Japanese homes and furniture explained

Why do the Japanese still have video recorders when the rest of the world has switched to Panasonic and Sony DVD players?

Due to the way the video rental shops work, their shelves are still full of videos and you might not be able to get want you want on DVD- especially as reissues are still quite rare.

Why do the Japanese still use upright washing machines with cold water?

Uprights take up a lot less space- you don’t need room to open a door or crouch down in front of it. Not sure about the cold water- expensive heating bills?

Why did the Japanese never invent fireplaces and chimneys?

Why did Japanese farm houses have such high ceilings?

To take the smoke away (there were no chimneys)

Why do some flats have frosted bedroom windows?

No different from shoji paper screens

Why does a crappy plastic house in Japan cost so much?

Because however expensive it gets Japanese will still buy rather than rent, to increase their much loved sense of security.

Why do you get 4 and a half tatami mat sized rooms, but not 4 mat sized rooms?

Avoiding the unlucky number 4

Why do Japanese families use a Western table and chairs for family meals and a Japanese low table on tatami for entertaining?

Lack of chairs? Lack of non-tatami space? Less problems sticking little, non-matching tables together on tatami? Showing off being able to afford (expensive) new tatami?

Why are some Japanese tansu (箪笥- a chest for storing clothes etc) shaped like steps?

These kaidan tansu(階段箪笥-staircase chests) were the actual stairs of a house, and have usually been sold off when the rest of the house was knocked down

When tansu are usually shoved away in a cupboard or kura (蔵- a traditional fireproofed warehouse seperate to the house), why did they bother making them so fancy?

Four times a year at the change of the seasons and hence the wardrobe, they would be shown off by being paraded with great ceremony from the kura to the house

Why do so many Japanese flats have ugly plastic unit bathrooms?

It’s a combination of the mould problems caused by humid conditions, cheap wooden apaato buildings and no windows in bathrooms for privacy or lack of space reasons that can make that worse, and a generally utilitarian approach to living spaces
Why strip lighting?

Why does a plot of land seem to be more expensive than buying land plus house? 

Nobody wants to live in an old house, especially someone else’s, and it costs a fortune to knock it down

How did Japanese homes get the reputation for being minimalist when every home I’ve been in has countless stuff hanging of the ceiling and walls? 

It’s a social class thing. By just showing one hanging scroll in your tokonoma alcove(but a different one every time a guest comes), you not only show your exquisite taste, but also the fact that you have a fireproofed kura storehouse to keep your stuff in

Why are traditional Japanese homes always made from wood?

The most common explanation of them being resistant to earthquakes doesn’t really stand up, because if earthquake resistance was so important they wouldn’t have such heavy roofs. The simplest explanation is just a ready supply of wood, including for many land owning villagers a piece of the mountain where they could cut down their own wood to make their own houses and barns.

Why are Japanese baths short and deep?

Again, lack of space. You can still cover your whole body with water as it is possible to fill it right to the brim and just let the excess water drain off the plastic floor.

Why are plastic “unit bathrooms” so popular?

Again, one reason is that a bath is often filled so that it spills over the edge once you get in. Also, you traditionally need a place to wash before you get in and where there is no room for a separate shower you need to do that over the plastic floor next to the bath as you don’t want to get soap inside the bathtub. Unit bathrooms are also easier to clean of mould- a common problem in Japan due to the moist climate and the lack of bathroom windows for reasons of space and privacy. Finally, they are looking a little old fashioned to young Japanese now but they seemed incredibly practical and modern to their grandparents’ and even parents’ generation.

Why do some houses have frosted windows on rooms that are not the bathroom?

It’s a privacy thing- sometimes not so much your own as to stop you looking directly into your neighbour’s house all the time. This is particularly true when your neighbour actually built where you live (many wooden “apaato” blocks were built in the gardens of houses to make a steady income).

When most old wooden houses are being knocked down, how come there are still so many traditional temples in every area?

Modern architecture temples and shrines have been tried, but don’t seem to be too popular. Priests can afford the expensive upkeep of a wooden building as they pay no inheritance tax (very high in Japan).

Why are Japanese council housing estates not run down?

You do see some really run down ones, but they actually tend to be company housing rather than council housing. One factor is that companies always have tight budgets but until recently the budgets of local government in Japan were anything but tight- especially when it came to pork barrel projects like construction (e.g. housing) that kept the local voters in work and put money in the pockets of their contractor friends.

There are other factors, of course. For one thing, there are very few immigrants. There are also no families with two or three generations unemployed or people living on welfare (almost impossible in Japan), and no big distinction between blue and white collar workers. The drop outs who might end up on an estate in Europe really drop out in Japan and end up back with their families or homeless.

Because of all these things there is no particular stigma to living on a housing estate and middle class people (and until recently 90% of Japanese defined themselves as middle class) are quite happy to live there. In fact living in a “mansion” (high rise) like this is considered more modern than living in a house- something not true until very very recently in London. If they have moved out of a rundown wooden family home in the countryside you can see how it might be seen as a step up- as it was for the first 10 years or so when the slums of London and Glasgow were cleared and rebuilt in concrete, and people were happy just to have an inside toilet. In Japan, that might be being happy not to have to spend all year fighting off the insects.

Three other factors:

-People on higher incomes are not stopped from living in council housing, they just have to pay full rent while people on restricted incomes, people with children etc. get discounts
– Most Japanese are used to living close to other people, either in a village or in a city, and they feel “lonely” in a silent rural house where they can only hear the birds
– The Japanese have a talent for appreciating the details and ignoring the big picture. If they have personalised their balcony with a few pot plants then they seem able to ignore that it looks the same as 400 others from a distance.

(The last one started off as a comment on mine on this: http://www.lo-la.co.uk/2007/08/13/on-the-road-to-nowhere-part-deux-with-signposts/ that grew like an egg in a Japanese monster film until I thought it deserved a post all of its own)

Why the sudden trend for huge American style fridges (much bigger than the average British one), despite the lack of space in homes?

An American kitchen is a status symbol. There is also a need for storage space for the huge quantities of fruit etc brought back from the countryside or given as gifts. It is also more likely to be visible to visitors than in a Western home, and the older generation lust after a nice fridge because they can still remember when any fridge was a luxury. It also doesn’t have to compete with fitted kitchens which aren’t a big thing. Japanese white goods companies are also desperate to find the next big thing. The fact that the fridge takes up a greater proportion of the space available than in a British home also puts more of a focus on it and makes what it looks like more important.


  1. jgh said,

    October 28, 2013 at 12:29 am

    Top-loading washing machines actually take up *more* space than front-loading. With a top-loader an infinite amount of space above the machine needs to be kept clear so that you can get to the lid. Alternatively, you end up piling other stuff on the lid, then find you have nowhere to shift it to when you need to get to it. With a front loader you can use all the space above the washing machine all the way up to infinity (or your ceiling).

  2. crella said,

    November 3, 2013 at 12:31 am

    But the laundry room has to be wide enough to open the front loader and still be able to get around it. I have a front loader in my laundry cubbyhole (can’t properly be called a room!) and believe me, I’d better not gain any weight!

  3. alexcase said,

    November 4, 2013 at 7:40 am

    Absolutely, and anyway you don’t need “an infinite amount of space” above a top loader, you can put shelves just 30 cms or so above the washing machine, as we and I imagine most Japanese people do.

  4. blazeaglory said,

    January 12, 2016 at 8:01 am

    Many people in America still use top loading machines, its just a preference…

    Also, I see in many Japanese houses in the north, they have above ground rectangular “tanks” that look like they hold water? What are they?

  5. Lehst said,

    February 5, 2016 at 10:56 pm

    As an American, I can say I have never seen a front loading washer in person. I think I saw one in a commercial once? The washers I’ve used or seen aren’t all really old or anything. I guess its just the trend. There are usually shelves or a cupboard on the wall above it.

    • alexcase said,

      February 7, 2016 at 8:43 pm

      Never been to The States, but you surprise me. Front loaders are even becoming popular in Japan. It’s partly a status thing (like huge fridges, Roomba, Dyson hoovers, etc), but it’s also because front loaders churn the washing more and so are simply better at washing, and with less water too. Also, if you want to have a tumble dry function, I’m guessing that basically just has to be in that direction.

      In the UK maybe the biggest brand is the Swedish company Electrolux, so I wonder if they started the whole front loader thing??

      • Shunka said,

        August 29, 2019 at 12:58 am

        Howdy- front vs top is a matter of preference. axel pointed out that front loaders offer more churn and use less water, and believes they get clothes cleaner. Over here, we feel that with sufficient water resources top loaders are better because flooding the clothes in a tub of water causes a flushing action that cleans clothes better ( especially getting out stains and smells) with less wear on the fibers and front loaders are more like mechanically beating the clothes on a rock in the river. In regions like the great lakes and other water rich areas, water conservation is less important, and in rural areas the grey water is automatically used in the drain field of a septic system. We get great crops of wildflowers and sunflowers over our drain field which is great ground cover, keeps the weeds down, and feeds the birds in addition to the beauty.

  6. Shunka said,

    August 29, 2019 at 1:14 am

    Re: Why did the Japanese never invent fireplaces and chimneys?

    I actually came here to ask that question.

    the entire world used smoke-holes in the roof until the invention of a burn-proof fireplace and chimney in EU .. earliest example is in england in 1185 in a castle. That implies high cost of labor, materials, and a new skill. It was also invented during some of the coldest times in europe, so until these “little ice ages” a firepit in the middle of the room was enough.

    One also needs burn proof walls and roofs because the fireplace and chimney literally blows sparks all over… straw roofs and walls are quite a hazard, and a chimney fire would burn the whole house to the ground in no time.

    In those times houses were drafty enough they could safely burn charcoal (which produces less smoke) without worry about carbon monoxide poisoning.

    So until they came up with sheet iron stoves and stovepipe, the firepit was at least adequate, and at best the safest.

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