Photo/IllutrationJohnson Town is a small neighborhood in Saitama Prefecture where early postwar American-style houses are preserved (Photo by Lisa Vogt)

  • Photo/Illustraion

When I came to Japan eons ago, there weren’t many foreigners here. Children would stare at me. Boys and girls in groups would point, and inevitably one would summon the courage to blurt out, “How are you? I’m fine, thank you, and you?” and then the whole pack would burst out giggling, patting the courageous one on the back before quickly turning and running away.

All that racket and without even waiting for my response.

Housewives would follow me in supermarkets curious as to what I would put into my shopping basket. When I plopped in a packet of tofu, I’d feel people stir, obviously surprised and intrigued by my selection.

Today, foreigners are a dime a dozen, and the locals hardly bat an eye.

About 70 years ago, after the war and during the occupation, many foreigners--especially American GIs--were stationed throughout Japan. Large family homes were built, mainly in Tokyo and its vicinity, for U.S. armed service members and their dependents.

These homes were called paddy houses by the occupiers and "beigun" house by the Japanese. They were usually single-story weatherboard homes with a porch, yard with a lawn, parking space and pathways that connect one house to another.

I used to live in one, and I have many fond memories of it. In Tokyo alone, there were scores of these housing complexes: Washington Heights (Yoyogi Park), Kanto Mura (Chofu), Grant Heights (Nerima), Tachikawa, Yokota ...

Alas, paddy houses weren’t built to last, and most have been demolished and replaced with cookie-cutter Japanese houses.

You can find a cluster of these homes in Iruma, Saitama Prefecture, in a place called Johnson Town. There are 23 original homes as well as 35 that are new but designed to complement the old ones. They are built on the land that was once Johnson Air Base. These structures are rented out as private residences, vintage Americana shops and cafes, beauty salons, studios and more.

A walk around Johnson Town is a trip down memory lane. The meticulously restored suburban neighborhood looks like any old U.S.A. town. The enclave is the brainchild of the landowner and an architect who saw the potential in the property and decided to restore the area to its past glory by keeping the old atmosphere intact.

There are still a few beigun houses located here and there around Japan, but none in such a coherent village as this. You won’t see many foreigners here today, but a piece of tangible history that was left behind is alive and well in Johnson Town.

***

This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the Oct. 29 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the series "Lisa’s In and Around Tokyo," which depicts the capital and its surroundings through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.