Lifestyle

Downsized dwellings: Inside Tokyo's tiny living spaces

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

Twenty-five-year-old Sotaro Ito lives in a 9.46-square-meter apartment with a loft in the capital’s retro-hip Koenji district.

His apartment looks more like an office cubicle, with a desk and computer chair dominating a third of the room. A reading pillow is propped up against one of the walls, but there isn’t enough space for him to stretch out his body. A clothesline rope stretches between two wall sconces for him to dry his laundry, and his kitchen is equipped with a small sink and a single induction cooktop.

What his room lacks in space, however, is made up for in height. The ceiling of the apartment is 3.6 meters high and three windows have been built into the exterior wall, letting in plenty of light. A white ladder takes Ito up to a 4.5-square-meter loft that’s 1.4 meters high — tall enough for him to sit upright. And unlike many single-person apartments with so-called “unit baths” that combine a toilet and bathtub, Ito’s crib has separate rooms for a shower and high-tech bidet toilet.

“I looked at 10 apartments before deciding on this one,” he says.

Room with a view: Spilytus

When it comes to downsized living, Tokyo has it all. From capsule hotels and compact prefabs to communal share houses, land scarcity and high property prices have pushed realtors and architects to work with limited space, resulting in tiny homes and rabbit-hole apartments cluttering the capital’s neighborhoods.

These miniscule accommodations have led to negative stereotyping in the past of the Japanese as workaholics who only come home to cramped rooms, but that’s just part of the story.

There’s now a booming market for cleverly designed small apartments targeting young professionals who are happy to forgo floor space in exchange for affordable rent and inner city convenience. And in the age of Marie Kondo, there seems to be a minimalist appeal to these intricately designed studios.

Ito, an IT engineer, says out of all the places he saw, this one checked off the most items on his wish-list. He had been looking for a relatively new apartment located between Ogikubo and Nakano stations on the JR Chuo Line that had a separate toilet and bathroom. His budget was around ¥60,000 to ¥70,000.

“Under these conditions, most of the available apartments were similarly designed — small and with a loft,” he says.

Many of the properties he saw were dark and dingy, however, and far from train stations. A co-worker also advised that since the loft would most likely become his sleeping quarters, it was crucial to have an air conditioner installed near the ceiling so he would be able to survive the capital’s scorching summers.

“I had a hard time finding something that satisfied these requirements, until I heard about this apartment,” he recalls.

Still under construction at the time, he signed a rental contract based on the room’s blueprint and moved in last October.

Ito now pays ¥66,500 a month, excluding utility fees. Internet connection is free and there was no deposit or key money, eliminating a big chunk of upfront costs. While the practice is changing, most property owners in Tokyo still ask tenants to pay anywhere from one to four months of rent in advance, significantly raising the financial burden for new occupants.

“So far it’s been comfortable. I keep my belongings to a bare minimum, and it’s easy to get around since everything is literally within arm’s reach,” he says. “It gets cramped when friends visit, however. One person has to sit on the floor, while another goes up to the loft.”

A Ququri living space designed by Spilytus Co.
A Ququri living space designed by Spilytus Co. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Ito’s property is designed and managed by Spilytus Co., whose Ququri series of tiny apartments have been spearheading the trend for smaller accommodations. Boasting a 99 percent occupancy rate, the company has been rapidly growing since its founding in 2012 and has seen annual revenue top ¥3 billion.

Typically comprised of 20 or so single rooms with lofts, Spilytus has built around 70 of these two-story apartments in Tokyo’s 23 wards so far. To prevent other firms from emulating its design, the firm acquired a patent last year for its method of arranging as many small dwelling units it can — ranging in size from 9 to 13 square meters — in an apartment building on a single plot of land.

“We’ve been adjusting our design by the millimeter,” says Rie Kimoto, the firm’s sole public relations representative. The Ququri apartments have been featured extensively in domestic media, reflecting the public’s fascination with diminutive dwellings.

Not all coverage has been positive, Kimoto says, with one broadcaster comparing the tiny apartments to pig pens. In general, however, there seems to be interest in how the company has carved out a niche in a highly competitive market for cheap, small housing.

The devil is in the details, Kimoto says. Japanese building regulations stipulate that the maximum height of the ceiling for structures of this size must be no more than 30 times the width of the pillars supporting the structure. In order to secure a ceiling that is 3.6 meters high, the company uses 12-centimeter-square columns that are 15 percent thicker compared to those used in typical wooden apartment buildings. “That allows us to build spacious lofts that essentially function as an extra room,” she says.

Singer-songwriter Uran Kanda, 20, sits in her Ququri apartment.
Singer-songwriter Uran Kanda, 20, sits in her Ququri apartment. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

The company has constantly been tweaking the interior on its properties. For example, it changed the color of the floor panels of the apartment rooms from brown to white to create a brighter atmosphere. Coupled with the large windows and high ceilings, this adds a sense of openness despite the pocket-sized floor space, Kimoto says.

Uran Kanda, a 20-year-old singer-songwriter who lives one floor below Ito in a 9.1-square-meter room, set up a makeshift recording studio and uses the loft as her bedroom. “I was initially surprised at how small this place was, but it worked out,” Kanda says. “I don’t need much kitchen space since I mostly eat out or buy food at convenience stores. Storing my clothes was an issue, but I’ve figured out a way to hang them behind the ladder, so it doesn’t take too much space.”

Kanda works at a sushi restaurant in Koenji three days a week and spends the rest of her time in her room recording music and editing videos. A long, light-blue curtain with tiny star-shaped cutouts is draped across the large window, giving off tiny fragments of light and adding to her dreamy, spacey interior theme.

“It’s like my nest,” she says.

A Ququri living space designed by Spilytus Co.
A Ququri living space designed by Spilytus Co. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

While there has been a surge in demand for small living spaces over the past few decades, the concept behind the lifestyle has been around for much longer.

Architect Takamitsu Azuma’s Tower House is considered a pioneer in the small housing movement. Built in 1966 when the capital was experiencing rapid urbanization and space became a premium, the six-story concrete building that served as Azuma and his family’s residence stands on a 20-square-meter triangular plot of land in the capital’s Jingumae neighborhood, providing 65 square meters of total living space.

Kisho Kurokawa, one of the founders of a 1960s movement called Metabolism, designed and built his iconic Nakagin Capsule Tower in 1972, an apartment complex made from 140 small concrete pods meant to be renewed and replaced every 25 years.

The trend toward smaller homes and apartments continued to accelerate as rural-to-urban migration resulted in an influx of residents to large cities — particularly Tokyo. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the capital saw a net increase of 79,844 residents in 2018, or a 9 percent rise from the previous year, despite the nation’s population shrinking overall.

Takeru Stewart, a Seattle-based housing architect who grew up in Japan, says the need for density is an urban problem and isn’t unique to Japan. “Micro-housing has taken root in the United States, but it is nothing new,” he says.

Single-room occupancy apartment buildings, or SRO, were once the backbone of urban working-class neighborhoods and provided affordable housing stock across American cities dating as far back as the 1880s, he says.

“But having stayed in several micro-housing Airbnb’s in Tokyo myself, I have major concerns from a life-safety standpoint,” he says. “I would hesitate if a micro-housing project allocating 9 square meters per occupant came across my desk.”

Bigger is not necessarily better, particularly in the context of urban apartments where square meters come at a premium, Stewart says. “But there is a line at some point where micro just becomes too small and I think that’s the case here,” he says.

The exterior of a Ququri apartment building
The exterior of a Ququri apartment building | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

There’s a certain novelty that comes with living small.

Ashirani Murata, an aspiring 22-year-old YouTube vlogger, lives in a 9.31-square-meter Ququri apartment near Togoshi Ginza, Tokyo’s longest shopping street in Shinagawa Ward. He has documented on YouTube the various tricks he employs to make use of the apartment’s dead space.

“I use high-tension plastic poles and hooks to hang clothes and various other household utensils and appliances,” he says. Since he likes to cook, he has a portable table tucked under his desk that can be pulled out when preparing dishes. The shelves are overflowing with packs of candies, crackers, cereal and other foodstuff he stocks up once a month at a Costco to save on expenses.

Murata, whose mother is Malaysian and father Japanese, spent his childhood in Kuala Lumpur and the United Kingdom before settling in Japan when he was 13. This was the first apartment he rented and the smallest he has ever seen.

“I saw a lot of places, but with the same rent as this place, I would only get one room. I didn’t like that since I didn’t want the kitchen to be in the same space as I sleep in,” he says.

Murata was drawn to the idea of having a loft but couldn’t visit the apartment until the previous tenant moved out.

“When she left, I was able to come and see the place with my parents,” he says. “We were all surprised because it was so small. I was baffled as to why such a small apartment exists.”

It’s not only the rooms that are tiny. Corridors in Ququri apartments are only 80 cm wide and so narrow that they are completely blocked whenever someone opens their door. That’s because the total space of one floor is kept below 100 square-meters — exceeding that size will require hallways to have a width of at least 1.2 meters, based on building laws and municipal safety regulations.

These restrictions limit the size of home appliances that can be installed in the rooms. Murata says he made a mistake by buying a standard-sized refrigerator before seeing the property. The fridge now towers over his desk. “It’s way too big for my apartment,” he says.

A Ququri living space designed by Spilytus Co.
A Ququri living space designed by Spilytus Co. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

An in-house team at Spilytus is tasked with scouting out the right-sized property. Ququri apartments are strategically located near large, convenient stations, including Ebisu, Nakameguro and Jiyugaoka, popular residential districts that usually command expensive rents.

“While smaller in size, we offer rents that are ¥20,000 to ¥30,000 cheaper than other one-room apartment spaces in the area,” Kimoto says.

A team of designers at the company oversees the construction of the apartment buildings, which are then sold to owners for around ¥200 million. Since the rent per square meter for Ququri’s apartments is roughly double that of an average apartment in Tokyo, and since so many can be fitted in to a limited plot of land, owners are told they can expect robust profitability.

“There’s a long line of people waiting to become owners, attracted by the high occupancy rate and returns,” Kimoto says.

Cift is a shared housing project based on the concept of an extended family.
Cift is a shared housing project based on the concept of an extended family. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Meanwhile, a modern version of dormitory living for adults is catching on as a way for city dwellers to cope with expensive real estate and social isolation.

Co-working giant WeWork, which recently rebranded to The We Company, offers communal living spaces called WeLive apartments targeting itinerant millennial tech workers. Tiny bedrooms are available for tenants who are willing to trade personal space for access to shared amenities and an opportunity to live in popular neighborhoods. Community managers curate social events regardless of how long a single tenant may stay.

Other startups are capitalizing on the trend, including Common, Ollie, OpenDoor and Hubhaus. And while none have landed in Japan yet, a homegrown movement is embracing the concept.

Anju Ishiyama, a 30-year-old sharing economy evangelist and general manager of the Sharing Economy Association, Japan, is living in an apartment on the 13th floor of a modern high-rise in Shibuya, a shopping and entertainment district and the center of Tokyo’s youth culture.

There are 19 apartments on her floor ranging from 33 to 45 square meters in size, each occupied by one to four tenants who come and go as they please — many juggle multiple jobs and have offices and residences elsewhere. There’s a shared kitchen space and lobby, as well as a gym. During a recent visit, residents wearing pajamas were cooking breakfast while playing with a 6-month old baby, the daughter of Junshin Kawasaki, CEO of Gifted Agent, a company that offers programming and computer design classes to people with developmental disabilities.

“We’re an ‘expanded family,'” Ishiyama says, explaining the concept behind Cift, a shared housing project that launched in 2017 and which now operates three properties in Tokyo and Kamakura, located south of the capital. Unlike a typical residential lease agreement, prospective tenants are interviewed by Cift before being accepted into the community so they understand the philosophy behind the endeavor.

“We all take part in everyday duties from housekeeping to child-rearing,” Ishiyama says. “Members are also free to use their housemates’ other homes and offices when they go on trips.”

Laura Yokozawa, a professional musician and singer, rents a two-bedroom soundproof apartment in a Cift building in Tokyo.
Laura Yokozawa, a professional musician and singer, rents a two-bedroom soundproof apartment in Shibuya operated by Cift, a shared housing project launched in 2017. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Apartment doors are rarely locked and each room has its own theme reflecting the tenant’s tastes.

Laura Yokozawa, a professional musician and singer, rents a two-bedroom soundproof apartment on one corner of the floor with a fairy-tale interior. She occasionally performs for her fellow lodgers at in-house events the community hosts.

Yokozawa used to live in an old apartment in Shimokitazawa, a bohemian neighborhood a few stops from Shibuya, but joined Cift when her landlady became too inquisitive of her frequent houseguests. Here, she has an extra bed for friends to stay over. Located on prime real estate, the rent isn’t cheap. Yokozawa pays around ¥200,000 per month for her apartment, which would be reasonable if divided by four, but expensive to pay on her own.

“I think I’ll be looking for a roommate pretty soon,” she says.

Liu Jie, 25, is a graduate student at Tokyo
Liu Jie, 25, is a graduate student at Tokyo’s Meiji University. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Not all shared housing communities are as clean and comfortable as Cift, however.

Liu Jie, a 25-year-old graduate student at Meiji University hailing from China, couldn’t bear her messy roommate and moved to a 9.27-square-meter Ququri apartment in Shin Koiwa, a district in northeastern Tokyo, last year.

A devoted fan of AKB48, Liu also couldn’t stand the way her roommate dominated the TV set whenever programs featuring male idol groups managed by talent agency Johnny & Associates aired. “I didn’t even want to go home to my room when I was living in that share house,” she says.

Now she’s cozy in her tiny apartment decorated with various AKB48 memorabilia and prefers staying home when she’s not attending classes or working part-time jobs. “I spend most of my time up in the loft playing computer games,” she says, sharing photos from the latest AKB48 handshake event she attended. “I’ve become a bit of a recluse.”