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Sunday, June 15, 2008

WEEK 3

Space modules for the space-challenged

How about a box in a corner of the box you call home?


Staff writer

According to the latest Japanese government statistics (from 2003), the average Tokyo apartment that is home to a four-person family allows them a measly 36.5 sq. meters to live in. That's just a bit more than a large shipping container.

For comparison's sake: The average size of all the apartments built in Australia in 2002-03 — from studios to palatial pads — was almost four times larger, at 134 sq. meters.

Of course this only confirms what Japan residents already know: Abodes here — often scathingly referred to as "rabbit hutches" — are typically on the very small side of small.

What isn't quite so obvious to the curious outsider is exactly how Japanese families get by living in such unseemly conditions. Where do they fit, for example, their rumpus rooms? Their ensuites? Walk-in wardrobes? And what about dad's den?

Yamaha's release 3 1/2 years ago of a product enticingly labeled "My Room" shed a little light on this little-explored realm of modular personal space in Japan.

A spinoff from the musical-instrument maker's successful line of portable soundproof practice rooms, My Room is a 2.5-sq.-meter space that can be assembled inside your hutch. Designed as a Japanese version of the American "den," the room gives dad his very own space — "box" is perhaps a more suitable term — where he can get away from the family. (Of course, it serves equally well at giving the family a respite from dad.)

Promotional images produced by Yamaha show the master of the family hutch enjoying a film (whiskey in hand), catching up on some reading or just putting the finishing touches to a model of a British galleon — all in his own splendid, air-conditioned and soundproof small-scale isolation.

As far as the rest of the family is concerned, though, dad may be absent in person — but his presence is still very much felt. That's because to afford him his supercompact retreat, a large portion of their living room gets taken up by that intrusive, wood-finished module — kind of like Doctor Who has parked his Tardis police box right there in the corner.

Hiroaki Kinoshita, a representative from Yamaha's Avitecs division, which makes the soundproof rooms, explained that "with increased use of personal computers and the Internet, we guessed that Japanese fathers were looking for a way to spend more time quietly by themselves — working on hobbies or enjoying films."

Around the time the product was launched, a number of news agencies conducted surveys to determine whether Yamaha was on to something.

One such survey, published by Internet-based lifestyle trend-watcher C-News in 2004, reported that 50 percent of men age 30 to 59 with families are without a room of their own.

Of those, about 20 percent said they wanted one. But, more to the point, of the roomless men in their mid-fatherhood 40s, that figure was a much higher 80 percent. Internet surfing, work and reading were the three most common activities they said they wanted to enjoy — alone.

It was on this market that Yamaha set its sights. The units are soundproofed to reduce noise entering or leaving by about 30 decibels. As a television at normal volume puts out about 60 decibels, this means the sound is cut to a quiet chatter (nearly inaudible when competing with 15 decibels of ambient noise, such as from a nearby road).

The rooms, of course, have electrical outlets, air conditioners ("you could stay in there all night," said Kinoshita) and a selection of desk and furniture fittings. Then, crucially, they are priced to fit with the 40-something salaryman's wage. Hence, for about ¥500,000, My Room could be your room.

And yet, Yamaha has been disappointed with sales, which have been sluggish. Kinoshita reported that in 3 1/2 years, only about 500 units have been sold.

"This is the sort of product that people look at and say they like the look of it — but they won't buy it because it is not really a necessity," he reasoned.

With music practice rooms, he said, "people might get a complaint from a neighbor or something, and then have no choice but to buy a soundproof room."

To the suggestion that mums and children might not appreciate having a 1.4×1.8×2-meter police box installed in the living room, he laughed.

"Yes, I guess there were quite a few fathers who lost this argument with their wives."

If so, it would be hard to deny, the common sense of Japan's female population would have been vindicated. But in order to test Kinoshita's hypothesis for ourselves, we set out to JR Tamachi Station to conduct a vox pop and gauge the feeling of folk in the street by showing them "My Room" pictures and describing the domestic facility.

"That looks good. It looks nice and quiet," said an amiable Keisuke, 38, from Kanagawa. But, he said, he'd have to talk to his wife before he could decide to buy one. What did he think she'd say?

"She'd probably say no," he laughed.

Takashi, 45, from Tokyo said he has his own room already, but having a surround-sound system in the My Room would probably be good.

We found one housewife who exclaimed, "That would keep him quiet!" . . . before adding that she probably wouldn't buy one.

Indeed, true to Kinoshita's hunch, almost all respondents initially reacted with great interest, before backpedaling when pressed for commitment.

Undeterred by such reactions, Yamaha has started exploring another use for the rooms: study rooms for students.

About 500 "My Room" units are now leased each year to short-term users, many of whom find that their high school-age sons and daughters' pre-exam study habits are improved dramatically.

Like Kinoshita said, it seems "necessity" is what counts most in Japanese families' hutches. And as for dad's private pleasure? There's no room for that.



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