While Hokkaido has its own version of a Swedish village, Saitama has ‘Johnson Town’ a small neighbourhood of American-style homes built to house the US forces during the Korean War in the early 1950s.
Although much of Johnson Town’s atmosphere can be attributed to it’s re-development in the 1950s, the history of this enclave dates back even further.
This private neighbourhood is owned and managed by the Isono Corporation. Mr. Isono’s father purchased the land in the 1920s. The area was primarily agricultural land owned by silk mills who grew their own food to feed their female workers. The silk industry fell on hard times and had to sell off many of their agricultural holdings, and Mr. Isono Snr was one of the buyers.
In 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force established the Iruma Air Base nearby and built luxurious houses on Isono Snr’s land to house officers and their families.
At the end of WWII, the Farm Land Reform Law re-distributed large amounts of agricultural land and Isono Snr was only left with his small military housing estate. The nearby air field was acquired by the US armed forces in 1945 and named the “Johnson Air Base”.
During the occupation and when the Korean War broke out in 1950, this air base became the foremost base for the US forces. Many officers and military personnel and their families were brought over from the States. To address the housing shortage, the US forces sought the cooperation of surrounding landowners in Iruma to construct American-style homes to house their personnel. This is how the Isono’s housing estate became known as ‘Johnson Town’.
Below: The Johnson Air Base. Johnson Town may possibly have been referred to as Shinden Village.
During Japan’s occupation, several other American-style housing estates were developed in Japan, including Washington Heights which is now Yoyogi Park.
The USAF ended its use of Johnson Air Base in 1962 and no longer required as much off-base housing.
Many of the houses built in Iruma for American troops were built during Japan’s period of rapid economic growth and were built cheaply and quickly to cater to the sudden rise in demand. Their poor construction quality meant that they had a fairly short lifespan and deteriorated rapidly. Unfortunately many of the original American-style homes in Iruma were demolished and replaced with apartments, or apaato.
Johnson Town is the only place where you can find some of these original homes. Many had fallen into ruin until 1996 when Mr. Isono decided to renovate them and give new life to the neighbourhood. Naturally it would have been cheaper and quicker to demolish the homes and rebuild from scratch, but Mr. Isono did not want to lose the character of the area and enlisted the help of architect Osamu Watanabe to renovate and preserve the homes. Existing Japanese-style homes on the site were demolished and replaced with new homes designed to complement the older American ones.
When Mr. Isono completed his first new house in 2004, he set the rent at 1.5 times the local market rent. At first everyone thought he was crazy, but he soon began receiving inquiries from tenants across Japan and as far away as the UK.
Johnson Town has 24 original American houses, 35 modern ‘Heisei Houses’ and 7 kominka, accommodating up to 130 households. Many of the residents are creative types, such as photographers, designers, authors and musicians. Some have opened their own studios, cafes and shops in the estate. There are no fences between houses. This helps to create a real community atmosphere which is not something you would normally find elsewhere in Japan.
The Isono Corporation owns the land and buildings, so houses are only available to rent, not buy.
Johnson Town is located in Azumacho 1 Chome, Iruma City (), 40 minutes by train from Tokyo’s Ikebukuro Station.
Take the Seibu Ikebukuro Line from Ikebukuro Station to Irumashi Station (32 ~ 40 minutes direct). Johnson Town is 1.4km from Irumashi Station (about a 20 minute walk).
While there are shops and cafes that are open to the public, this is a privately owned residential area and Mr. Isono advises that taking photos is generally not permitted.
A tour through the area:
Nikkan Sports, May 1, 2013.