Housing in Japan

A modern Japanese house.Housing in Japan consists of both modern and traditional styles; however both appear to be constructed with traditional Japanese customs in mind. Two types of residences are predominating in the country: the single-family detached house and the multiple unit building, which are either owned by an individual or organization, or rented out to willing tenants.  Additional types of housing, especially for unmarried couples, include boarding houses (popular amongst college students), dormitories (common in companies) and barracks (for members of defence force or sometimes for those of other public employment. Japanese houses are traditionally constructed from wood, although, concrete and steel are now widely used too. The walls are usually kept thin because of the mild climate, and overlapping, slanted and slightly curved roofs are added because Japan receives quite a bit of rain. 1868, when Japan opened itself up to the world, was the time when Western style architecture began appearing, replacing that of traditional Japan, however certain Japanese customs have still remained unchanged.


A Japanese home's Genkan.If you were to visit a Japanese home, one of the first aspects of the house you would be introduced to is the Genkan. This area is situated at the same level as the outside floor, and is where you should take your shoes off whilst stepping up on to the raised floor; the rest of the house is constructed at the same level as this raised floor. Commonly situated in the Genkan is a wooden cabinet known as getabako, where removed shoes can be stored and slippers for wear in the home can be removed for use. The removing of the shoes in this room, and the wearing of slippers throughout the house, is an old Japanese custom, which also aids in keeping the house as clean as possible.

Bathroom and Toilet

A Japanese bathroom.The Japanese home typically has multiple rooms for what we recognise in Western housing as the bathroom. Separate rooms for the toilet, sink and ofuro (bathing room) are common. Small apartments, however, usually contain what is known as a unit bath: a single room containing all three fixtures. The room with the sink, which is called the “clothes changing room”, usually also has enough room for a clothes-washing machine. The room containing the bathtub is completely waterproof, and usually contains a shower too. Unlike in Western society, the bathtub in Japan is used solely for relaxing or soaking, while the shower is used solely for washing. As a result, neither soap nor dirty water actually enters the bath tub, and therefore it is suitable for recycling, and is often used in the clothes-washing machine via an extension pipe to save water. After bathing, the bath tub should not be emptied as all household members use the same water. Hot water for bathing is usually obtained from a gas or kerosene heater, usually located outdoors. The typical Japanese water heater is tankless, and instead heats water on demand. When entering the room containing the toilet, a person traditionally wears plastic or latex slippers in placement of the household slippers, and removes them after exiting; they should never be worn for anything other than this purpose.


A modern Japanese kitchen.The modern Japanese kitchen features appliances such as a stove and broiler (grill), and an electric refrigerator. The stove may be built-in or free-standing, and is usually gas-burning, although recently induction heating ranges have become popular. Many kitchens have electric exhaust fans. Furnishings commonly include microwave ovens and electric toaster-ovens. Broilers are designed for cooking fish, and are usually a part of the stove. Built-in ovens large enough to bake or roast are uncommon, as are built-in dishwashers. The kitchen includes running water, typically with hot and cold faucets.


A floor covered by tatami mats.What was once a luxury only for the rich in old Japan, is now commonly found in atleast one room in both modern and traditional housing across Japan. Tatami mats are a traditional Japanese floor covering. Made of woven straw, and traditionally packed with straw (although now it is common to stuff with styrofoam), tatami are created as individual mats and are usually bordered with a plain green cloth. They are sewn to be, on average, 5.5cm thick, and are nowadays used to cover entire rooms. Although as mats they could simply be laid down however you wish, the Japanese have various rules concerning the number and layout of tatami mats across the room; an inconspicuous layout is said to bring bad fortune. In the home, the tatami mats must never be laid down in a grid patter, and there can never be a point where the corners of three or four mats intersect. In Japanese real estate, the sizes of the rooms are commomnly measured and advertised in a number of tatami mats, with the average tatami mat measuring 90x80x5cm. Generally, the Japanese do not use chairs on tatami mats, instead they either sit on them directly or use cushions known as zabuton.

Sliding Doors

A Shoji door.Commonly found in both Traditional and Modern Japanese architecture, fusuma and shoji are unique sliding doors used to separate rooms. Although the their styles differ, both run on wooden rails at the top and bottom of a constructions, with a lubricated strip in the bottom to allow for silent sliding. A fusuma is a wooden frame with fusuma paper pasted on both sides, while a shoji is a latticed wooden frame with many shoji paper windows. The shoji paper is translucent, which allows a soft light to enter the room while the doors are closed. In older constructions fusuma doors are as little as 170cm tall, however with the average height of the Japanese population increasing, it is now common for fusuma doors to be 190cm tall. When fusuma paper is torn, a proffesional should be used to repair it, but when shoji paper is torn it can easily be repaired by the average person. In ancient times, these sliding doors were fitted into the walls to partition large rooms, however eventually this inconvinience was overcome by adding grooves at the top and bottom which is now the sliding feature.



A traditional Japanese room (Washitsu)It is common for at least one traditional Japanese room to be included in the construction of a Japanese home, and this is known as a washitsu. In the past, all Japanese rooms were constructed in this way. It commonly features the traditional tatami flooring, shoji rather than drapes or curtains covering the window, a fusuma sliding door to separate it from the other rooms, an oshiire (a closet) with two levels of storing, and usually is constructed with a wooden ceiling. It might be unfurnished, and function as a family room by day and a bedroom by night, however it is also common to use this room for entertaining guests. If this room is furnished in the traditional way, it may include a low table for a family to eat off, and cushions called zabuton to sit on. This room usually differs greatly from the rest of the house, as other rooms are commonly constructed in a western style with modern materials.

Living Room/s

A Japanese living room.The term “living room” in Japan, especially in real estate, can be quite deceiving, as unlike in Western culture these living rooms are usually multi-purpose. In other words, they could be simultaneously used as a bedroom, a living room, a dining room or a study; all depending on the needs of the residents. Moreover, it is common for these living rooms to be separated using removable sliding doors, either fusuma or shoji, so the living rooms can easily be converted to one large single room, which is especially useful for when large gatherings take place. If this is the case, all the necessary furniture in these rooms is as portable as possible, allowing them to be easily stored at such a time. If futons are preferred for sleeping, the rooms are commonly fitted with closets which store them when not in use; however modern beds are becoming more and more prominent. If beds are used, sections of carpet (or other material) must be laid down to protect the tatami flooring.

Apartment Buildings

An example of a Japanese apartment. (artist's impression)As the population of Japan grows, the need for housing does too, so of course apartments became inevitable. Each apartment building is usually five to eight stories high and has been designed to accommodate normal Japanese lifestyle. The normal, modern day apartment will have one main room which serves as a dining/living/kitchen area, a bathroom and one or two other rooms separated by sliding doors. These other rooms are versatile, so can be used for anything such as a bedroom or extra entertaining areas. The apartment floors are usually covered with tatami, and each room is fitted with a closet to store futons (although, as said above beds are becoming more prominent) when not in use. Each apartment almost always comes with a balcony, which are typically used to air futons and dry clothes.


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