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Future of Shrinking Japan: Remodeling apartments in bid to attract young people

Reiko Takemasa smiles inside her renovated apartment in the Kaihin New Town complex in Mihama Ward in the eastern Japan city of Chiba on Dec. 5, 2018. (Mainichi/Naoki Watanabe)

CHIBA -- Reiko Takemasa, 29, lives in an old apartment in the Kaihin New Town complex in Mihama Ward in the eastern Japan city of Chiba, which has been remodeled to match younger people's tastes. The ceiling is not covered by boards and a frame shaped like grating is exposed. Used ceiling boards and floor boards are reused for the walls. "I liked it when I first saw the property," she says.

About 750 households are living in 27 five-story buildings at a public apartment facility called Inage Kaigan 3-chome Danchi in the new town.

In early March, Takemasa learned of the apartment complex when the real estate company she is working for advertised the properties online.

Although the buildings are 50 years old, they were renovated into unique apartments. Even if tenants repaint or pound nails into walls, they are not required to return the apartments to their original state when they vacate them. The monthly rent for these apartments, each with a living-dining room plus a bedroom, is roughly 50,000 yen, lower than average. Moreover, the housing complex is surrounded by greenery. Takemasa moved into a fifth-floor unit in April the following year.

Before then, she had rented an ordinary house in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture. Her commuting time to her workplace in Meguro Ward, Tokyo, became 30 minutes longer at some 90 minutes, but she doesn't mind that.

"If you pursue quality of life, you don't have to live downtown," says Takemasa.

A room in a 48-year-old apartment block, about two kilometers away from Takemasa's apartment, has also been renovated into one that likely matches young people's tastes. More than 10 people participated in a preview event on Dec. 21. The kitchen, whose base color is red, drew attention from visitors.

Chiba Regional Revitalization Research, a nonprofit organization, played a leading role in remodeling the aging apartments into those intended for younger generations. The organization proposed the plan to a subsidiary of the Urban Renaissance Agency and the housing complex's management association.

A nonprofit organization comprising mainly teachers at Chiba University has been active since 2003. In a bid to attract younger people to the new town, the organization envisages a plan to remodel empty houses into share houses.

Chiba University professor emeritus Mineki Hattori, 77, who heads the nonprofit group, commented, "If value-added solutions attract younger people, the new town can be revived without being rebuilt."

-- New ideas to attract people back to aging park

At the Inage Kaigan 3-chome complex, the young generation launched efforts to revitalize the complex where residents are aging.

The complex's management association set up a study panel on renovating an aging park on its premises, popularly known as "Hasami Park." The number of visitors to the park had decreased as paint has peeled off benches and stone pavements broke.

The panel held a film viewing event and a barbeque party on a trial basis at the park, and participants expressed opinions that "the park will be more convenient if electric power and tap water is available," and that "the damaged ground should be repaired." Panel members will take these opinions into consideration in renovating the park.

Takayuki Shimizu, 40, leads the panel comprising 10 members in their 20s to 80s. He spent his childhood at a new town in the Saitama Prefecture city of Misato, north of Tokyo. At the time, most residents of the Misato new town were working generations. He is worried about the situation of the Inage Kaigan 3-chome housing complex all the more because he remembers the Misato complex filled with excitement. However, he is optimistic that if people in various generations utilize their wisdom and know-how to renovate the properties, it will attract people."

According to a survey conducted by the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, the vacancy rate of condominiums was a mere 2.4 percent of the national average as of the end of 2013. The figure falls to 1.3 percent for condominiums completed in 2010 or later, while the ratio for those built in 1969 and earlier came to 8.2 percent. The ratio for 25 percent of all condominiums surpassed 10 percent.

Many housing complexes in the Kaihin New Town were completed around 1970. The vacancy rate is higher on the upper floors in buildings without elevators. Hattori of Chiba Regional Revitalization Research says, "The figure varies from building to building, but I guess about 30 percent of the rooms, including those to let, are vacant."

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(This is part 5 and the last in a series)

The Mainichi Shimbun ran this series to pursue how people should live in Japan where the birthrate is declining and the population is aging. Those interviewed in this series were squarely facing these challenges. They hope that accepting changes and trying to find new values will lead to a bright future.

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