Tokyo’s Urban Battleship

Mike Grist Architecture, Featured Story, Haikyo, Japan, Residential, Tokyo-to 15 Comments

Tokyo’s urban battleship glides through the ever-changing cityscape like a predatory shark- its mad crescent fin stocked with slate-grey torpedoes and radar foils- hunting out fresh prey for the saw-blade teeth ratcheted down its flat-iron side.

Built in 1970 by the retired Imperial Navy general Watanabe Youji, the urban battleship building (GUNKAN) was apparently inspired by a World War 2 sea-battle, where Watanabe’s cruiser faced an American submarine off the coast of the Philippines. The entire crew expected to die, stared down the barrel of death, but ultimately survived.Sailing for fresh apartment blocks to bomb with water-tank torpedoes.

Gliding through Tokyo.

Everything about its design and construction showcases that violent naval origin: from the ocean-grey torpedo water-tanks under the battleship crescent’s eaves to the diametric construction of apartment blocks ranged like saw-teeth down either side; the tiny port-hole windows to the narrow corridors and low ceilings of a cooped-up ship.

Add to that bizarre aesthetic a hint of art-deco flourish and a taste of the Metabolist movement, and it is surely utterly unique in the world.

Jagged edges all the way up.

After his stint in the Navy Watanabe went on to study architecture at Waseda university, eventually becoming a professor there and a practising architect about Japan, though the GUNKAN building remains his most striking work.

Watanabe’s original name for the place was ‘Heresy of Architects’. It’s an evocative if opaque title. Is he stating that all pretenses at architecture are inherently hypocritical and merely showpieces for their creator’s egos? Perhaps he’s bemoaning Tokyo’s investment in real estate when set next to an earnest belief that the Empire of the Sun should never have surrendered in the war, and such frivolities of building design should be melted down and poured back into the fight? If you know please let me know int he comments.

Pods criss-cross like slashing saw-teeth.

Deck stacked on deck.

The urban battleship has stood like a solid rock for 40 years against the endless tides of rebirth and renewal that wash through this city- a watch-tower for the bucking tides that have seen whole neighbourhoods subsumed by tsunami waves of modernisation and development.

In the last ten years the GUNKAN approached ruin and dilapidation as ownership changed hands, tenants were booted out, and the silver-grey exterior faded and bloomed with mould into a water-stained mockery of its former self, far from ship-shape and keeling fast.

2 years ago– water-stained and rusting.

Now- freshly painted battleship grey.

However, borne on the cyclical flow of rebirth like the tides at sea, it is now undergoing redevelopment into apartments and offices- each pod weighing in at around 15 meters square without bathroom or kitchen (not big), and costing around 100,000 yen a month (around $1,200), with only those tiny port-hole like windows for natural light.

This for offices that go all the way through the pods.

It was my second time to the Battleship- the first was 2 years ago when it was still rusting and rotting away like a harbored ship in drydock- see that story and images here. I returned this time with Swedish urbex star Jan Jornmark and his radio producer friend Katarina. They had come to Tokyo to cover haikyo for Jan’s 3rd urbex book- to that end Jan and I took a haikyo trip to a theme park and decrepit mine a week ago- I’ll post those explores soon.

The previous time I only managed to get onto the first floor roof- not a very impressive accomplishment which involved climbing over a few low fences. This time I walked brazenly into the building, all fresh, empty, and smelling of new paint, down the crazily-paved hallway, through the automatic security doors, and into the elevator. I pushed R for roof, and it took me there happily (if very slowly), though at the top the doors were all sealed up.

Entrance hall- with security camera top center. Love that art-deco flooring.

Girders stripped back and revealed.

Rooms prepped for office work. Nice retro wood and schoolroom chairs.

Marble zig-zag flooring matches the ziggurat style stacked pods.

Brushed concrete and marble- 70’s class.

Repainted and repurposed.

Jan and Katarina arrived, and together we made for the first floor roof. Katarina interviewed me for Swedish radio about the building’s history and design, while Jan found us out a second staircase winding upwards. It led us by a floor that was still open and being renovated, which let us walk through the hollowed out wing of one of the saw-blade floors- each pod with its walls bashed through, waiting for refurbishment.

First floor roofing- looks like a submarine interior, all funny little windows, slanty roof bits, different level floorings.

In one of the pods, this probably to be an office. Little natural light coming in.

Square porthole windows.

Very marginal view out of one of the saw-blade balcony windows.

Back down the length of the pods.

Then- the roof. The battleship hub wowed us all- such a big, elaborate construction that seemingly served no further purpose than being decorative. Jan said he’d never seen anything like it. I know I haven’t. And the view out over the city, 14 stories tall, was fantastic.

Two floors below the roof still, shooting up to crescent.

More random-seeming ship construction: holes, pipes, gantries.

Down from 12th floor.

Roof tail fin.

Here we see the Docomo tower beneath the tail fin. Kind of surreal for me.

Through a roof port-hole to the street below. Almost has the effect of a tilt-shift lens- all looks like toys below.

Bustling waves of cityscape.

And, the crescent.

Down 14 floors to the street.

Crescent beneath the tail fin.

Crescent left.



Torpedo water tanks.

Odd little porthole within the crescent.

Beneath water tank, showing it certainly seemed to be functional.

An HDR with bleach bypass.

Katarina, Jan, and me.

We bustled about taking photos. After a while I set up my camera and interviewed Jan about the life of a professional urbexer- I’ll post that up next. Then we climbed back down, past a dead bird and its cracked open egg-shells, back to the street below, where we said our goodbyes and parted ways.

See more on Jan Jornmark at his website Deserted Places.

Explore more Japanese ruins (haikyo) in the galleries:

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See a curation of world ruins in the ruins gallery.

You can also read my SF & Fantasy stories inspired by ruins here.

Comments 15

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  1. I was fascinated by your original article on the Gunkan Building, and I’m glad you got the chance to go back and explore more thoroughly. It’s good news that this architectural oddity is being refurbished instead of being demolished.

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      Good new indeed- though I wouldn’t want to rent one of those pods- tiny windows, only 15 square meters space, slow-ass elevator, for 100,000 yen plus per month. Good location, but ouch, only worth it if you get to have exclusive BBQs on the roof.

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      Thanks Harm- and cheers for update on Holland Village.
      As for visiting- fingers crossed you’ll still be able to get on the roof by that time- though I expect they’ll make more effort to seal up access when they actually reopen to tenants. I was amazed we could basically just stroll up there.

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      Another great tip Harm, and as it happens I was just up that way myself- went there with Jan and my report and photos are forthcoming.

  2. Yeah, truly an incredible building. We were┬┤lucky to be able to use the stairs in the back. Was in contact with Kat this morning as well, seems that the material for the radio program is exceptional. Once more – thanks!

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