The empty schools of Japan, bridging Hong Kong and searching for a new Seoul in Yongsan.
In its heyday, more than 1,000 children thronged the playground. Today, the corridors of the Yotsuya Hiroba school in central Tokyo are empty. It closed its gates last March after the number of pupils fell to just 140. The building will reopen this month as the new home of the Tokyo Toy Museum. “The school closed,” says Takeshi Kikkawa of Tokyo Toy Museum. “But the local community loved the building and wanted to preserve it, so it will be partly a museum, and partly a community centre.”
Across the country, classrooms are emptying and playgrounds falling silent as the nation’s birth rate refuses to budge from a stubborn 1.3 babies per woman. Add to the mix one of the longest-living populations in the world, and women marrying later, and the end result is clear: a drastic drop in the need for schools.
Another former school in Tokyo’s Shinjuku area will reopen its doors this month as the new home of Yoshimoto Kogyo Group, the comedy entertainment group. Earlier this year, Urban Design System, the developer behind Tokyo’s design hotels Claska and Granbell, also relocated to an abandoned school in the Sendagaya area of the capital. The perennial problem of not having enough children forced the 24-year-old former preparatory school to close down in February 2006 – and it was subsequently given an airy modern makeover by the architect firm Tonerico to create the company’s Tokyo headquarters.
Fifty years ago there were nearly 27,000 elementary and 16,000 lower secondary schools across Japan: today the number of schools has shrunk to 23,000 and 11,000 respectively. School closures are not the only consequence of an ageing population – a boom in services catering for the elderly is also anticipated, from care homes to holidays specifically targeting older generations.
Imagine if New York’s Central Park had been occupied by a foreign army for the past century. When the military moved on there would be a swathe of valuable property in the heart of the city. That scenario is happening in Seoul at Yongsan, or Dragon Hill, which has been a military zone since the 1880s, occupied first by Japanese imperial troops and then, after the Korean War, by US forces.
The garrison, which has the feel of a suburban American college campus, is one of the few green spaces left in the city, and with the US military relocating in 2012 to a new base south of Seoul, the land is up for grabs. The original plan was for it to be transformed into a much-needed 656-acre public park, one of the largest urban parks in the world. However the forces of development have taken over and Yongsan is now set to be a “Dream Hub” – an international business complex with a landmark 152-storey skyscraper that will rank as the third tallest in the world. The $31bn (€21bn) development, to include luxury hotels, apartments, convention centres and 12 office towers, is due to be completed by 2016.
A 36km bridge from Hong Kong to Macau and Zhuhai may tender in the coming months. If it does, it could well become a catalyst for Hong Kong investors to build more factories in Zhuhai’s hinterland, which will no doubt belch more fumes to thicken Hong Kong’s notorious smog.
Olympics: gold standard
The medal-to-population ratio for sport mad South Korea at the 2004 Olympics was one for every 1.6m people. It got 30 in total.
India fared less well. Despite it having over a billion citizens, it snatched only a single medal. Better luck this summer.