When visiting Tokyo, it’s best not to expect being invited to a Japanese home. This isn’t because Japanese people lack a sense of hospitality: instead the hesitancy is due to the fact that Japanese homes are much like personal spas, i.e. private places for rest and relaxation – as I wrote in the previous column in this series.
What’s more, the reason you often hear for why Japanese people rarely invite ‘outsiders’ and throw parties at home is houses in Japan are too cramped for that – people tend to be too embarrassed to let anyone in, unless they’re very close friends. Speaking of which, in the past – even during the Bubble era – it was quipped that ‘although the Japanese are wealthy, their homes are small like rabbit hutches’. But the foreign correspondent who wrote this obviously did so without sufficiently observing reality and investigating the topic.
The legacy of feudal rule
First of all, if we look back at the Edo era, we’ll note that 70 to 80 percent of the Japanese population was based in the countryside, where houses were much larger. Farmers who were relatively well off, owning roughly two hectares of farmland, lived in houses comparable to modern luxury mansions in size, with many of these dwellings still standing today. It was only in urban centres like Edo, Kyoto and Osaka where non-samurai commoners had to endure cramped quarters. Well then, can it be said that the majority of Japanese homes became ‘rabbit hutches’ from the Meiji era onwards, when large-scale migration from rural areas to cities picked up speed? As regular readers of this column will know, things are never that simple – so let’s investigate this ‘mystery’ in detail.
Before our deep dive, we need to set the stage. Taking the example of Edo-Tokyo, the seat of government and a city created as the result of a gigantic and lengthy public planning project undertaken by the Tokugawa shoguns, we note that the samurai played a central role in our story. Roughly 300 daimyo lords and their high-ranking retainers built a number of vast estates in central Edo and its surroundings, with the remaining land then parcelled out for commercial use and townspeople’s dwellings.
Incidentally, after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, many of the estates were passed on to bigwigs from the Satsuma and Choshu domains (who had led the rebellion against the shoguns) and other former feudal lords turned aristocrats. Others were taken over by the government, to be used for public facilities, military training grounds and universities. Even now in central Tokyo, most large universities, hospitals and government offices built on high ground stand on land once covered by a feudal lord’s quarters.
Modern Tokyo’s combination of such sprawling facilities on elevated ground and cramped residential and commercial zones surrounding them is thus a remnant of the city’s Edo origins. What needs to be explored next is that despite the lack of space, the homes of common people in Japan’s urban areas certainly shouldn’t be thought of as rabbit hutches.
Private lives, public space
The key to the mystery lies in the Edo era conception of common space. Every resident’s home was a piece in the city’s puzzle, so even if a family’s personal space in a tenement was limited to one six-mat room (roughly 11m2) and a tiny kitchen, that space served both as a bedroom at night (mattresses were laid out on the floor) and a living room during the day, essentially making the family dwelling twice as spacious as the numbers suggest. Moreover, since a public water supply or well was always found outside, along with shared toilets and a public bath house, one six-mat room was adequate for a family for spending time together, resting and preparing for the day ahead.
As you may recall from one of my previous columns, the three essentials for living are clothing, food and shelter. When it comes to clothes, filling up one’s apartment with wearables to the extent that there’s no room left to stand is obviously a recent – and ridiculous – practice. Back in the Edo era, commoners didn’t need wardrobes or fridges: they would simply fold up their kimonos and buy their food for the day, except for rice and tsukemono pickles. Hence, people’s ‘shelters’ weren’t littered with what we now call ‘stuff’.
Tracking back to the point of Edo homes being part of the capital’s overall puzzle, we can argue that not only was the material infrastructure of the city well-developed; facilities catering to residents’ spiritual needs were also numerous. Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples welcomed people for both private prayer and public fairs and festivals, combining communal and individual purposes. Entertainment options ranged from hanami parties during cherry blossom season to theatre plays, other artistic performances and sumo for those with a little money to spare.
When the people of Edo needed a break from home-cooked meals or from drinking in front of their families, they could choose from a plentiful selection of eateries and bars, ranging from the dirt-cheap to the very high-end, and if some extra-marital action was in order, there was always the red-light district of Yoshiwara – but let’s leave that discussion here.
At any rate, my point is that Edo’s many single men, such as bachelor samurai and sons without the promise of an inheritance, had plenty of ‘facilities’ to make use of – which further emphasises how extensive the top-to-bottom urban infrastructure of the city really was.
The weight of tradition in modern Tokyo
All this is not to say that Edo was perfect from the time of its founding: making the most of the city was only possible for the moneyed few. My previous paragraph may also cause some of you to question what the lives of women were like, but unfortunately that’s a topic for another time. Above all, what I want to get across is that although Edo commoners’ homes may have looked like rabbit hutches, they more than served their purpose as residences within the context of the city’s overall urban system.
Well then, what about contemporary Japan? Ever since the Meiji era, Western lifestyles have slowly permeated Japanese society, resulting in a gradual decline of the technology and equipment required for Edo-style communal living. In my opinion, urban life is becoming increasingly difficult to get a grip on, as the ‘rabbit hutch model’ survives both as a result of complacency and due to the parallel realities of incompletely adapted Western ways of living and the impossibility of returning entirely to an Edo lifestyle.
However, the notion that ‘a small home doesn’t prevent one from living large in the city’ certainly applies to modern-day Tokyoites. That reality is based on the rather amazing achievement of public space utilisation in Edo’s rabbit hutch lifestyle, developed until the mid-19th century. Not touching upon the forms of control that these public spaces were put under would make my argument awfully glorifying of Japan – but developing that point would require another column altogether.
1948, born in Tokyo
1972, BA, University of Tokyo, Faculty of Liberal Arts
1982, PhD in anthropology, Cambridge University, Graduate School of Social Anthropology
1983, University of Tokyo, College of Arts and Sciences, lecturer
1996, University of Tokyo, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, professor
2012, retired from the Graduate School, Professor Emeritus
Field work conducted in Hawaii, Tahiti, Japan (Yamagata Shonaiheiya), East Asia (China, Korea) and Melanesia/Polynesia (Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea). Professional interests include 1) mechanism of mutual interference of human culture and nature, 2) the representations of ritual and theatre, and 3) changes in culture and society that occur during the course of modernisation.