Severe 1940s wartime housing crisis in urban areas of Japan-colonized Korea: housing shortfalls worsening each year, exacerbated by rent control, 2-3 families sharing one house, young people unable to marry or start families due to housing shortage

This article from 1943 covers the severe wartime housing crisis in Korea which was particularly acute in urban areas and industrial hubs. The article blames the housing shortage on various factors, including rapid urban population growth, expansion of industries, increasing incomes, and rent control policies hindering investment in rental housing. From 1939-1941, while the number of new households increased annually by 57,627, there was a stark deficit in the number of new housing units, with only 18,000 units added each year, leading to a yearly shortfall of around 20,000 units. Major cities, including Seoul, Pyongyang, Busan, and Chongjin, experienced significant housing deficits. This led to many social problems, including young people unable to marry and start families. Due to overcrowding, workers sought respite outside the home, which is why movie theaters had an outsized importance in this era for workers seeking an escape from their miserable reality.

Just as many young people today in Mainland China lament their inability to purchase homes, which poses a barrier to marriage, Korean youths apparently faced similar predicaments eight decades ago, during the final years of Imperial Japanese colonial rule.


Gyeongseong Ilbo (Keijo Nippo), September 29, 1943

Three households in one house

Laborers have no homes to rest in

The War Lifestyle Reader Series: Housing (Part 1)

The words “house for rent” were written in black letters on a white piece of paper pasted messily on a lattice door of a residential home. Who has not seen such signs before? But now it has become a dream of the distant past. You have found someone to marry, but you don’t have a house. You have been transferred to another city, but you can’t go there because you can’t find a house. It is no exaggeration to say that you will always be able to find three or four advertisements in the daily newspaper saying “Seeking a house for rent” or “No questions asked about the rent”. Even a casual greeting to an acquaintance in passing would turn into a whine of, “By the way, do you know where I can find a house?” Indeed, the housing crisis is a serious concern shared by citizens of all belligerent nations of the world. So what is the relationship between war and housing, and how is it being resolved?

Original caption: “House for Rent” – that too has now become a dream of the distant past.


To sum up, similar to the previously discussed matters of “clothing” and “food,” the issue of health and hygiene is of equal importance in guaranteeing a basic standard of living for our fighting nation. In today’s age, when productive capacity directly correlates with war fighting potential, the ongoing housing crisis affecting ordinary people and the productivity of laborers is just as critical as food security, not merely a social issue as it was perceived in the past. Moreover, if we look at postwar population strategies through the lens of national development via population growth, we can argue that the barriers to population increase, such as challenges related to marriage, separate living, dormitories, and room rental, represent a substantial national issue, if not a concern for our co-prosperity sphere. So, what are the measures taken during wartime to address housing? But before diving into that, it’s important to understand: why did the war result in such a severe housing crisis?


In essence, we can categorize housing difficulties into two distinct types. The first involves an imbalance between supply and demand due to fluctuating prices, a phenomenon that was common during past recessionary periods. The second type is an outright shortage of housing relative to demand, a situation we typically see during wartime. However, does this imply that Korea’s wartime population grew so swiftly that we couldn’t build enough housing to accommodate everyone? Not exactly. The housing shortage was prominent not in rural areas, but primarily in cities, mines, factories, and other hubs. This circumstance arose from a combination of factors brought on by the war:

  1. Rapid population growth in urban areas was spurred by the expansion of government offices, companies, and other enterprises.
  2. The sudden rise of the military iron and steel industry led to an increase in production, which caused workers in these industries to quickly flock to these sites.
  3. The increase in income of these industrial workers inevitably led to them seeking to establish their own homes, rather than continuing to share houses or rent rooms as they did before.
  4. Conversely, the soaring cost of land, difficulty in obtaining construction materials such as steel, the lack of construction workers, and the cessation of land rent control led to a halt in investment in rental housing, culminating in a significant housing shortage.


Assessing the current situation on the Korean peninsula through a numerical lens, the average yearly increase of new households and net gain in housing units (accounting for both new constructions and demolitions) across all major Korean cities between 1939 and 1941 was 57,627 households and 17,999 housing units, respectively. Intriguingly, while the number of households has been increasing steadily year after year, the availability of housing units has been on the decline, which was particularly noticeable in 1940. It’s easy to conjecture that this trend has likely become even more pronounced since then. Notably, the new households include cohabiting living arrangements, apartments, and dormitories, so not all of them would need new housing. However, based on the ratio of housing units to households, which was 63% according to the 1938 survey, the annual requirement for housing units can be calculated to be around 38,000. This number is considerably higher than the aforementioned 17,999 units provided, leading to an annual deficit of about 20,000 housing units. As of the end of 1941, the housing shortages across all of Korea, according to a survey conducted by the Governor-General’s Office in the previous October, are as follows:

  • Seoul: 41,333 housing unit deficit
  • Pyongyang: 5,559 housing unit deficit
  • Busan: 9,041 housing unit deficit
  • Chongjin: 8,472 housing unit deficit

The total number of households in the 38 provinces and towns in all of Korea is over 106,000. Many of them have families but are forced to rent rooms, live in dormitories, or live separately from their families. The reality is that two or three households often have no choice but to share one house. According to a survey conducted by the Governor-General’s Office, the following is a summary of the current situation.

City Renting Rooms Sharing Houses Single-household Houses
Seoul 33% 17% 50%
Busan 20.8% 7.2% 72%
Pyongyang 31% 9% 60%
Hamhung 12.3% 11% 76.6%
Chongjin 9.3% 9.1% 81.6%

(Note: Figures are rounded down to the nearest 0.0%.)

In other words, in the above five cities, 68% of the respondents lived in a house occupied by a single household, 21% rented rooms, and 11% shared their homes with other households.


Therefore, homes to which workers return after a bustling day at work or after arduous manual labor during wartime have ceased to be sanctuaries of rest and relaxation. Instead, people seek respite outside the home. Entertainment districts teem with activity throughout the day, and movie theaters are marked by lengthy queues from morning till night. This kind of scene, which seems so out of sync with the times, may indeed warrant condemnation. However, it’s only fair to say that those living in lavish mansions and comfortable official residences, who have never faced a housing crisis in their lives, should not be the ones to pass judgment or criticize such individuals.



京城日報 1943年9月29日



戦争生活読本 住の巻(上)












  • 京城:41,333戸
  • 平壌:5,559戸
  • 釜山:9,041戸
  • 清津:8,472戸


  • 京城: 間貸:33% 同居:17% 同居なし:50%
  • 釜山: 間貸:20.8% 同居:7.2% 同居なし:72%
  • 平壌: 間貸:31% 同居:9% 同居なし:60%
  • 咸興: 間貸:12.3% 同居:11% 同居なし:76.6%
  • 清津: 間貸:9.3% 同居:9.1% 同居なし:81.6%