Singles find community in ‘social apartments’

by Michiko Munakata

Kyodo

A three-story former dormitory built 16 years ago for unmarried employees of a brokerage has been reborn as a “social apartment” for 44 singles.

Yuki Ito, a 28-year-old worker at a Tokyo publishing company, is one of the tenants of Social Apartment Yomiuriland in Kawasaki. They range in age from 18 to 43 and about half are women.

“I would not have gotten to know people from so many different walks of life and with such diverse viewpoints if I had lived alone in an ordinary apartment,” said Ito, whom other tenants have nicknamed “big sister” and sometimes consult on matters of the heart.

Returning home one evening, another tenant starts chopping onions for a potato gratin dish she is preparing in the communal kitchen. A neighbor asks if he can have a few onion slices to use in an oven-roasted tomato-and-cheese dish.

“You’re really lucky to have cheese!” she squeals.

The 44 single-room apartments, with floor space from 8.93 to 26.58 sq. meters, were put up for rent last spring by ReBITA Inc., a real estate firm in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, that focuses on renovation of secondary-market real estate.

Monthly rents range from ¥46,600 to ¥85,600, and all the apartments are currently occupied. Most are 11.50 sq. meters in area and rent out for ¥52,000 plus a common service charge of ¥13,000. Security deposits and “key money” are not required.

Each room comes with a built-in bed, desk and refrigerator. Tenants share toilets, showers, a living room and a communal kitchen. In addition, there is a fitness room and a home theater.

Almost every night tenants can be found relaxing in the living room while they eat dinner or just chat with their neighbors. Among them are five students and five non-Japanese.

The Kawasaki building is the third social apartment run by ReBITA, which also has a 17-room, four-story social apartment in Ota Ward, Tokyo, and a 61-room, five-story dwelling in Yokohama.

According to an estimate based on census figures by major ad agency Hakuhodo Inc., the number of single households across Japan this year has overtaken households with more than one occupant.

It said people in their teens to their 30s account for about 40 percent of single people, citing the trend of people marrying later in life and in divorces among that age group.

Tenants in Social Apartment Yomiuriland feel they have found a happy medium.

“Up to 10 people greet me with ‘Welcome home’ when I get in,” said tenant Ito. “When I come in late, a neighbor might invite me to help myself to something in the fridge. This kind of communal living is more pleasant than I imagined.”

“The popularity of social apartments should not come as a surprise,” said Tamaki Saito, a psychiatrist who studies communication among the young. “Young people are rebounding from the extreme individualism that has grown up in Japanese society.”

Related to this are young people’s online experiences, Saito said.

“They are more comfortable with social network sites such as mixi, where members reveal their identities, than with the anonymity of the Internet as a whole,” he said. ” ‘Loose’ joint living, not related to blood or local ties, looks fresh to their eyes as a ‘friendly and closed’ new world.”

While Japan historically had a tradition of neighborhood and family ties, people started to place priority on protecting their privacy. Family members in a household tended to have individual rooms and tended to avoid contact with neighbors.

But young people may be starting to find such a privacy-first life wearisome.

The new communal “social apartments” differ from two similar predecessors for singles: studio or one-room apartments, and guesthouses, where several tenants live together in a house. The latter are on the increase after coming on the scene around 1990.

In Social Apartment Yomiuriland, many tenants can be found hanging out in the shared facilities in their pajamas or without makeup, like living in a family dwelling.

A message book dubbed the “hotel register” sits on a table in the living room. Entries include, “Mr. Taichi, thanks for lending me the batteries,” and, “Feel free to drink the bottles of juice I bought.”

They also include complaints such as, “Used tableware has been left out and not cleared up,” and, “I propose closing the living room door at night. The sound of conversation resonates through the corridor.” Tenants say most problems are solved soon after they are written in the book.

“The tenants are friends regardless of gender,” said resident Katsuyoshi Kuriya, 29, who works at a consultancy in Tokyo. “They will hang out with each other for a long time after they move away from this building.”