Compact and Bijou: Inside My Tiny Japanese Flat
Compact and bijou: inside a 14m2 Japanese flat.

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Japanese flats are a lot smaller than ones in the West. But is this just the result of land scarcity or is there something deeper afoot?
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Back in March last year, things were very different. I was in Japan, the cherry blossom was out and the flat (or apartment) I was renting was just round the corner from my mate Manami’s pub. I couldn’t have been happier, especially as my pad was a peach. Then Covid came along with all its attendant hysteria and I was ordered back to Blighty for bang-up in Cornwall, where I’ve been stuck ever since, my most palatial of Japanese flats naught but a memory.

And when I say palatial, I mean palatial. Well, in relative terms, anyway. Not only did it have its own separate kitchen, but it also boasted a separate living-room and a separate bedroom. Moreover, while in Japanese terms the kitchen, khazi and living room were ‘Western’ in styling, the bedroom was not, being of the traditional ilk instead, with sliding doors, a futon on the floor and tatami mats to boot.

Flippin’ Humungous!

Admittedly, I never actually got the ruler out and measured the flat’s total floor space. However, if this local property website is anything to go by, then my particular gaff, which would be deemed a 1LDK in Japan, viz a one-bedroom apartment (1) with both a closed-off living/dining room (LD) and similarly self-contained kitchen (K), would have been somewhere in the region of 23 to 35 m2.

Now, I realise that that might not quite knock Blenheim into a cocked hat. But trust me, compared to the previous Japanese flats I’d inhabited, it was absolutely monster. And if you don’t believe me, check out this video of one of the places I had previously called home in Japan. All 14 m2 of it.

Unit Bathroom

Before I go on, I want to point out that the flat shown in the above vid (and at the top of this page) was flippin’ ace and I am not knocking it one bit. OK, so it might have been a bit cramped for a family of four, but for me it was perfect, being equipped with pretty much everything I needed, including a fridge, a hob, a microwave, a bed, a balcony and, of course, a very Japanese unit bathroom – a compact bath/shower and toilet enclosure seemingly formed from a single sheet of moulded plastics.

To be honest, I’m still not sure if the kitchen counted as being separate or not and thus whether it was a 1K flat as opposed to a 1R (i.e. one-room) flat. However, at 14 m2 and boasting its own duplex ‘loft’ space for sleeping, it was nonetheless fairly spacious compared to some Japanese flats (which don’t always boast their own toilet or bathroom).

Certainly, when my mate Cheeky Monkey saw that vid, he reckoned I was pretty spoilt for space compared to the cupboard he’d lived in while teaching English out there. Japanese flats, you see, are typically a tad more cramped than their Western counterparts, being, in the words of a certain Alliance & Leicester advert, somewhat “compact and bijou, Mostyn. Compact and bijou.”

Japanese Flats and Mountains

But why are Japanese flats so small? Well, the obvious answer to that is the country’s general lack of living space. While Japan covers an area just shy of 378,000 km2, making it roughly one-and-a-half times the size of the UK, some 73% of its land mass is covered by mountains, which, while not the tallest in the world, are nonetheless far too steep to farm let alone build homes on.

Meanwhile, with a national headcount of around 126.5m, Japan supports a population (albeit a declining and aging one) knocking on for twice that of the UK’s estimated 67.9m. This results in a population density of around 334 people per km2 (or 346.9, according to these stats here). While not quite as extreme as Monaco’s 26,337 or Macau’s 21,717, it nonetheless makes Japan the 39th most-densely populated country on the planet, ahead of both the UK and the US, which, with population densities of 280.6 and 36.2, rank 51st and 177th, respectively.

Remember, though, that that figure of 334 (or 346.9 if you prefer) includes significant swathes of mountainous uplands where few if any people live. Thus, in reality, the true density of Japan is far greater, with the vast majority of the Japanese population (some 91% or so) living pretty much cheek-by-jowl in big, and I mean big, urban areas and agglomerations (of which the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, with around 38m souls, is the world’s largest, although Jakarta in Indonesia is tipped by some to overtake it by around 2030 or thereabouts). Given all these factors, it seems fair to say that there isn’t much space to swing a cat in the Land of the Rising Sun, hence the tiny size of many Japanese flats. QED.

Or is it?

The kitchen inside my Japanese flat.
Flippin’ massive: The kitchen in my palatial Japanese flat.

The Spiritual Side of Japanese Flats

To be honest, I’m not totally convinced. Indeed, I can’t help thinking that there’s much more to it than just that. After all, in 1872, prior to Japan’s rapid industrialisation and corresponding modern rise of population (MRP), the country was home to just 35m people with a resulting population density of around 92.6, or 91 if this paper is correct. Either way, while Tokyo back then did have a population pushing 600,000 (compared to London’s 3.9m and New York’s 1.5m), there simply wasn’t anything like today’s physical construction constraints. Nonetheless, numerous accounts by foreign travellers during and before this time all talk of the Japanese typically living in small, sparsely furnished homes.

Consequently, I’m happy to wager that the typical size of the contemporary Japanese flat (although not totally immune from spatial availability pressures, historical land ownership and wider economic factors) probably owes a fair whack to concepts of modesty and ‘minimalism’ borne of the indigenous Shinto and subsequent Buddhist belief systems. Moreover, these concepts, further tempered by the Confucianism promoted by the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600 – 1868) and which seem so fundamentally at odds with the general Western desire to be as bombastic and as showy with the trappings of material wealth as possible, can still very much be seen at play within Japanese art, design and, yep, even food portions.

While some aspects of modern kawaii culture, not to mention the country’s numerous noisy and neon-lit pachinko parlours, might fly in the face of it, the fact remains that Japanese aesthetic and architectural practice has long placed an emphasis on modesty and serene understatement: empty spaces into which the bird can fly, to paraphrase a pre-modern painter whose name I can’t recall right now. Big ballsy flats brimming with trinkets and trophies simply don’t sit well with that. Genkans, however, most certainly do. But what, you may be wondering, is a genkan?

A traditionally-furnished Japanese bedroom.
Modest and minimal: My traditional Japanese bedroom.

Enter the Genkan

Well, first up, it’s a feature of practically every Japanese flat you’re ever likely to enter. As you open the front door, you will be greeted by what to the untrained eye might simply seem a step that leads up to the main living space beyond. That lower level between door and floor proper, though, is actually the genkan and its presence is no accident. Rather, it is here, in this area before you enter the main part of the home, that you are expected to remove your footwear.

To many a westerner, this may come as a shock. When I grew up in Cornwall, for instance, anyone who asked you to take your shoes off at the door was seen as some kind of stuck-up snob, probably from Up Country or summat. In Japan, however, it is not just de rigueur but absolutely obligatory to kick off your clogs before clomping round someone’s condo. Again, this can arguably be traced back to Shintoist beliefs, this time in terms of purity and pollution, the same beliefs behind the ritual washing of hands and mouths before approaching a temple and which today still see Japanese train and taxi drivers wearing white gloves at work.

A genkan inside a Japanese flat.
My rather deep genkan: Note the shoe cupboard to the left and how I never used it.

Japanese Flats and the Outside World

According to Shintoism, the outside world (present on, and ergo represented by, your shoes, boots and brothel creepers) is something that needs to be demarcated and kept at bay from the inner sanctity of the hearth and home. The outside world, so the reasoning goes, is tainted with pollution and death: stuff you don’t want in your living space. And that’s where the genkan comes in: a liminal zone between out there and in here, a ritualistic air-lock if you will.

Not that it doesn’t have other functions as well, mind. Often home to a cupboard for shoe storage, it is also where you’ll likely find the lecky and other utility meters. Indeed, the genkan is legally deemed (or so I understand) a public space, something to bear in mind if you like to doing naked things without first locking the door (and also something you should confirm with a qualified legal professional before popping round for a picnic in the noddy in your neighbour’s).

Furthermore, in my long-lamented last flat, the surprisingly deep depth of my genkan also provided me with a perch where I could actually sit in the conventional Western manner. Traditional Japanese flats and homes, you see, don’t have much in the way of chairs. Instead, you simply sit on the floor. And when there’s not much but your own clothes separating your firmament from the floorboards, no one wants some inconsiderate idiot tramping dog dirt round the place on the bottoms of their huge great beetle crushers. So, take your bloody shoes off, yeah?

Anyway, I could go on but all that talk about Manami’s pub at the start has made me thirsty, so here’s the 13th Floor Elevators with a suitably appropriate abode-themed classic. Laters!

Notes and Credits

Obviously, not all Japanese flats and homes are or were small. I’m talking generally and in relative terms compared to the West, particularly the UK and US. Also, it should be noted that unlike in the UK, the streets are kept immaculately clean, with the risk of treading in a dog egg very slim indeed.

Words and pictures © Ignatius Rake.

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“It’s kawaii, Jim, but not as we know it.”

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