Interior of a Japanese house
In a typical apartment, the bedrooms are usually very small and have tatami mat floors. The combination kitchen and dining room often has a table and chairs but often there is no sofa, couch or coffee table. Apartments are heated with pillow-size gas burners that plug into the wall. Many Japanese homes are very cold and people wear sweaters and long underwear inside.

Traditional Japanese homes have multipurpose, easy-to-change rooms. Bedrooms are easily converted to sitting rooms and play rooms and visa versa. The family-dining room in a small apartment is often only about 10 feet by 12 feet. At the center of the room is low table where the family sits around for meals and watches television or listens to stereo, both of which can be reached from the table. The Japanese spend a lot of time on the floor. They are quite comfortable sitting down and even sleeping on a hard floor.

A typical Japanese kitchen has a very narrow refrigerator, a toaster, rice-cooker, coffee maker, water heater for making tea, and a small microwave oven. On the narrow shelves are tea cups, plates and rice bowls. The Japanese are said to have invented cupboards. Refrigerators and washing machines are much smaller that their American counterparts. Few Japanese homes have driers, dishwashers or garbage disposals. Many don't even have a oven. Food is usually cooked on a VCR-size gas stove with two burners.

American style convenience is becoming more desirable in Japan. The sale of dishwasher and clothes dryers rose significantly in the 2000s. The sales of appliances such air conditioners, refrigerator and dishwashers that claim by energy efficient and environmentally friendly are rising. Among the top sellers were dishwashers that use less water; washing machines that use less electricity and salt instead of detergent.

Shikoku Island in southern Japan is the home of the celebrated Morishige brand of furniture.

Good Websites and Sources: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive ; Elements of Traditional Japanese Interior ; Good Bath Photos at Japan-Photo Archive ; Japanese Houses on KidsWeb ; Traditional Japanese Design ; Japanese Design ; Traditional Japan, Key Aspects of Japan ; The Japan ; Links in this Website: HOMES IN JAPAN ; JAPANESE ARCHITECTURE ;

Sites for Expats Japanable site for Expats ; That’s Japan ; Orient Expat Japan ;Kimi Information Center ;Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report on Japan ; Student Guide to Japan ; Japan in Your Palm

Possessions in Japan

low-style Japanese table
A typical Japanese family in the 1990s had 3 radios, 1 telephone, 1 color TV, 1 VCR, 1 microwave oven, 1 computer, 3 bicycles and a Toyota mini-van. Other possessions include toys, stacking baskets for the toys, clothes racks, video games, an electric piano, 28 pairs of shoes, a refrigerator, rice cooker, thermoses, microwave oven, bunk beds for the two children, clothing racks, an electric washer and dryer and a futon for the mother and father, a built-in gas stove, gas heater, futon for guests, clothing, photo album, shovel, rake, and tools. [Source: Peter Menzel, "Material World," Sierra Club Books, 1994]

The housewife said her most prized possession was her heirloom pottery from her grandfather and the husband's most treasured possession was an heirloom ring from his grandmother. In the future, the family hopes to have enough money to afford a larger house and a second apartment or house for rental income.

The three desired products of the 1950s were a refrigerator, washing machine and black and white television. The three c products of the 1960s were a car, color television and air conditioner.

In recent years eco-style and water and energy saving products have been selling well despite their higher price tags.

Bedrooms , Futons and Tatami Mats in Japan

interior with some clutter
An average Japanese bedroom is the size of a large American walk-in closet. A typical Japanese two-bedroom apartment has one bedroom for the children and smaller one for the husband and wife. A 10 foot x 10 children's bedroom is sometimes jammed with two desks, a dresser, a bunk bed and stacks of comic books and textbooks on a bookcase.

Many Japanese don't sleep on beds. They sleep on futons (a thin mattress that folds up) placed on a tatami mat floors. Futons are typically rolled up each morning and placed in closet to create more space inside the home. Once a week or so, the futons are hung outside to air out and dry out in the sun. They are beaten with a special implement.

Japanese pillows tend to be really hard or are like a beanbag on one side. Many Japanese sit on cushions on the floor. Cushions are often aired out on top of bicycles. The word futon is also used to describe a comforter. Traditional ones are filled with buckwheat husks.

Tatami mats are floor panels made of two-inch thick pressed straw, covered panels of tightly woven reeds. Sometimes they are covered with stripped-wisteria-fiber mats and silk or cotton cushions in the winter. In the summer thin cushions made of hemp and banana fiber cloth are used. Tatami mats are soft and comfortable to sit on and lie on. Shoes are removed in Japanese houses to keep the tatami mats clean.

Tatami mats are also very important in terms of interior decorating. They act as furniture, because people sit on them, define the space and create an atmosphere that other pieces of furniture mist harmonize with. The size of a room is often expressed by how many tatami mats can be placed inside. Tatami mats generally have a uniform size — traditionally 108 centimeters-x-90-centimeters, buy now slightly smaller. Room sizes, street frontage, spaces between pillars are all measured in terms of tatami mats. This helps standardize the size of Japanese houses and the spaces within them.

Bathrooms in Japan

hand washing thing on top of toilet
Bathrooms and toilets have traditionally been in separate rooms. The bath-shower-sink washing room is often in separate room from the toilet.

A typical bathroom has bathtub, smaller than ones people are used to in the United States. Showers tend to have hand-held shower fixtures that can be hooked up to a head-high attachment on the wall. Japanese often shower in a squatting position or sitting on a stool on the floor next to the bathtub. The shower head is connected to a hose that can be held in the hand or hooked to the wall.

Some people keep wind bells in their houses in the summer time in because the tinkling makes them feel cooler. In the old days, wind chimes were hung on the eaves of the four corners of the house to ward of evil spirits.

Anthropology of Western Versus Japanese Decorating Schemes

Kate Elwood wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “As cultural anthropologist, Millie Creighton, points out, in the process of modernization, traditional Japanese things that were once just part of parcel of everyday life have been assigned special, nostalgic value. In doing so, wa objects and practices are weighted, and seen to offer spiritual refreshment not accessible through to items and procedures.” [Source: Kate Elwood, Daily Yomiuri, November 30, 2010]

“At the same time, various Western things are very popular. Anthropologist Nancy Rosenberger has documented the ways in which Japanese home decorating magazines and their readers seek to disguise the Japanese elements of their rooms, such as tatami, shoji paper screens, and fusuma partitions, and aspire to Western-looking living quarters, which are seen as kaihoteki (free or unfettered); tanoshii (fun); and jibunrashii (reflecting one's own nature).”

Generally speaking, here, too, in the ju, or housing, realm of daily living, if it's not one thing, it's the other. While some Americans and other Westerners may go for an eclectic melange of traditions when planning their room decoration, most Japanese are likely not to combine styles in one room, but rather have different rooms that manifestly correspond to wa and to archetypes. Particularly in the postwar years, many Japanese homes were Japanese-style, but had one room, called an osetsuma, which was a Western-style parlor to receive guests. Such rooms typically had large, dark sofas or armchairs and a coffee table, with Western-style flower arrangements. Typical refreshments served in this kind of yoshitsu room would be coffee and cakes, cookies, or pies. As more people had Western-style homes, conversely, the practice of having one washitsu tatami room, often with a tokonoma alcove with a hanging scroll, became common.”

Heating and Air Conditioners in Japan

Most homes and apartments don't have central heating and air conditioning. Instead people generally use gas space heaters in the winter and air conditioners in the summer. Air conditioners sell for about $1000, have a heater and remote. To keep cool in summer one company has developed a pillow that drops to a temperature 14 degrees below body temperature.

Traditionally Japanese families gathered around a heater that was put on the floor and a table was placed over it and draped with quilts that everybody sat under. These days many homes have a “kotatsu”, a special low table with heated blanket underneath that the family sits under to stay warm in the winter.

In Japan, 90 percent of homes are air-conditioned, compared to 71 percent in the United States, 7 percent in Italy and 11 percent in Spain. Most Japanese air conditioners are units that are mounted on the wall and also provide heating.

Heating Problems in Japan

hanging futons out to dry
Some heating systems are dangerous. Water heaters and other gas devises have been blamed for 314 carbon monoxide poisonings and the deaths of 199 people between 1986 and 2006. Matsushita water heaters were blamed for 27 fatal CO-poisoning accidents that killed 48 people between 1986 and 2006, with 30 of the deaths occurring between 1986 and 1989. Accidents involving water heaters made by Rinnaio killed 10 people in five cases.

Water heaters made by Paloma Industries caused 21 of deaths — including two in Sapporo in 1992 and three in Tokyo in 2006 — through carbon monoxide poisoning caused by leaks which in turn were caused by a combination of mechanical problems and illegal modifications made by repair services to the machines.

In November 2005, a woman died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a Matsushita kerosene heater. In January of the same year a 12-year-old boy died in a similar accident. Cracks in the rubber hose caused carbon monoxide to leak.

In December 2006, seven people — two women and five children — died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a portable oil fan heater that failed to burn the oil cleanly. These kind of heaters are particularly dangerous if they are used in a closed room for extended periods without proper ventilation and produce carbon monoxide.

In May 2010, the former president and quality control officer of Paloma were found guilty of professional negligence resulting in death and given a suspended prison over a fatal 2005 carbon monoxide poisoning in Tokyo of an 18-year-old university students by a modified a gas water heater made by Paloma.

A gas leak in Kitami, Hokkaido in January 2007 killed three people and forced the evacuation of 178 people after a gas pipe near their homes broke.

Toilets in Japan

Most homes have Western-style toilets whereas many public rest rooms have mainly Asian-style ones. An Asian toilet is regarded by Asians as more hygienic than a Western one because no part of the body touches it. Asians also find it easier to squat over them than Westerners do.

When Western toilets were first introduced in Japan instructions were provided that showed boys standing in front of the toilet and a girl sitting down. Many Japanese were not sure how to use them and squatted while standing on the seat.

Japan has fewer toilets connected to sewers than any other developed country. More than half of all Japanese homes have toilets with a built-in bidet (water-squirting butt cleaner) and blow dryer. As a water saving measure, some toilets have a small sink that uses the water being stored for the next flush (remember also toilets are often in a separate room from the sink and bathroom so you need something like that to wash your hands).

Many public rest rooms are coed, with urinals in the front for men and separate toilets behind closed doors for men and women. Women's restrooms sometimes have urinals for children. Sometimes public rest rooms don't have toilet paper (for this reason always carry tissue with you). Large rest rooms have long rows of Asian-style toilets with one Western-style toilet at the end.

High-Tech Household Products in Japan

Matsushita (Panasonic) has developed smart house products like refrigerators that communicate with cell phones and tell homeowners what they need to buy at the store, networks of flat plasma televisions located throughout the house and television remotes that response to verbal orders such as change to Channel 5 or record the football game on Channel 62. Panasonic has also markets a $10,000 sleep assistance system, in which light gradually goes out and music softens as the person goes to sleep at night and gradually comes back on in the morning when they wake up.

One Japanese company puts out a Buddhist alter with a body-temperature sensor that turns on a tape of a monk chanting sutras when someone sits before its. You can also find washing machines with an 18-minute cycle that scrub people rather than clothes, refrigerators that display their inventory, and health monitors that are linked directly to doctor's offices. Sharp produced a microwave that automatically produces recipes found on the Internet.

Toshiba has developed a whole line of smart appliances that operate on instructions sent by cell phones via the Internet. Refrigerators, air conditioners, washers and driers and microwave ovens with the technology sell for about $200 more than regular models.

Sharp has developed a microwave-oven-size oven that it claims blasts the fat and salt out of food with superheated steam. Costing about a $1,000, the oven uses a generating unit to produce intense 300̊C steam that is blasted at the food in three directions, reducing fat and salt, when the the liquid is drained away. Sharp maintains that the oven can cook a steak and reduce its fat content by a factor of eight and can make it “taste better.”

Clean freak products also sleep well. Hitachi produces a dishwater that washes cutting boards and utensils with electrolyzed water that disinfect them. Toshiba produces a disinfecting machine that rinses dishes at 80 C. Other appliances with health gimmicks include refrigerators that spray food with negative ions, air-purifying vacuum cleaners, ultrasound washing machines and filters that add Vitamin C to shower water. Sony uses bacteria produced cellulose to make $4,000 headphones. The waxlike cellulose is molded into speak diaphragms that have extraordinary acoustic qualities.

More and more Japanese are purchasing energy-savings appliances. New air conditioners by Toshiba, have high performance converters that use 34 percent less electricity. Hitachi makes refrigerator with freezers in the middle surrounded by vacuum insulation that use 20 percent electricity. Flat-panel televisions sold by Sony in 2008 used 40 percent less electricity than models sold three years earlier.

An increasing number of electrical and gas appliance makers are equipping their devises with voice guidance systems that say things like “the coffee in ready” instead of alarms and buzzers. Some find the system annoying. Others find it comforting. One elderly woman told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “I like it because it creates a lively atmosphere. I always reply to the machine, saying something like, “Yes, yes, thank you.” Manufacturers said they introduced the system because households are filled with so many appliances that people are often not sure which devices are buzzing or beeping.

Appliance Problems in Japan

Gas appliance such as water heaters, stoves and cookers caused 540 deaths in 400 accidents between 1981 and 2003. Of these 141 died in 80 accidents caused by small water heaters; 82 died in 62 accidents caused by large water heaters; 109 died in 93 accidents involving cooking stoves; 76 died in 61 accidents caused by gas stoves; and 25 died when valves became detached from gas hoses. Most died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by leaks or incomplete combustion.

According to a government ministry 570 people died in accidents related to gas appliances between 1986 and 2006. Of the 3,327 accidents a total of 238 were fatal carbon monoxide poisonings that killed 355 people, 2,635 cases of fires and an explosion that killed 136 people, and 136 gas poisoning cases killed 69 people. The majority of accidents (477) occurred in 1986.

According to a government ministry Palaoma products killed 95 people in 66 accidents, Matsushita killed 71 people in 43 cases and Rinnai killed 28 people in 18cases

Image Sources: 1) Ray Kinnane (rooms), 2) Toto (moderb toilets), 3) Jun at Goods from Japan (old toilets),

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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