Former US military houses in Japan still popular among artists, musicians
After the World War II ended, large family homes with lawns were built near Yokota Air Base in Fussa, Tokyo, and elsewhere for U.S. armed servicemembers and their dependents. At some point, such residences — which came to be known as "U.S. military houses" — numbered as many as 2,000 in Fussa alone.
In the 1970s, musicians and artists who appreciated their nostalgic, foreign feel moved in and transformed them into creative spaces.
Many of the buildings were torn down after they became dilapidated, but the ones that still remain have a striking presence.
"There were many U.S. military families around. You felt like you were practically in the United States," Yasuko Morishige said.
Morishige, 80, lives along Japanese national highway Route 16 and manages Paramount George's, an insurance agency started by her late husband. She recalled when the couple first started offering their services to U.S. soldiers.
With the beginning of the Korean War in 1950, the U.S. military brought troops and their dependents to the area for long-term stays, creating a need for more residences. The lodgings at Yokota Air Base were insufficient to meet the demand, so landowners nearby converted farmland into residential plots that they rented out.
And with that, U.S. military houses were born.
Most of the houses are single-story wooden dwellings with three bedrooms and a combined living, dining and kitchen area. The living rooms and kitchens are spacious, and the bathrooms have showers with hot water and toilets with plumbing, both unusual features for Japan in those days. Large American cars such as Cadillacs and Chevrolets parked outside became a common sight.
Morishige developed personal ties with her customers, bringing her family along when she visited their homes. What she remembers best is how Christmas was celebrated. Every home had a giant tree, and all the girls in the families wore lovely dresses. The centerpiece of the Christmas feast was a roast turkey weighing 10 kilograms or more.
"You could sense the affluent lifestyle they were accustomed to in the United States. For me, it was like a dream," she said. Five decades later, Morishige still cherishes those holiday memories.
Toward the end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s, there was ample residential space on the premises of the bases. Many servicemembers started returning home, creating vacancies. Around this time, young musicians and artists enamored with American culture began settling in.
Ryu Murakami's novel "Kagirinaku tomei ni chikai buru" (Almost Transparent Blue) — which won the Akutagawa Prize in 1976 — tells the story of young people living in military houses and lapsing into drug addiction. Fussa and places like it were featured in popular works of art and music of the time.
Katsuya Tomita, 70-year-old chairman of the Fussa Musashino Shopping Street Cooperative Association, worked in the music industry at the time.
"Aspiring artists gathered in the area hoping to make a name for themselves in Fussa and then hitting it big time," he recalled.
With the collapse of the bubble economy, many decrepit houses were demolished. Only 100 such structures still stand in Fussa.
Tomita has recently been working to revitalize the region by making use of the houses. With help from the city government, he leased a house along Route 16 and turned it into a community center dedicated to promoting local culture.
"These buildings are sometimes referred to as 'monuments to Japan's defeat under the U.S. occupation,' " he said. "Even so, they're a piece of Fussa's history that shouldn't be left to rot."
Elsewhere, a newcomer has opted to reuse one of the houses as an office.
Satoshi Yanagisawa, a 50-year-old designer from Mizuho, Tokyo, leased one of the former residences three years ago and converted it into a design studio.
"One of the charms of these houses is the fact that they can be redone to fit the needs of the lessee," he explained.
The designer has painted the kitchen walls red and the living room walls emerald green. He placed an oversized refrigerator and washing machine — symbols of affluence in the old days — using their retro looks as props in his photography studio. From time to time, the garden is used to host barbecues with his friends.
Back when Yanagisawa worked in the center of Tokyo, he was beleaguered by the stress of working in a cramped office and having to ride packed trains every day.
"Once I experienced the open freedom of these houses, I knew I could never work anywhere else," he said, with a view of a white picket fence, green lawns and expansive blue skies behind him.