Of all the economic and social criticism that has been leveled against Japan in recent years, perhaps no single comment has hurt Japanese pride so deeply as a remark made by EC representative John Glenman: “The Japanese,” he reported, “are a nation of workaholics living in rabbit hutches.”

Being characterized as ultra-hard workers is not so new. After all, the Japanese have tenaciously maintained their traditional work ethic amid growing affluence and the complaints of more leisure oriented societies. But “rabbit hutches?” That was an attack that caught everyone off-guard.

Statistically, at least, the housing situation in Japan compares favorably with that of most nations, including many in Europe. With an average of 4.2 rooms per dwelling, Japan boasts housing roomier than that of France and equal to that of West Germany. The country’s average number of occupants per room is 0.9 – the same as Italy’s. And widespread construction projects undertaken since World War Two have virtually rid the nation of both the shantytowns so common in developing countries and the aging slums that plague their more developed neighbors.

What’s more, the number of housing units in Japan surpassed that of households back in 1968, thus ending the absolute shortage of housing that persisted after the war. Today, units exceed households by some 8 percent, and the country has the second highest percentage of home ownership in the world, following only the United States.

Yet Glenman’s remark seems to have taken firm root in the Japanese psyche, causing householders of all economic levels to question their once-comfortable-enough living conditions. Is the Japanese home really a hutch? And how is the nation’s housing situation changing?

Not a Castle

The general Western opinion of what a house should be, and be used for, differs quite sharply from the Japanese concept. In the West, architects design substantial structures with thick, insulated walls to keep out the cold, and big, independent rooms to provide large-boned people with privacy.

“Westerners view nature as a hostile enemy,” says one Tokyo architect. “Their homes are built like fortresses against it. But the Japanese see nature as a friend. Our homes are built to let the natural environment in.”

This philosophy of coexistence is evidenced in many ways. Unfinished wood is frequently used in contrast with the natural textures of other building materials. Thick mats of woven grass (tatami) cover the floors. Sliding panels and screens with rice-paper windows (shoji) take the place of doors and interior walls, allowing rooms to be eliminated or enlarged at will. In essence, the archetypal Japanese house is a light, wooden, post-and-beam structure designed on an “open plan” so that rooms are not clearly separated from each other or from the adjoining garden.

Such a modular design might appear flimsy to observers from colder climes – the house of sticks, as opposed to the house of bricks. But the Japanese people prefer to build their homes with the heat and humidity of summer in mind: large openings permit cooling cross ventilation, and deep eaves cut off direct sunlight. In winter, which is relatively mild, they simply put on more clothing and use devices that heat only one room or a portion of it at a time rather than install central heating.

Interiors, too, are usually furnished sparingly – as much a reflection of Japanese practicality as Zen aesthetics. Low ceilings seem much higher to people who customarily sit on cushions at knee-high tables. Floor bedding (futon) can be easily folded up and stored away during the day to convert “bedrooms” for other uses. Even the most modern refrigerators and washing machines are designed to be comp[act because shopping and laundering are preferably done on a daily basis. And since the Japanese home is seldom used for recreation or entertaining, there isn’t much need for parlors, game rooms, workshops, wine cellars, and the like.

“The ability to live without furniture,” noted Lafcadio Hearn in 1896, “without impedimenta, with the least possible amount of neat clothing, shows more than the advantage held by this Japanese race in the struggle for life; it shows also the character of some weaknesses in our own civilization — the useless multiplicity of our daily wants. We must have meat and bread and butter; glass windows and fire; hats, white shirts, and woolen underwear; boots and shoes; trunks, bags, and boxes; bedsteads, mattresses, sheets, and blankets; all of which a Japanese can do without, and really better off without.”

This basic Japanese spirit of “making a little do a lot” has lasted through this century and may very well endure the next. Despite increased consumerism, most Japanese families still make do with a very limited amount of furniture. And though new houses are no longer largely wooden, making ample use of steel frames, and reinforced concrete, electric lighting and air-conditioning, the aim of Japanese architects is still to create dwelling that are compact, multifunctional, and simple in design.

Living in the City

To see “typically” Japanese construction at its best, one need only take a trip through any rural area in Japan. Many of the countryside houses are over a century old, and the newer ones, too, display the “restrained elegance” (shibui) that has always been the hallmark of delicate Japanese design. These are no rabbit hutches. But the closer one gets to city centers, especially those of Tokyo and Osaka, the more congested and less attractive the housing situation becomes.

Perhaps the least impressive form of Japanese urban dwelling is the modern public housing complex (danchi), the largest of which are in Chiba-kaihin New Town in Chiba Prefecture (comprising 12,765 units), Sebri New Town in Osaka (10,248 units) and Takashimadaira Housing Development in Tokyo (10,170 units). Here tenants are clustered in block-long, ten-story high buildings that feature hundreds of inexpensive, look-alike apartments. Many of these are so-called 2LDK units (two-rooms and a living /dining room/kitchen area), which often but barely accommodate families of four.

A step up from danchi are two-story private apartment buildings, commonly located in city suburbs, containing six to ten units that range in size from 1 K to 4LDK. Such apartments are generally more comfortable than danchi units, but the average rent will be at least twice as high – on the order of 60,000 Yen (US$260) per month. Furthermore, landlords usually require new tenants to pay nonrefundable “key money” equivalent to two or three months’ rent, plus an “agent’s fee” equal to a months rent and two months deposit prior to moving in.

For those who would rather own than rent, there are two possible alternatives. Condominiums (euphemistically called “mansions” by the Japanese) have sprung up in abundance near major computer stations. Private, two-story houses are also available in city outskirts — at a price.

And the price is quite dear, indeed. According to the Ministry of Construction, a typical house bought in the mid-1970’s cost 12.2 million Yen (US$53,000). In Tokyo and Osaka, residential land alone now sells for more than 80,000 Yen (US$348) per square meter on the average, while the price of acquiring an entire house has leapt from 12.34 million Yen to nearly 30 million Yen (US$130,000) during the past decade. Conveniently located 2DK condominiums currently cost around 23 million Yen (US$100,000).

Assuming that this year’s home buyer borrows to finance just 40 percent of his/her purchase, setting aside 25 percent of disposable income for monthly payments, the new house won’t be paid for in full until the year 2000 or 2002 under current loan and mortgage schemes. By comparison, rented housing usually takes just a 9 percent bite out of the household budget each month.

Consequently, the Japanese dream of owning “My Home” has been severely eroded. Figures in the government’s 1981 White Paper on National Life indicate that “without a special fortune or gift of property, a normal family can no longer possess a home of its own.” In response, the Japanese have become exceptionally mobile in their search of better, more spacious housing: one out of three households changes residence every five years.

The Race for Space

The only problem is that there really aren’t many spacious places to move to. Today the world’s sixth most populous nation, with more than 115 million people living on a group of islands the size of Montana, Japan is hard pressed for space. In strict terms, the country is less densely populated than Belgium or the Netherlands, but because two-thirds of Japan’s land is forested and mountainous, what plains there are have been crowded to the point where 90 percent of the people are now living on 20 percent of the land.

Numerous measures have been taken to cope with this situation. Building higher apartment blocks is one. New “earthquake-proof” construction technology has allowed architects to move up in areas where it is impossible to spread out. The resulting danchi and tall condominiums have done much to ease city housing shortages, if at the sake of private gardens, ground-level parking facilities, and the view, in many cases.

Another approach has been to increase unit size by cutting down on exterior space. Since the early 1960’s, the average floor space of new housing units has increased from 55-58 square meters to 84-88 square meters, while the average land plot has decreased to 200-230 square meters from a high of 300 square meters prior to World War Two. In heavily populated areas, the average plot is, however, just 60-70 percent of the national average and about one-third have areas less than 100 square meters. Not surprisingly, householder complaints about the small size of housing declined 29 percent during the 1970’s, while other complaints about the lack of a garden, limited privacy, and limited sunshine/air circulation rose significantly.

In order to provide the large, comfortable independent houses with yards that most Japanese dream of, developers have also been undertaking projects farther and farther away from city centers. The prefectures bordering Tokyo to the north and the east, Chiba and Saitama, for example, have become havens for thousands of commuters, who now consider any housing within a ninety minute train ride from the office to be well located. Homes in these areas are still far from cheap , but they do offer the room to stretch out that so many Tokyoites desire.

And to help make “My Home” just a little more affordable most major companies help their employees arrange for low-interest housing loans through the government, their own affiliated banks, or private mortgage plans. Even the developers themselves provide financing; a typical one advertises to cover up to 80 percent of the total price at a mere 8.34 percent annual interest over 5-30 years.

Where to Go?

So far, these solutions have succeeded in putting a roof over the head of every household in Japan. With the problem of the absolute housing shortage now behind them, Japan’s urban planners are turning to the question of quality rather than quantity, though still faced with the dilemma of limited space for expansion.

In this regard, the central government has been actively promoting a number of long-range proposals to ease urban congestion and somehow diffuse the country’s over-concentrated population. Former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was one of the first to suggest an answer: relocate the nation’s capital, all its government offices and thousands of employees, in Tsukuba City, some 80 kilometers northeast of the present location in Tokyo. Although this proposal was never carried through, a major university complex was established in Tsukuba, thus aiding the decentralization effort in at least a small way.

The late Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira advocated an even more ambitious “Pastoral City Plan,” aimed at revamping family and neighborhood living by means of developing medium-sized cities of 200,000 to 300,000 residents all across the country. Under this scheme, government funds would be used to provide existing towns with new medical and entertainment facilities and enough job and education opportunities to curb the flow of rural youth to big cities and entice some migrants to return. The plausibility of this plan is still being studied by government officials.

Other moves which may have direct bearing on the future distribution and living comfort of the Japanese people include massive land reclamation projects (see Tradepia International, Autumn 1980) and higher taxes on city land used for farming. The Japanese National Railways is also nearing completion of developing a magnetically levitated train – the Linear Motorcar – capable of transporting passengers at speeds in excess of 500 kilometers per hour, thus bringing distant housing projects within a short commute of major cities. And one private developer is forging ahead with the construction of underwater houses, noting that there is almost unlimited space for expansion on the sea floor surrounding Japan.

But for the foreseeable future, the nation’s best bet for roomier housing seems to be in Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island. With an area of 83,511 square kilometers, much of it flatland, it makes up 22 percent of the country’s total land mass, yet it’s inhabited by only 5 percent of the total population. To stimulate industrial development in Hokkaido, a 2,800,000-million Yen (US$90,000 million), 10-year Hokkaido Development Plan was initiated in 1971. The program aims at improvement and development of key industries, such as agriculture, forestry, stock farming, fishery, timber, paper-pulp, and steel. The showcase of the plan will be a large-scale industrial complex for manufacturing, iron and steel making, automobile assembly, oil refining, and petrochemical production, all scheduled for completion in 1985. The government envisages a mini-exodus of families and industries to the region soon after.

In the meantime, and for those who elect to remain in Japan’s megapolitan suburbs, the obvious solution to limited housing space is smaller families. Nowadays, nuclear families make up 60.3 percent of all Japanese households , which average 3.45 persons each in the 1970’s. Understandably, the average household in crowded Tokyo reported just 2.9 family members, the lowest in the nation.

This article first appeared in Tradepia International, Winter 1981