Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Squeezing two cultures into small Japanese homes

Rabbit hutch or doll's house? What best describes the Japanese home? With little doubt, all but mansions or age-old country homes are somewhat small in Japan today. The matter can be put in proper perspective if one considers the problems attendant upon moving half of the population of the United States into the area known as California. The space available to each Japanese family is plainly restricted.

Despite the inconvenience and a wistful desire for more room, today the Japanese live very well. A chemist recently described the country as, like the United States, one with "almost as classless society." Most Japanese consider themselves members of the middle class. A new term, "unmarried aristocrat," describes bachelor men and women who spend to the hilt, living well, dressing well, and traveling widely.

About these ads

Equal pay for equal work is not the norm, despite the advances made by women. It is generally assumed that they will work only until they marry. Nevertheless , a woman graduate of an ordinary university enters the work force at about $400 a month -- plus transportation, plus a summer bonus of two months salary, plus a year-end bonus of three months salary as well as other, more familiar, fringe benefits.

Changing times have raised the average pay of all workers (excluding benefits for retirees and excluding the unemployed) to about $12,000 a year with the bonuses.

The problem they face is space -- the Japanese feel cramped. Considering the international scope of today's economy, it is easy to anticipate that all Japan might eventually be one extensive megalopolis!

The doll houses already sit eaves-together or are stacked tightly together in multi-storied apartment buildings. Up the Japanese can go,m but with a wary eye on the structural problems of an earthquake-prone area.

To have a larger place, at an affordable price, young people move out from town, enlarging the metropolitan areas to a frightening degree. For a Tokyoite, such a move now necessitates commuting up to two hours each way with from one to four changes per trip. Fortunately, Japanese trains are fast, efficient, and clean. But spending four hours a day sitting or probably standing on a train is a big price to pay for a bit more room.

Several urban universities have recently been moved to or are currently relocating in rural areas. This has turned them into more expensive residential institutions, but it does remove thousands of daily commuters from the capital's heavily-burdened transit system. Companies, too, have considered this change, but nowhere is a decision to relocate an easy one for the employees.

Yet in middle suburbia, Japanese houses are increasingly comfortable and well-equipped. A wall, entry gate, and tiny entrance yard hint a welcome. A look outward shows that only 12-18 inches separate the house from its surrounding wall, and a window nuzzles a neighbor's closed shutters. Nevertheless, many of the new homes have stolen from the ground floor enough space for a car, usually in the form of a carport, its roof the floor of the room overhead.

About these ads

Cars are everywhere and dealerships and used car lots are encountered at every turn. Parking is a problem, because residential streets are usually only a lane wide. The going rate for a space in the outskirts is $30 monthly, but parking areas in the heart of Tokyo command $100. Surprisingly, considering the clamor for housing, tiny six-car lots are sprinkled about the residential areas. New apartments are built with parking spaces at ground level or in adjacent courtyards, which double as playgrounds.

Where once mansion and hovel existed side by side in Japan, the newer neighborhoods exhibits more economic cohesiveness. Today a home with three tatami rooms, one Western room (hardwood flooring and overstuffed Western furniture), kitchen, bath, and carport will run about $205,000. A four-room apartment with kitchen and bath will sell for $130,000.

Financing varies, with ordinary bank loans running very high. The better (bigger and more prestigious) companies underwrite home loans for their employees, in whole or part, as a fringe benefit. Interest rates can be as low as four percent for a 20- or 30-year mortgage.

Within the home, evidence of an affluent society is widespread. Automatic washers, most commonly with cycles which allow the reuse of water and soap, are increasingly common. In apartments, their connections are sometimes built onto the balconies for want of interior space. Dryers are less common and will doubtless remain so until the stacked combination units are better developed. Laundry still sprouts from windows and balconies almost daily, because the capacity of the washers remains small, befitting the space available.

Where 20 years ago two-burner propane stoves and even charcoal braziers were commonplace, today one finds homes with ranges featuring two burners and a grill on top and a small oven below. Refrigerators have grown from undercounter size to apartment size, with a good freezer area. To supply them, markets now provide not only frozen vegetables but imported goods such as Sara Lee pastries.

Electric griddles, toasters, coffee makers, blenders, and the ubiquitous rice cookers are in many kitchens. Today's rice cooker has an added advantage over older models; it keeps the cooked rice warm overnight. The potato has become almost standard fare in some households.

These changes in dietary habits have created a problem. Much of Japan's food is now imported, but the government still subsidizes rice in order to insure a decent income for the farmer. Domestic rice is piling up in storehouses, but the government must also accept rice in trade from certain developing nations who have nothing else to export. Public demand is rising for the donation of these surplus stores to famine areas.

While the Japanese lament their lack of space, one problem with their homes, from a Western viewpoint, is the lack of efficient storage space. Homes have been modernized in several respects -- aluminum-framed sliding windows and doors , insulation, area heaters and air conditioners, but closets and kitchen cabinets are not as servicable as they might be. Cabinets are unduly small and are frequently placed so high that one needs a chair to reach them. On the other hand, although today's young marrieds are a head or more taller than their parents, counter, sink, amd stove tops have not been raised. Dishwashing and cooking are back-bending jobs.

Closets in Japanese-style rooms usually occupy an end wall, but their function is to conceal the sleeping mats put inside for the day. These pads and quits might fill one-fourth of the area. The balance -- about three feet deep -- is almost wasted space: there is no hanging area for clothing and the depth makes for inefficient storage. Clothing is hung, usually, in wardrobes, separate pieces of furniture that make a room seem smaller than it is.

In the early 1930s one author wrote a Japan's "feet of clay," the internal poverty which would eat away economic gains because the country lacked a domestic market. No more!

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.