Why Japan is Crazy About Housing

House NA / Sou Fujimoto Architects. Image © Iwan Baan

Japan is famous for its radical residential architecture. But as Tokyo architect Alastair Townsend explains, its penchant for avant garde may be driven by the country’s bizarre real estate economics, as much as its designers’ creativity.

Here on ArchDaily, we see a steady stream of radical Japanese . These homes, mostly designed by young architects, often elicit readers’ bewilderment. It can seem that in Japan, anything is permissible: stairs and balconies without handrails, rooms flagrantly cast open to their surroundings, or homes with no windows at all.

These whimsical, ironic, or otherwise extreme living propositions arrest readers’ attention, baiting us to ask: WTF Japan? The photos travel the blogosphere and social networks under their own momentum, garnering global exposure and international validation for Japan’s outwardly shy, yet media-savvy architects. Afterall, in Japan – the country with the most registered architects per capita – standing out from the crowd is the key to getting ahead for young designers. But what motivates their clients, who opt  for such eccentric expressions of lifestyle?

HouseT / Hiroyuki Shinozaki Architects. Image © Hiroyasu Sakaguchi

An unconventional home requires an unconventional client, one who’s willing to take-on, or can afford to ignore, one or more types of risk: privacy, comfort, efficiency, aesthetics, etc. But Japan’s experimental commissions aren’t necessarily luxury villas for a wealthy cultural elite. Many are small middle-class homes, not a typology where we expect to find bold avant garde design. So, what is it about Japan that encourages such everyday risk taking?

In the West, deviation from societal norms can jeopardize a home’s value, since it may prove impractical or distasteful to future buyers. Bold design decisions can present investment risk, so clients usually temper their personal tastes and eccentricities accordingly.

House in Saijo / Suppose Design Office. Image Courtesy of Nacasa&Partners Inc.

At least that’s enshrined Western logic. Safe as houses,right? Travel to Japan and this home truth is turned on its head, largely because the Japanese can not expect to sell their homes.

Houses in Japan rapidly depreciate like consumer durable goods – cars, fridges, golf clubs, etc. After 15 years, a home typically loses all value and is demolished on average just 30 years after being built. According to a paper by the Nomura Research Institute, this is a major ‘obstacle to affluence’ for Japanese families. Collectively, the write-off  equates to an annual loss of 4% of Japan’s total GDP, not to mention mountains of construction waste.

And so, despite a shrinking population, house building remains steady. 87% of Japan’s home sales are new homes (compared with only 11-34% in Western countries). This puts the total number of new houses built in Japan on par with the US, despite having only a third of the population. This begs the question: why don’t the Japanese value their old homes?

Kumagai House / Hiroshi Kuno + Associates. Image Courtesy of Hiroshi Kuno + Associates

Here, without wishing to resort to clichés, a little cultural background offers some insight…

Firstly, Japan fetishizes newness. The frequent severity of earthquakes has taught its people not to take buildings for granted. And impermanence is an enshrined cultural and religious value (nowhere more so than at Ise’s Grand Shinto Shrine, which is rebuilt every 20 years). These oft-repeated truisms nonetheless fail to offer a sufficient economic rationale for Japan’s ingrained real estate depreciation. Its disposable attitude to housing seems to fly in the face of Western financial sense.

In the country’s rush to industrialize and rebuild cities decimated after WWII, housebuilders rapidly spawned many cheap, low quality wooden frame houses – shoddily built without insulation or proper seismic reinforcement. Older homes from this period are assumed to be substandard, or even toxic, and investing in their maintenance or improvement is considered futile. So, rather than maintain or upgrade them, most are simply torn down.

House of Awa-cho / Container Design. Image © Eiji Tomita

Depreciation is also a holdover from the collapse of Japan’s economic bubble in the late 1980’s. Then, the ballooning price of land shot up so rapidly, buildings were considered temporary installations. This perception persists today, propped-up, in part, by policies that artificially sustain land prices, despite years of economic stagnancy and population decline.

The quality of today’s typical homes – most of which are robotically prefabricated – has greatly improved, but the earlier mindset remains entrenched as market logic. Depreciation is the mantra of housing appraisers. Yet, there’s no material reason why, if properly maintained or improved, these homes couldn’t provide shelter in perpetuity, like in the West, where reselling and moving homes several times throughout one’s lifetime is commonplace.

House N / Sou Fujimoto. Image © Iwan Baan

Japan’s army of loyal salarymen enjoy secure jobs for life, and rarely move to relocate to a new job. Although this is starting to change, a stable salaried job is still a prerequisite for a mortgage, which borrowers slowly repay in full over the course of their careers. Selling up – much less profiting from the resale – is out of the question, since no one wants to buy a pre-owned home. As the salaryman dutifully slaves away to pay off the mortgage, his or her property’s value is all the while depreciating, eventually leaving only the value of the land (minus the cost of demolishing the house). In other words, negative equity is the norm. Grinding economic and, consequently, geographic immobility is an entrenched reality for most Japanese homeowners.

Compared with other developed economies, where, mainly, the wealthy hire architects, many more young Japanese first-time homeowners buy land and hire an architect to build their new home, perhaps because – for all the economic reasons just discussed – they’re resigned to living in it for the rest of their lives.

So, how do Japan’s bizarre real estate economics influence its architecture? Clients need not contemplate what a potential buyer will think 8-10 years into the future. This gives them and their architects greater personal freedom.

Without property values to safeguard, Japan, generally lacks planning scrutiny or incentives to protect and preserve local character. Neighbors are largely powerless to object on aesthetic grounds to what gets built next door. This is a boon to architects’ creative license, but it also reduces the collective incentive to maintain and beautify communities by, say, nurturing greenery or burying overhead power lines.

The freedom to build homes that are a highly personal expression of lifestyle, taste, and aspiration, makes Japan a fertile environment for architects and their clients to test the limits of residential design.

House in Kohoku / Torafu. Image © Daici Ano

For architects, it also helps that civil lawsuits are rare. Unlike their litigation-wary European and American counterparts, Japanese architects rarely fear claims of negligence, emboldening them to take greater risks.

Japan’s younger architectural clientele may be more open to risk-taking at the behest of their architect, for whom each project presents an opportunity to test new and innovative ideas. Perhaps there’s also a measure of youthful naïveté as to the long-term consequences of design decisions that they, as end users, will have to tolerate for the rest of their lives.

House in Hiro / Suppose Design Office. Image © Toshiyuki Yano

It may seem sad that Japanese families slave, scrimp, and save to build a home, only to see their investment rapidly vanish over the ensuing 15 years. In this light, some of the avant garde houses seem like fatalistic last hurrahs – follies to the futility of home ownership in Japan. Resigned to their predicament, but needing somewhere to live and raise a family, it’s little wonder that Japanese clients reclaim control and quietly rebel in the best way they can – through design.

Besides… they’ll eventually tear it all down anyway.

Library House / Shinichi Ogawa & Associates. Image Courtesy of Shinichi Ogawa & Associates

Alastair Townsend (@AlaTown) is co-founder of Tokyo Architects BAKOKO. He also writes about architecture and housing in Japan at alatown.com. He was the former editor of the website ja+u (Japan Architecture+Urbanism) and editor of JA Yearbooks 1990-2011.

Cite: Alastair Townsend . "Why Japan is Crazy About Housing" 21 Nov 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 27 Nov 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=450212>
  • Marcio Campos

    great!

  • Nicolas Hernandez

    Very interesting article. Good job!

  • Paul Foot

    I noticed you only had pictures of really extreme Japanese houses. If you’re looking for the full effect, you should’ve put pictures of typical modern houses! Giant metal blocks, fake Italian villas, Disney-esque cottages, houses made half out of metal-bricks, slanting roofs that go in different directions in multiple places, normal suburban homes with SPIRES, all made out of what looks like counter-top. Not just “some” of them are like that either; unremarkable houses are in the minority in many neighborhoods.

    The Japanese seem to have a playful element in their architecture that predates modern housing. Even a typical older house has at least one area built onto the side of the house with giant sheets of metal; two roofs, one for the smaller, upper story and a large one for the first floor, with a thin metal balcony haphazardly nailed on to the larger one (accessed either directly from the second story or by shaky metal stairs that go over the roof); and little roofed boxes to hold the storm shutters. I love Japanese houses; they’re like tree houses for adults.

    • Pardhu

      Nice one Paul Foot. Great insights to say that not every house in Japan is purely designed. Do you work in japan?

    • Witkowski Boguslaw

      Exactly what you say, plenty of liberty and imagination with advanced design aesthetics.
      Impossible to be done under the EU dictatorship ;-(

      • jakub skalik

        … or American.

  • Pierre

    Finally, now I understand!

  • alex

    довольно интересно )

  • Michael Tolleson, Architect

    What “bewilderment”?
    Japanese Houses are the best part of ArchDaily!
    : – )

  • Fahad

    I am not sure whether Japan is crazy or not but atleast i know that the young japenese generation has lot of talent and they are literally making outstanding designs.

  • Shawn

    A truly difficult article to write given the incredible and often incomprehensible layers of the Japanese psyche and Japanese society. Great effort! I think the more romantic notion is the one revolving around the Japanese loving all things new and wanting to rebel. Many other cultures in the world are like this. The key for me is the deeply held Japanese characteristic of wanting to avoid conflict. As you rightly point out, Civil suits are rare, so like a child misbehaving, no punishment means a certain level of freedom and disregard that is basically condoned. I lived in Tokyo for 6 years, and I dont think the Architects there are any more creative or hard working than others around the world, the main thing is they can push the limits with no consequences if things go wrong. To be honest you also see it in places like Brasil, Mexico – its just that those places don’t pump out as many Architects and they don’t HAVE to use an Architect to build a new home as you do in Japan.

  • Lampros

    Interesting article despite the difference ofthe mediterranean architecture form….greece!!

  • lin lin

    just thought about the house-design , so many creative space concept practice , it is the culture in Japanese architect , try to find a new space implication.
    maybe think about the function ,the security,the privacy , the houses are crazy….

    • marco

      I agree with you. There is a lot of complexity in the configuration of the spaces within the Japanese houses. I really like to understand the dynamics that generate it.

  • Otsuka Duojinshi

    Another component of this is taxes – there is not a mortgage interest deduction and the average age of a Japanese home buyer is much older than other countries. Homes are not viewed as an investment – but shelter. Another cultural component is how very little the Japanese spend in their home early in their careers, much of ‘residential living’ in one’s twenties and thirties consists of sleeping, bathing and breakfast – 7am-11pm for most of the week is at ‘home.’ Great article – yet a mere glimpse of the iceberg!

  • Juan

    Kudos on your effort to summarize the complex topic of Japanese housing today. You touched on the key points that influence the present housing trends here. Maybe in another post you might cover the impact of the big “house makers” in the housing market. They make for the majority of new built houses and as you know emphasize convenience and affordability over other other factors relevant for architecture. You also mention how houses depreciate as other consumable goods, I would expand on that saying the overall effect has been to equate houses with “any” consumable goods in terms of its physical value while relegating other aspects that are critical for the successful building of communities and cities. (Public space anybody?).

  • yh

    Somehow I am not a fan of spaces which neglects privacy, but I admire Japanese Architecture. It reflects the heart. I do noticed that they are fond of these type of design in houses. I think, the reason why they design like this is because of their culture. The type of community and character they have.

  • Nick

    I really enjoyed reading this article. So clear, and you answer all the questions about WHY the Japanese rebuild houses so often. Thanks.

  • Arild Wiik

    In a crowded city you have a lot of good compact concepts.

  • Jason Griffiths

    Thank you for the article.

    Japanese architects that are well known have a special ability to project their image abroad. The image is pushed to an extreme. However this does not come at the expense of the Japanese concept of the house as a product of use, behavior and constructional performance. I agree that these houses cannot be simply understood as formal innovation for it own sake. Having seen some of these buildings in the flesh and having been extremely fortunate to get inside Fujimoto’s House NA only affirms the breadth of the work. These houses do not have the same sense of high handed detachment of many iconic western equivalents. They have a much more day to familiarity than I has expected. To put it another way experimentation is part of everyday life.
    Thanks for the explanation. I hope that exposure like this will help counter the kinds of constraints that makes so many house in the US so dull.

  • Jason Griffiths

    Thank you for the article.

    Japanese architects that are well known have a special ability to project their image abroad. The image is pushed to an extreme. However this does not come at the expense of the Japanese concept of the house as a product of use, behavior and constructional performance. I agree that these houses cannot be simply understood as formal innovation for it own sake. Having seen some of these buildings in the flesh and having been extremely fortunate to get inside Fujimoto’s House NA only affirms the breadth of the work. These houses do not have the same sense of high handed detachment of many iconic western equivalents. They have a much more day to day familiarity than I had expected. To put it another way experimentation is part of everyday life.
    Thanks for the explanation. I hope that exposure like this will help counter the kinds of constraints that makes so many houses in the US so dull.

  • shimon

    Did I honestly stumble over actual journalism in the good old internet?
    Thanks for this. It answers a lot of questions. To me Japan is a mystery in that it combines serene timeless architechture and harmony…. and hello kitty, crazy architecture, the louder-the-better…..

    I would love to go once I have a little miney on the side.
    Paul, if you have pictures of those disney/greek maniac…

  • marco

    Very clear article and interesting discussion

  • Elveys

    Pure dose not mean easy ,on the contrary means difficult

  • Adolfo Melendez

    Congrats! Great article & bold coments down
    Please try one for Spanish landscape demise

  • Nicole Ng

    Neat to see what architects can produce when given the freedom. They may not all be successful, but they sure are fearless!

  • Nicole Ng

    Neat to see what architects come up with when they have the freedom to design. The architecture may not all be successful, but at least it’s fearless!

  • Bahareh Bagheri

    I really love japanese style in art and architecture. And I’m wondering that my designs(architecture …) are really similar to the japanese designs although I don’t inspire any special thing,they themselves come up to my mind.
    To me It is really interesting.That’s why I love Japanese people and culture and so on.

  • Bahareh Bagheri

    I love Japanese culture art architecture …

  • Rodrigo

    Amazing! I’ve token the freedom of making a summary translated to spanish in my blog (felizarquitectura.com), relating your text with benevolo’s way of seen architecture. Thank you! If there is any problem about my article, just let me know!

  • lkasdjfkaj

    Interesting. I guess that it must be illegal (or something like this) to “walk away” from a mortgage in Japan when the value of the home is less than the outstanding mortgage (unlike here in the US). Does anybody have any insight into what prevents people in Japan from doing this?

    • li

      I’d say they can’t walk away from mortgage because of the face concept in Asia, which is something like reputation, they have to pretend that they can afford it to keep their social status uninfected. It’s about other people opinions and protecting your pride, once you chose to live in extravagant house, you can’t back away and make your mistake visible as it might result in loosing face.

  • ???

    “These oft-repeated truisms nonetheless fail to offer a sufficient economic rationale for Japan’s ingrained real estate depreciation.”

    Why is there need for an economic rationale? Isn’t it possible that maybe, just maybe, not everything has to be bound the “logic” of a market economy for it to work?

  • Leon

    “Japan fetishizes newness”

    Which is weird as Japanese aesthetics like wabi and sabi don’t support that. I’m still waiting for this to change, but until they start building better quality buildings, I can’t see this changing for a very long time.

    • Kyoto_Art_Life

      I’ve lived in Japan for 30 years and occasionally teach a course titled “Japanese Culture in English.” Concerning wabi-sabi, 90% of my students say that they hate wabi-sabi, that Japanese only made a virtue of it because they were poor and had no choice. This current aesthetic atmosphere is prefigured in Tanizaki Junichiro’s “In Praise of Shadows,” where he wonders if a taste for wabi-sabi will continue in the age of electricity. On the other hand, Isozaki Arata says the taste for ruination and rubble is the modern version of wabi-sabi.

      Every well-educated Japanese memorizes the first lines of Kamo-no-Chomei’s “Hojoki”:
      The streaming river ever flows and yet the water never is the same,
      While foam floats upon the pools, scattering, gathering, never lingering long,
      So it is with man and all his dwelling places here on earth.

      This is also a factor in building new houses rather than preserving the old.

  • Helene

    Very interesting article.
    I am currently studying Architecture in Oslo, and have lived a few years in Japan so obviously the Japanese housing interests me. When I was there last time, I was told that the Japanese try to avoid living in 2nd hand homes due to the belief in spirits. Evil spirits that stay behind in houses after a family has moved out. That put together with the salaryman theory makes good sense (I always thought there had to be something more than just ghosts…). It’s also good to hear that architects do have jobs to do. I spoke to an American architect in Japan two years ago and he explained to me that it is close to impossible to get a job there as an architect due to the well established contractors.