KOBE — With the Japanese population aging rapidly and lifestyle changes sweeping the country, more and more elderly people are finding themselves without family support.
Living in a community where neighbors know and help each other is a nice idea — but it is an increasing rarity in today’s individual-oriented society.
Countering this pessimistic outlook, however, is Naoko Ishito, a Kobe-based consulting engineer for city and regional planning, who offers a solution to the problem: a collective house, or a cohouse as it is better known in the United States.
Collective houses, which started in Sweden and Denmark in the 1970s, are residential compounds where people share certain daily routines such as cooking and other household chores, while maintaining privacy within their own apartments.
A typical collective house will have commonly shared rooms and space along with a set of apartments for individual households.
The participation of individual residents in household chores is an important element of collective housing, according to Ishito, who has helped manage 10 collective houses during the past five years.
The Kobe Municipal Government and Hyogo Prefectural Government built those houses to accommodate mainly elderly survivors of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, which claimed over 6,400 lives and made tens of thousands of people homeless.
Ishito’s recent book “Collective Housing — Tadaima Funtochu” (“Collective Housing — In the Midst of Tackling”) is based on her experiences.
Although this kind of living arrangement is still at an early stage of development in Japan, she now firmly believes collective housing is an answer to the country’s aging society.
Indeed, the structures built in Hyogo after the quake were the first major collective housing projects undertaken by a local government.
“With more and more senior people unable to rely on their family members, they need to be looked after by their friends and neighbors,” Ishito said, adding that collective housing is one way to achieve this.
Ishito, whose career in city planning spans 32 years, first thought of the idea of collective housing while she worked as a volunteer helping survivors of the quake apply for prefabricated houses.
“I found so many elderly people feeling uneasy about moving into a new house,” she said. “Local governments were so preoccupied with building as many houses as possible in the shortest possible time that they seemed oblivious to those people’s concerns. I thought this was not right.”
And, when she heard a series of news stories about elderly quake survivors who died alone in prefabricated houses, she was convinced of the need to build collective houses to mitigate such sad occurrences.
After studying collective houses in Sweden, Ishito helped to set up a nonprofit group in September 1995 to promote the introduction of collective housing in the quake-hit area.
By then, Kobe municipal and Hyogo prefectural officials began to show interest in the project.
Kobe officials launched a joint study with Ishito’s group, and then Hyogo officials began their study. These moves eventually led to the construction of 10 public collective houses — two run by the city and eight by the prefecture — to accommodate 341 households.
Ishito, who also played a role in designing two of the houses, however, was not entirely happy with how the projects turned out.
In some of the houses built by the prefecture, inadequate design is preventing residents from getting the full benefits of collective housing, she said. For instance, residents tend to avoid using a common room because of expensive lighting and fueling costs.
“Such houses must have been designed by men who had never cared about the daily expenses of managing a household,” Ishito said.
Meanwhile, Ishito also underlines the role of a support group such as hers in maximizing the benefits of collective housing.
“Providing houses is not enough. Providing ‘soft’ housing support is indispensable,” Ishito said. “Our group has played this role.”
As most Japanese people have little idea about collective housing, Ishito’s group has been holding workshops for prospective residents, advising how to maximize the benefits of such unique facilities as a common kitchen space.
For those who have already moved in, the group has been organizing activities such as tea parties, luncheons and film shows to encourage residents to come out of their rooms and get to know each other.
Residents, for their part, have created their own council to manage their house. But when trouble and conflict arises among residents, Ishito and her group members try to help resolve them.
Eventually, however, Ishito said she hopes to see collective house residents become independent and capable of managing a house on their own.
To that end, the group has organized a series of information exchange sessions, inviting all the residents of the 10 public collective houses in the prefecture.
Because the group is rotating the venue for these sessions around the 10 houses, participants have a chance to visit other houses. Ishito’s group is now trying to encourage the residents to organize the event on their own.
She is also calling for the introduction of a barter currency unit, which cohouse residents pay and receive for asking and doing favors for each other.
The introduction of such a currency helps generate a spirit of mutual help and provides a cue for otherwise hesitant people to ask and offer help, she explained.
“At one house, a mutual help system has already been introduced,” Ishito said. “Living in such an environment is one of the merits of living in collective houses.”
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