Les Maisons des Nouveaux Riches


Tokyo’s Setagaya-ku is unofficially the neighborhood of Japan’s nouveau riche. The ultra-rich baseball players, entertainers, and business tycoons live in the American-style mansions arranged in a semi-circle around Den-en Chofu, but if you’re part of the upper upper-middle classes who can afford to build a house within Tokyo’s city limits, chances are you’ll do it in the Setagaya-ku suburbs. Apartment complexes gravitate towards stations, so the land 20 to 25 minutes walking distance from a train stop tends to be snapped up for housing development. And since the only way to conveniently access these territories is a car, they make perfect parking spots for BMWs and Benzes.

The odd thing about Tokyo’s rich neighborhoods is that down the street from an enormous castle-like home is a decaying danchi apartment building. Subdivisions essentially don’t exist, and even the expensive houses do not share a common aesthetic theme. The first two houses up above look like they’ve been pulled from Lake Forest, Chicago and the set from Total Recall, respectively, but they sit right next to each other in Okamoto. Tokyo doesn’t have ghettos (maybe Okubo or Adachi-ku?), so there’s no equivalent to “White Flight” and I would assume that the desperation to find usable land requires the new rich to build near less preferable neighbors.

Explanations of the dis-uniformity may veer towards proclaiming a postmodern chaotic expansion of “individual tastes” instead of domineering neighborhood-based aesthetic requirements. But after riding around enough, it becomes clear that the styles reflect trend waves opposed to any kind of homeowner choice. Unpainted, unadorned concrete houses were apparently the vogue a couple of years ago, and these litter the entire Setagaya area. Architectural styles, therefore, do not reflect personal preferences as much as act as a date-stamp for the construction period. Old-style Japanese houses are almost all old, and no one seems to build anything new in a faux traditional style.

The most striking thing about these areas is that nothing looks more than a decade old, and at least in my immediate neighborhood, anything less than perfect gets demolished to make way for ultra-functional square units, like the house pictured above. In the American suburbs (at least in the South), the wealthy tend to use established cultural codes of traditional revival styles (Tudor, ranch, Georgian) to display pecuniary success, but in Japan, the equivalent houses tend to function as a trend-based symbolic capital where the code is written in terms of contemporary standards. The relatively large size of these houses alone projects a wealth impossible for standard-grade white-collar workers, but I have only found a handful of houses that appear to have a easily-understood aesthetic message. These houses certainly are not subdued, but they are hard to read. And quickly become “dated.”

The deeper issue at hand is that until recently, Japan lacked a widely-recognized “safe” set of traditional styles. There is all sorts of play with imported cultural and subcultural themes and strict adherence to current trends, but there’s nothing like what Polo Ralph Lauren and mock-Georgian brick homes are to America. I get the sense that losing the war de-legitimized anything too traditional — kimonos etc. became both reactionary and old-fashioned. But with fashion and architecture, there’s no middle passage between very old and brand new. (Vintage and subculture seem to be escaping rather than navigating.)

For a long time, following the very latest trend was a Japanese young person’s only strategy for avoiding isolation, but this instability of kids getting in over their heads — 14 year-olds wearing Comme des Garcons — eventually resolves in the establishment of a safe but plain set of cultural codes. In the fashion business at least, Muji and Uniqlo are filling in that open market, and I get the sense that the next two decades will see trend cycles continue to slow down and affect only those on the cutting edge like in the other major post-industrial societies. A no-growth economy and gathering cultural confidence should create demand for a New Traditional aesthetic. Let’s see how the market responds.

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

9 Responses

  1. porandojin Says:

    is there in Japan this thing with high ceiling? rooms in these houses seem 2,6 m high, in my country you can see that an apartment is really de luxe if it’s at least 3,2 m high …

  2. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    I like some of the contemporary Japanese housing. That last picture you post seems pretty nice to me. Give me something like that over a Mock Tudor with cheesy finished basement anyday.

    is there in Japan this thing with high ceiling?

    It’s expensive (and environmentally destructive) to heat all that air.

    In traditional machiya (町屋, or townhouse) the 土間 (doma, or room with earth floor) had a ceiling as high as the house itself. This is a long narrow room on one side of the house where the kitchen (台所 daidokoro) is located. But other rooms do not have high ceilings.

  3. farley Says:

    I live in Setagaya. Before I moved in here I had read “A Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Murakami, and, other than the fact that there really are birds that sound like a watch spring being tightened up, the thing that really struck me was the existence of all of those non-spaces between houses. As soon as you get into a residential area there are all these walls between the properties. I am not sure if this is more to ensure privacy, or to protect against all the gangs, robbers, peeping toms, and rapists that I read about so much in the papers. But often there will be two walls. One on either side of the property line, with this space between them, sometimes just a crack, sometimes filled with rusty bikes, impressive collections of cheapo umbrellas, or abandoned tv sets, sometimes big enough to walk down (as I have done in moments of poor judgment). In the book these areas are used as a metaphor (I’m not going to explore further here), but I wonder about the realities of these places. Like, I wonder what percentage of the useable residential land in Tokyo is in these nowhereland cracks, and why people treat land this way. I know there are alleys in every city, but the reality of Tokyo in everyday life, in communication, in culture, etc. and the actual landscape as experienced when exploring it physically are just so – – – divorced from each other.

  4. r. Says:

    david says: A no-growth economy and gathering cultural confidence should create demand for a New Traditional aesthetic. Let’s see how the market responds.

    and robert says: you really should pay a visit to the ‘new shitamachi’ areas of tokyo. they are so cool to be in it isn’t even funny! i’m moving to one of them this year, in fact! (of course with my odd facial hair, i’m sure my foreign neighbors will lynch me.)

  5. Chris_B Says:

    r: if you move to my shitamachi most of the resident gaijin are french so it may be OK.

  6. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    There was an article recently in one of the architecture/interior magazines on a French graphic designer who renovated an old house in Shitamachi. Looked pretty nice. How are the rents in Shitamachi?

  7. TB Says:

    and why shouldn’t 14 year olds wear Comme des Garcons?

  8. marxy Says:

    and why shouldn’t 14 year olds wear Comme des Garcons?

    Let’s say it this way: Comme de Garcons does NOT want 14 year-olds wearing CDG.

  9. Reality Bites Says:

    That’s why I like to call Uniqlo… UNICLONE.