Live small: Japanese housing design

Restrictions on size, alongside a long list of legal restrictions, has led Japan to adopt some weird and wonderful architectural solutions in its housing, as Jutaku, a new book from Phaidon showcases…

World renowned for their quirky and innovative design solutions, it’s perhaps not surprising to discover that the Japanese have a distinctive approach to building houses. Gathered in Jutaku: Japanese Houses, a new book by Naomi Pollock published by Phaidon, are photographs of hundreds of recently built properties, which reveal a penchant for surprisingly angled walls, clever use of windows plus an ability to build successful living spaces on extremely small plots of land.

“Due to the limited flat area and hoards of people who want to live there, land is very precious, especially in Tokyo and other cities where real estate values remain consistently high despite the country’s economic ups and downs,” writes Pollock in the book’s introduction. “Even families that own property often have trouble hanging on to it thanks to exorbitant inheritance taxes. Just to pay the fee, they have to sell off some or even all of their land. And when an individual parcel changes hands, it is usually sub-divided into as many mini-lots as the law will allow. As a result there has been a proliferation of shockingly small or exceptionally peculiar parcels.”

House NA, Sou Fujimoto, 2011, Tokyo, Tokyo Prefecture
Top: House in Hiyoshi, EANA, 2012, Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture; Above: House NA, Sou
BB House, Yo Yamagata, 2009, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo Prefecture
BB House, Yo Yamagata, 2009, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo Prefecture
House of Density, Jun Igarashi, 2013, Sapporo, Hokkaido Prefecture.Photo: Sergio Pirrone
House of Density, Jun Igarashi, 2013, Sapporo, Hokkaido Prefecture.Photo: Sergio Pirrone
Pilotis in a Forest, Go Hasegawa, 2010, Tsumagoi, Gunma Prefecture. Photo: Go Hasegawa & Associates
Pilotis in a Forest, Go Hasegawa, 2010, Tsumagoi, Gunma Prefecture. Photo: Go Hasegawa & Associates

Other rules and regulations including ‘sunshine laws’, limiting the amount of shadow cast by buildings, plus a legal requirement for there always to be a gap between buildings to prevent fire has also contributed to the need for imaginative solutions by architects. The homes featured in Jutaku are not just city dwellings either, with vacation homes included too, many also highly experimental.

While some countries fetishise the old, in Japan there is, according to Pollock, “a seemingly insatiable appetite for the new”, meaning that most houses only remain in place for an average of 30 years. “Yet plenty of people wanting to be in the city have no choice but to buy an existing house,” she continues. “Of course they are only after the land and usually tear down the building immediately. In their eyes demolition is just another expense to chalk up alongside design fees and construction costs. For them the added expense is a small price to pay for a dream house in a choice location. Though wasteful, this trend is practically inevitable since the real estate is worth many times more than the building.”

So enjoy these houses while they last, because they will be replaced by new, no doubt equally eccentric and elegant, designs before too long.

Window House, Yasutaka Yoshimura, 2013, Miura, Kanagawa Prefecture
Window House, Yasutaka Yoshimura, 2013, Miura, Kanagawa Prefecture
House in Abiko, Fuse Atelier, 2011, Abiko, Chiba Prefecture
House in Abiko, Fuse Atelier, 2011, Abiko, Chiba Prefecture
Sway House, Atelier Bow-Wow, 2008, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo Prefecture. Photo: Hiroyasu Sakaguchi
Sway House, Atelier Bow-Wow, 2008, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo Prefecture. Photo: Hiroyasu Sakaguchi

Garden & House, Ryue Nishizawa, 2011, Tokyo, Tokyo Prefecture. Photo: Iwan Baan
Garden & House, Ryue Nishizawa, 2011, Tokyo, Tokyo Prefecture. Photo: Iwan Baan


Jutaku: Japanese Houses, by Naomi Pollock, is published by Phaidon, £14.95, phaidon.com

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