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Future of Shrinking Japan: The demise of Tokyo's aging 'new towns'

Yoshihiko Uchiyama pushes his wife's wheelchair to go shopping, in Chiba's Mihama Ward, on Dec. 17, 2018. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

CHIBA -- With his back braced against the December winds cutting through an apartment complex in the "Kaihin New Town" bedroom community in this city's Mihama Ward, 78-year-old Yoshihiko Uchiyama pushes a wheelchair. This is his morning routine.

Uchiyama, who worked at a company in the steel industry, moved into a rented apartment here east of Tokyo in 1974 with two rooms, plus a dining room and a kitchen. The complex was home to 4,700 apartments. Other men the same age would set out for work in Tokyo dressed in suits, and laughter echoed from the kindergarten where he sent his two children. The area was full of life. Uchiyama was filled with hope.

However, soon after, his wife, now 73, fell ill. While continuing to work, Uchiyama supported her as she was hospitalized or went to the doctor for treatment. Since retiring about 10 years ago, he has also performed household chores.

Now, some 40 years have passed since he moved into his apartment. The voices of children have decreased, the elementary schools have merged and he has started to see more ambulances. For the last few years, he has stopped attending the neighborhood end of the year rice cake-making event. Slowly, his connections to the community have weakened.

"It's fine as long as I'm still healthy, but ..." he said, revealing his feelings of uneasiness.

About 2 kilometers away from Uchiyama's complex, 77-year-old Koichi Nomura, who lives in a compound near the sea, experienced the death of a friend a year ago.

A man in his 70s who lived on the first floor of another building in the same complex suddenly passed away. They had worked together as directors of the management union of the apartments. It had been the norm for Nomura's wife to send him Japanese New Year dishes called "osechi," as the man was from Nagasaki Prefecture and was alone.

His demise happened at the end of last year. The man had not answered the knock on his door, and they had left the New Year delicacies on his balcony. The next day, they were still untouched. Nomura climbed into the apartment through the balcony and found the man collapsed on the floor.

For Nomura, Kaihin New Town was the home he had always dreamed of. The commuter rush to the art material production and sales company in Tokyo where he worked had been tough, but he did not complain. People had come from all over, and through events held at the apartment complex, neighborhood ties had deepened. The man who died alone had been one such resident.

"It could happen to anyone," Nomura said, having experienced it now first-hand.

-- Younger generations desire for more urban location

"Kaihin New Town" in Chiba's Mihama Ward was the name given to an area combining Inage and Kemigawa new towns, built on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay in the late 1960s.

In 2015, the area had a population of roughly 78,000. Including areas that locals also refer to as part of the new town, the number jumps to over 100,000. Only 35 minutes from Tokyo Station, the location is ideal. However, over the last 10 years, the population has fallen by 10 percent, and the percentage of elderly residents has reached around 30 percent. While local residents' associations and other organizations are working hard to promote engagement with the community and looking after those who live alone, many slip through the cracks.

As the younger generations head toward the heart of Tokyo, it has only made the aging of the area accelerate further.

Koki Katagiri, who was raised in Chiba and now lives in a minimalist apartment, is pictured in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, on Dec. 18, 2018. (Mainichi/Motohiro Negishi)

"It might be small, but I don't feel any inconvenience. I only sleep here," said Koki Katagiri, 21, of his newly built apartment in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward. It is less than 5 square meters, but it has a loft and the rent is relatively cheap for the area. The apartment is one of the small properties developed by real estate firm Spilytus Co., based in Tokyo's Minato Ward, which is gaining popularity among young people.

Katagiri was raised in Chuo Ward of the city of Chiba, not far from Kaihin New Town. He's even visited the complex when he worked for a moving company, but he could not imagine living there himself. Now, it is only a 10-minute bicycle ride to where he works as a cook.

"Necessary information and people gather in Tokyo," he said. "As long as I am close to my work, I'm happy with everything else being minimal."

But things are also changing. Some 15 years ago, Nomura's eldest daughter, 47, returned to the apartment complex in Kaihin New Town. After getting married, she had lived in an apartment in Tokyo, but she bought an apartment in a different building in her parents' complex so she could "hurry to their side at a moment's notice." It was there that she had a daughter. Her husband commutes from the complex to work in Tokyo.

Living closer to family is said to have increased after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster. However, Nomura's daughter has yet to participate in any local events. Even then, she said she feels "there is still something I can do down the road."

But why are new towns aging at such a rapid rate? Toshio Otsuki, a professor of urban planning at the University of Tokyo, explained, "The children of the residents who all came at once to live (in the complexes) have gradually moved away, and after that, no new residents have come to live there, leaving only aging couples behind. With no diversity in the use or layout of the apartments, the complexes are unable to accept a wide range of age groups."

-- Measures needed to revive areas

Last year, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism conducted a survey of the condition of residential apartment complexes across Japan. While roughly 60 percent of municipal governments felt that there were issues with the complexes, only some 20 percent had actually enacted measures to revive the areas.

Senri New Town in Osaka and others like it are being rebuilt, and there are also complexes where younger residents are growing in number.

"Senri is close to the center of Osaka and the airport, and is a special case where many people want to live there," said Otsuki. "In Tokyo's Tama New Town, a complex near the station was finally rebuilt after a long discussion." Otsuki suggests renovating and doing other work on the apartments to make them into places more attractive to young people.

Even Tokyo, which has grown from the accumulation of people from regional areas, is expected to tip into a decreasing population in 2025. What will the future of life in Japan's capital look like? Clues may be found in Kaihin New Town, where the ratio of elderly residents against the total population of a bedroom community is highest in the Tokyo metropolitan area, go about their daily lives.

(Japanese original by Shin Yasutaka, Jun Kaneko and Hiroshi Endo, City News Department and Buntaro Saito, Chiba Bureau)

This is Part 1 in a series.

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