Kanazawa’s Empty Spaces

Traditional Japanese house, vacant lot.
Kanazawa 56, 2016. [All photographs by Steven Seidenberg]

Japan’s secondary cities are facing population loss to the ever-expanding megacities of Tokyo and Osaka, and abandoned structures throughout the smaller cities’ domestic cores attest to this de-densification. Kanazawa is the second-largest (after Kyoto) of the urban centers that escaped firebombing during World War II, and here the demographic abandonment achieves dramatic emphasis. Neighborhoods built up with houses from radically disparate eras remain dotted by century-old structures now deserted and impossible to restore, leaving little choice but demolition. With no impetus toward new construction, these lots, once cleared, often stay vacant — paved over for parking, left to natural overgrowth, or colonized as yards and gardens by next-door residents.

In 2016 and 2017, Steven Seidenberg and I embarked on a joint exploration of these empty spaces. Our collaboration draws on photography (Seidenberg) and contemporary archaeology and historic preservation (me) to consider the characters, textures, histories, and affects of Kanazawa’s akiya (vacant houses) and akichi (vacant spaces).

Vacant lot with industrial buildings and scaffolding.
Kanazawa 55, 2016.


Kanazawa is in the Hokuriku region, on the northwest coast of the Sea of Japan. Established during the Muromachi period (1336–1573) on a defensive hill bordered by two rivers, it was and is a castle town (jōkamachi), and in 2010 was designated an “Important Cultural Landscape.” Within the city, four wards have been further designated under Japan’s historic preservation guidelines as “Important Preservation Districts for Groups of Traditional Buildings.”

With no impetus toward new construction, these lots often stay vacant — paved over for parking, left to natural overgrowth, or colonized as yards and gardens.

These preservation efforts mean that, in these districts at least, contemporary Kanazawa reflects its past as a fortified stronghold and cultural hub. As the town grew through the Sengoku period (1467–1615), military officers, bureaucrats, and religious leaders thronged there, while artisans and merchants were invited to provide services to the daimyo. By 1700, in the Edo period (1603–1867), there were 100,000 residents. 1 Incoming inhabitants received land grants according to occupation, creating neighborhood concentrations of specialists in different trades (e.g. coopers in Okemachi, swordsmiths in Kajimachi, stonecutters in Zimokucho). 2 The teahouse districts of Higashiyama-higashi and Kazue-machi were known for entertainment, and two temple districts, Utatsu sanroku and Teramachidai — today less tourist friendly, and somewhat desolate — were established in 1616 when religious buildings were moved to the city’s outskirts. 3Another notable ward is Nagamachi, where samurai families were stationed in the early 17th century in order to create a defensive ring around the city; here, the wide, deep gutters that still run along the streets and between residential properties are remnants of the waterways that served the castle and the samurai class. Such infrastructural traces, including carved gates, earthen walls, and other historic structures, have been protected under city ordinance in the four “Traditional Buildings” districts established since the turn of the last century. 4

Vacant lot between traditional wooden house and tall glass building.
Kanazawa 14, 2016.

Map of Kanazawa studded with many yellow "pin" markings.
Kanazawa akichi photographed by Steven Seidenberg. Map by Carolyn L. White.

Outside these four districts, however, the paradoxical prevalence of voids intensifies. Rural areas across Japan face the most significant akiya problems, comprising 8.49 million countryside structures, nearly fourteen percent of the nation’s 62.4 million homes. Further hardening the problems of population decline in Japanese cities and villages are people’s everyday considerations, such as a general preference for newly built residences, or a high tax rate on second homes that discourages relatives from keeping the family house when elder generations pass. 5 Those who do inherit may hesitate to sell, whether due to family conflict, or lack of knowledge about how to proceed, or a sense of guilt. 6 And so, even in Tokyo, one house out of every ten stands abandoned. 7 (The percentage in Kanazawa has not been documented.) The Japanese government and various local authorities have launched initiatives to draw buyers to akiya, including house banks where properties are offered at deep discounts with the stipulation that they must be inhabited. But bringing such homes up to code — or simply to a livable state — can be expensive. 8 Once a home has been abandoned, furthermore, it can be difficult to determine legal title. 9 The mapping project that I undertook in concert with Seidenberg’s photography documents the results of these historic, cultural, economic, and architectural forces as they converge in Kanazawa.


Seidenberg’s photographs depict this city as storied and imperiled, poised between decline and revival. Glass-and-steel towers press up against smaller-scale apartment buildings, and both encroach on traditional machiya — the wooden buildings that, were they located within the historic districts, would signify Kanazawa’s well-preserved historicity (Kanazawa 14, 2016). In these interstitial spaces, past meets present meets future past.

Casually claustrophobic, unyieldingly commonplace, the images are also subtly embodied.

Sometimes the ghosted features are direct, indexical (Kanazawa 9, 2017). Elsewhere, a building that will soon be gone ghosts itself in advance with its cast shadow (Kanazawa 10, 2016). The empty space in Kanazawa 56 (2016) is in the Teramachidai temple district; the adjacent traditional building with elaborate portico suggests what once stood here. Despite the real-estate market’s lax demand, some akichi will eventually be built on, and in this image the modern concrete house — like the scaffolding in Kanazawa 55 (2016) — suggests what will likely fill the lot.

Corrugated metal wall with outline of missing building that once abutted it.
Kanazawa 9, 2017.

Lot with industrial buildings, shadows.
Kanazawa 10, 2016.

Slideshow

The images are unyieldingly commonplace, casually claustrophobic. But they are also subtly embodied, as Seidenberg employs the tools of positional perspective to emphasize the vestigial spans of structures that once stood in these spots. In Kanazawa 59 (2016), the graveled space between the photographer and the wooden house is delimited by two concrete walls, and a large shadow crosses the foreground, suggesting the presence of another tall building just out of frame. In Kanazawa 61 (2016), a grassy lot for sale is centered, flanked by concrete-block structures but occupy most of the foreground, allowing the scale of the adjacent buildings to suggest the mass of the void itself. The lots repeat in various stages of abandonment or re-use (grassy, graveled, or paved, as in Kanawaza 12, 2016). This formal repetition underscores the prevalence of akichi, but the images do not evoke the tragic disintegration that tends to be highlighted in depictions of deindustrializing peripheries or depopulated urban cores in the U.S. Rather, these photographs remind us of the tensions between preservation and development, and of the ways in which such special district boundaries protect what is in — and do not protect what is out.

Notes
  1. James L. McClain, “Castle Towns and Daimyo Authority: Kanazawa in the Years 1583-1630,” The Journal of Japanese Studies vol. 29 no. 2 (1980), 268.
  2. McClain, “Castle Towns,” 149, 279.
  3. McClain, “Castle Towns,” 278.
  4. Agency for Cultural Affairs, Japanese Government, Policy of Cultural Affairs in Japan (Commissioner’s Secretariat, Tokyo, 2018). See also James L. McClain, Kanazawa: A Seventeenth-Century Japanese Castle Town (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982).
  5. Mari Shibata, “What Will Japan Do with All of Its Empty Ghost Homes?,” BBC Worklife, October 2019.
  6. Marco Amati and Gavin Parker, “Containing Tokyo’s Growth: The Effect of Land Ownership Changes On The Green Belt In Japan, 1943-1970,” in Past Matters: Heritage and Planning History — Case Studies from the Pacific Rim, edited by Caroline Miller and Michael Roche, (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Ltd., 2007), 172. See also NPO Corporation, “Unoccupied House/Vacant Management Center.”
  7. 平成30年住宅・土地統計調査住宅数概数集計 結果の概要 (Housing Office: Land Statistics Survey Summary of Vacant Houses, 2018).
  8. Tim Nelson, “In Japan, a Countryside Home Could Be Yours for Under $500,” Architectural Digest, June 29, 2021.
  9. GaijinPot, “Want to Live in an Abandoned House in Japan? Here’s Why it’s Not Really ‘Free,’” Japan Today, July 7, 2021.
Cite
Photographs by Steven Seidenberg; text by Carolyn L. White, “Kanazawa’s Empty Spaces,” Places Journal, December 2021. Accessed 02 Oct 2022. https://doi.org/10.22269/211215

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