Japanese housing experts have a list of casual terms to describe the layouts of apartments and condominiums: kamaboko (fish paste), yokan-giri (sliced bean jelly), ta no ji (rice paddy ideograph) and chocolate bars. What these terms have in common is geometrical utility. All are rectangles that can be easily divided into smaller rectangles, thus conveying the floor plan of a collective housing unit, which is usually a big box cut up into smaller boxes. There’s nothing wrong with stressing efficient use of space, but in this case efficiency is more for the benefit of the developer or landlord than it is for the buyer or tenant. You can get more units out of a given chunk of air if that air is neatly carved up into boxes, every centimeter of which can be monetized regardless of its effect on other factors that give value to a residence.

The most expensive units in an apartment building are those on the ends or the corners, and without exception they’re always sold or rented the earliest due to the fact that they get more light and air. The typical apartment building is made up of rows of rectangles stacked on top of one another, with the genkan entrances usually positioned on the north side of the building and living-dining-kitchen areas positioned on the south side where they can receive sunlight all day. In many of these buildings, the front doors on a given floor all face a common outer walkway that is usually exposed to the elements and, depending on the building’s security system, the public. If there are also rooms on that end, the windows are pebbled or fogged to ensure privacy. To ensure extra security, they are also protected by metal slats or lattices. For these and other reasons the north side of the apartment tends to be dark since less ambient light gets in, and because the front door is always closed and rooms adjoining the genkan do not necessarily open up in a through-line with the rest of the apartment air does not pass readily all the way through the residence. So what you get is a layout that compromises on three aspects which give the residence value: privacy and security, availability of light and cross-ventilation.

Such compromises are unavoidable given the physical limitations of collective living, and can be alleviated by things like light wells and central courtyards, not to mention building designs that do away with box layouts altogether. All these ideas have been utilized in Japan, but the box became such a common design during the 1980s bubble era, when land prices were at their highest, that it remains the default apartment layout.

People who want to avoid the box would do better to go backward than forward. Postwar collective housing in Japan is defined by the danchi, the complexes built by the government housing organ, Nihon Jutaku Kodan, from the late 1950s to the 1980s. Kodan, as the organ was popularly called, modeled its housing on apartment blocks built by the Soviet government in the suburbs of Moscow and Leningrad. According to Takashi Hara in his book “Danchi no Jidai” (“The Age of Danchi”), the Kodan officials who brought the Soviet designs back to Japan were interested in the low-cost engineering method. However, at around the same time the administration of Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama normalized relations with the Soviets, and certain socialist ideals took hold in Japan owing to the ascendancy of labor unions, particularly among teachers. It was believed that true democratic principles sprung from a society where everyone’s material circumstances were the same, and the appeal of the danchi was its uniformity: concrete, gray, no higher than five floors, and all containing apartments of the exact same design. Though today danchi look bland and superannuated, particularly from the outside, in their day they were considered the height of modernity. Hara writes nostalgically about how classmates who lived in single-family houses envied him for living in a danchi, even though in most cases they were much smaller.

Compared to most apartments that have been built since the late ’80s, danchi provide more sunlight and ambient light, more privacy, and better cross-ventilation (important, since few families could afford air conditioners in those days). Ironically, the design feature that allowed for these advantages was a negative one: no elevators. Without elevators, there was no need for outer or even inner walkways connecting all apartments on a floor. Instead, stairwells were built between two columns of apartments, thus allowing for entrances to be positioned on the sides of the apartments and making it possible to have transparent windows with unobstructed views at both ends of the residential unit. These rooms could also open up directly on hallways that allow air to pass through the whole apartment.

Pre-’90s danchi have always been admired by danchi moe, geeks who like them for their retro style, but in recent years consumers have become more interested in danchi as private investors and real-estate companies buy up old units and remodel them for resale. The first danchi were small by today’s standards — 45-60 sq. meters—but fixed up in a modern style they are perfect for single people with limited incomes. In the suburbs, some realtors are buying up old units in danchi buildings and combining adjacent ones to create larger apartments of up to 100 sq. meters. In addition to better layouts and lower prices, the advantage that older danchi have over newer condominiums is lower management fees (elevator maintenance is a major expense) and, for those built after 1980, attractive landscaping, since danchi are meant to be communities and so Kodan provided lots of parks and playgrounds between housing blocks.

There are, of course, disadvantages, some of which are significant. One problem with older danchi is lack of fire escapes — in many buildings the only egress is the front door. The vast majority of danchi do not allow pets. Also some older structures may need rebuilding sooner rather than later, which could add to expense and inconvenience. And, of course, there are no elevators, but considering how little exercise some people get these days maybe that’s an advantage in disguise.

As with any apartment complex, location is key

As with all properties, danchi prices depend on size, age and distance from transportation. Apartments that have been recently remodeled will be more expensive than those that haven’t been, but it depends on who is doing the selling. Danchi sold by realtors or companies tend to be cheaper than those sold by owners, who tend to hold out — at least in the beginning — for higher prices. Also, the older the danchi, the smaller the floor space. In the Tokyo Metropolitan area, Tokyo (i.e., western Tokyo) and Kanagawa Prefecture danchi command higher prices — think ¥13 million to ¥15 million for 70 sq. meters. Chiba and Saitama prefectures are quite cheap, especially the farther you get from the capital. Remodeled danchi of that size built in the 1980s can be as little as ¥8 million, and those that haven’t been remodeled can be had for ¥6 million. Here are some examples taken randomly from a real-estate portal site.

· Saitama City, Saitama: 50 sq. meters, 1970, completely remodeled, 16 minutes from station, ¥6.3 million.

· Shirai, Chiba: 76 sq. meters, 1981, partly remodeled, 6 minutes from station, ¥6.9 million.

· Tama, Tokyo: 79 sq. meters, 1976, partially remodeled, 4 minutes from station, ¥13.8 million.

· Yokohama, Kanagawa: 80 sq. meters, 1983, partially remodeled, 12 minutes from station by bus. ¥16.8 million.

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