What comes to your mind when you think about Japanese architecture? Judging by the answers I receive from people around me, it would normally be wabi-sabi, tea houses, tatami, wooden temples or the usual favourites of design websites such as Tadao Ando, Kengo Kuma, or SANAA. Whatever your personal answer is, I want you to forget it, at least for now. Paper partitions and wood-bamboo aesthetics of traditional houses may inspire architects from around the world, but here we must set aside all those images and start from zero.

Traditional storehouse (okura) covered with aluminium sheets in Hitachiota, Ibaraki Prefecture

When I first came to Japan I had a typical Western person’s broad set of preconceived ideas on how local culture should be — a collection of images with no connection to their original meanings. This helped me fit in for a couple of months, until I realised there was a rapidly widening gap between my expectations and reality when closely dealing with the Japanese environment. By “closely” I mean studying at university, working for an architectural office, visiting people’s homes — I dived into the system and became influenced directly both by its participants and its unspoken rules. Frustration started building up. I would be sometimes asking myself: “How can these people function as a society like that? How can they build houses like these?” Caught up in a world that occasionally didn’t make sense at all, I started looking for reasons behind Japan’s inconsistencies with (my) common sense. It took me a while but I found some answers: they were hidden in that parethentical “my.”

Western people, just as any other collective of human beings with some common system (in this case, close interactions throughout history, trade, religious communities, and so forth), are used to operating within a comprehensive set of shared values, without being aware of this fact. How can you even notice this when phrases such as “work shouldn’t be inefficient,” “time is money,” and “sleeping in class is rude” sound entirely reasonable in both a major American city and a tiny Italian village? Basic fundamental assumptions of a certain society at a given period, or “episteme” as defined by Michel Foucault, are usually a result of historical and environmental factors. Here I am not talking about specific traditions like Italian pasta al dente or American mac’n’cheese. Italy and the US have differing climatic conditions and drastically different histories, and thus possess very diverse cultures. However, zooming out, you’ll find that most of the commonsense values are still similar.

To illustrate what I am talking about, I will list some real examples from my own experience. One person usually finishes his tasks at the office faster and works more efficiently than others. Chances are that if this happens in the West, he is going to get a raise, or at least a good word from his superiors. In most Japanese companies, however, he would probably just get more work without bonuses plus some disapproving glares from his colleagues. Another example: one student is very good at a certain subject at university and gets straight As for all assignments but then catches a cold, missing two or three classes. He still hands in all homework assignments and his final exam is excellent so it’s still possible for him to get an A for the term in the West. But in a Japanese university he will most certainly get a lower grade for imperfect attendance, because it would be unfair to all his fellow students who spent more time going to classes. At the same time, none of my Japanese professors have ever scolded anyone sleeping during the lectures, even if many students did this in a shamelessly obvious manner in the front row. I was later told that sleeping in class can get you a reputation of an especially hard-working student.

Front porch of a townhouse in Yochi, Hokkaido

After collecting enough of these Japanese “surprises” I came to the conclusion that, since this country historically had very few intensive contacts with the Western civilisation prior to the Meiji period (1868–1912), their episteme might be partially based on something else they nurtured independently from us: purely native occurrences and adopted Chinese and Korean influences. Japan managed to avoid both Christianity and cultural-economical connections with the West for the majority of its history. Religious differences seem to be a particularly important factor since many Western fundamental beliefs originate from Christian doctrines. Growing up in Europe even an absolute atheist or a 15th-generation Muslim will still be affected. The impact of Christianity on Western civilisation extends from our ideas of human rights to what we think of as acceptable behaviour in public. Bible parables play a role in what we think of as good and evil. Take the “Good Samaritan” for example, wherein the main idea is that we should help people in distress even if they’re complete strangers of inimical beliefs and culture. It does not matter even if a particular person has never heard of the parable itself, because its idea is embedded in every Western mind as “basic ethics” thanks to our ancestors. I take it that most of us would run to help a heavily wounded person who had got into an accident even if we ended up late for work and messed up our clothes with blood. A usual Western passerby would at least call an ambulance. But Japan is not always the same again. Some victims of the 1995 Tokyo metro gas attack recall that when already seriously poisoned with sarin they finally managed to get out on the street level, most of them crawling or kneeling down on the ground and coughing blood, crowds of commuters were rushing to work right beside them as if they were in a parallel disconnected world, as Haruki Murakami describes in Underground, one of his few non-fiction books, based on the interviews he conducted with 60 victims of the attack. This scary moment, however, can be explained by another cultural tendency: if a Japanese person starts helping someone, they feel that the are obliged to do it until the issue is completely resolved, meaning going with the victim in the hospital and staying until his relatives come.

Warehouses in Furano, Hokkaido

So if so some very fundamental common sense beliefs in Japan are different from the West, the effects can inevitably be seen in the design of architecture and especially housing. Therefore before discussing contemporary Japanese architecture, it is crucial to have a basic understanding of the traditional one as well as the environmental factors that influenced its development. While it is certainly possible to compare modernist housing models within the context of Europe and America without preparatory studies of local architectural traditions and climate, using the same framework for making assumptions about Japanese case studies may lead to confusion. The comparative relevance of my thesis topic is a good example of the problem. In Europe, postwar modernist architecture is generally regarded as cultural heritage, so in such a context it is natural to try to conserve or reuse such housing whenever possible. It was therefore easy for me to apply for thesis scholarships, organize lectures on the subject in Russia, write articles for architectural magazines, and find academic support. In Japan, however, most of my Japanese colleagues and professors questioned my intentions as for most of them it is common sense to get rid of outdated housing and build something better. While shrines, temples, and other public monuments can be more easily accepted as architectural heritage, common people’s housing in Japan is regarded as temporary and eventually disposable. Even something as old and seemingly culturally valuable as wooden machiya townhouses, a defining architectural feature of Kyoto, were widely destroyed or heavily altered for commercial activities in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Machiya were given some protection and financial support by a private fund only in 2005. Sixteen Dojunkai Apartments, the first reinforced concrete public housing complexes from the 1920s and the one of the most notable architectural experiments of prewar Japan, having survived the wartime bombing, were all sold to private corporations and torn down for site redevelopments in the period from 1984 until 2013. Postwar modernist projects are even further from receiving any protection in this sense. It was difficult to understand and accept this tendency when I started my research in Japan, but after a while I realised there are multiple environmental reasons behind the local architectural “epistemology” that fully justify such public attitudes towards reuse, preservation, and other important values of the built environment.

Actually, this was just an introduction... In the next post I will outline my personal findings about traditional Japanese housing and prewar dwelling models that can provide you with a good context for understanding contemporary Japanese architecture better.

See you soon!