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  • John Barr

Two Houses: Bonus Track (Sticking it to The Man)

We often hear claims of contemporary Japanese architecture being ‘radical’ without questioning whether or not that expression has become devalued. Nowadays it seems to be applied to buildings that are at best innovative but usually merely idiosyncratic or quirky. The motivations behind these designs are more likely to be commercial than radical. It is difficult to imagine a Japanese client or architect using architecture to make a political statement for example; especially one that confronts the establishment, or causes ripples in the perceived harmony of the social fabric.

It wasn’t always so…


In my memory he was eccentric, argumentative and childlike but a unique person.

So says Rie Azuma, daughter of the architect Takamitsu Azuma, talking about Teizo Akatsuka, a high-school classmate and friend of her father. Azuma and Akatsuka remained lifelong friends and in 1969 Azuma designed a house for Akatsuka in Higashi Osaka (East Osaka). The house no longer exists but seems to have been built on the slopes of Mount Ikoma, the highest point on the ridge of hills that lies along the border between Osaka and Nara. Photographs from the time clearly show its elevated position, with the Osaka plain spread below it. This is as remote a location as you can find whilst remaining within Osaka Prefecture. Sitting literally on the edge of, and a bit apart from, the city this house is also a metaphor for those on the edge of, and a bit apart from, Japanese society.

Akatsuka House (1969). Sitting on the edge, with the Osaka plain and Osaka city spread below it.

I came across this house while researching Azuma’s own house in Tokyo (the subject of my previous post). The similarities and differences between the two are interesting but that alone is not what drew me to it. I was intrigued by the presence of the Korean characters inscribed on the wall, and became even more interested when I found that these are not mentioned in articles published about the house. Why were they there? What did they mean? Asking amongst Korean Japanese quickly established the meaning as Osaka Exploration Basecamp. But what did that mean, and why was it written in Korean characters? The history of the relationship between Japan and Korea, and especially the status of Koreans living in Japan, is complex and a full understanding requires further and wider reading but, in order to get some feel for the significance of placing Korean script on the wall of the Akatsuka House, some explanation is required, over-simplified and crude as it may be.

The background to Japan’s colonial ambitions is briefly covered in my earlier post (Two Houses: Part 1). Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868 Japan sought to expand its resource base, power and influence by acquiring an empire. The Meiji government had learned some tricks at first hand from the Western powers and, as early as 1876, employed gunboat diplomacy to force Korea into a treaty that granted extraterritorial rights to Japanese citizens and opened Korea to Japanese trade. The terms of the treaty were disadvantageous to Korea in much the same way that earlier treaties forcibly imposed on Japan by the USA, Russia, Britain, Holland and France had been disadvantageous to Japan.

Japanese interference in Korean affairs increased with time until in 1905 Japan occupied Korea and declared it a Japanese protectorate. Finally, in 1910 Japan annexed Korea and from this time forward the numbers of Koreans moving to Japan for work increased. Initially much of this movement was voluntary but, as Japan geared up for and finally entered World War II, large numbers of Koreans were brought forcibly to Japan to support the war effort, both as labourers and as conscripts in the Japanese army.

Japan Times headline from August 29, 1910 (Chosen was the Japanese name for Korea).

By 1945 there were around 2 million Koreans living in Japan. This is where terminology becomes important. Following its annexation of Korea the Japanese government did not recognise that country's existence as a separate state; it was considered to be part of Japan and so, whilst ethnic Koreans in Japan undoubtedly suffered the kind of discrimination commonly experienced by ethnic minorities everywhere, their citizenship was not in doubt – in the eyes of the Japanese government they were Japanese. That all changed with the end of the war, Japan’s surrender, and the loss of its colonies. The Japanese government declared that ethnic minorities from its previous colonies living in Japan were no longer Japanese citizens and encouraged them to return to their country of origin. In the particular case of Koreans, their country of origin no longer existed.

In the closing days of WWII, with Japan’s surrender imminent, Russia declared war and made a land grab for Japanese colonial territories bordering on Russia, including entering Korea from the north. The USA, noting the move, also put forces into Korea, entering from the south. In a hastily drafted agreement over post-war spheres of influence the USA and Russia divided the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel. There seems to have been an initial intention to make this a temporary solution until the country could be put back on its feet and a new government formed but, as the reality of cold war politics started to bite, this never materialised and in 1948 the artificial border was formalised with the creation of two new countries: The Republic of Korea in the South (supported by the USA) and The People’s Democratic Republic of Korea in the North (supported by Russia and later by Communist China).

With the removal of their Japanese citizenship and the disappearance of their country of origin Koreans living in Japan effectively became stateless. Many did return to the Korean peninsula and had to choose between citizenship of the North or the South. Around 600,000 remained in Japan and remained in limbo. The Japanese government designated them as Zainichi (Residing in Japan) with the implication that they were aliens residing in Japan on a temporary basis and would at some time return to their homeland. This status continued to apply to second, third and subsequent generations of ethnic Koreans (and many of mixed Korean/Japanese ethnicity), who had been born in Japan, had always lived in Japan, and were culturally and linguistically Japanese. Loss of citizenship involved loss of voting rights, employment, pension, healthcare insurance, and many other hardships. As a result Zainichi Koreans effectively established their own society within a society, forming their own businesses, their own sources of finance and, importantly, their own schools. The majority of these schools received financial backing from North Korea and, in return, taught a North Korean curriculum, in Korean and reflecting a North Korean view of the world. This led to the Zainichi Korean community, already discriminated against, being viewed with deep suspicion.

Over the years a number of official discriminatory practices were repealed, a number of rights restored and the option of naturalisation offered. But naturalisation requires the adoption of a Japanese name and many Zainichi Koreans have baulked at this, partly because it is seen as a betrayal of their heritage and a denial of the Zainichi experience, and partly because it can result in not being fully accepted by either community.

In the early 21st century official discrimination against Korean Japanese has largely been repealed and overt discrimination by individuals and companies is much less than before. This, combined with the recent trend for Korean popular culture in Japan (especially TV soaps and K.Pop), has meant that the environment for Korean Japanese is better than at any time since Korea’s annexation in 1910 and this has resulted in increasing numbers of younger Zainichi Koreans choosing naturalisation whilst being more confident in declaring their ethnicity.

Undoubtedly casual discrimination still exists and some issues remain unresolved. The situation for ethnic Koreans in Japan is complex and nuanced but the salient point for this discussion is that in the 1960’s, when the Akatsuka house was built, both official and overt discrimination were widespread and the Zainichi Korean community was viewed with deep suspicion. To write a large sign in Korean characters on your house at that time would have been a potentially incendiary act. Most Japanese would not have been able to read the sign but would have recognised it as Korean and would have found its very existence both suspicious and provocative.

So why did Akatsuka do it? Was he a naturalised Zainichi Korean who had been forced to adopt a Japanese name and wished to protest? Was he an agent of the North Korean regime signalling the establishment of a beachhead in the Osaka region (Osaka Exploration Basecamp)?

Well… no to all the above. Akatsuka was a teacher in Higashi-Osaka, teaching at an evening high school, often used by those who had to combine work with study. Higashi-Osaka had (still has) a large Zainichi Korean community from which many of his students were drawn. Akatsuka saw up close the issues that confronted these students and the discrimination that they faced in their everyday lives. According to Rie Azuma, Akatsuka was by nature anti-establishment and opposed to all forms of discrimination and so he wanted to help and encourage these students in any way that he could. He invited them to come to his house at any time: to meet, to talk, to hike in the hills, to stay over if necessary. Hence Osaka Exploration Basecamp: to explore knowledge; to explore nature; to explore the world and the world of ideas; to begin an adventure…

By painting Korean characters on the walls of his house Akatsuka was doing a number of things: he was simply making it easy for Zainichi Korean students to find the house; he was making a political statement; he was showing his students that he stood with them and was prepared to take the consequences of this action and to experience, albeit at a very minor level, some of the reaction that they faced on a daily basis.


And so to the design of the house itself. The design is clearly influenced by the design for Tō-no-ie (see previous post) in the use of concrete and in the development of a tower, but the drivers are different. Tō-no-ie is in a high-density urban location; the Akatsuka house is in a rural location. The development of Tō-no-ie was necessitated by the small site (20m2); the site area for the Akatsuka house is 376m2. Tō-no-ie is developed from the site boundary inwards: an imaginary solid prism (the shape of the site boundary extruded vertically) is cut into to create the desired spaces and views. The Akatsuka house is developed outwards from a 4.5m x 4.5m central core; floors are stacked up like building blocks with alternating levels extended outwards from the core and orientated to take advantage of views. Tō-no-ie is dug out; the Akatsuka house is assembled. Where Tō-no-ie is subtractive the Akatsuka house is additive. The different use of windows and views in Tō-no-ie and the Akatsuka house is revealing. The windows in Tō-no-ie are positioned and sized to frame fragments of the immediate neighbourhood, providing subliminal links that invite the wider city into the house. The windows in the Akatsuka house provided panoramic and distant views over Osaka, holding the city at a distance and observing it as an outsider might.

Plan : Basement level : Store : 4.5x4.5m core.

Plan : Level 1 : Entrance and Japanese room (Washitsu) featuring tatami mats : commonly used for receiving guests : space extended to south of core.

Plan : Level 2 : Bedroom : core : roof of extended space below forms balcony to south.

Plan : Level 3 : Kitchen and Living : space extended to north and south of core : living area features tatami mats meaning that it can also be used for sleeping : cantilevered stair to south provides access to level 4.

Plan : Level 4 : Library/bookstore : core : roof of extended space below forms balcony to north.

Plan : Roof level : roof of cantilevered stair and alcove below is shown as balcony although it is unclear how it is accessed (possibly via some kind of ladder within the double-height library/bookstore).



What do the design drivers of the Akatsuka house signify? The first thing to note is that the client was closely involved in the development of the design and so the result is a reflection of his ambitions and not simply of the architect’s preferences. The site was big enough to have allowed a more relaxed, lower-profile, expansive approach. But the client chose an intense plan and desired verticality and height. There are a number of reasons for this.

As noted earlier, Akatsuka was anti-establishment by nature; he was also against the private ownership of land. Obviously, there is a conflict here as he owned the plot but presumably that was necessary in order for him to achieve his other aims. The point is that he did not seek to use all his available land to create a low-rise internalised, private domain, preferring to minimise the building footprint and leave the rest of the plot ‘as found’, a natural landscape that was available for public recreation.

In any case, he wanted a tower that would stand like a beacon on the hillside, overlooking Osaka and clearly visible from a distance so that it could easily be found by his students. Of course, this also made it highly visible to anybody in the vicinity; a beacon but also a highly provocative statement.

A beacon standing on the hillside.

In purely architectural terms the design of the Akatsuka house takes the traditional relaxed, organic, additive and horizontal arrangement of the Japanese house and transforms it into a vertical spiral rotated around the armature of the central core. This in itself was innovative if not radical. However, the most radical move came from the client. The addition of Korean script on the walls of the house not only provided a beacon for Akatsuka’s Zainichi Korean students and a demonstration of his solidarity with them, but also indicated his desire to make a political gesture. Although not then the universal gesture that it has since become, nowadays we might easily see the building’s location overlooking the city, its spiky, angular form, its verticality and its Korean graffiti as a finger stuck up to the Japanese establishment.

Typical example of horizontal, additive planning in Japanese architecture : Senkan-tei : the Kyoto house occupied by the novelist Jun'Ichiro Tanizaki from 1949-1956.

Senkantei interior. The house is the model for 'The Heron's Nest' that features in Tanizaki's short story 'The Bridge of Dreams'.

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