Shuwa
Shuwa Yayoicho Residence(Photo: Shuwa Residence Encyclopedia)

Retro Tokyo: these Euro-style Shuwa Residences are the it apartments of the ’60s

We talk to Kanako Yajima and Haco, two Shuwa fans documenting the history and design of these retro buildings

Tabea Greuner
Written by
Tabea Greuner
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When strolling the streets of Tokyo, you may have encountered some surprisingly Mediterranean-looking apartment buildings with a distinctive rough white exterior. Known as Shuwa Residences, these old-fashioned buildings were considered the height of luxury when they were put up in the 1960s and '70s.

We sat down with Kanako Yajima, CEO of apartment renovation company Style & Deco, and Shuwa enthusiast Haco to find out more about these unusual apartments. This interview has been edited for clarity.

How would you describe a Shuwa Residence to someone who has never heard of them?
Kanako Yajima (Photo: Keisuke Tanigawa)

How would you describe a Shuwa Residence to someone who has never heard of them?

Kanako Yajima: ‘Signature features of a Shuwa Residence are its blue roof, white rough walls with different textures, and iron fences. On top of that, the arrangement of the floor tiles is adorable, especially of those Shuwa Residences built in the 1960s and 1970s.’

‘There are 134 Shuwa Residences [across Japan], but 30 percent are concentrated in [Tokyo’s] Shibuya and Minato wards. Even though they are all a bit different, you can easily recognise them when visiting these areas.’

Shuwa Residences are all part of a series, so why does each one look so different?
Shuwa Fujimicho Residence (Photo: Shuwa Residence Encyclopedia)

Shuwa Residences are all part of a series, so why does each one look so different?

Haco: ‘Different construction companies and carpenters were hired. During my research, I learned that there was a rough guideline regarding the exterior design, but carpenters were allowed to implement their own ideas.’

Yajima: ‘When I talked to someone who was involved in the design process of a Shuwa Residence during the 1960s, I learned that design decisions were also based on the area the building was meant to be built in. Research was conducted on the neighbourhood's history in order to decide which exterior design would match the area the most.’

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What inspired company founder Shigeru Kobayashi to build these unique apartments?
Shuwa Yao Yokoen Residence in Osaka (Photo: Shuwa Residence Encyclopedia)

What inspired company founder Shigeru Kobayashi to build these unique apartments?

Yajima: ‘I heard that he was interested in various buildings such as a social building with many restaurants in the prime location of Ginza, which was established around that time.’

Haco: ‘Due to the 1964 Summer Olympics [in Tokyo], the demand for condominiums increased and Kobayashi thought it would be profitable.’

What kind of people were these Shuwa Residences built for?
Shuwa Gaien Residence (Photo: Satoshi Kaneko)

What kind of people were these Shuwa Residences built for?

Yajima: ‘The first Shuwa Residence was built for wealthy people, like doctors and entertainers. After the 1964 Summer Olympics, however, Japan entered a recession … Therefore, new Shuwa Residences were built with the idea that common people should be able to purchase a Shuwa apartment as well. This concept was realised in 1967 with the completion of the Shuwa Gaien Residence. It was the first time that people could purchase an apartment with a loan – which makes it a building with great historical significance.’

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Is there a reason behind the European styling?
Shuwa Ebisu Residence (Photo: Shuwa Residence Encyclopedia)

Is there a reason behind the European styling?

Haco: ‘First of all, with the construction of the Shuwa Gaien Residence in 1967, apartments were more affordable for company employees. Wives were usually the decision makers in the families, therefore the exterior of the building [was important] … Designers took inspiration from buildings in Germany and Sweden.’

Yajima: ‘At that time, Japanese people were attracted to foreign lifestyles. When I talked to people who actually lived in Shuwa Residences in the 1960s, they told me that they had worked overseas and for them, it felt like a European lifestyle had been established in Japan.’

What does it feel like to live in a Shuwa apartment?
Shuwa Okusawa Residence (Photo: Shuwa Residence Encyclopedia)

What does it feel like to live in a Shuwa apartment?

Yajima: ‘I currently live in a Shuwa Residence. Compared to the place I lived before, Shuwa residents cherish their home, which gives me a sense of security. When my kids were little, they played with other children in the house and I casually talked to other residents. There is a sense of security when you love the same thing, and people open up faster.’

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What kind of people rent or purchase an apartment in a Shuwa Residence? I read in your book that some of the residents are creatives, is that the majority?
Shuwa Sangubashi Residence (Photo: Shuwa Residence Encyclopedia)

What kind of people rent or purchase an apartment in a Shuwa Residence? I read in your book that some of the residents are creatives, is that the majority?

Yajima: ‘In proportion, there are many creative people. In older Shuwa Residences, for example, many residents are involved in design, and it’s a great feeling when you’re surrounded by people who’re working in similar creative professions.’

Haco: ‘I think it depends on the location … Many families live in Shuwa Residences in the outskirts of Tokyo as apartments are very cheap.’

Is there a lot of demand for Shuwa apartments these days?
Shuwa Toyocho Residence & Shuwa Toyocho Residence Nr 3 (Photo: Shuwa Residence Encyclopedia)

Is there a lot of demand for Shuwa apartments these days?

Yajima: ‘I am a real estate agent and I often sell and rent Shuwa Residences. There’s actually a lot of demand as Shuwa Residences are in good locations. Unlike in European countries, old properties in Japan are not valued and Shuwa Residence apartments are very cheap. Even young people are able to purchase an apartment.’

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Are there any disadvantages of living in a Shuwa apartment?
Shuwa Higashi-Nakano Residence (Photo: Shuwa Residence Encyclopedia)

Are there any disadvantages of living in a Shuwa apartment?

Yajima: ‘Since Shuwa Residences are old, there are only a few that are earthquake proof. They were also built without any insulation, so it can be very cold in the winter. During the renovation process of my own apartment, I added lots of insulation.’

Among the many Shuwa Residences in Tokyo, which is your favourite?
Shuwa Sangubashi Residence (Photo: Shuwa Residence Encyclopedia)

Among the many Shuwa Residences in Tokyo, which is your favourite?

Haco: ‘That’s a difficult question. Many residents of the Shuwa Sangubashi Residence, for example, are aiming to preserve the building’s original state. [Built in 1968,] it hasn’t changed much over the past decades. Only individual broken tiles have been replaced and the decorative blue vinyl roof in the entrance area always gets replaced with the exact same type when it’s getting old. I think the Shuwa Sangubashi Residence is very special.’

Yajima: ‘As Haco says, choosing only one residence is difficult. However, I think my favourite is the Shuwa Gaien Residence, the first Shuwa Residence with a blue roof and a white rough wall [built in 1967] … At the time of completion, I heard that there was a vertical signboard with the slogan ‘Welcome to Europe’.

Kanako Yajima (Photo: Keisuke Tanigawa)

Shuwa Residence Encyclopaedia

Kanako Yajima and Haco combined their knowledge about these unique buildings in their book Shuwa Residence Encyclopaedia (¥2,090) published by Two Virgins. The book documents the little details of each residence and includes interviews with current residents of Shuwa buildings Note that the book is only available in Japanese. Make sure to check out the authors’ website Shuwa Residence Mania (in Japanese only), as well.

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