My Old ‘New Town’ – Recollections Vol.3 (shot in 2012 - 2015, printed in 2016)
This series features color photographs that I shot in my hometown, Senri New Town located just north of Osaka City. The town was the first of the “New Towns”—large-scale residential satellite towns designed by the government throughout Japan in the ’60s. It was developed in the hilly, wooded land adjacent to the 1970 Osaka Expo - the first world exposition held in Asia.
With its posh single family homes, neat apartment complexes, parks, schools, shopping centers, and tree-lined roads, from the start Senri New Town attracted many young families with children. Fifty years later, however, the town’s population now has a high proportion of senior citizens and very few children. Scores of houses stand vacant. In order to regenerate the community, re-development is the major issue in New Towns everywhere. As I began returning to the town after my parents passed away a few years ago, I noticed this transformation and started to document the many faces of this aging “model city.”
In this series, I focus on capturing the broader, everyday look of the town. This includes the “pedestrians only” road marker standing next to a school zone sign, both erected beside a single family home; the election campaign poster board standing alone under a pile of autumn leaves; a group of seniors playing Gateball—a croquet-like sport—at a children’s playground; a girl reading a book while crossing a long footbridge overlooking high-rise office buildings; and shoppers roaming a gigantic outdoor mall while a handful of children play in small recreation space.
Each of my images looks ordinary at first glance. Yet they are somehow otherworldly and eerily quiet, even when the photograph reflects the seemingly mundane or teems with a crowd. There is also a sense of irony in the images, such as shopping malls whose modern architecture and sheer scale overshadow and overpower scattered human figures. It looks as if people are frozen while gazing with uncertainty into the unknown. As in my previous work, including of the New York City subway, I capture these images casually and spontaneously: a distant observer who does not interact with my subjects. These everyday scenes transform themselves into a unique expression and unexpectedly tell stories by themselves.
In the summer of 1971, my family moved into a newly constructed house in a corner of Senri New Town, just north of Osaka City. I still hold the childhood memory of how excited my entire family was when we moved into our new home. After all, it was our first real house after years of living in an apartment complex in downtown Osaka. And naturally, the prospect of our future in New Town thrilled us.
The New Towns—“cities of the future”—were large-scale residential satellite towns systematically constructed throughout Japan in the ’60s by the government. They were originally devised to meet the housings needs for Japan’s growing post-war population. Ours, Senri New Town, was the first of those New Towns, and it was developed in the hilly, bamboo-wooded land adjacent to the site of the 1970 Osaka Expo—the first world exposition held in Asia.
Senri New Town consisted of a dozen small communities. Each typically had tree-lined roads, parks, community shopping centers, schools, medical offices, and two different sections of residential housings, one with multi-unit residential buildings (Danchi), the other a single-family housing zone, such as the one where my family moved. There were also several train terminals. The biggest one, Senri-Chuo station, was about a 20 minute bus ride from our house, surrounded by department stores, multi-story shopping malls, and office buildings.
Just like the name suggests, everything in New Town was new, clean, and organized. I was awestruck: I had never seen such clean roads in my life. In our former neighborhood in downtown Osaka, roads were muddy and dirty. Although Senri New Town was also in Osaka prefecture, I viewed New Town as akin to the foreign cities that I saw in American TV sitcoms.
Our neighbors were very different, too. Senri New Town was filled with classic nuclear families—married couples in their thirties or forties, usually with two kids under 15. Most people dressed neatly and parents placed a high value on their children’s education. Everyone kept a bit of distance during neighborly interactions and they spoke with little or no Osaka accent. That, too, was starkly different from our old neighborhood, where people dressed less formally, were overtly friendly, and spoke with strong local accents.
Well, the original glow from our move dimmed. Gradually I found the people and environment too dull and monotonous. After my 18th birthday, I set out on my own to go to college in Tokyo. From there, I moved to New York City and I barely returned home for the next three decades. While I felt no real attachment to New Town, it was my parents’ one and only final home. They seemed content with spending their twilight years in this quiet, safe, and green-filled New Town. They lived for 40 years in the same house, until my father’s death in 2008 and mother’s in 2011.
It was during my parents’ final years that I began returning home frequently. Around that time, the one thing I noticed was New Town’s rapidly growing senior population and its lack of children. In my neighborhood, wherever I went, I seldom saw anyone but grey-haired people walking alone or riding in wheelchairs. When I got on the local bus, nearly all the passengers seemed over 70. In the nearby children’s playground, I saw no children but rather large groups of senior citizens playing gateball—a croquet-like sport. I knew that Japan’s declining fertility rate and rising life expectancy created a large senior population. But New Town seemed way too grey compared to other cities.
Where were the children? I wondered. When we moved there forty years earlier, children’s lively voices filled our neighborhood, but I did not hear them. Just a few steps away from our house, there was a public elementary school that proudly boasted the biggest schoolyard in the prefecture. But even there, I had seen only a few pupils. I learned that their student body shrunk from more than 2,000 in mid-1970s to less than 200 in 2008. The school became known for having the smallest number of pupils in the prefecture.
In 1970s, thousands of families with young children migrated to New Town. Just like me, those children grew up, left home, and never came back. But their parents stayed, just like mine. That was the cause of this peculiar generational polarization. It was a unique phenomenon of Japan’s New Towns overall and it seemed particularly evident in Senri New Town. Sadly, most of those parents’ generation reached old age in last decade and are now passing away at a rapid rate. The number of vacant houses without a living soul is increasing. By the time of my own mother’s passing, both of our next-door neighbors’ houses already stood vacant. Selling property in Senri seemed challenging, not least because of strict town regulations. The old apartment buildings (Danchi) in our neighborhood, which were mostly five-story walk-ups, were also showing more vacancy.
So, will Senri New Town eventually become a ghost town?
Maybe not. While my neighborhood was continuously losing its population, there have been many high-rise condos popping up around the Senri-Chuo station in last few years. These modern developments are now sought by families with small children recently relocating to Osaka from other cities. Because of its convenient commute to Osaka City’s main stations, as well as its safe, family-oriented environment, the area enjoys high popularity among the new child-rearing generation. Indeed, in the station mall, I saw more and more mothers with small children or pushing baby strollers, besides grey-haired men and women.
Even in my neighborhood, I saw the construction of new condo buildings following the demolition of Danchis. Some of the destroyed Danchis had stood right behind my junior high school. The area is now completely modernized with new, tall condo complexes that feature pergolas and paved courtyards. While looking up at these towering new buildings, I imagine that eventually all the Danchis will be completely reconstructed like this to attract new residents, if there is enough demand. After all, to keep its namesake, Senri New Town must remain forever “new.”