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No Place Like Home

Posted by Dave Bull at 12:46 PM, November 5, 1994

Recently I've been reading in my newspaper about the problems sometimes faced by foreigners trying to rent accomodation here in Japan. Although I realize that some people have difficulties with this, my experience has been quite different. When I was trying to find a place to live, the real estate agent I contacted was open and friendly, even though my Japanese was at the time extremely rudimentary. She showed me a number of units, and I was able to choose from among them. It was a 3DK (three rooms plus dining_kitchen) that I was interested in, and after a reasonably priced area had been found, the choice came down to things like sunshine in the rooms, and access to shopping. I selected a unit, paid the necessary deposit and key money, and my family took possession, one of the first tenants in a newly-erected building.

Although I had previous to this, visited Japanese homes and apartments on a number of occasions, this was my first experience of actually living in such a space. The most overwhelming initial impression was of course the scale - the miniature size of nearly everything. Doorways, countertops, light switches ... everything seemed to be designed for use by children. Do you remember that big upset some years ago when that European diplomat called Japanese homes 'rabbit hutches'? To my mind, I would call them 'doll houses'!

Although the historical reasons for Japanese houses being small and cramped are easily understandable, that they should still be built on this scale in the 1990's is a bit of a puzzle. As is readily apparent the moment one steps onto a morning train full of school students, modern Japanese are very different from their parents, being in most cases a good head taller. But buildings are still being constructed for the most part on the old traditional patterns. I don't think it is only foreigners like me who walk around with a crease across their forehead where the low doorways have 'suprised' us ... It is young Japanese too. And not only the boys!

One of my relatives is in the house construction business, and I remember asking him about this a few years ago. He could only shrug his shoulders ... they just simply followed the old systems. No single company could handle this situation. To change would mean upsetting the entire industry. It's not just a simple matter of raising the height of a doorway, for example. As the rest of world discovered during the changeover to using the metric way of measurement, things are just so intertwined that it becomes necessary to alter the entire system. I suppose the changeover will only be made when enough of these young giant boys start working as architects and designers.

Other than this question of scale, the next strong impression my new apartment made on me was the way it forced us into a kind of 'togetherness'. If I sit say, at the dining table, I can see into every room of the apartment. At any given moment, all of us know where the other family members are, and what they are doing. The idea of 'personal privacy' is simply non-existent. Other than the rather useless solitude obtained sitting on the toilet, privacy can only be found in 'time' - by choosing moments when other family members are absent, when kids are at school, or in bed, etc. Each area of the apartment must not only serve different functions during the course of a day ... sleeping, eating, playing, etc., but must also serve different people, at different times. It is actually a very efficient system, provided one has the discipline to accept the required strict routine and order.

I guess our family does, as we're still living in the same place, eight years down the road. My two daughters have spent the greater part of their lives in these rooms, and I suppose, for better or worse, their personalities have been shaped to quite some degree by this place. Do two kids who sleep side by side, study side by side, play side by side, and bathe side by side, have a different relationship than two who have private rooms for these functions? Surely they must. I must admit I can't say 'better' or 'worse', but it must certainly be different. If a future generation of Japanese children is brought up in bigger homes, everybody with their own room, American-style, will it drastically alter the national character? I am sure it will, presumably in the direction of increasing individualism, a movement that is already well under way here ...

But that is for the future. What of the here and now? How is it that a Canadian like myself, brought up in a series of pretty large homes, has been able to live for so long in this restricted space? I have thought a lot about this, and can only conclude that it must be that my generally quiet, non-assertive nature is basically suited to this kind of place. I can't pretend that there have been no stresses and strains in these rooms during the eight years, but all in all, we seem to have arrived at a comfortable balance. I suppose that we have been shaped or molded by this space. It has dictated a certain way of living to us, and we have absorbed this. And actually, I think I would feel quite uncomfortable if we were suddenly transported into a large-scale 'Canadian' house. "Himi, where are you ...?" Surely, it would be too quiet. There must be vague noises from distant parts of the building as people go about their business. It might be rather unsettling ...

I just have to admit, although Canadian friends probably won't believe it, that I've now become completely 'programmed' to match this Japanese living space. I don't envy them at all their wide rooms, their tall doorways, their large gardens, their spacious kitchens, their multiple bathrooms, their huge basements, their ...

Well, not much. But you know, I do have one thing they don't have. From my balcony, early on winter mornings, if I lean out a bit, stand on tiptoes, and stretch to the right ... there it is! The very top of white snow-capped Fuji-san! So there!

(November 1994)


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