Japan and the urban space guide

At Home In Japan: Beyond The Minimal House offers a fascinating peek into contemporary Japanese life. The interiors of 10 houses form part of the exhibition, which is laid out in the style of a "typical" urban home
The view from a typical living room on to a domestic garden
Inside out: the view from a typical living room on to a domestic garden — highly prized as land is expensive — in Nora, Japan
At Home In Japan: Beyond The Minimal House, at the Geffrye Museum, offers a fascinating peek into contemporary Japanese life. The exhibition is the brainchild of anthropologist Inge Daniels, who spent more than a year looking at 30 urban homes in the Kansai region around Osaka and Kyoto in southern Japan.

The interiors of 10 of these houses were documented by photographer Susan Andrews and form part of the exhibition, which is laid out in the style of a "typical" urban home.

Since the early 20th century, leading Western architects and designers have been seduced by the idea of the minimalist Japanese home, using it as the basis for their own designs for spare, empty spaces.

The truth about how the urban Japanese live is, according to Inge Daniels, rather different. "Since Japan opened up to the West in the 1860s, successive governments tried to encourage people to adopt western habits, from the design of interiors to the use of tables, chairs and sofas."

After the Second World War, four million new homes were needed but the country's priority was economic recovery and housing was left to private developers. By the late Nineties more than 60 per cent of Japanese owned their own homes but the dominance of five national home-building companies has resulted in a standardised look to both their exteriors and layouts.

Japanese-look textile
Fabric magic: Caroline Bartlett makes Japanese-look textiles using shibori dyeing techniques
Space is extremely expensive there, so since the Sixties the typical home has a living/dining/kitchen or a dining/kitchen area. This is a yoshitsu, a Western-style room, where the family cooks, eats and relaxes. The Japanese rarely now eat on the floor and have a simple table and chairs along with a cupboard stacked with colourful tableware in ceramic, wood and plastic. However, sitting on the floor to relax is still the norm and the sofa is often used to recline against rather than sit on.

Many homeowners like to maintain a traditional washitsu room, a multifunctional space with tatami mats made of rice straw covered in soft woven rush straw. At night children sleep here on futons, often with their mother, and by day a low table plus large pieces of "western" furniture such as desks and cupboards create a general-purpose activity space. Most homes built since the Nineties have wooden flooring throughout.


By western standards lavatories — always separated in Japan from the bathroom — are sophisticated, including heated seats and built-in bidet systems, with hand basins cleverly located on top of the cisterns.

Bathrooms consist of two spaces — firstly a dry room with a washbasin, washing machine, a laundry basket and towel storage; here people undress before stepping into the adjacent wet room for bathing. Before entering the bath, the bather sits on a low stool, cleansing the body repeatedly with soap and rinsing thoroughly.

The bath is often the only private space for the father in the household (though he often sleeps separately from his wife). Special slippers are worn in the bathroom and the loo. Shoes are never worn inside a Japanese house but are left at the threshold and replaced by slippers.

Contemporary rocking bowls by Chris Keenan
Classic ceramics: contemporary rocking bowls by Chris Keenan


Japanese families sacrifice larger gardens for parking. Plants are grown in pots. It is the land rather than the house that is important. "Modern Japanese houses are commodities that generally reach the end of their life after about four decades. It is common to mark the change of generations (when parents die or when children move back home to take care of them) by destroying the family home and building a new house on the same site, but not before holding a housebuilding ceremony to guard the building and its future inhabitants against misfortune."

At Home In Japan, until August 29, at the Geffrye Museum, 136 Kingsland Road, E2 (020 7739 9893; geffrye-museum.org.uk). Admission £5, concessions £3, under-16s free.


TOTO, renowned for its intelligent, all-singing, all-dancing sanitaryware, 142 St John's Street, EC1 (020 7831 7544; eu.toto.com).

Chris Keenan's Japanese-feel tea sets, bowls and jugs at Contemporary Ceramics Centre, 63 Great Russell Street, WC1 and Contemporary Applied Arts (CAA), 2 Percy Street, W1 (020 7436 2344), where you'll also find Kaori Tateyabishi's bowls and tea sets.

Caroline Bartlett makes Japaneselook textiles using shibori dyeing techniques. Some of these refer to noren, which are traditional Japanese fabric dividers. Find them at CAA and also showing at Circus 58, Marylebone High Street, W1.

Michelle Griffiths also creates decorative textiles using shibori dyeing. See her work from April 13 to May 10 at Lesley Craze Gallery, 35 Clerkenwell Green, EC1 (020 7608 0393; lesleycrazegallery.co.uk).

Furniture designer Tomoko Azumi's pieces for a range of manufacturers are available at Rocket Gallery, The Tea Building, 56 Shoreditch High Street, E1 (020 7729 7594; rocketgallery.com).

Muji: The chain store is packed with Japanese-look furniture and accessories (muji.co.uk).

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