shrinking japan: kyoto’s machiya districts signal the demographic decline and the way forward

Kawai Bijitsu Orimono

Mr. Kawai and the author outside Kawai Bijutsu-Orimono’s Machiya townhouse atelier in Kyoto’s historic Nishijin Textile district (photo courtesy of Michiko Kawano)

Like many other industrialized nations, Japan is facing a demographic situation that has no precedence in history, as populations diminish and birthrates plummet, cities are shrinking. While the simple fact of shrinkage may seem inconsequential or perhaps even positive given current urban overcrowding and the high cost associated with living in cities, this demographic implosion is having a significant impact on Japan’s ability to maintain its competitiveness on a global scale. Cities are the economic engines of this country, producing a disproportionate amount of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), innovation, talent and employment. Urban areas are the crucible for vitality which reflects directly on the entire country’s standing in the international community. Competition aside, cities also provide for higher standards of living for the average citizen, thus city regions like Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto and Tokyo-Yokohama are magnets for people seeking to improve their social, educational or career prospects. In the Post-War period, these urban regions seemed to be growing exponentially without any possibility of slowing down, let alone shrinking. The reality today is that even the great megalopolis of Tokyo will peak in terms of population at around 35 million next year (2013) and begin to shrink at a gradually accelerating rate.

The effect of the declining population, while not initially apparent, will have impacts on both the physical environment and more importantly on the viability of communities. Over centuries, cities have allowed social and economic networks to flourish due to the richness of life afforded by close proximity. What began with providing for the basic needs for daily life, like food, clothing and shelter, has evolved into forms of art and beauty that networks of people nurtured. Entire neighbourhoods in Japanese cities catered to and continue to provide for everything from exquisite silk textiles to unique raw food cuisine, many of which have been exported around the world and consumed by gourmets and connoisseurs who have never before stepped foot in Japan. The built environment itself, supporting these industries and providing the medium through which goods could be developed, produced, stored and sold, is as important as the products themselves. The fragile urban fabric in Kyoto, for example, is under threat, as vernacular shop-houses are left empty and neglected due to onerous fire regulations, demolished or carved up, sold off due to high inheritance taxes, or re-purposed without regard to their historical importance. Recently, some of these regulations and taxes have been eased, but the additional factor of a declining population and demand can only mean these buildings will be further threatened by neglect.

While it may seem that the physical environment of cities and global competitiveness are not necessarily directly linked, it’s apt to consider the fate of shrinking cities that have been left to wither away. In the United States, the city of Detroit has been shrinking for decades due to disinvestment in the face of global competition in the automotive industry. This literally one-industry city lost much of its manufacturing base in parallel with the built urban fabric as public buildings, housing and entire neighbourhoods were abandoned and fell into disrepair. Reliance on a once highly successful, but also highly centralized industry proved to be the death knell for Detroit because manufacturing became cheaper to carry out overseas. The city itself was organized around the automobile, with large factories eventually relocated away from the city centre to a more suburban context which could be accessed easily via freeways. Structurally, the city became segregated with the inner city left to the poorer population, and the rings of suburbs the domain of the affluent and middle-class. With the collapse of the automotive industry, the city’s population continued to drop precipitously as anyone with the means to escape fled to other cities. The lesson of Detroit should be viewed as a deterrent towards physical and economic centralization. The one certainty in cities is that change is inevitable, and cities should be able to adapt to new circumstances, whether economic or otherwise. Just as in nature, when disease runs rampant, a homogenous forest or crop tends to get devastated while diversity allows for the survival of the fittest.

Nearly 28,000 vernacular Machiya shop-houses still stand in Kyoto, within several contiguous districts. Certain neighbourhoods catered to a specific market, such as Nishijin which focused on the textile industry and silk production. While silk producers tended to be concentrated in an area to benefit from a collaborative yet competitive environment, the industry was decentralized and individual ateliers focused on different aspects of silk textile production (such as Noh kimonos, obis, Imperial regalia etc.). The physical proximity allowed ateliers to exchange information from each other as techniques for perfecting weaving were being imported from China and Europe, especially during the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912).

Nishijin Storehouse

A former storehouse at the back of Kyoyubadokoro Seiya in Nishihjin was ideal for storing silk but now stands empty

The level of craftsmanship in the products is reflected in the detailing of the buildings themselves, still apparent in Kyoto and some other cities such as Kanazawa and Ise-shi. Vernacular Machiya housing, known in Kyoto as Kyo-Machiya, or capital shop-houses, encapsulate the skill and attention to detail that the Japanese are renowned for the world over. Intricate wood joinery, lattice detailing, and layered spaces create interiors that respond to the particular climate of Kyoto with its hot, humid summers and frigid, dry winters. Flexible layouts with screens allow for a modulation of light and temperature, and a blurring of interior and exterior to take advantage of the shoulder seasons (fall and spring) when the moderate temperature can be enjoyed. These buildings are not just more sustainable in the long-term, but also flexible enough to accommodate multiple uses over the course of their functional life. Many surviving Machiya today have been re-purposed as restaurants or shops to take advantage of the shift from textile production, for example, to the service and tourism industry. Recently, repurposing these buildings as incubators for start-up companies in high-tech has been proposed and implemented successfully.

Kyoubadokoro Seiya

The urban face of Kyoyubadokoro Seiya, a 160 year-old Machiya turned tofu skin restaurant in Nishjin, Kyoto

Many feel that these older structures are inconvenient or difficult to live in because of the extreme temperatures of the city. The Japanese tend to favour newer buildings with modern amenities as city life has become busier; time-saving automation and better insulated contemporary housing offers comfort that Machiya are perceived as ill-equipped to provide. This is only partially true as older buildings can be retro-fitted with the trappings of convenience and used just as comfortably as modern buildings are. Certainly, the initial costs for renovation may be higher but in the long-term, these buildings would retain or appreciate in value while saving their occupants energy and expenses, especially in the shoulder seasons. As an energy crisis looms in Japan and in other parts of the world, it’s critical that buildings, which account for a significant portion of energy consumption, be considered more carefully. Also equally importantly, Machiya are the building-blocks of cohesive communities that encourage innovation, entrepreneurship and economic inter-dependency.

While on a trip to Kyoto in early September, I visited the historic Nishijin Textile District to see for myself the state of the shop-house district and speak to some of the residents there. I experienced first-hand the level of craftsmanship and care that I had only peripherally known from books and from seeing the occasionally kimono-clad lady. A few wrong turns left us at the edge of the neighbourhood in front of a beautiful Machiya with a large family crest emblazoned on the “noren” shop-front curtain. The establishment turned out to be the century-old atelier, Kawai Bijutsu-Orimono. None other than Mr. Kawai himself was at the front of the shop sitting on his tatami mats, inspecting a delivery of raw silk. The meeting was fortuitous as we were invited inside to see the exquisite array of Obi’s displayed further in, and later were explained the art of silk weaving which Mr. Kawai’s Uncle had passed down to him and his elder brother. The Kawai’s have maintained a successful Obi-making business and diversified their products to fill the niche demand for Noh costumes, Festival props, and Religious regalia. Customers have been loyal over the years but the demand for traditional garments has been on the decline for some time and the time is ripe of reinvention. Mr. Kawai mentioned the ascendence of Japanese companies like Uniqlo which have used local and foreign talent, along with the proximity of cheaper labor in China to develop affordable clothing for the masses. It seems that the tradition of craftsmanship has been overshadowed by the efficiency of large-scale production.

Kawai Showroom

The interiors of the Kawai Bijutsu Orimono Machiya showroom with the exquisite hand-loomed silk Obi’s displayed

After this sobering thought, Mr. Kawai offered to take us to his elder brother’s home just a few doors down and opposite from his atelier. A long wall of stained pine boards indicated the property, punctuated with a gateway on one side. The gateway opened onto a garden path with a small bench for waiting guests, across from which stood the entrance to a traditional tea room. The sequence of spaces was a well-orchestrated play of indoor and outdoor, one leading to another taking us deeper into the Oku, or heart of the Machiya. Each transition was marked with subtle vertical shifts, a shoe-removing stone outside the tea room, tatami mats in the tea room, a step down into the engawa corridor space, and changes in materiality to indicate the function of the space. Each detail had been considered, faithfully restored and embellished upon, creating a gesamutkunstwerke (a complete work of art) which resonated beautifully in this historic neighbourhood. This was the first time in my life that I had experienced a real ‘living’ Machiya with residents embracing a centuries-old way of life. Of course, I had walked through other Machiya neighbourhoods in Kyoto before, but they were no longer used the way this one was. Typically, in areas within the city centre, housing and ateliers had long been re-purposed as restaurants, bars and spaces to cater to the droves of tourists seeking a glimpse of historic Japan. The process of gentrification has left these, at one time living, districts as empty shells with just the facade as an indicator of their storied history.

Interior and exterior are blurred with layered screens and spaces at the Kawai home

Kyoto’s Machiya districts are the canary in the coal mine for Japan, an indicator of how urban neighbourhoods may become as populations continue to slump into the 21st Century. The demographic shift is a time for reflection and reassessment of values related to growth at any cost, corporate business, and the culture of the new in favour of the old. This is also a time to re-value Japanese craftsmanship and encourage this tradition to be a stimulus for innovation. The future vitality of urban Japan and the competitiveness of the country as a whole depends on these urban spaces and the people who form the networks of skilled trade within them. The advantage that Kyoto has over Detroit is that its urban fabric is still intact in many areas and due to the decentralization of various industries, studios and ateliers, there is hope that these spaces can be the locus for a renaissance of Japanese culture and economy.

Copyright © 2010 Shabbar Sagarwala, All Rights Reserved. Any unauthorised commercial reproduction or distribution in part or in full will constitute an infringement of copyright. Permission granted to reproduce for educational use only.