lee chapman
Show Hide image

Out with the old: the ghost homes of Japan

Japan’s shrinking population has produced a different kind of housing problem.

I recently visited Aizuwakamatsu, a ­rural rice-farming region in northern Japan. The scenery was storybook Asia: precipitous hills, dense with greenery, dipping into narrow-cut rice paddies hedged by brooks and streams. At the onset of dusk one evening, our ­minivan rounded a hillside overlooking the Tadami River. A cluster of homes emerged through the mist, pastel green, pink and pale blue roofs huddled on a patch of land jutting from the shore. With the mountains mirrored in the water surrounding it, the village looked as though it were floating.

One of the local guides told me that the coloured roofs were made of tin or aluminium, covering or entirely replacing the original thatchwork, an icon of traditional Japanese architecture. Upkeep had become too expensive, and the risk of fires or snow collapses too much for elderly inhabitants to bear. But what is really sad, she said, is that no one wants to live here any more. Rural Japan is dying.

Japan boasts the highest female life expectancy (86.8 years) and the world’s greatest number of centenarians per capita (the country is home to 61,568 people aged 100 or older): signs of achievements in health care, diet and societal stability. But it is no net positive. The perfect storm of declining rates of marriage and birth – in 2014 only 1.001 million babies were born, the lowest number since data was first collected in 1899 – is such that Japan’s population is not just ageing faster than anywhere else, it is also disappearing.

One consequence is that the country has an estimated three million deserted homes, according to the Japan Times. The Nomura Research Institute projects that a fifth of all Japanese homes will be abandoned by 2023. Nationwide, residential land prices have plummeted for seven years straight.

The impact of Japan’s greying population has been most evident outside its main cities, where the young can’t find sustainable jobs, whether or not they want them, and so decamp in droves for urban centres.

The opposite is happening in Tokyo, where the population of the metropolitan area has increased for 19 consecutive years, growing by roughly 100,000 in 2014 to 38 million. New high-rise hotels and condos puncture the skyline ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, drawing moneyed young professionals and retirees, as well as free-spending tourists, mostly from China.

But beyond the capital’s glow lies a wasteland of abandoned houses, schools, resorts and theme parks. “The prime reason [abandoned buildings] are legion is because they are in the wrong place,” says Richard Hendy, whose blog Spike Japan documents the decline of the emptying villages and towns. “Emigration to the big cities is the biggest culprit,” he tells me about Japan’s hollowing out. “Absolute household numbers are not expected to peak for about a decade, as more and more people live alone or in one-or two-generation nuclear families with one or no children.”

Hendy adds: “You won’t find abandoned houses in my corner of [Tokyo].”

Cultural sensibilities may also be at play. Japan has long embraced the new over the old. The archetypal Japanese home consists of what westerners would consider transitory materials – wood, paper, straw – not built to last, partly because Japan is buffeted by natural disasters: earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and typhoons.

Every two decades the Grand Shrine at Ise, among Japan’s most sacred, gets demolished and reconfigured. This summer, the destruction of Tokyo’s beloved modernist Hotel Okura, featured in the Bond novel You Only Live Twice, drew howls of futile protest. A new high-rise with 21st-century amenities will take its place.

Many of the structures now abandoned to rot and ruin – “ghost homes”, in the phrase coined by the New York Times’s Tokyo correspondent Jonathan Soble, in an article this summer – were hastily erected during the postwar years, as Japan’s economic juggernaut took flight. A 30-year lifespan was the standard target. It would make more sense, both technologically and economically, to destroy and build anew, meeting the safety specs of the future and keeping the real-estate market humming.

The postwar imperative to build created a property tax that is today completely at odds with Japan’s real-estate crisis: the government will punish you if you demolish a house without building a new one, raising taxes on your empty land up to six times if you leave it that way.

There are marginal efforts under way to turn the emptied houses into living homes. In Kyoto, the “Machiya [traditional wooden merchant townhouses] Machizukuri Fund” has drawn increasing numbers of overseas investors, attracted by the weak yen and the chance to revive the dying art of a Unesco-blessed aesthetic.

Closer to Tokyo, I met Yoshihiro Takishita, a 72-year-old architect, this summer at his restored farmhouse in the seaside city of Kamakura. He has created a career out of dismantling, moving, restoring and modernising the materials and techniques of Japan’s rural builders. To date, he has completed over 30 projects, spanning four countries.

For Takishita, who discovered his love of traditional Japan with his adoptive father, the late American AP journalist John Roderick, the art of keeping old homes alive is more spiritual than practical. “My kind of a traditional Japanese farmhouse is like a Shinto shrine, a shrine to nature,” he says, as we survey the sea from his pitch-roofed balcony. “Young Japanese only want the cheap and the new. But there is a mystery to the spaces inside these homes that has a healing power. It’s very comforting.”

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US” (Palgrave Macmillan). He will be writing regularly from Japan for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 14 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy

Show Hide image

Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.