Little America in the middle of Tokyo

PHOTO: Japan News/ANN

A wooden one-story building stands quietly in a corner of Yoyogi Park in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward, where people enjoy strolling and jogging. Its splintered walls and window sills show the structure's age.

Used as accommodations for Dutch athletes during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the house was originally part of Washington Heights, a complex of residential quarters for the families of US military personnel stationed in Japan after the end of World War II.

"The low hill quickly became flat," said Ginshige Sato, an 82-year-old real state agent in the ward. He clearly remembers what he saw 70 years ago. "I was shocked and overwhelmed by the power of the victorious nation."

In September 1945, a little more than a month after the end of the war, a group of enormous dump trucks and bulldozers entered the area in a cloud of dust. When they left, a massive amount of soil had been removed from the site, which used to be an army drill ground.

Residential construction began in August 1946, and material was gathered from all over Japan, though a shortage of construction materials had grown increasingly serious at that time. A year later, 827 houses had been built in the 920,000-square-meter Washington Heights.

To the surprise of many Japanese, the lifestyle of the people in the complex, which looked like a town in the United States, had been transported to the middle of Tokyo.

The houses were painted white and had spacious green lawns. Curved paved roads ran among the houses, where colorful American cars passed each other.

"I kept wondering what on earth this place was," said Ichiriki Yamamoto, a 67-year-old novelist who had delivered English-language newspapers to the homes of the Americans living there.

Yamamoto remembers seeing a large man chatting happily with his family as he cooked meat on a grill. He was deeply impressed with the smell of the meat being cooked and the smell of the floor wax in the houses. The complex was surrounded by a wire fence; paperboys, maids and electricians were the only Japanese allowed to enter.

When Yamamoto bought cans of cola and Hershey's chocolate at the supermarket inside the complex and took them to school, classmates whom he had never even talked to would approach him with great interest.

Until its relocation to Chofu in 1963, Washington Heights, the symbol of rich America, remained a dream to Japanese people living nearby.

Today, however, only one 123-square-meter house remains in the park. There is no reference to the US military residential quarters on the sign board displayed outside the building.

"We want more public attention, but unfortunately it's too old," said Takeshi Miyazaki, 56, an assistant manager of Yoyogi Park Service Center, which manages the park.

The house is usually locked and cannot be entered, but special permission was granted for this article. Besides a kitchen and a living room, there were three bedrooms. Even steam pipes for heating run under the floor.

"It's a common room layout nowadays, but it seemed like a dream back then," said Miyazaki.

The US military housing complex suddenly appeared on the land of the defeated nation and would go on to affect the lifestyles of the Japanese people. The remaining house is a valuable building that should be left for future generations to see how it was in Japan after the war.

Site of 1st powered airplane flight in Japan

Yoyogi Park is also known as the site of Japan's first powered flight.

The area surrounding the park was turned into an army drill ground. In December 1910, Lt. Yoshitoshi Tokugawa and Lt. Kumazo Hino conducted test flights of a plane for one week. After a series of failures due to improper maintenance of the aircraft and bad weather, on Dec. 19, the last day of the tests, a plane piloted by Tokugawa succeeded in flying 3,000 meters at an altitude of 70 meters. Hino also recorded a 1,000-meter flight. It was just seven years after the Wright brothers' first flight.

A monument to mark the birthplace of aviation in Japan and the busts of the pilots can still be seen in a corner of the park.

There also remains a pine tree, from next to which Emperor Showa would stand when he reviewed army parades before and during the war. Although it is a historical drill ground today, clouds of red dust would go up into the air during drills, and people living nearby urged the government to relocate the facility.

The area was seized by the US military after World War II and returned in the winter of 1963, a year before the Tokyo Olympics. Yoyogi National Stadium, which attracted global attention for its innovative design at the time, was constructed on the south side of the grounds.

The US forces' former residential quarter on the north side was renovated into accommodations for the approximately 7,000 athletes who came to Tokyo from all over the world.

In 1967, the ground was opened as Yoyogi Park. It is the fifth-largest park in Tokyo and is used by residents as a place to relax and stay in shape.

US military houses

Residential houses were built all around Japan for US military personnel stationed in the country after the end of World War II. Many of the housing quarters were named after US presidents. Tokyo, for example, had a Lincoln Center in Kasumigaseki, Chiyoda Ward, with 50 residential units; Jefferson Heights in Nagatacho with 70 units also in the ward; and Grant Heights in Nerima Ward, with 1,260 housing units. Residential complexes had schools, churches and supermarkets. Construction of the US military housing quarters popularised such concepts as room layouts that separated the living room and the bedroom, and also beds and flushing toilets.

Guide to former Washington Heights

The former site of Washington Heights is an eight-minute walk from JR Harajuku Station and Meiji-Jingumae Station on the Tokyo Metro. It is located in the east end of Yoyogi Park. Nearby is an Olympic memorial arboretum where trees brought by athletes from different countries were planted during the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.

The park, neighbouring leafy Meiji Jingu shrine, is a popular place to enjoy nature in the centre of Tokyo. The wider area bustles with people enjoying Omotesando avenue, where luxury brand boutiques line the streets, and Takeshita-dori street, where many distinctive shops are found.