach the front of the train, passengers are required to move in and out of the car very fast, as the train stops for just one to two minutes. Even harder for him would be inside the train. Even as a healthy 24 year old, I felt so much pain and pressure on my arms and legs because of pushing from others. If an elderly person were in the same situation, they might have much greater consequences. It is ironic that not only old people, but also young people hate this situation in Tokyo. If the majority of the passengers in this train were over 65 years old, we would need to consider not only regulating the crowds of people in the stations and train cars, as well as providing more frequent service, we would also have to consider the interior design of the stations and cars themselves, to take into consideration different bodies with different mobility needs.

 

These shifts in housing typology and program, urban planning and transport design sound like a huge inconvenience for cities designed around speed and able-bodied young people. However, this generational shift is coming no matter what, and it will be a turning point for architectural design and development in Japan. As Japanese society ages, the elderly will become the center of concern for health, politics, and design. As contemporary architecture searches for new ideas in façade design and construction, or in environmental performance, I believe that urban planning and housing design will also need to prioritize thinking about the slow, elderly bodies that are increasingly making up the urban population.  

Teba-jima Island

Teba-jima Island Aerial photograph,1975. National Land Image Information, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

Mutsukawa Day Care Center

Mutsukawa Day Care Center for Elderly in Kanagawa, SANAA. archINFORM-Archiv, Dieter Hendel.

Streets of Teba Island

Streets of Teba Island. Travel Report by sudachichan

  1. Deane, Simpson. Young-Old: Urban Utopias of an Aging Society. Zürich: Lars Müller (2015) 14.

  2. Deane, 16.

  3. 2006 British-American science fiction thriller film directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuarón.

  4. Japanese traditional carpet made from straw.

  5. Mokuchin-Kikaku. Project_From First, mokuchin.jp/

  6. Zardini, Mirko, Giovanna Borasi, and Margaret Campbell. Imperfect health: the medicalization of architecture. Montréal: Canadian Centre for Architecture (2012) 340.

  7. Financial Times. Age survey underlines pressures on Japan, ft.com/content/a8e6dd9e-254b-11e6-8ba3-cdd781d02d89 (2016, may, 29th).

  8. Ramon, Brasser. Tokyo's rush hour by the numbers. elsi.jp/en/blog/2015/11/blog1126.html (2015, November).