“Forest” Cohousing in Japan

Banners identify the community
Banners on the front of the Tokyo building identify the floors that the cohousing community occupies.

As cohousing increasingly becomes a global phenomenon, I've become curious to learn how different countries mold the concept to reflect their cultural, financial and regulatory realities. I learned that firsthand after I had a chance to see three cohousing projects in Japan recently.

After attending the Japanese Ecovillage Conference in Tokyo in late November 2007, I visited the 28-unit Kankanmori no Kaze Cohousing project in Tokyo with two friends, Giovanni Ciarlo from Huehuecoyotl Ecovillage in Mexico and Akemi Miyauchi, one of our wonderful conference hosts. Giovanni and I had given presentations about intentional communities at the conference, and we were eager to see similar projects in Japan. There appear to be relatively few intentional communities there, and so far perhaps only a total of four cohousing communities – depending on how one defines the term.

“Collective housing”

We had given
presentations about
intentional communities
at the conference
and were eager to see
similar projects in Japan.

We first learned of Kankanmori at the conference through presentations on what the Japanese call “collective housing” in Sweden, Denmark, the US and Japan. I was quite surprised to learn that the first example one conference presenter could find of collective housing in modern times was in Sweden before World War II, where single mothers organized shared apartment buildings with common kitchen-dining room combinations and shared childcare.

Kankanmori no Kaze, which means “The Winds of Kankanmori Forest,” is located in the 12-story Nippori Community House in the Arakawa section of Tokyo. The second and third floors contain the apartment units, common spaces and rooftop terraces of the multigenerational Kankanmori Cohousing community. However, the other floors are not part of the cohousing project. The ground floor has a restaurant, a nursery school and a medical services station staffed by nurses for residents and neighbors. The upper floors contain a nursing home and independent-living apartments for mobile seniors, and the top floor offers furo bath facilities that all residents can use.

Rice cookers
Labels and a row of large rice cookers are all that distinguish this kitchen from cohousing ones everywhere.

Kankanmori differs from most cohousing projects in the West in that it consists entirely of rental units. The studio and 2-bedroom units (no 1-bedroom units) range from 270 to 645 square feet, and they rent for approximately $640 to $1550 a month, plus about $65 a month for each unit’s share of utilities for the common spaces. The Kankanmori project was considered quite an experiment as its future residents gave their input into the design, and they provide the cleaning and maintenance of the common spaces – unusual for Japan.

A row of rice cookers

Giovanni, Akemi and I entered Kankanmori through an outdoor stairway to the second-floor entrance, where architect and project founder Hiroko Kimura gave us a tour of the common facilities. On the first cohousing floor we saw the common kitchen and pantry, which looked like every common house kitchen I’ve ever seen but for the row of rice cookers, a bamboo vegetable steamer and Japanese rather than English labeling on every package, bottle and can.

We toured the spacious dining room, the small living room off the dining room, and the outdoor dining terrace with a living wall of trellised vines on the balcony. We visited the children’s play area, bathroom, laundry and ironing rooms, the indoor-outdoor woodworking and crafts terrace. On the next floor of the cohousing complex, we saw the group’s office, library shelves, woodworking shop and guest room.

The Japanese had an ancient,
even sacred, sense of
connection to nature,
especially trees and forests.

Located on the roof, the flower garden and vegetable garden terraces had deep raised beds in wooden frames, wooden walkways and rows of plastic compost bins. The Japanese had an ancient, even sacred, sense of connection to nature, especially trees and forests. (They've preserved 66% of their island nation in forest, which is impressive, given the pressure to cut forests to get more arable land to feed a population of 127 million.) But nowadays most Japanese in urban areas live in small box-like apartments in concrete high-rises, with little connection to neighbors or nature. Land is so expensive that few housing developers include gardens or landscaping. So Kankanmori connection to neighbors and to nature once again is quite exceptional.

We just talk together until . . .

Hiroko Kimura and Giovanni Ciarlo
From left, Akemi Miyauchi, architect/founder Hiroko Kimura and Giovanni Ciarlo on Kankanmori’s rooftop terrace vegetable garden.

Ms. Kimura also showed us the community’s bulletin board systems for cooking and cleaning schedules and using the laundry facilities, and described how they worked. People write their names on small brightly colored circular magnets, which they place on a large wall calendar on the dates on which they’d like to cook and clean. In the laundry room they affix small paper tags to the washer or dryer they’re using to let the next person know how to dry their wet loads or where to put their dried loads before the next users put in their own. Ms. Kimura also described community meetings. She told us that when residents have differences, “we just talk together until we can come to agreement about what to do.”

The most moving part of the tour, for me, was that while I was 5,000 miles from North America, visiting a culture significantly different from my own, the common spaces and description of Kankanmori’s cooking rotation, laundry use and interpersonal process were so familiar. Giovanni and I told Ms. Kimura that the kinds of conflicts and topics she described having in their meetings came up at Huehuecoyotl and Earthaven. Whether in Mexico, Japan or North Carolina, communitarians seem to invoke the same set of living-together issues!

Before we left Kankanmori, Ms. Kimura invited us to participate in one of their common meals the next time we came to Tokyo. We said we’d love to!

Keyaki Tree
The Keyaki Tree, healthy and thriving in its new location in front of the collective housing community (photo (c) TeamNet, Inc.)

After the November 2007 Japanese Ecovillage Conference in Tokyo, I visited three “collective housing” projects in Tokyo with conference host Akemi Miyauchi. At that conference I first heard of what the Japanese call “collective housing” – high-density housing projects with various kinds of common space – but it sure sounded much like cohousing to me.

A few days after touring Kankanmori no Kaze Cohousing, we visited developer Tetsuro Kai, who at the ecovillage conference had described three beautifully designed and landscaped “collective housing” projects. We met in his offices at one of his projects: the 12-unit Kyodo no Mori (“Forest of Kyodo”) in the Setagawa district of Tokyo. Kyodo no Mori is three-story building on a tiny, one-fifth-acre lot, with vine-covered balconies, passive solar heating and cooling, solar-powered water pumping, and a constructed wetlands for graywater treatment on a rooftop terrace.

Units average about 970 sq. ft. each. Unlike Kankanmori, most units are not rented but owned by Kyodo no Mori’s residents. While common house features were not included in the building, residents do share outdoor space in a ground-floor courtyard, a small second-floor terrace and a rooftop garden which has a small barbeque grill surrounded by built-in seating for cook-outs. Completed in 2000, this project was described as Japan’s first cohousing community in Graham Meltzer’s 2005 book, Sustainable Communities.

Constructed Wetlands
The constructed wetlands on the rooftop terrace of Kyodo no Mori (photo (c) TeamNet, Inc.)

Serving the Needs of the Residents

Mr. Kai, a charming and gracious host, seemed inspired and passionate about his collective housing projects, and the participatory design process he developed for them. He and the architect had met with future residents of Kyodo no Mori to learn what they’d like in their ideal individual apartments. He and the architect met first with individual households, then with small groups of several households, and lastly with the whole group. A problem that concerned one household was considered an issue for the community as a whole, and solutions were applied to all residences. Mr. Kai realized that this process would not only help the project to serve the needs of its future residents better, but would also help create a sense of community before everyone moved in. Although similar to the participatory process used by the Danish architects who developed cohousing in the 1960s, Mr. Kai’s method is not based on the cohousing process and was created independently.

Mr. Kai also told us about the 15-unit Keyaki House project, completed in 2003, which we were about to see. The original owner of the property which is also only a fifth of an acre had a one-story traditional Japanese house and a relatively large garden on it. To reduce future inheritance taxes for his heirs, the owner sold part of the property to Mr. Kai for high-density housing development. Because Tokyo needs more housing, the city rewards urban landowners who sell their property for this purpose with inheritance tax breaks. The owner didn’t want to leave the site and so built a new two-story house for himself on the part of the property he retained. Mr. Kai suggested a win-win arrangement in which the older traditional one-story house became the meeting hall and common space for Keyaki House residents and himself, who together form a small community. Everyone shares the garden courtyard between the three buildings.

The owner’s favorite tree, which he had climbed as a boy, is an 80-foot Japanese Zelkova tree (Keyaki in Japanese). But it was in the wrong location for the site plan to work, so Mr. Kai’s company dug up the huge tree and moved it 30 feet!

Community Participation in Design

We saw a scale model of Mr. Kai’s newest project, Kaze no Mori (“Wind in the Forest”), which has the same kind of site-use arrangement with the original property owner as Keyaki House does. Like Kyodo no Mori, most residents of Kaze no Mori and Keyaki House had input into the design of their units through the participatory design process, and meet regularly to make community decisions.

A fishpond with large stepping stones led across to the stairway and the elevator to the apartments above.

When we arrived at Keyaki House, a short distance away, we saw the magnificent Keyaki tree, with a trunk diameter of about three feet. It was the centerpiece of the courtyard, nestled in the inner corner of the L-shaped building, with a network of lacy-looking open-mesh metal stairways and walkways curving around it. Next to the base of the Keyaki tree and under the overhead walkways was an enchanting sight: A traditional Japanese fishpond with large stepping stones led across to the stairway and the elevator to the apartments above.

Before you encounter concrete, metal, and high-technology, you move through a beautiful natural environment. On the second floor landing Mr. Kai pointed out how moveable screens of closely spaced wooden lattice strips on the outside of each unit’s wide balcony create a privacy gradient between each apartment and the wide curving metal walkways, which also serve as common space. We saw the rooftop vegetable garden on the four-story wing, and the tiny grassy park on the roof of the five-story wing, where community children sometimes put up tents and camp out in summer.

Evocative Names

The traditional Japanese love of nature, gardens, and especially forests and trees, was quite evident in the projects I visited as well as in similar projects described at the conference. I saw this not only in their vine-covered trellised balconies and tree-filled courtyards, but also in evocative names such as “Forest of Kyodo” and “Wind in the Forest” (and the name of the cohousing project we’d visited earlier, Kankanmori no Kaze, which means “Winds of Kankanmori Forest”).

What the projects I visited have in common are that residents gave input into the design, hold community meetings, and live in projects whose site plan and shared common space help nurture a sense of community. However, while Kankanmori has the same kinds of common house amenities as you’ll find in any cohousing community in North America, the other projects have minimal common space. And perhaps because Kankanmori has slightly smaller units and looks like any concrete high-rise anywhere, it seems more affordable. Mr. Kai’s three projects seems more upscale because of the somewhat larger units and the level of beauty and attention to detail in design and landscaping.

While Japanese people seem to love using English terms for concepts arising in the West (like “bioregional” and “ecovillage”), I wondered why the term for these communities in Japanese is “collective housing” rather than the English label “cohousing.” However, Hiroko Kimura, founder of Kankanmori, did describe the project as “Tokyo cohousing” when she presented at the first Japanese Ecovillage Conference in 2006.

A Cultural Difference

Also, while in cohousing community tours in North America residents routinely invite visitors to see the interiors of typical units, I got the impression that this will not happen in Japan because of a significant cultural difference – In Japan there is an important distinction made between the “public face” and “private face” and the fact that one’s home is an exceptionally private place. Hence, as gracious as our hosts were, we were shown only the courtyard and rooftops of Keyaki House, the courtyard and Mr. Kai’s offices at Kyodo no Mori, and the interior common spaces and rooftop terraces at Kankanmori.

Given the tendency in Japan to adopt and master useful innovations, I wouldn’t be surprised if cohousing takes off in a big way in this country. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future we’ll be meeting at an international cohousing conference . . . in Kyoto!

Restoring a Sense of Community in Japan
Author of two books about how building design and site design can help restore a sense of community in Japan, Tetsuro Kai offered what I considered a fascinating perspective on the reason modern Japanese, like their counterparts in the West, have lost so much sense of community, and what may restore it. He told us that in the past, in a place regularly hit by typhoons like southern Japan, tall sturdy trees were planted all around and between the traditional wooden homes to serve as protective windbreaks, and to offer cool shade in the summer. In hot weather people were outside in the shade, visiting with neighbors and maintaining their sense of community. (And in cold weather, going to the local furo bath also helped them get warm.) But modern Japanese homes are built of steel and concrete which can withstand typhoons easily, so they no longer plant windbreak trees. Houses and apartments are air-conditioned and centrally heated, and are equipped with TVs and wireless Internet and even their own small furo baths. People don’t have to leave their homes to stay warm or cool, pay their bills, shop or get the news, but leave mostly to commute to work or school. Because of modern technology and its unintended consequences, Japanese people have lost much of their connection to nature as well as to each other. Mr. Kai believes that site planning and building design that, like his projects, bring people into contact with nature, especially trees, and with one another can build community as well. —D.L.C.

Diana Leafe Christian is editor of a free online ecovillage newsletter, Ecovillages and Sustainable Communities. Author of Finding Community: How to Join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community and Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities, she was editor of Communities magazine for 14 years. Diana lives at Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina. www.DianaLeafeChristian.org.