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Tuesday, June 20, 2000

Shallow pits and rabbit hutches

JAPANESE HOMES AND LIFESTYLES: An Illustrated Journey through History, by Kazuya Inaba and Shigenobu Nakayama. Translated by John Bester. Kodansha International, 2000, 144 pp., $32.

Do you curse costly rents, cramped quarters and cluttered cupboards? Do you think tatami are terrific, futons fabulous and Washlets wonderful? If so, there's no doubt about it: You live in Japan. Whether we reside in a 1LDK, "gaijin" house or cardboard box, housing has a profound effect on our lives.

"The story of a people is largely a story of where they live and how they live -- that is, of their homes and lifestyles." So reads the book jacket of "Japanese Homes and Lifestyles," a translation of the Japanese edition originally released in 1983. This is the story of where and how the Japanese lived, from 10,000 years ago until today.

Following a brief historical overview for each chapter are detailed descriptions of housing, lifestyles and technological advances. The text could easily become bogged down with descriptions of difficult-to-visualize floor plans and engineering jargon, but doesn't, thanks to the numerous pen-and-ink illustrations on almost every page.

The first Japanese homes were shallow pit dwellings covered with thatch. They were easy to build and suited the hunting/gathering lifestyle of the inhabitants. The pit dwelling evolved with the agrarian times and served as a common form of housing until about the first half of the seventh century when the ground-level dwelling superseded it. An influx of Korean immigrants brought more advanced technology that permitted changes in construction. Also, an aristocratic culture emerged whose homes and lifestyles were supported by taxes on farmers.

Not surprisingly, a wide gap between commoners and nobility developed. While the common man continued to live in relatively simple dwellings, the aristocrat's home emulated the sophisticated Buddhist architecture of the mainland, which had also arrived via Korea.

The focus of a nobleman's estate was the centrally located "shinden" where the head of the household lived. This structure was characterized by an open living space that utilized portable dividers to define its changing functions.

The shinden style was replaced by the "shoin" style in the Muromachi Period (1333-1573), which brought about divisions between living, work and reception areas. Meanwhile farmhouses in the various regions of Japan were being built with increasingly sophisticated techniques.

By the Edo Period, numerous unique styles had developed. (Some fine examples can be seen in the outdoor Kawasaki City Japanese House Museum.) The Edo Period also saw the development of the urban row house which was home to craftsmen, laborers, maids, apprentices, peddlers and others upon whom the maintenance of the metropolis depended. (An example can be seen in the Edo-Tokyo Museum.)

The Meiji, Taisho and early Showa eras brought Westernization to Japan, which clearly influenced housing of the elite. The affluent led a sort of double life, entertaining in Western rooms, while conducting family life in Japanese rooms. Despite modernization, the basic assumption of home design remained feudalistic, concentrating on the needs of the male head of household and entertaining.

Significant housing changes for all citizens began only after World War II. Rental apartment blocks ("danchi") began construction in 1955 followed by highrises, suburbs and "new towns" (autonomous communities away from the city center).

Although "Japanese Homes and Lifestyles" was first published 17 years ago, this translated edition provides a page-and-a-half update bringing the reader to the present. Even so, housing topics with which we are all too familiar will not be found: the proclivity to tear down and rebuild and the effect of modern consumerism on limited interior space and environmental considerations. Contemporary lifestyle issues are also missing: the end of lifelong employment, the prolonged recession, and sociological changes within family and community.

However, this attractive, informative and highly readable book is intended as an overview (up to 1983), and as such it clearly succeeds.

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