NAGANO – In a couple of remote farming villages, residents refurbished the buildings of closed schools into apartments in the aftermath of recent natural disasters, providing homes for young families who would play an important role in revitalizing their underpopulated regions.
The apartments also allow seniors to stay in hometowns they’ve spent their whole lives in.
In the village of Sakae in Nagano Prefecture, a three-story building of a closed elementary school was turned into an apartment building this spring. The village was hit by a magnitude 6.7 earthquake the day after the March 11, 2011, quake-tsunami disaster devastated the northeast.
The school emblem remains on the walls and the high ceilings are typical of Japanese schools. But inside, the corridor is lined with doors resembling those in any apartment building.
“Things have been newly painted, but the handrails along the stairs and the patterns on the walls are just the same as they used to be,” said a 29-year-old assistant nurse who graduated from the school. She now lives in one of the apartments in the building with her husband and their 1-year-old daughter.
When old friends visited her new home, they would have a great time recalling things like, “This used to be the headmaster’s room,” she said.
Almost half the village’s 2,180 residents are 65 or older, and it has long been a challenging task not only to recover from the quake but also to attract younger people to settle in.
With few apartments in the village, the local government spent about ¥150 million to convert the closed school building into residential apartments.
Special attention was given to create spacious living rooms and bathrooms to create a cozy atmosphere for families. Rent for the two- to three-room apartments range from ¥35,000 to ¥46,000 a month.
Ayako Saito, 27, from Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, moved to Sakae, her husband’s hometown, after they married.
Unlike in big cities, there is no supermarket in the vicinity. Instead, neighbors drop by with fresh produce, she said.
When her husband took part in community activities to weed common areas, the local elderly heaped praise on him, saying that young people help to get so much more done.
Saito, expecting her first child next spring, said with a smile, “I’m looking forward to raising my children here.”
Due to the shrinking population of young people, Japan — particularly in its remote areas — has seen a number of public elementary and junior high schools being integrated and closed down.
According to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, there have been many cases in which closed school buildings are converted into community centers or other social facilities, but renovation into residences is a rare case.
Possible reasons could be due to differences in the floor plan and structure between school buildings and apartments, as well as difficulty to secure enough tenants in communities where the number of children has declined.
Koichi Ishizaka, a Tohoku University professor who specializes in residential planning, said, however, “They (school buildings) should be put to good use as much as possible.
“Schools are the symbols in communities,” and they are often located in the heart of the community with good accessibility, he points out. Locals have become attached too, he said.
Another school-turned-apartment example is the Kisawa district in the town of Naka, Tokushima Prefecture. Deep in the mountains, the 630-resident district was struck by a strong typhoon in 2004 that caused landslides, killing an elderly couple and washing away a bridge.
During the ordeal, town residents took refuge at a local junior high school.
“We were really grateful that (the school) was standing here, at this location,” said 51-year-old Taiko Ishimoto as she recalled the month-long evacuation she spent at her alma mater.
At one point during the evacuation, a resident casually commented it would be nice to continue living there. The idea eventually led to the decision to renovate the school into a town-run residence.
The residence features a unique “honeycomb” layout with hexagonal rooms and a sunny lobby. It is equipped with an elevator and the rooms are barrier-free for the convenience of the elderly residents. Thirteen households live there “like one family,” said Ishimoto.
Buses in the district are only available once every three to four hours, so Ishimoto would give other residents a ride whenever necessary. “The area here can be called ‘untrodden land,’ rather than countryside. But this is where I can feel most relaxed,” Ishimoto added.
Most young people leave the district to seek jobs elsewhere and no one knows if there will ever be new tenants for the flats.
But town officials are determined. “For the sake of the elderly people who have long been the pillars of Kisawa, it is our responsibility to create a community where they can live comfortably,” one official said.
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