Japanese apartments are famously small — tiny, in fact. While some urbanites are lucky enough to live in houses, others live in condos with multiple rooms, and a good deal of us live in one- or two-room apartments.

The lack of living space is worth it for some, weighed out in favor of proximity to amenities, work and the excitement a city offers. But the reality of Japan’s cramped living conditions have compounded as the population is being asked by the government to stay at home. Trading space for proximity to restaurants, bars and gyms has become a defunct benefit when none of those establishments are there to enjoy.

Nationwide, 5.7 million people live in a home smaller than 19.7 square meters, and 1.4 million of them are in Tokyo. Things get smaller still — just 9.8 square meters of living space (not including the toilet and closets) is the norm for almost 76,000 Tokyoites.

Keeping sane and adapting to daily life in such limited space is a challenge, but there are ways to make it work.


When you’re dealing with a studio apartment, it’s simple to see it as it is: one room. But it can be more than that.

Try to make sure there are clearly defined sections of your home. Apartments come in all different shapes and sizes, but whether it’s a 20-square-meter cube or a triangular slice of a building, creating clear partitions of space — if only in your mind — can really help with how you live and work.

Where the heart is: Even a small kitchen can feel comfy if you decorate it with touches of your own personality. | REBECCA SAUNDERS
Where the heart is: Even a small kitchen can feel comfy if you decorate it with touches of your own personality. | REBECCA SAUNDERS

Most “kitchens” in Japanese apartments are small; you’re fortunate if you have some surface space. It doesn’t matter if your kitchen is in a corridor, though — it’s still a kitchen. So decorate it the same way you would a grandiose kitchen with marble worktops. Put up postcards, organize your spices and make it a place where it feels good to cook.

A dining table is a luxury in a place the size of a postage stamp, but even a small table and a chair will cement the idea that you’re in a kitchen and not eating dinner in your bedroom. My kitchen table doubles as my desk, but I make sure to move all of my work paraphernalia away from it once I’m finished for the day.

When it comes to relaxing, I have found it helps to make sure I do all my Netflix-watching, coffee breaks and yoga sessions away from where I work. It may only be three meters from the desk, but by taking myself away from the workspace into my “lounge” I get a real chance to reset and feel like I’m in another space altogether.

Keep on top of things

Keeping on top of daily tasks adds a feeling of control not just in your own small apartment, but in your everyday life, too. The smallest of household chores can easily be put off, but every inch is important in a crowded living space — leaving a floor unswept, a wardrobe messy or a stovetop dirty can eventually feel suffocating and overwhelming. That’s bad enough when you can escape for dinner on the town, or actually go outside to work; even worse when the only escape is to the other side of the room.

Turn the task of washing the dishes and sweeping into a daily practice. For me, it doesn’t need to be done perfectly (and honestly it takes as long as scrolling your social media feeds), but it will leave your feeling better in both mind and body.

Create an atmosphere

Yes, your space is small but you may still be wary about hanging out in a cafe or grabbing a drink at an izakaya (Japanese pub). With a little creativity, however, your home can become that cool cafe or bar — minus the people, of course.

Want a lazy Sunday morning vibe? Get your chilled tunes playing and a pot of coffee brewing. If you’re hankering for your favorite bar, try re-creating some of its dishes, put on the appropriate music, dim the lights and you’ll be part of the way there, at least.

There’s a lot to be said for ambient music, too — and a lot of it is available online. I’ve been really into Japanese environmental music from the 1980s (try out “Music for Nine Post Cards” by Hiroshi Yoshimura). Or, go even geekier with ambient background noise from your favorite sci-fi film scenes (think Decard’s apartment from “Blade Runner” or the hum of the USS Enterprise). Candles, incense, plants and music can create a certain vibe. Use your imagination and experiment.

Go green

You might have not had any luck in the past with keeping your botanical kids alive, but why not try again while you’re not out of your apartment all of the time? If you live in an urban area, the likelihood that the view from your window is concrete will be high, so try bringing a dash of greenery to your place.

Numerous studies have shown that indoor plants have a variety of potential health benefits, from improving mood and reducing stress levels to improving productivity and even lowering blood pressure. You don’t even have to turn your home into a jungle to feel the benefits: start small with a few easy-care succulents. Hardy houseplants include mother-in-law’s tongue, rubber plants and Madagascar dragon tree.

Plants don’t just do the job of making a room feel more homely and look stylish, but caring for them, tending to them daily and watching them grow will provide a much-needed dose of Zen and purpose in a very tiny space.

Have a favorite place

Simple, but very effective, claiming and cultivating a favorite place in your home where you can take some time out is a restorative endeavor. It doesn’t need to be overly luxurious or Instagram-worthy, but it should be a spot you enjoy.

Provide yourself with a place where you’d like to sit for a while, and do something that is for you. My favorite place is simple: next to my window, looking at leaves of my Monstera framing the angles of the roofs against the sky. Yours could be a cushion on the floor, or chair where you like to read. Make this your place in your apartment, just for you — no work, no worries.

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