The Living Landscape in Japan


In early 2015 I led a research project into the contemporary Japanese living environment for the Asia Pacific Initiative Foundation, an independent think tank in Tokyo.

While Japanese architects are highly lauded outside of the country, little is known about the residential environment in which “normal” people live.

As the population shrinks and ages, the countryside hollows out, and people seek to reverse the environmental damage and loss of community wrought by rapid industrialisation, new and diverse ways of using and adapting housing are emerging in Japan.

Once maligned as “rabbit hutches” by disdainful Westerners, Japanese homes deserve a reassessment. Not only has the quality of houses has improved thanks to a rapid construction turnover that accelerated innovation and technological refinement, but the way people use their homes has also greatly evolved.

From eco-conscious people living in “zero energy” houses, young people cultivating vegetable gardens in the city, multi-generational communes, wooden skyscrapers and creative crashpads where sharing of rooms and resources is promoted, the range of burgeoning lifestyle movements suggests the stereotype of overworked salarymen stuffed in one-room apartments no longer holds true in Japan.

I published a series of articles in The Financial Times and Quartz, among others, that reveal the often overlooked innovation, creativity and flexibility in Japan’s living environment. These growing movements can be relevant for other countries facing similar social, demographic and environmental pressures.

Muji is redesigning Tokyo’s cheap estate housing as a hip lifestyle choice – Quartz

“Muji and UR’s collaboration makes sense, given their shared commitment to making good design available to the masses, Julian Worrall, a professor of architecture and urban design at the University of Adelaide, told Quartz.

‘Muji is a fantastic example of both of being thoroughly Japanese but also completely imbibing the spirit of Bauhaus: marrying beauty and industry and affordability, that democratic aspect,’ he says.”

Tokyo designers push the boundaries of wooden skyscrapers – Financial Times 

“Yet even as the remnants of Tokyo’s timber past are scraped off the map, wood may be poised for a renaissance in Japan, spurred by advances in fireproofing technologies and government initiatives to cut carbon emissions and prop up the ailing domestic timber market… wooden skyscrapers may soon be a reality, even in earthquake-prone Tokyo.”

A house for all seasons – Financial Times

“Curiously, the aversion to insulation has persisted to the present day, only now people blast air conditioners to keep warm as opposed to huddling round a hearth. Heating one room at a time saves energy — despite its icy winters, Japan uses a quarter of the energy for heating as Germany, for example — but stepping from a warm room into a cold one can cause heat shock, which in turn can lead to heart attacks and strokes.”

Harnessing the power of community to drive an energy revolution – Japan Times

“While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s devotion to nuclear power and lackluster reforms on renewables have dashed hopes of an energy revolution four years on from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, small-scale, grass-roots efforts such as Fujino Power are flourishing.”

Japanese prefab tiny homes could change the way we think about disaster housing – Quartz

“Meanwhile, demand for weather-resilient and sanitary low-cost housing in emerging Asian nations is rising, but local homebuilders continue to focus on the expanding middle class rather than those at the bottom of the ladder. Realizing disaster housing and low-cost housing shared many requirements—inexpensive, quick and easy to construct, suitable for families—Daiwa Lease realized the potential in making a single unit that could serve both needs.”

A greater share for the Japanese sharehouse –

“Japan may have arrived late to the sharehouse trend, but it has created a range of inventive communal homes reflecting diverse lifestyles, from penniless urban artists to farming fanatics and young parents. Many of the 2,800 sharehouses across the country unite people in a common interest, whether coding, climbing, or crocheting, or answer the needs of underserved members of society, such as single mothers and the elderly.”

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