Resident of last Dojunkai laments passing of '20s icons

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

“One of the members of the residents association once told me that we shouldn’t talk to journalists, but I have nothing to lose now.”

Helmut Rudolph was sitting on a low couch, surveying the interior of his tiny, 20-sq.-meter apartment. It seemed as though the lanky self-described German-New Zealander could reach out and touch the walls on all sides.

Despite these modest circumstances — and that warning about members of the fourth estate — Rudolph had invited The Japan Times to view his abode because it is in the last remaining example of a series of residential buildings that were once the pride of Japan’s architectural fraternity: the Dojunkai apartments.

Built between 1925 and ’34, the 13 Dojunkai apartment buildings in Tokyo and two in Yokohama were conceived and constructed in response to the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. In that disaster, which struck at 11:58 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 1, some 60 percent of the city’s then mainly wood-built houses were destroyed — and more than 100,000 lives were lost.

Consequently, the Dojunkai apartments — named after the public entity responsible for their construction — were made to last. They tended to be no more than four or five stories high, and comprised of “family-size” apartments like the one Rudolph rents — and, astonishing by today’s standards, even smaller single-person units on the top floors.

The blocks were all of steel-and-concrete construction, and were often designed as quadrangles around a central courtyard or in U-shaped formations that gave them increased resistance to lateral shaking from earthquakes.

Yet, although the 15 buildings survived subsequent natural and man-made disasters (including the carpet- and fire-bombing during World War II), they have over the last few decades proved no match for a far more tenacious phenomenon: the economics of property development.

The most famous Dojunkai building of them all was located in Tokyo’s swish central Shibuya Ward, where it once presented its low-rise, ivy-covered facade to a long stretch of leafy Omotesando boulevard. However, that iconic structure was demolished in 2003 to make way for a mega-development in the shape of Mori Building’s Omotesando Hills.

By then, though, many of the other Dojunkai apartments had already succumbed to wrecking balls and, come 2009, the second-last of them — in the Nippori district of Tokyo’s eastern Arakawa Ward — was leveled to make way for a high-rise apartment block.

And then there was one.

The Dojunkai building that Rudolph presently occupies — and where a hand-written sign at the front gate asks journalists to stay away — is named the Uenoshita Apartments and is located a five-minute walk from central Tokyo’s Ueno Station.

He ended up there via a circuitous route, having first come to Japan as an exchange student in the 1980s, when he stayed with a family in Chiba Prefecture. It turned out that the mother of that family — then in her 50s — had grown up in the Uenoshita building. Her father had been an employee of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and as such he had been granted use of one of the apartments it then owned.

After the war — during which the building survived the fire-bombing that razed much of the surrounding area — the family took up an option to purchase their apartment. But then, come 2007, the mother found she no longer had any use for the property, so she rented it to her former lodger, Rudolph, who was by then working as a psychoanalyst.

“I think I was definitely the first Caucasian to live in the building, but the other residents are all very accepting,” Rudolph explained, before admitting that at first there had been a small hiccup involving the delicate issue of laundry-hanging rights.

“There is a communal washing space on the fourth floor and a space for hanging washing on the roof,” Rudolph, who is fluent in Japanese, explained. “Initially I assumed I could hang my stuff there, but it turned out not to be the case. Eventually the woman next door sort of took me under her wing and showed me a spot downstairs where I could hang it.”

The prickliness of some of the residents and owners has no doubt been amplified in recent years as they have found themselves thrust to the center of an argument over whether the now rather decrepit building should be preserved.

Kaori Shimizu, from the Taito Ward Office, confirmed that the local government has no plan to designate the building as one of historical significance. That means developers are free to snap up apartments as they come on the market, and then, eventually, buy out the remainder in order to demolish the building and build something more profitable on the site.

Rudolph explained that the developers were already hard at work in the Uenoshita Apartments. Then, leading me up a tight concrete stairwell through the various floors, he took me to the fourth, where rubbish did nothing to douse the stench from that floor’s untended communal toilets.

“Most of this floor is now unoccupied because the units are owned by developers who are just waiting till they can buy out everything,” he said.

Other floors were in a slightly better condition, but they too were dirty and in dire need of a coat of paint. On one floor, a note implored the few remaining occupants to volunteer for maintenance duties.

The remaining owners are now in a difficult position. Although many probably feel more attached to the building than anyone — after all, some have owned the apartments in their families for multiple generations — they also stand to gain the most through buyouts that will turn their stake in a badly rundown apartment block into a considerable dollop of cash. Consequently, that aversion to the press likely stems from them not wanting to be asked where their allegiances will ultimately lie.

Rudolph withheld the name of his former host-mother — possibly because she, too, had recently accepted a buyout offer for his room. That was why he no longer had “anything to fear.” A week after speaking to The Japan Times, in late March, he moved out.

Asked what he had liked most about his five years at the Uenoshita Apartments, he said that as a New Zealander he had a soft spot for its wooden fixtures. “The window frames and other fittings in the apartment are made of real wood,” he said. “It’s not like that laminated chipboard and stuff you have these days.”

He also noted the building’s strength in earthquakes. “Things shake, but it’s just the same as in any building,” he said. Though he wasn’t there when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, 2011, he said he had no qualms about staying there that night despite some strong aftershocks.

But most of all, he said, he had enjoyed the connection with the past. “It’s nice to have lived in a building that is so important,” he said. “Yet at the same time it’s sad, because you know that although it is important, and although it does represent what was an entirely new beginning for Japan after the 1923 earthquake, it will eventually be demolished.”

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