History of Hiroshima : 1945-1995

History of Hiroshima: 1945-1995 (Part 3, Article 2)

Redevelopment of the Motomachi district

by Yoshifumi Fukushima, Staff Writer

Note: This article was originally published in 1995.

The path leading to the reconstruction of the city of Hiroshima, which had been devastated by the atomic bomb, involved long days of seeking the financial resources and the mental support needed for the task. During this period of hardship, the “Hiroshima Peace Memorial City Construction Law” offered a ray of hope both materially and psychologically. The law, which pledges “the pursuit of genuine and lasting peace” and guarantees that the central government shoulder a portion of the funds for reconstruction, has served as the foundation for the city's revival. While subsequent post-war generations have been increasingly unaware of the existence of this law, the eyes of the man who drafted the law remain fixed on Hiroshima.

One of the major projects in the reconstruction of the city was the effort to redevelop the Motomachi district. The so-called “A-bomb slum,” a residential area that was formerly crowded with homes, now boasts multistory apartment buildings. However, a new urban problem, the aging of the population in this downtown area, is growing at a quickening pace.

There were fervent efforts behind the enactment of the law which enabled Hiroshima to be reborn into a city of peace. Following this, the shadow of an aging population grew to loom over the major reconstruction project that was intended to move Hiroshima beyond the post-war era. The Chugoku Shimbun will examine the background of the city’s reconstruction.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial City Construction Plan imbued with quest for lasting peace

Dark shadow of aging looms over downtown, 17 years after redevelopment of “A-bomb slum”

An elderly volunteer, a member of a local community center, left the building carrying freshly-made boxed lunches. This volunteer, who takes part in a monthly meal delivery service for elderly people who live alone, was headed for high-rise apartment buildings within a stone's throw of the community center. The moment the first door opened, a man, 82, began to murmur without prompting from the volunteer: “Six months ago, my younger brother, who lives in another city, died suddenly. If I had died that way... I get no visitors, either. I'm really worried about it now.”

High-rise apartment buildings in the Motomachi district in Naka Ward, Hiroshima, are located downtown in this city of 1 million people, near the Hiroshima Prefectural Government and Hiroshima Castle. In this modern residential area with its soaring apartment buildings, where dilapidated houses from the post-war period once stood crammed closely together, the population is now rapidly aging. The rate at which this population is advancing in age has even reached the same level as that of a depopulated area located in the Chugoku Mountains. Such is the reality of the Motomachi district 17 years after the completion of the grand redevelopment project that spawned these large apartment buildings. People used to say that the post-war era in Hiroshima would not come to a close until this district was reborn.

Before the war, the Motomachi district formed the heart of Hiroshima's identity as a military city, with military facilities in this area standing shoulder to shoulder. After the atomic bombing, however, a shortage of housing led the district to become a public housing tract. People separated from their families due to the bombing, repatriates, and those suffering eviction in the wake of the city's land readjustment effort all flowed into the area one after another. The bank on the left side of the Ota River was crowded with illegal dwellings, prompting the area to be called the “A-bomb slum.” In existing residential areas, too, illegal buildings mushroomed. Clearing the slum was said to be the final, difficult undertaking for the reconstruction of the city.

A large number of the people who were evicted from the riverbank moved into the Prefectural Chojuen high-rise apartment buildings in Nishihakushima town in Naka Ward, adjacent to the Motomachi district. Yoshinobu Tanaka, 73, chair of the residents’ association in the South No. 1 building, was one of them. In 1955, he built a house with two rooms and a kitchen on the bank of the river. Prior to that, Mr. Tanaka had been living at his brother-in-law’s house, but when an order of eviction came for that residence, he and his brother-in-law’s family were forced to find new shelter. Because Mr. Tanaka worked for a lumber company, he was able to quickly acquire lumber to build a new house. “In that area I would hear the sound of hammering at night,” Mr. Tanaka said. “Then in the morning, when I woke up, a new house was standing.” Vacant space was gone in no time. These houses, though, were wooden shacks. When strong winds blew, the roofs gusted off; when flood waters rose, houses built on slopes washed away. They may have been called houses, but they were ramshackle affairs. “At that time, after the atomic bombing, there were no houses,” Mr. Tanaka explained. “I didn't want to live there on the bank, but I had no choice.”

The alleys that cut through the area were so narrow that the eaves of one house touched the eaves of another. There was no sewer system, either. The sanitation and living conditions were awful, while concerns rose over the danger of fire breaking out. “The Motomachi district was known as a poor part of town,” said Yoshito Furumoto, 77, who runs a retail business selling packaging material. “People abroad had even heard about it. Even I felt some disgust when I would look at the area from across the river. Those weren’t really houses we were living in.”

According to a survey conducted by Osaka City University in 1967 to assess actual conditions in the “A-bomb slum,” the area consisted of roughly 890 households with 3,000 residents, and one-third of the households were comprised of families that had experienced the atomic bombing. One out of five A-bomb survivors in the survey reported that they had suffered discrimination when they sought employment or a marriage partner. Still, as Mr. Tanaka and other recalled, “People in the area treated one another with warmth.” Even if they lacked money for living expenses or they had no rice, neighbors would step in to help. “We could even see what was left over in the bottom of a pot at other houses,” Mr. Furumoto said. No one tried to make themselves appear better off than they actually were. Mr. Furumoto continued, “In these big apartment buildings, we have no contact with each other once the doors are closed. There isn’t much communication among neighbors here.”

The redevelopment of the Motomachi district took ten years to complete, starting in 1969, and required the immense cost of approximately 26 billion yen. The illegal shelters and aging homes that once covered an area of 33 hectares are gone, replaced by the high-rise apartment buildings that stand on roughly 8 hectares. At the same time, the environment and the appearance of the area have been renewed.

However, the number of residents in the Motomachi district has now declined to about 6,900, more than 30 percent below the population of the area at its peak. Among these residents are roughly 1,900 senior citizens aged 65 or over. The percentage of the population that is now elderly is 27 percent, which is more than double the percentage of elderly in the city as a whole, at 12 percent. The percentage of 27 percent even matches the percentage of elderly in the village of Tsutsugason in the Yamagata District of Hiroshima Prefecture, which is located in the Chugoku Mountains. In addition, the number of students attending Motomachi Elementary School, found in the apartment complex area, stands at 290, just one-third of the number of elementary school students at the peak of enrollment. The Motomachi area, with its marked number of elderly residents, has aged to the point where it is already the sort of graying society envisioned by the Ministry of Health and Welfare for the year 2037, more than 40 years from now.

“This is literally a neighborhood of senior citizens,” said Tsuyoshi Koge, 88. Mr. Koge is one of the heads of the residents’ association and a Japanese repatriate from China who has lived in Motomachi since coming to the area two and a half years after the war ended. This trend toward a rising percentage of elderly residents has occurred as those evicted from their former homes became older while their children grew up and left the area. A significant number of elderly residents who live alone have died unnoticed. Last year, too, in a section with many smaller apartments for single residents, the body of an elderly woman was found two days after her death. Kazue Masuda, 63, who also heads the residents’ association, is careful to keep a close watch on the residents. “It’s vital to check their newspaper boxes,” she said. “If I didn’t, I’d feel anxious about them.”

Although residents would like to see younger people move into the housing complex, the fact that this is public housing means that the income ceiling is set low for applicants. As Mr. Koge remarked, “The people who end up moving in are mostly the elderly, the disabled, and the families of Japanese repatriates who were displaced in China due to the war.” Now, as the population ages, the number of residents who are infirm is growing, and activities conducted by the community have stagnated. The social welfare council in the Motomachi district began the monthly delivery service of boxed lunches two years ago as a volunteer activity for senior citizens, with the participants providing meals for elderly residents who live alone and find it difficult to go shopping.

When the cluster of high-rise apartment buildings was completed, local autonomies around Japan sent people, one after another, to inspect the complex as a model for their own redevelopment projects. The residential area that had been crammed with homes and symbolized the post-war period in the A-bombed city of Hiroshima was transformed into a citadel of modern architecture. But residents there say as one: “When I moved in, I never imagined that the area would become a community of senior citizens.”

Today, in preparation for an aging population, a plan to construct the first municipal housing complex that will include apartment buildings for both younger people and the elderly is being pursued in the Eba district in Naka Ward, Hiroshima. A social welfare facility for senior citizens will also be established as an annex to the complex. What, then, will be the place of the apartment buildings of the Motomachi district, conveniently located in this city of 1 million, when the “quality” of housing begins to be valued more, compared to the era in which the “supply” of housing was the higher priority? The Building Department of the Urban Development Bureau of Hiroshima City Hall stressed: “With a view to revitalizing the downtown area, we must swiftly formulate a plan for reviving the entire Motomachi district.” But a clear vision for this plan has not yet been developed.

[Brief History] Area redeveloped without compulsory evictions of illegal residents

It can be said that the reconstruction of Hiroshima after the atomic bombing would not have been achieved without the former military sites. Hiroshima’s Motomachi district, the “birthplace of the city,” was military land on which the Japan’s Second General Headquarters and other facilities were located. After the war, with an influx of population, the area came to be a residential district. Since June of 1946, the City of Hiroshima, Hiroshima Prefecture, and the Housing Control Association have pursued a succession of housing projects here, creating a major residential area.

In a 1.5-kilometer swath on the left bank of the Ota River between Aioi Bridge and Misasa Bridge, illegal buildings once huddled closely together, mainly on the riverbank and even in the planned site for a park. Illegal houses numbered 900 in 1960, and exceeded 1,000 around 1970. It was even said that the area concentrated the urban problems of the post-war period due to its poor living environment, as well as a large number of foreign residents and residents with low incomes.

In fiscal 1957 and 1968, prefectural and municipal medium-rise apartment buildings for 930 households were completed. But these efforts stopped short of clearing deteriorating homes from the area, and a new redevelopment plan was explored.

In March of 1969, it was decided that the “Residential Areas Improvement Act” would be applied to an area of about 33 hectares in the Motomachi district, and Hiroshima Prefecture and the City of Hiroshima jointly launched a major redevelopment project. By March of 1978, high-rise apartment buildings for 4,566 households, some of them as high as a 20-story building, were completed in Motomachi (which are run by the City of Hiroshima) and in Chojuen (which are run by Hiroshima Prefecture). These buildings are general public housing and improved housing for evictees.

This redevelopment project, which cleared the packed homes of the Motomachi district, whether or not these houses were legally constructed, ushered in a new living environment. Moreover, this redevelopment project was unprecedented in that it was carried out without compulsory evictions of residents from the broadly targeted area.

Article in the Chugoku Shimbun on August 6, 1967

Great fire in the Motomachi district: August 6 arrives after blaze, people burned from their homes

The great fire in the so-called “A-bomb slum” in the Motomachi district took place on July 27, 1967, ten days before the 22nd anniversary of the atomic bombing. The residents affected by the fire were evacuated to a nearby elementary school and greeted August 6 newly homeless. This article describes the day.

“My third son and my oldest son’s wife died due to the atomic bombing, and I lost my house. In 1939, a bar run by my second son burned down, and now the big fire has occurred.” A, 77, who lives alone now, wore an expression that suggested she has accepted her lot philosophically. Her husband died several years ago, and her children have not taken her into their homes. The Buddhist memorial tablets of her family members, who fell victim to the atomic bombing, were turned to ash. A, stretching out her legs on the wooden floor of the auditorium and burning moxa on her skin to soothe the pain of her neuralgia, seemed lonely. “I moved into the slum nine years ago,” she said. “Though I lived in a shack, I was able to see Hiroshima Castle through a grape vine trellis.”

Ten people, including B, have come to visit the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims and offer prayers on the morning of August 6. They appear to have lost everything as a result of the great fire that swept the slum. But they still had prayers for the A-bomb victims and wishes for peace.

Many A-bomb survivors, though, give vent to anger, like C, 52. “We don’t talk about August 6 here,” he said. “We don’t even have a place to live. So what is peace to us?”

Note on the usage of “slum”
The word “slum” is no longer used in newspapers in Japan, as this word has bred prejudice and is considered inappropriate. However, the term “A-bomb slum” is used in this article so that readers can understand the state of Hiroshima during the city’s period of reconstruction.

(Originally published on February 5, 1995)