Back to writing! Plus in the Japan Times & other links
Re-starting this blog after a year of building
It’s been a while! As much as I would have wished to send out regular posts over the first half of 2022, my projects out in the real world sort of took over my life and my mind. The chance to simultaneously renovate two century-old structures doesn’t come around every year, and man has it been a great journey. I got a first-rate education in architecture and carpentry and met some fascinating people along the way.
Over the past 18 months, I spent 14 weeks down in Onomichi, and in the months before Inari-yu Nagaya was finished, I was often working 60 or more hours a week, all while doing my actual paid translation work on the night shift. I suppose from the perspective of establishing my online brand as the post-growth #akiya & #sento guy, sending out constant newsletter updates and Twitter posts while I was in the thick of it would have made sense. Often I just physically didn’t have the energy or time, but I also don’t like getting ensnared in the social media feedback loop, or how the disembodiment that comes with writing about oneself in the present tense influences the way I experience or think about what I’m doing. I like to be present and fully engaged in the moment and not try to think too hard about what things mean as they happen, letting experiences and conversations coalesce into stories, themes, and ideas on a longer time scale.
The all-consuming stage of construction is now behind me, and I just took a monthlong vacation in Colorado. Although I’ll be working on running our community space at Inari-yu and getting into the second phase of Labyrinth House this fall, I want to re-orient towards writing for the coming year. After eight years in Tokyo studying, traveling, and thinking about post-growth Japan, five years after starting Tokyo Little House, and now two years into renovation and community building at Labyrinth House and Inari-yu, there are some things I need to put to paper, and its time to sit down with my notes and get to it.
Some of that will end up here, a lot more fits into stories that I want to tell in book form in English and Japanese. I’ll share more in a series of project updates over the next few weeks. For now, I thought I’d try something newsletter-y and offer some annotated links related to the themes I will be writing about here. Thanks for all the subscribers who joined this mailing list while the newsletter was on hiatus! Expect to see a lot more frequent posts going forward.
Sentō Samaritans: The fight to save urban bathhouses
First up, that’s me in the Japan Times! After years of hard work and struggle with an immensely complex restoration project, it feels great to finally have a finished space to show to people. I was happy that the reporter for this story worked in some quotes about my deeper motivations and urban philosophy, and why I think sento are worth preserving. We were also on the NHK evening news in Tokyo, and a couple of other television stations. There’s a lot of activity around sento preservation these days all over the country, but we are the only place you can find a prewar bathhouse and an original tenement-turned-community space next door. We think it’s pretty cool.
If you like what we do, my organization Sento & Neighborhood is running a crowd-funding campaign (page in Japanese here) until August 31. We built Inari-yu Nagaya with a large grant, but we need funding to keep us afloat as we experiment with how to run the new community space and build our organizational capacity. In the next year we’re hoping to create an ethnographic archive of the neighborhood, and are in promising discussions about with some other historic bathhouses about preservation. Direct donations to our organization can also be made via Square. Any support is immensely appreciated.
I’ll write an update on Inari-yu later this month! Now a few other links:
Rural migration picks up steam nationwide (NHK Closeup Gendai) [JP]
On my first night back in Japan earlier this week, NHK happened to have a 30-minute report on recent rural migration trends. It included a few interesting statistics, including that in more than half of municipalities designated as depopulating areas, the number of residents in their 20s and 30s is increasing. This is probably partly a function of very low young populations to begin with, but suggests that urban-rural migration is now a more broad-based phenomenon than when I was conducting research on the topic 2014-2017. Many of the people I interviewed expressed similar sentiments as those on NHK: desire for a grounded life, work that feels authentic and physical, escape from the monetary economy of the city, and real-world community and social connections. As was the case a half-decade ago, many migrants are drawn to the appeal of lower living expenses and greater personal freedom that come along with near-free rent, including a couple that slashed expenses in half after moving from Sendai to rural Fukushima (monthly rent: $40).
The biggest thing that has changed since the mid-2010s and today, like elsewhere in the world, is the rise of remote working. Surveys suggest that around one half of recent migrants moved without changing jobs. Support for migration has also become engrained policy from the national government down, and a lot of municipalities now provide support targeted to remote work transplants. Minakami in Gunma Prefecture, about an hour outside of Tokyo, offers $250 per month in bullet train subsidies for new migrants and saw in-migration jump from nine in 2019 to sixty-four in 2021. Generous subsidies for entrepreneurs and new entrants into agriculture and other local industries also sweeten the deal for many migrants who do make career changes.
Ehime Prefecture in-migration at an all-time high [JP]
One of the apparent winners in the new migration patterns is Ehime Prefecture, across the pond from Onomichi on Shikoku. In-migrants nearly doubled year-over-year in 2021 to 4,910, including many in prefectural capital Matsuyama (1,938 migrants, pop. 506,973). Smaller Saijo (636 migrants, pop. 102,794) has been named the most popular rural migration destination in the country. I read a detailed report on their migration incentives in the Onomichi newspaper a few months back. If you combine cash handouts specially earmarked to lure former residents of Tokyo’s 23 wards, business startup incentives, housing allowances, and other subsidies, new migrants can receive as much as $25,000 a year for the first few years, more than enough to live on in rural Japan. Some places are now offering what amounts to a basic income.
Tokyo population declines for first time in 26 years [from Feb., JP]
Tokyo’s population declined by 48,592 in 2021 to just under 14 million. Interesting because it is first decline since 1996, when the suburban exodus of the 1970s-1990s tipped towards redevelopment in the urban core. Even if the decline is impacted by the pandemic, it portends what’s in store by the end of the decade. The western suburbs are already shrinking and the metropolis as a whole should peak by 2025, while the 23 wards may continue to grow slowly until around 2030s. Real estate prices recently surpassed the peak of the 1980s bubble to reach all-time highs, but the world’s biggest city will soon be a post-growth metropolis. As the margins expand, space will start getting more uneven and funky.
Japan’s population drops 0.57%
Japan’s population dropped in 2021 by 726,342 to 125.93 million. Deaths numbered 1.44 million, births 810,000 while the number of foreigners dropped as a result of border restrictions. We’re still at the top of the hill: Japan’s population has only declined by about 2.5 million since its peak in 2010, but should drop by about 10 million in the next decade.
Rural rail lines threatened by declining population [JP]
East Japan Railway Company (JR East) for the first time released financial data detailing the significant operating deficits incurred on 66 lightly-used segments of rural rail lines, about 1/3 of their non-HSR network. Looks like beginning of a renewed push to shut down or slough off unprofitable sections to local governments as “third sector” railways…For decades since the privatization of JNR in 1987, JR companies have relied on large profits from metropolitan lines cover the expenses of money-losing rural lines, but as the population declines, the shortfall is growing. Some lines now incur costs up to 150 times revenue, and ridership on these segments has fallen 30-90% since 1987…other regional JR companies have similarly poor performing rural railways. Go ride the rails of eastern Hokkaido while you still can!
For the first century of Japan’s modernization, railways were symbols and engines of growth, extending the reach of capital-nation-state to every corner of the country. Railways through the post-growth countryside are no longer economically vital and lose out to highway buses and airplanes on cost and convenience for long-distance travel, but they remain powerful symbols of a place’s existence or non-existence.
World’s largest wooden structure to be built at 2025 Osaka/Kansai World Expo
Celebrated architect Sou Fujimoto released renderings of the primary venue for the 2025 World Expo, which will be held on a former landfill in Osaka Bay and is forecast to attract 28 million visitors over a six month period. His structure will link together the pavilions under a ring-shaped roof 675 meters wide (considerably bigger than the Pentagon!), and 20 meters tall. The structure will be built with traditional structural methods and is expected to use 20,000 cubic meters of wood (apparently about 1/4000th the annual demand nationwide)! It’s a cool-looking building, and I like Fujimoto’s work, but handing the construction conglomerates a boatload of money to build a structure that will get torn down in six months is not a sustainable way of preserving traditional architectural culture.
The Osaka Expo is repeating the pattern of superficial eco-futurist/revivalist branding that has become a standard theme of 21st century Japanese mega-events (see 2005 Aichi Expo, 2020 Tokyo Olympics). The notion that this structure or Kuma Kengo’s woody Olympic Stadium are forms of sustainable architecture or help to preserve traditional industries is dubious; the idea that staging mega-events as they’re currently designed in a post-growth society is anything other than monumentally wasteful and misguided only more so.