Awakening the desire for a home with personality

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

Bored with run-of-the-mill suburban Japanese apartments? Perhaps putting the grand piano in the center of the living room would improve the situation. Or a kitchen table that extends like a giant pontoon into the living room to form a large dining table? Or perhaps you might fancy a house into which you can drive your electric vehicle?

These and many other ideas are currently on display at a specially constructed venue at Tokyo’s waterside Odaiba district in an exhibition whose aim is nothing less than to revolutionize the Japanese public’s attitude to housing.

“House Vision 2013 Tokyo Exhibition” is the brainchild of renowned graphic designer and art director Kenya Hara, and it represents the first attempt to present to the public the ideas that he and many diverse collaborators have formulated in the House Vision think tank that they established two years ago.

“Housing brings together so many important issues — the aging population, decreasing number of children, changing attitudes to quality of life, innovation, technology,” Hara told The Japan Times recently. “It really is the key.”

In the course of their deliberations on housing issues in Japan, Hara and his collaborators have amassed an impressive collection of statistics. For example, according to a government paper issued in 2010, the size of the average Japanese household has plummeted from 4.14 in the 1960s to 2.4. In Tokyo, the figures are even lower, with the average household now being less than two people.

More important is a government estimate on expected growth in the secondhand housing sector. Currently worth ¥4 trillion, that market is expected to double to ¥8 trillion by 2020.

The key to the House Vision exhibition is that these two trends will likely lead to a boom in the popularity of house and condominium renovations. Hara believes that houses and condominiums that were built in the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s for large families will in future be repurposed for the increasing number of career bachelors, childless couples, compact three-person families or retiree couples in ways that reflect contemporary Japanese people’s increased interest in quality of life.

“In the past, a house or apartment has only ever been about fulfilling particular needs,” Hara said. “In future it will be seen as a means by which people actually gain pleasure out of life.”

Anyone who has experience of living in the West and in Japan will likely have paused over the statistic noted above about expected growth in the secondhand house/condominium market.

For decades the accepted wisdom on Japanese housing has been that Japanese prefer to buy new houses rather than secondhand ones.

In fact that wisdom has been around for over a century. The great Meiji Era (1867-1912) scholar Tenshin Okakura explicated the position in his 1906 treatise on Japanese aesthetics, “The Book of Tea.”

“The idea that everyone should have a (new) house of his own is based on an ancient custom of the Japanese race, Shinto superstition ordaining that every dwelling should be evacuated on the death of its chief occupant. Perhaps there may have been some unrealized sanitary reason for this practice. Another early custom was that a newly built house should be provided for each couple that married.”

If so, then what makes the government think that Japanese are suddenly about to start becoming interested in secondhand homes?

Hara explained that it will simply be a matter of economics. The decreasing population has already been exerting downward pressure on the new-homes market, with the number of new houses and apartments coming on to the market more or less declining for the last decade. Hara also notes that a huge number of high-quality houses and condominiums constructed in the ’80s, ’90s and early ’00s will shortly come onto the secondhand market as those homemakers’s children leave the nest or they themselves retire. Such abodes will represent inexpensive options for young home makers. Also, Hara notes, they will be located in better-established neighborhoods than the kind of under-baked bayside districts where property developers are currently throwing up large high-rise condominiums.

On a more philosophical level, Hara also believes the kind of resistance to secondhand homes noted by Okakura can be addressed through the application of new approaches to renovating.

“It’s certainly true that Japanese like new things. But, when renovating houses and particularly condominiums these days it is possible to entirely strip out all of the fittings — pulling up the floor boards and everything — and really creating something that is new,” he said.

Describing how the new approach distinguishes between an abode’s “skeleton” (its external walls and roof) and its “infill” (everything else), he said he believes that the Japanese taste for new things can be sated by replacing the latter and not the former.

“If you buy an old condominium and strip it back completely then you can actually totally change its appearance,” Hara said.

Still, Hara believes there is a greater obstacle that must be surmounted and that is actually awakening in the Japanese the desire to improve their own residential circumstances.

“People don’t actually realize that their house has the potential to be an extension of their own personality — their own tastes and desires,” Hara said. “If they like the piano, then why not have a grand piano in the center of a large living room? New technology makes it possible to soundproof such a room. If they like books, then why not have a house in which all of the walls are in fact bookshelves? If they like cooking, why not have a large kitchen in which they can also entertain?”

Why not, indeed? But how do you go about “educating people about their own desires” (to use Hara’s phrase)?

The key, the designer says, is to show people what is possible. “If all people know are the kind of kit homes that housing makers show them in catalogs, then that is what they will choose from. But, if you can open their eyes to all the other possibilities, then they will naturally start to think about what is best for them.”

And hence the current exhibition. While the grand piano idea isn’t on display, many other ideas are — and at life-size. The house with the giant kitchen table is the product of an unusual collaboration between the bookshop Tsutaya and website RealTokyoEstate. The house that also serves as a garage for your car (and which also features all sorts futuristic personal mobility devices) is the work of carmaker Honda and the architect Sou Fujimoto. And there are many more. Go and be inspired — and see what the future of housing in Japan might look like.

House Vision continues through March 24. The specially-made venue is located beside Aomi Station on the Yurikamome Line. For further details see house-vision.jp