- The Life We Longed For: Danchi Housing and the Middle Class Dream in Postwar Japan by Laura Neitzel
Laura Neitzel’s The Life We Longed For: Danchi Housing and the Middle Class Dream in Postwar Japan is, as its title makes clear, a study of how the large, government-sponsored multifamily housing projects known in contemporary Japan as danchi were connected with images of what it meant to aspire to the middle class in Japan in the 1950s and 1960s. Because of its careful survey of sources ranging from government white papers to women’s magazines and novels written about “danchi life,” The Life We Longed For is more than simply a study of danchi projects and their social meaning. The book is also a through-going examination of diverse aspects of what “ middle class” meant in the high-growth decades in postwar Japan, examining urbanization, the emerging nuclear family, gender roles, material culture, and even “democracy.” As such, the book pulls together the work of social scientists and historians who have traced aspects of Japan’s famous middle-mass consciousness in a myriad of different subfields. If I had to pick a single English-language book with which to teach about Japanese society in the postwar years, The Life We Longed For would be it.
Neitzel explains at the outset that her intention is not to chronicle how life in danchi was actually lived. As she points out, only a small minority of Japanese families ever lived in danchi, and they were statistically distinct from the average. Rather, Neitzel seeks to give us a rich picture of how “danchi life” was understood in the public imagination, where these state-sponsored housing projects came to stand for all that was possible and, eventually, much that was wrong in Japan as the country changed dramatically between the 1950s and 1970s. The vast majority of danchi were built during an era of housing crisis, as the effects of the destruction of enormous residential areas during World War II were worsened by rapid urbanization and a growing population in the early postwar years. As Neitzel explains, at the end of 1945, Japan faced a loss of 4.2 million housing units (p. 4). Yet danchi were never intended to house the most needy.
Rather, from the outset, the danchi were understood to be spaces for a new middle class that would model virtues of modern living in clear contradistinction to what was seen as the unsanitary and feudal daily life of the prewar era. A requirement that prospective renters make an income five times the monthly rent eliminated most of the Japanese working class from [End Page 234] consideration for the lotteries that assigned new danchi housing, and the sheer lack of supply meant that, at one point, the ratio of applicants to available apartments was as high as 145 to 1 (pp. 36, 53). Predictably, Japanese families that did obtain danchi housing were much smaller than average, much better educated than average, and much more likely to have a primary breadwinner employed as a “salaryman” in a large firm. In fact, Neitzel says “danchi life was as distant as life in America to most Japanese people in the 1950s” (p. 63). She has helpfully included a series of statistical tables in an appendix that demonstrates as much (pp. 135–38).
Neitzel argues, however, that despite the fact that actual danchi life was not something most Japanese experienced, the danchi did live up to its promise as a symbol of what it meant to be middle class, democratic, and modern in Japan. Perhaps her most compelling argument is in her examination of how the design of the original danchi produced the spatial arrangements and vocabulary by which all Japanese apartments and condominiums are now known: the nDK or nLDK, formula, in which “n” represents the number of rooms other than the “dining kitchen” or, in larger apartments, “living dining kitchen.” The use of Roman letters indicating...