The Japanese live comfortably in tiny spaces. Could we?

traditional japanese farmhouse

In the western world, 750 sq ft apartments can seem really small, even for just two people. The excerpt below is from an interesting article by Nold Egenter, a Swiss architectural anthropologist, on the cultural influences that allow the Japanese to live comfortably in what North Americans would consider small spaces. From the traditional peasant farmer’s wooden house, above, to contemporary tiny houses and apartments in contemporary Tokyo, Japanese living spaces have often measured less than 500 or 600 square feet, and yet they easily house a whole family. How is this possible?

Several years ago a study of the European Community concluded that the Japanese live in “rabbit cages.” The study was based essentially on statistical research which showed that the average dwelling space for a family in urban agglomerations hardly amounts to 40 square meters [430 sq. ft.]. Great astonishment! “Why do two out of three Japanese affirm that they like their life and that in general they are content?” In view of the fact that in Europe today a corresponding family needs roughly 100 square meters [1000 sq. ft.] – that is to say, two and a half times as much – one could ask the counter question: Do we waste space? Why does the average urban family in Japan manage with so much less dwelling surface and still feel comfortable? In such purely quantitative comparisons, it is often overlooked that spatial needs are closely related to the constructive design, and this is determined by the specific cultural tradition. To illustrate this point there is hardly any better example than that of Japan. Its architectural heritage and its dwelling culture developed under entirely different cultural and geographical conditions from those with which we are familiar.

Environmental and economic constraints are forcing us away from the sprawling way we have lived over the past century. If Negenter is right (to read his whole article, click at the end of this post), both architecture and dwelling habits have to change in order to make city living in small spaces more workable, and that obviously won’t happen overnight (though apparently it’s happening already). North American apartment, house and condo architecture would have to change, and so would our daily tools, appliances, expectations and habits. Nearly every design magazine and design blog now constantly revisits the question of how to live in fewer square feet, but perhaps what is needed is a much less piecemeal approach, and something that goes a little deeper than the “ten tips for living small” approach.

Tiny Tokyo house by Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima

Bump House, Tokyo

The houses shown here are larger than many Japanese apartments. They are spacious by Japanese standards but still tiny by North American standards. All are less than 1000 square feet inside, some much less, and all make use of previously unused empty urban lots. The tiny white Tokyo house at top is by Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima, whose most recent project is the New Museum in New York (great picture of her by Annie Liebowitz here). Directly above is the relatively large Bump house, (900 sq ft) and below is a tiny house by Sschemata (760 sq ft). I suspect they’re all white because it makes them seem larger. See Apartment Therapy on 300 sq. ft. houses, and see also a great post on increasing the perceived size of a house through Japanese building techniques – the videos show a number of tiny urban Japanese houses. Top ten ways Japanese live small is here. And a small article here by O.N. Gillespie, author of The Japanese House. North American example? Tumbleweed Tiny Houses.

Tokyo house by Sschemata

Nold Egenter cont’d…

Introduction

Any western architect who intends to design a house or an apartment basically will start from assumption of ‘the primary human needs’ of the future inhabitants. Essentially three components define our western concept of primary needs. First there are physical parameters, the measurements of the human body. Neufert has presented these aspects in great detail. Further there are physiological conditions, e.g. the need for protection of various kinds: sufficient light and air, hygiene etc. Finally, a standardised behaviour is assumed, requiring sufficient space for moving, working, eating, ablutions, leisure etc. In this context space is considered as a three dimensional, basically homogeneous and neutral condition. Depending on the given conditions, the program of walls and openings, installations and surfaces for movement, fittings and functional places designed by the architect, will be set relatively freely into this homogeneously conceived space.

Several years ago a study of the European Community concluded that the Japanese live in “rabbit cages.” The study was based essentially on statistical research which showed that the average dwelling space for a family in urban agglomerations hardly amounts to 40 square meters [430 sq ft]. Great astonishment! “Why do two out of three Japanese affirm that they like their life and that in general they are content?” In view of the fact that in Europe today a corresponding family needs roughly 100 square meters – that is to say, two and a half times as much – one could ask the counter question: Do we waste space? Why does the average urban family in Japan manage with so much less dwelling surface and still feel comfortable? In such purely quantitative comparisons, it is often overlooked that spatial needs are closely related to the constructive design, and this is determined by the specific cultural tradition. To illustrate this point there is hardly any better example than that of Japan. Its architectural heritage and its dwelling culture developed under entirely different cultural and geographical conditions from those with which we are familiar.<2>

Unfortunately, there are practically no special fields or educational programs, such as ‘ethnology of building’ or ‘architectural anthropology’, at today’s architectural schools. Western architectural theory is completely fixed on the Euro-Mediterranean history of art. Systematic comparison with non-European cultures could not only place in question our own basic assumptions regarding principles of design: it could also provide stimulating insights.

Japanese traditional architecture formed its essential characteristics during an evolutionary process.

Most studies of Japanese domestic architecture deal with individual house-types. In explaining the particular characteristics of Japanese house forms – e.g. the traditional type of urban middle class house – rather vague reasons are given like ‘love of nature’, or secondary aspects such as the danger of earthquakes or adaptation to climatic conditions are overemphasised. In fact, the houses in the Japanese Alps or Northern Japan are not essentially different from those of other regions, in spite of harsh winter conditions. Merely descriptive presentations miss the essential point. Japanese building and dwelling was essentially formed by a clearly discernible process of development.

  • In spite of Chinese influence, the Japanese dwelling has always been based on the traditional wooden post-and-beam structure.
  • Its spatial conditions are determined not only by practical economic needs but by cultic needs.
  • The Japanese house is not just a protection and a “shelter”, it is a basic element in the local community: the traditional “sociological” unit of Japan is not “the family”, it is rather the house.

From these first indications it may be clear that the Japanese dwelling cannot be approached simply with sketchbook, drawing-board and camera.

The Japanese live in the traditional wooden house

In Europe the Mediterranean stone- and solid construction has broadly influenced, superseded and finally – with modern architecture – practically ousted the wooden constructions of Central and Northern Europe. By contrast, it soon becomes evident that building and dwelling in Japan – including modern cities – is still in line with its prehistoric sources: as a construction on piles, it has remained true to its historically documented, classical precursors (Fig. 1). <3>Influences of highly developed temple architecture of Chinese origin are evident since the 8th century, particularly in the residential and palace architecture (shin- denzukuri) of the Nara and Heian periods. During Kamakura and Muromachi periods, Buddhist temple architecture became differentiated with the formation of various sects. It spread into the hinterland and thus had an impact on the popular architecture of villages and small towns (minka) as well as on the urban middle-class house and the medieval feudal palace architecture (shoin- and sukiya-tsukuri).

However, since Chinese temple architecture consisted essentially of post-and-beam structures, even the modern urban dwelling-house did not greatly diverge from its rural precursors (Fig. 2, 3). In addition, medieval feudalism was strongly rooted in the provinces. This too proved to favor the diffusion of an urban dwelling-type which remained close to rural traditions. It was not until Western architecture was imported that the villas of western-oriented elites and the large multi-family blocks of satellite cities adopted stone and solid construction – a rupture, the full impact of which can hardly be estimated. But the extent to which Japanese building is based on the wooden post-and-beam type structure is best shown in the more recent, two-storied single family housing, which has spread widely over urban areas. Prefabricated in great series, these houses look like western brickhouses covered with roughcast. But this is only the outer appearance. Upon closer inspection, the roughcast walls of the house reveal their traditional internal wooden construction. As with the conventional type of construction and in Buddhist temple architecture, the gaps between the supporting pillars are filled with clay mixed with straw. Thus the appearance of modernity is only superficial. The construction remains true to tradition.

The plan of the house and how it is used also remain traditional. Only the kitchen and sometimes the place for eating meals are modern; the other rooms, for working, sleeping and social intercourse, remain true to tradition. The floor is covered with straw mats (tatami); the family kneels at low tables to eat and drink, and they sleep on the floor as from time immemorial. <4>

Thus living in the Japanese style broadly implies adherence to tradition, just as we would do if we dwelt in modified chalets in our central European cities. <5> The architect, as a ‘creative’ designer, has no part to play in the traditional housing of Japan. <6> The craftsman designs the house according to ancient traditional rules, as was the case for centuries in our mountain valleys.

But why have the Japanese clung so strongly to their conventional building and dwelling traditions? It could be said: because dwelling was intimately related to traditional customs. But what are customs? Here something plays a role which cannot be discerned on occasional visits to families and houses. The Japanese dwelling is always more or less a Shinto cult precinct and a Buddhist temple.

To read more, click here.

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3 Responses to “The Japanese live comfortably in tiny spaces. Could we?”

  1. Eva Says:

    If we all practised Zen meditation, we could do that, too.

  2. How rooms and architecture affect mood and creativity | Ouno Design Says:

    […] and churches as places that generate inspiration and contemplation for example, or the genius of  Japanese house design. But if we have to reinvent the wheel, then I guess we have to reinvent the wheel. Environmental […]

  3. Paolo Volpis Says:

    Please take a look at our webisite and let us know if you would like more info for your blog. DIVA is the smallest kitchen in the world.
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