Theme 4 - Micro Houses in Japan

In crowded downtown Tokyo, a new trend has emerged in the past decade where urban dwellers have built ultra compact micro houses to fulfill their dreams of living in their own house in the city. These houses often utilize tiny plots of land in the city where population is already congested. NHK World reporter Lucy Craft takes us to tour some of these houses while speaking to owners and architects on this phenomenon.




Task A. Matching activities

Match the words on the left with its explanations on the right

Task B. Comprehension activities

Determine if the following statements are true:

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Narrator(Lucy Craft): Wedged into the dense landscape of downtown Tokyo is a phenomenon that’s uniquely Japanese. Ultra-compact dwellings that defy conventional notions of design. A growing number of urbanites are calling these one-of-a-kind architectural gems “home sweet home”. Introducing the Japanese micro-house, buildings that makes stylish virtual out of necessity in one of the most crowded cities on earth.
Asby Brown: “It’s making an art out of the compactness of it all.”
Narrator: Architect and author Asby Brown says the micro house boom starts to gain traction about a decade ago.
Asby Brown: There was a big shift in attitude uh … where people were sort of assuming they would not be able to build the big house but were happy to have a really superbly designed compact house and that started a kind of a trend and a lot of architects were very very happy to have products like that because they thought it would really show uh … off their ability. And uh … homeowners were really happy to have something that they could feel was a cutting-edge design as well. This black triangle on a busy thoroughfare in downtown Tokyo is part of one of the hottest trends in Japanese architecture right now. Something called Kyoto Jutaku or “Micro House”, whimsical, a little bit whacky, but surprisingly utilitarian, these dwellings are built on impossibly tiny plots of land. Souri Orguchi moved into a triangle house with his wife five years ago. Like typical middle families, the couple never dreamt of owning a home with a prime Tokyo address, but then they got their dream house in miniature.
Sori Oguchi: I got a 20 percent discount on the property because the corners of the triangle are considered as worthless for building on.
Narrator: Even by micro house standards, this property can seem claustrophobic. Needless to say, in such tight quarters, not a single nook or cranny is overlooked. The staircase doubles as shoe closet. The kitchen is tiny but functional, and hidden below the floor grate, not just crawl space, but enough room to tuck away an entire library. In these super-compact dwellings even entire rooms do double or triple duty. Oguchi, who’s an art dealer, uses the first floor as an office.
Narrator: This house is about three hundred square feet or about thirty square meters. Now for a (Japanese), a ‘Micro House’, that’s on the small-sized. And the key of living well in a tiny house like this one, its rooms have to be used for more than one purpose. In this case the house is used during the day as a business office. After hours when the curtains go down, it turns into a living room, dining room, a place for this couple to relax.
Narrator: Such ingenious use of space is second nature of Japanese designers who can draw on centuries of experience in small dwellings.
Sori Oguchi: Kyoto’s traditional merchant houses were also long and narrow with inner gardens that allow in natural light. In a single room would serve as bedroom, dining room and living room, all in one. This is the same idea.”
Narrator: But small house design also calls for a bit of visual alchemy. Jatiyo House, a project by a fifty-year-old architect Yasuhiro Yamashita, painstakingly arranges features like picture windows and a small garden to create the illusion of roominess.”
Yasuhiro Yamashita: Lay people, our clients, tend to think of space in just one dimension. In other words, how much floor space there is. But the architects also work with the vertical and depth dimensions. We can look at homes in 3D. You can make the space seem bigger, for instance, simply by adjusting the height of the room. 60 to 70 percent of human perception is visual, so I’m very meticulous about where the eye falls. There is a garden over there so that makes this space feel bigger.
Narrator: On the outside, the effect can be curious even quirky. Yamashita says his mission is to make home owners feel as if their houses are actually larger than it is.
Yasuhiro Yamashita: It’s like billiards. You size up a space as your eye bounces off walls. So if the walls seem farther away you feel as if you are in a larger room.
Narrator: And this house is made from a frame of timber recycled from one-hundred-year-old rice warehouses and brought to the site. The house itself is only about ninety square meters or about nine hundred square feet in size. It’s tiny. But, these strategically placed windows allow lots of soft natural light to filter in, and it gives the illusion of the house more spacious than it actually is.
Narrator: miser lead floor space was seen less as blessing than curse in the years immediate after World War II, when the government rushed to throw up blocks of functional yet sterile apartment complexes known as Danchi. The Danchi would become a badge of humiliation when Japanese export sparked a backlash in their foreign markets. In 1979, one European official charged that Japan’s cheap exports were being underwritten the low living standards of its citizens. The Japanese, he said, were workaholics living in rabbit hutches.
Asby Brown: The post-war situation for Japan was really an incredible emergency in terms of housing. People were living in you know uh … corrugated tin shacks and really had nothing at all. So, uh … they were willing to accept what we would consider sub-standard housing in those first post-war decades in order to have a roof over their heads. That’s where this whole bad attitude about uh … the rabbit hutch comes.
Narrator:  Today, Japanese cities are as congested as ever. Affordable housing on desirable downtown sites is still out of reach for many. But the tech revolution has transformed house building. The number-crunching involved in structural engineering has been automated. So houses can be custom-built for a fraction of what they would have cost a generation ago. And that has opened up parcels of land all over town once considered worthless for human habitation.
Yasuhiro Yamashita: The bigger reason for (Japanese) is I.T. . What used to take a year can now be done in a matter of hours.
Narrator: And once unheard of building materials like airfield glass blocks are yielding fanciful creations like this glittering mini home called “Crystal Break”. Or, an Avant-garde cube for two with concealed windows fashioned entirely from prestressed concrete. The old rabbit hutch never looks so good.
Asby Brown: One of the more fascinating aspects of the whole phenomenon here of the ultra-compact house would be the change in people’s attitudes. Uh … that rabbit hutch slur really stunned Japanese people. They really felt uh … well insulted on the one hand and inferior on the other hand, and it was really you know uh … a very big stigma that people felt uh … about their housing conditions. What I detect since about the year 2000 is that people on the other hand now feel happier with a small house.
Narrator: Young couples and single householders like sixty-one-year-old Shigeru Suzuki are the main customers for Kyoto Jutaku which account for less than one percent of the estimated billion-dollar market in architect-designed homes here. Kyoto Jutaku are not for the packrat with lots of possessions. But the houses do allow homeowners to indulge in whimsy and tailor their dwellings to fit their personalities. Suzuki, a small house consultant himself, owns a boxcar house that is just 180 cm wide, but long enough to house a Kyoto style in a garden.
Shigeru Suzuki: The layer in the house may be small, but with this inner garden you can see the sky, so it feels very spacious. Regular houses in Tokyo or Japan don’t have interior gardens. With this, you don’t feel cramped.
Narrator: For Japan’s architects, Kyoto Jutaku have become an intellectual challenge, a chance to reinvent the meaning of shelter from scratch.
Souichi Kubo: With the Kyoto Jutaku, the usual rules for home building go out the window. For example, we can get rid of the foyer in the hallway to free up more space. We can also make up our own ideas for storage.
Narrator: Japan’s micro homes are starting to gain attention overseas. New York city is looking at the Kyoto Jutaku as an alternative for its ever-expanding population. In rather large cities wherever space is at a premium, the Kyoto Jutaku is proving that compact doesn’t have to mean cramped. Lucy Craft, NHK World, Tokyo.
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