JLPT BC 129 | The Evolution of Japanese Housing

JLPT BC 129 | The Evolution of Japanese Housing post image

When you visit a foreign country, the first thing on your list to check out is usually not the houses. After all, they aren’t quite as glamorous as 400 year old temples and shrines. But, they can tell you about a place all the same.

Houses are very personal for obvious reasons. Where you choose to live can say a lot about you and your lifestyle. That is something I saw a lot of when we were house hunting last year. There is a big variety of what is available to you when it comes to buying houses. I think if you are looking for a condo in Japan, they all seem rather similar to me – concrete, one-level, and close to the station.

But houses can vary widely from McMansion style houses to extremely customized houses with trendy features like roof top terraces. The interesting thing is there were relatively small differences (around 1000万 or $100,000) in price between them. It seems like since land prices are so high, the houses on them are deemed a bit temporary, losing all their value (of the physical building) after 20 years.

There is kind of reason for this actually. Japan has gone through a rather dramatic change in their preferences for their houses, so that houses built 30 years ago are no longer a desirable place to live for a variety of reasons.

Notice all the Japanese-style rooms (和室).  These are rooms with tatami flooring.

Notice all the Japanese-style rooms (和室) and oshiire (押入). Built 1964

Houses pre-90s

Houses built before the 1990s tend to still favor traditional styles of housing. There were no large main rooms. There was a dining room and a living room, each about 8~10 畳 (jou) or 120 to 140 sq. ft. If you have ever been in one of these houses, they seem a bit cramped. They are not designed for any more than about 8 people at a time and that is a tight fit.

House parties were apparently not very popular back then, and still are not as popular as they are in the States, but they are starting to get more popular. At that time, people usually entertained guests in there Japanese-style room or tatami room, so it tended to be fairly big 8~10 畳 and still have the alcove for the personal shrine used to honor the dead of the family.

These houses tend to be of lesser quality, although there are some made of steel or reinforced concrete that have stood the test of time. But, in general house building was not as developed as it is now. The main reason for the smaller rooms was for earthquake safety.

Another drawback to these houses – to cut down on the amount of plumbing needed for the house, the bathrooms were usually attached to the kitchen and main dining room. This means that if you want to take a shower you often times have to walk by the dining table to and from the shower. This doesn’t seem like that big of deal, but it can make you feel a little uncomfortable at times.

And of course there are no bathrooms on the second floor, which means if you have to go in the middle of the night you have to clamor down the stairs and back up again. You can start to see why these houses are slightly undesirable.

The 和室 are gone except one.  Bigger LDK and still an alcove for the shrine.

The 和室 are gone except one. Bigger LDK and still an alcove for the shrine. Built 1991.

In the 90s

Houses started to look a lot more European/American. There was a lot of wooden cabinetry and bay windows (windows that project out from the house and form a little ‘bay’ to sit in or put flowers in) were pretty popular. Housing quality seemed to have gotten a lot better, too. Although the shutters I saw for a few houses were a bit shabby.

Built in ovens were a little popular and kitchens were still ‘detached’, basically they weren’t a part of the main room but formed a kind of kitchen hallway that was attached to the dining room. I’ve been told that this was popular because women often wanted to hide away the ‘dirtiness’ of the kitchen from guests.

Japanese style rooms were going through a bit of a transition at this point. It seems like some of them kept the alcove, while others didn’t. I saw both. Big main rooms ~14+ 畳 started getting popular as well. Whereas before there were typically 3 rooms, a bath room, and a toilet room on the main floor there were just 2 bigger rooms, a bath room, and a toilet room.

It seems as though Japan wanted to modernize their houses and so they looked to Europe for inspiration. There were more than a few houses from this era that you could easily have mistaken for a townhouse in the states. Some of them even had white picket fences!

The LDK is now double the size.  The 和室 is considerably smaller.  The new fad of a 'walk-in-closet' can be seen here as well.  Built 2014

The LDK is now double the size. The 和室 is considerably smaller. The new fad of a ‘walk-in-closet’ can be seen here as well. Built 2014

These days

Houses have really started to have their own Japanese style. Although they still seem European, they have a trimmed modern look that is very Japanese. Gone is the wooden cabinetry and in its place is snazzy white cabinets with swing down trays and self-closing drawers. Bay windows aren’t so popular, and narrower, more opaque windows are now the norm.

In the newest layouts, the Japanese-style room has practically been deleted from the design. In our house, which is about 8 years old, the Japanese-style room is only 4 畳 (60 sq. ft.), essentially the size of a nice walk-in-closet. It is also the only room in the house with an 押入れ (oshiire, a large Japanese-style closet used to store futons). All the other rooms now have shallow, western-style closets.

About 13 years ago or so, they passed a housing law in Japan that requires 24-hour ventilation in all homes. This is to prevent “Sick House Syndrome”, which is essentially an allergic reaction to house dust, and house building materials. This makes it so each room in the house has either an in-vent or an out-fan that creates a very slow but steady flow of air through the house.

This seems like a better deal than the typical approach to airing out the house – opening all the windows once a day. I always dreaded that in our old apartment. Even in winter, we opened up all the windows for 5 to 10 minutes to air it all out. I’m not sure how helpful it was, but it did wake me up in the morning.

I should also mention that plumbing has changed a bit as well. Now, the bathroom is usually far away from the kitchen and a lot of houses have a bathroom on the second floor. We don’t have one, it was something we could live without, but it is typical of other houses.

The Physical Transition of Culture

It was interesting for me to see Japan’s departure from old customs in the physical world. You could literally see how the style of living has changed over the years. Premium houses of today have wide open spaces with vaulted ceilings that I never saw in any of the older buildings for sale. Another thing to point out is there are hardly any buildings older than 30 years. Most of the old buildings have been torn down, so even if you wanted something traditional, it simply doesn’t exist anymore.

Outside of a few key areas (like Kyoto’s Gion district) older houses are not worth anything, and actually some of them make the land worth less because people have to pay to tear down the house if they want to build a new house.

Although at first glance, I think it is a little sad that these houses are disappearing. But, if you take an honest look at them, they are pretty shoddy and some of them are infested with all sorts of things. One of my students told me a story of how a raccoon would sneak through a hole in their kitchen floor and steal cookies off the kitchen table. And this was in the city.

Would you live in a traditional house?

Would you like to live in a traditional Japanese house with the oshire and all tatami floors? Is modern housing so much cooler? Let me know in the comments.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Joost January 23, 2014, 6:59 am

    Nice housing write up. At the moment I’m living in a very general 2LDK kind of apartment, about 20 years old or so. For earthquake reasons (i guess), wooden construction is still most popular with the result that we enjoy the sound of our upper neighbor’s two kids playing tag or jumping in the house. Also the vacuum cleaner every Saturday at 9 am (used to be 7 am but they changed their habit after we complained), is a good wake-up call for when the smartphone ran out of battery again.

    I probably want to move to a more permanent place in the next two years, but if money allows I definitely want live in a modern, well insulated house. It’s unbelievable how much energy goes to waste in this country for heating up and cooling down homes! Have you seen an improve in insulation with your new place?

    • Clayton MacKnight January 25, 2014, 2:47 pm

      Our places (old and new) are a bit of an exception to the rule. Our old place was an older reinforced concrete building that was well-insulated, thick walls to the point that wifi hardly worked past one or two rooms. So, we had no problems, except for some strange reason, when we had a typhoon our one bedroom window always leaked. They never could figure out why though.

      We practically stole our new place. We were in the right place and the right time, rich seller who didn’t care about the price, realtor that just wanted to flip it and move on, so ours is a steel house, which is fairly rare. It is essentially 3 houses, a steel skeleton coated with wood (inside and outside) and double-pane windows, so yeah it is pretty well insulated. The walls are a foot thick (no joke).

      Newer houses (in the last 5 years or so) usually have uv-cutting double-pane windows (what they call ペアグラス), even in the McMansions that we saw, so it is really starting to improve, especially with everyone’s concerns about rising energy costs due to the nuclear shutdowns.

      Anything pre-1990 is rubbish for insulation though (outside of reinforced concrete apartments/condos and the extremely rare house), and the 1990s and early 2000s weren’t significantly better. To be honest though, I’ve only had a problem with insulation once here, it was my first place, ratty old all-tatami apartment that shook when a big truck drove by. I didn’t stay there long.

  • Colin June 29, 2014, 8:15 pm

    I really enjoyed listening to this podcast. I’ll be moving to Kyoto soon with my Kyoto-gin wife from California. While we have a place to stay for the time being, looking down the line, I always loved the traditional Japanese houses. Does anyone realistically consider buying and living in these? I hear there is somewhat of a revival of maintaining these building in Kyoto but it seems they are mostly converted into inns/cafes/bars/art galleries. Do you know of anyone living in one? Are they happy with it?

    • Clayton MacKnight June 30, 2014, 2:30 pm

      In my very limited experience, finding a traditional Japanese house worth saving would be a herculean task. They have really gone the way of the dodo simply because they are pretty drafty, hard to keep the bugs out (cockroaches love tatami), and are pretty expensive to maintain. The humidity takes its toll on them.

      They do still exist, but I would not recommend it to anyone. To make it liveable to the standards you are probably used to would take a lot of renovations. DIY is an option, but you have to worry about earthquake code and such. Most people don’t DIY in Japan.

      There are traditional houses in Kyoto that have been well-maintained, but they are atrociously expensive for something livable. The few people that I know that have them complain that the second floor is completely unlivable in summer due to the intense humidity and heat that Kyoto is famous for.

      I think the main reason why they have been converted into commercial property is because that is the only way to afford to renovate them, and keep them maintained to a decent level. And you know tourists want to see traditional Japan. I mean, if you like roughing it, there are plenty of options, but I wouldn’t move into one.

      Are you looking for a city house like this?:

      Note the bathroom is outside. The shower room is usually outside as well in these older places. So, they are just simply not desirable anymore.

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