Loading
The Japanese House
The Japanese House

Inge Daniels

Inge Daniels is Lecturer in Social Anthropology, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

Search for publications

with photography by Susan Andrews

Berg, 2010

Inge Daniels,
with photography by Susan Andrews

Subjects

Content Type:

Book chapter

Peoples, Cultures and Religions:

Japanese

Place:

Japan

Related Content

Stuff and Storage

DOI: 10.5040/9781526600516.ch-005
Page Range: 131–156

The Ideology Of Tidiness

What housewives desire most when they buy a house is ‘a lot of storage’: I Iike a storage room (nando), and a built-in closet (oshi-ire) in every room, and in the kitchen one wall should be covered with shelves and there should be storage under the floor, and walk-in closets in the bedrooms and can we also have a loft?

Miyawaki (1998: 51)

The architect/essayist Mayumi Miyawaki unveils a strong longing for storage among Japanese housewives. Indeed, any discussions with married women about interior decoration and domestic aesthetics inevitably turned to the limited availability of storage space and personal battles against the deluge of goods that enter the home. Mrs Takahashi junior of Nara prefecture, who is fifty-five years old, exemplified this attitude, saying, ‘It is a bit all over the place. I place things wherever there is space, I am really not able to put away much stuff (shûnô).’ Storing things, like other domestic tasks linked with ideas of cleanliness, such as doing the laundry or disposing of garbage (see Spread 4), is associated with the respectability of the family (Kawano 2005: 73). In other words, it is a major domestic concern that forms part of the post-war ideology of what it means to be a good housewife.

The advice literature industry has successfully exploited female anxieties about keeping the home tidy by producing a dazzling range of storage manuals with detailed advice on how to use domestic spaces more efficiently. Moreover, women's magazines run large sections about storage and special storage issues are regular features. The April 2003 issue of Interia (Interior), for example, carried a section with twelve hints and thirty examples for ‘improving storage and increasing the efficiency of the home’.

Fig. 26a
Fig. 26b

Popular television programmes in the before/after makeover format also draw on the urge to improve the practical use of the dwelling by advocating ‘re-form’ (rifômu), a term that refers to structural changes carried out by professionals. Finally, the attention paid to storage in promotional materials for new houses and apartments suggests that this is a topic of the utmost importance to homebuyers. Major areas of concern are efficient kitchen storage, large built-in closets in bedrooms and storage units for shoes, coats and other items in the hallway. Moreover, those promoting accommodation at the top end of the market offer walk-in closets, interior storage rooms and lofts.

My fieldwork confirms that storage is considered to be a highly desirable commodity in contemporary Japan. All ten participants in my study who had bought a home within the previous ten years had made storage a priority. They had installed the latest system kitchens as well as built-in bedroom closets and a range of other storage options had also been explored. The Yanos, for example, had created several storage units under the floor in their dining-kitchen of their newly built house in Kyoto Fig. 26a). The Wadas built a storage room (nando) on each floor of their detached three-generation house in the north of Osaka. Finally, both the Kuwaharas and the Kadonagas, who built on very narrow plots, were the proud owners of lofts.

The ideology of tidiness might be prominent but in practice homes vary enormously in degrees of orderliness. Only a small minority of participants actually had the time and energy to keep to a strict tidying and storing routine. One example is 85-year-old Mrs Kobayashi in Osaka who occupied the ground floor of the two-storey house that she shared with her daughter's family, the Wadas. Mrs Kobayashi repeatedly told me she loves housework, and not only does she clean and dust all her rooms daily, she also rearranged things inside her closets and cupboards on a monthly basis. Moreover, in a covered recess (oshi-ire) in her main tatami room she keeps stacks of neatly folded futons and sheets, blankets and pillow cases that she washed at least once a month Fig. 26b). Her effort is even more admirable considering that the textile items stored away are supposed to be used primarily for accommodating guests, something she admitted rarely happens.

Mrs Nakao, the 55-year-old book designer, offers another good example of someone who displayed an exceptionally pragmatic attitude to keeping her home tidy. Everything in the Nakaos’ fifth-floor apartment in central Osaka had its proper place because of their desire to ‘live a convenient life’. During my visits, Mrs Nakao would nonchalantly open drawers and slide open doors to reveal the neatly arranged contents inside. Like most of my respondents, the Nakaos possess a large collection of clothes, and one whole tatami room had been turned into a ‘walk-in’ wardrobe. Clothes and accessories are neatly ordered according to type and colour in a large built-in closet and several large wooden closets that line the other walls.

By contrast, most women expressed anxiety about not being able to keep up with things that accumulated in their homes. Indeed, many storage facilities were off limits for my research because people felt embarrassed about the disorder inside. Mrs Kubota in Osaka, for example, had converted a tatami room into storage space, but she only opened the door briefly to let me peep at the chaos inside. The Kuwaharas invited me into their orderly loft, but the stuff in their garden shed was not considered to be appropriate for my investigating eyes. Similarly, the Takahashis conveniently forgot about showing me the storage sheds in their garden. Domestic cleaning, tidying and storing routines are especially daunting for those women who work outside the home and who, as we have seen, are still expected to do all the housework by themselves. However, it is important to stress that some women did not subscribe to the housewife ideology. Mrs Kagemori, a 63-year-old retired academic, for example, told me that she only bought a washing machine after her retirement. While she worked she would only wash underwear; all other clothing was taken to the dry cleaner.

Storehouse Living: Circulation Versus Accumulation

Among the avalanche of literature marketing domestic storage solutions I have come across a number of ingenious innovations. One example worth mentioning is the ‘kura-house’, the most popular house in the Misawa Homes range for over a decade.[1] Misawa is one of the four main providers of ready-made homes (see Introduction), and in its catalogue the ‘kura-house’ is promoted by highlighting its unique storage facilities as follows:

Storage space normally takes up almost 9.2 per cent of the total surface of the home. Misawa Home has come up with the original idea of making storage and relaxed living spaces more compatible. Because we place a large storage space called “ kura ” between the ground and first floor one can ensure almost 25 per cent of the surface for storage. Of course you can put your everyday goods, but also seasonal items and so forth in there. [2]

 --(Misawa Homes 2003: 78)

The kura-house allows inhabitants to reduce the number of goods placed in spaces in everyday use by circulating things in and out of storage (ibid.: 81).[3] Misawa has thus cleverly reinvented the pre-modern, fire-resistant free-standing storehouse called kura (Fig. 27aa and Fig. 27b). Starting in the sixteenth-century, kura were built by the elite to protect family treasures against fire and theft (Sand 1996: 155).[4] The building also played a pivotal role in a complex spatial mechanism whereby domestic objects were moved around in accordance with the ebbs and flows of everyday life, the seasons and life-cycle events (Koizumi 1995; Sand 1996; Hanley 1997).[5]

Fig. 27a
Fig. 27b

The Iwaiis senior and the Nakaes are the only two families participating in my research who possess a kura. Mr Iwaii senior and Mr Nakae are both first-born sons who inherited a large plot of family land with a spacious house and a kura on top. As we have seen in the previous chapter both families were also able to create a minimalist aesthetic in their large Japanese-style guest rooms. One would assume that this extra outside storage space enabled them to achieve this. However, a closer look at the storage practices of the Iwaiis senior and the Nakaes brings into question the function of the kura as a contrivance for the regular circulation of domestic goods. Both families possessed antiques and other valuable objects that were regularly taken out of storage. However, these items were actually stored inside the house. In the Iwaiis’ home, for example, scrolls, pottery or vases that were regularly displayed in the guest rooms were kept in a small storage room. Objects stored inside the kura were moved less frequently. Some functional seasonal goods were exchanged half-yearly: as spring approached, for example, blankets, winter futons and heaters were swapped for electrical fans, bamboo blinds and summer futons. Still, most of the material culture inside the kura had come to a standstill. Heirlooms such as hanging scrolls or kimonos, but also items once used in everyday practices, such as individual eating tables and ceramic charcoal heaters, had morphed into a large heap of miscellaneous stuff ‘that has just accumulated over time’. In other words, the contemporary kura is used as a container for the long-term, or even indefinite, storage of large quantities of unused and unwanted goods. Indeed, we will see below that the majority of domestic storage space assists in the accumulation rather than the circulation of things.

Storage Strategies

Because inside Japanese houses there are so many goods and because storage space is insufficient, the home is inundated with things.

CDI & CORE (1993: 232)

Participants in my study expressed a strong desire for storage in order to accommodate the surplus goods in their homes. Most expected that as one progressed though life one would be able to move into a larger space with more storage. However, in practice, this upward progression is not necessarily achieved, and next I will explore a range of storage strategies common among those who can expand the home and those who have to stay put.

Expanding The Home

I was surprised to find that affluent families in my sample who had build their dream homes with excellent storage facilities still expressed a need for extra space. Indeed, over time most would continue to expand their homes by adding floors, building garden sheds or even renting storage boxes in specialized premises. The Kuwaharas, the family of four living in Itami, offer a good example of this process. In 1986, when their second daughter Yoshiko was about one year old, they moved into a two-storey house built by Mrs Kuwahara's father, a carpenter. During the 1995 Kobe earthquake this house was severely damaged and a new dwelling was built on the same plot. Mr Kuwahara, who is a pharmacist but who also trained as an architect, carefully explored the most efficient storage solutions for their new home. Large built-in closets were installed in every room on the first floor, and a spacious loft was created to store valuable things such as Mr Kuwahara's large collection of surreal poster art or their daughter Keiko's calligraphy paintings. Moreover, in their small rear garden they placed a shed for storing seasonal goods.

The Kuwaharas thus possessed a luxurious quantity of storage spaces inside and outside their house. However, by 2003, six years after they had moved, their storage needs had increased considerably. Mrs Kuwahara repeatedly complained about the uncontrollable mass of, what she called, ‘unnecessary (muda)’ goods. Built-in bedroom closets were stuffed with clothes, bedding and towels, seasonal goods and unopened gifts spilled out of large recesses and their garden shed was filled with documents from Mr Kuwahara's work. The Kuwaharas therefore decided to create two external storage spaces. First, the first floor of Mrs Kuwahara's former family home was turned into additional storage space.[6] Here, domestic appliances and functional goods such as tableware, often in perfect condition but no longer used, found a resting place. Second, because of temperature fluctuations their loft could not be used for storing fragile goods such as Mr Kuwahara's art collection and so they decided to rent a special temperature controlled storage box instead.

Since the early 2000s renting external storage has become popular. A search of the Internet in March 2005 discovered a large number of sites that offer storage for rent such as trunk-room. com, nissokyo.or.jp or sumitomo-soko.co.jp. The Sumitomo Warehouse offers the most specialized service, with earthquake proof, temperature-regulated spaces for storing specific items such as seasonal dolls, art collections or filing cabinets for documents. In October 2003, a pamphlet distrib uted with the Kyoto Shinbun newspaper advertised storage boxes for rent with twenty-four hour access that cost on average ¥20, 000 (about £100) a month for four tsubo (about 13.2 square metres) and ¥30, 000 (about £150) for eight tsubo (about 25.6 square metres). Suggestions for goods one might want to store in these boxes were ‘off-season things, leisure goods (ski, golf, outdoor goods), books or memory albums, and display items’.

Rented external storage spaces, similar to the elite storehouse of the past, enable people to circulate goods in and out of storage in order to keep the house tidy. Although the Kuwaharas stored-away art collection clearly resembles the objets d’art kept by the pre-modern elite, most of the artworks concerned were considered too valuable to be displayed. However, as the following example illustrates, the types of goods stored away matters as more everyday used, functional items such as clothes, for example, are regularly circulated. The Kagemoris were the only other participants in my study who rented extra storage. They repeatedly told me that they chose to live in their 3DK apartment in the centre of Osaka rather than in a big expensive house because they preferred to spend their money on food and clothing. Indeed, as I have shown in Chapter 2, this family's social life evolves around food. Moreover, each family member possesses an expanding collection of clothes, among them many designer brands. Shigeko, the Kagemoris’ daughter, stores her clothes in a large wardrobe in her bedroom, while the couple's clothing fills a built-in closet in a corridor and a number of free-standing racks placed in a Japanese-style room turned into an office/ storeroom. The Kagemoris only managed to stop their clothes from spilling out into their everyday living spaces by circulating winter and summer clothes between the home and two storage boxes they rent close by.

© susan andrews
© susan andrews

‘Living Among One's Furniture’

The hunger for more storage might lead some to move into larger properties or build a bigger home on the same plot. Others expanded the domestic space outwards into sheds and rented storage units. However, those at the other end of the spectrum, who are living in small apartments with insufficient storage but do not have the means to move, have no other option than to store their possessions in their existing homes. Over time, as goods accumulate, more closets, chests and drawers are added and, in many of the smaller homes studied, these storage devices encroached upon limited living space. Thus, the use of more storage devices, which are supposed to help in tidying up the home, paradoxically leads to a decrease in available space. I discussed the general lack of storage with Mr Oka, an architect in his fifties working at Misawa Homes, and he formulated this paradox as follows: ‘In most Japanese houses storage space is limited and therefore people place many closets and so on in their house and the space available for living decreases. Well, it is as if they are living among their furniture.’

© susan andrews

The Terayamas are a good example of a family who ‘live among their furniture’. The size of their eighth-floor 3DK apartment in central Itami was a constant source of regret to Mrs Terayama, who repeatedly expressed her disappointment that her family was unable to move into a bigger house of flat that would better suit their changing lifestyle and family set up. The Terayamas 60-square-metre home contains only one built-in closet (oshi-ire) located in a Japanese-style room once occupied by their son, who is currently at university. This space is used to store the family's futons and bed ding, while towels are kept on some shelves raised above the washing machine. Their teenage daughter, who occupies the only private room in their home, stores her clothes in a free-standing Western-style wardrobe, while Mrs and Mr Terayama's clothes, as well as a range of other possessions, are stored away in several large pieces of heavy wooden furniture arranged against the walls of a second Japanese-style room adjacent to the dining-kitchen. These closets and chests of drawers protrude deep into the living space and Mrs Terayama can just about roll out the futon she sleeps on.

Furniture Walls: Storage And Display

The Terayamas’ domestic set-up resembles those of participants in an architectural study of sixty-three apartments in a municipal housing block built in the 1980s in Tokyo (Yasuda 2002). The apartments concerned have an identical 2DK (dining-kitchen and two rooms) layout with a toilet and a bath. Over time, all the inhabitants had actively personalized their environment by creating a ‘second wall’ with their furniture and possessions (Yasuda 2002: 93–5). Through a detailed examination of this wall Yasuda identifies two different storage practices that corresponded with the age of the woman of the house. The older the women concerned, the more likely it was that things would be stored out of view in large pieces of furniture such as chests of drawers and closets. Younger participants, in contrast, tended to store their belongings in/on smaller pieces of furniture that could not be closed off, such as wooden shelves or steel-pipe racks. They also seemed to place things closer to the ground and covered a larger percentage of the surface of their walls with things such as posters and calendars. Yasuda links each storage practice with a different attitude towards creating domestic space. In her view, the former group prefer to place things out of view in order to create a functional, tidy place, while the latter arrange things in view as an expression of their personal taste (ibid.: 94).

Yasuda's study raises important questions about the association between storage and display that also surfaced during my fieldwork. My data supports her suggestion that approaches to storage differ among female participants belonging to two different age cohorts. Overall, women over forty-five possessed large free-standing storage units, while younger women seemed to be less inclined to use these kinds of storage devices. However, Yasuda's argument needs some fine-tuning. To begin with, as I have already hinted at above, it is important to distinguish between four different kinds of goods that are stored away in Japanese homes. First, there are seasonal things that may be taken out of storage at regular intervals, such as heaters and fans, but also seasonal display dolls or decorations for festive occasions that are more easily forgotten and may become lost in the back areas of the home. Second, people store books and paper documents and, third, gifts and memory items. However, by far the largest number of goods placed in storage is textiles, particularly clothes but also bedding and towels.[7] Futons, sheets, blankets and other items of bedding as well as towels were generally stored in large enclosed recesses located in Japanese-style rooms. Clothes, on the other hand, were hung in free-standing wardrobes and folded in chests of drawers by those over forty-five, while the younger generation primarily used built-in wardrobes. However, as this latter type of storage device has become standard in contemporary dwellings, they were used by those of all ages living in relatively new homes.

© susan andrews
© susan andrews

Everyone stored textile objects and seasonal goods out of view. Only the storage of paper and dec orative items, whether gifts or commemorative objects, corresponded to some degree with Yasuda's age-related distinction between ‘hidden’ versus ‘on view’. In the majority of cases, placing and ordering practices, whether based on practical or aesthetic concerns, were only partially driven by individual preference. The processes through which storage furniture ended up in the home were equally important. Those in my sample who got married before 1985 stored goods away from view in large closets and chest of drawers that were part of their dowry. Mrs Terayama, for example, slept surrounded by her 1982 dowry furniture consisting of two Western-style closets, two chests of drawers and a Japanese-style closet for kimonos.

Importantly, all participants in my study preferred to place their dowry closets and chests of drawers outside their daily living spaces. However, only those who live in large homes with sufficient storage space are able to do so. In two-storey detached houses large pieces of storage furniture were placed out of view in first-floor bedrooms. Moreover, a minority of those studied were fortunate enough to possess storage rooms (nandos) to cram their storage furniture in. The nandos built on either floor of their house by the Wadas in Osaka were used separately by Mrs Wada and her mother. Each storage room contained the particular woman's dowry closets for Western clothing as well as a Japanese-style chest of drawers for kimono. Both rooms were chock-full, and the heavy dowry closets blocked access to an additional storage unit created under the floor.

Dowries And Furniture Provisioning

The Japanese historian Koizumi has shown that from the time of the seventeenth century elite women were expected to bring goods as a contribution to their new homes. The samurai military class, which governed Japan until the end of the nineteenth century, operated a system of landownership based on male inheritance whereby eldest sons inherited the family property and daughters received a dowry (Koizumi 1995: 258–64). Possessions kept in these elite homes were, thus, divided into two distinct categories: first, decorative items for guest rooms that were acquired through inheritance or ordered from craftsmen and antique dealers (see Chapter 4); and second, objects for daily use and chests for storage that were part of a woman's dowry (Sand 1996: 176–8). The elite were quickly emulated in their family system of male inheritance and female dowries by wealthy peasants and merchants, but the practice only became law at the end of the nineteenth century (see alsoChapter 3).

Department stores played an important role in spreading the use of dowries among the larger population. At the beginning of the twentieth century they began to sell ready-made, Western-stylefurniture, but initially sales were poor as most Japanese were not familiar with purchasing ‘domestic goods’ (kagu)[8] in this way (ibid.: 175). Department stores were only able to turn this situation around through the sale of dowry sets, thus drawing on existing distribution channels for the acquisition of goods for the home. During the 1910s and 1920s dowry sets were frequently advertised in department stores’ own magazines-cum-mail-order catalogues and in women’s magazines. In 1918 Fujin no tomo (A Housewife's Friend), for example, published a list of goods that should be part of a woman's trousseau (Koizumi 1995: 342–3), such as futons, kimonos, zabuton (sitting cushions), a set of tea ceremony utensils, mirrors, coal heaters, but also a variety of closets and chests of drawers for storing clothes in Fig. 28a). The depiction of expensive novelty items such as sewing machines and organs highlights that Fujin no tomo 's readership consisted of upper-class and intellectual women (ibid.: 350). Before the Second World War most of these luxury goods were out of reach for the majority of the population, and a standard dowry consisted of a more modest assemblage of chests for clothing and bedding, a toilet table and mirror, a sewing box and kimono (Sand 1996: 177).

Four types of storage devices formed part of the pre-war dowry. First, there were Western-style closets (yôfukudansu, literally ‘closets for Western clothing’), which are large chests with pivoting doors in which to hang clothes. Second, there were chests of drawers (seiri dansu), which were a common piece of storage furniture. Third, there were Japanese-style closets (wadansu), which consist of two parts, an upper part with a number of large wooden drawers on which foldedkimonos, sometimes wrapped in special rice paper protection covers, can be stored, [9] and a lower part for obi and other kimono accessories (see Spread 7). These three types of closet continue to be common pieces of storage furniture in the homes of women who are over forty-five years old. However, the final type of dowry closet, i.e. the Japanese-style tea closet (chadansu), mainly used for storing tea utensils (Koizumi 1995: 345), is unusual and I only came across a handful of examples placed in empty Japanese-style rooms. One could argue that this piece of furniture has been replaced by the so-called ‘glass case’, a display closet with a lower section consisting of drawers and an upper section of shelves arranged behind a glass door; I will return to this in Chapter 6.

From the 1960s onwards, dowries also began to include home electronics such as televisions, radios, stereos and appliances such as washing machines and rice cookers. After a decade of hardship, the 1960s brought high economic growth and better wages. Moreover, the introduction of a democratic education system and the increased accessibility of information through the mass media resulted in the consolidation of a ‘mainstream’ consumer culture. By 1965, the once utopian ideal of the nuclear family that lived in a two-storey detached house surrounded by the three Cs – colour TV, cooler (air conditioning) and car – had become attainable for most (Sôgô josei rekishi no kenkyûkai 1993: 244).[10] During the 1970s and 1980s, the consumption of domestic appliances and home electronics increased steadily in cities and in the countryside (Koizumi 1995: 351–2) and ‘their presence and placement within Japanese dwellings … homogenised Japanese domestic space’ (Ivy 1995: 249).

In 1993 the Communication and Design Institute in Kyoto found that, over three decades, people had not only gathered more goods but the size of kitchen appliances such as fridges, freezers and televisions had also increased (CDI & CORE 1993: 23). In 2003 more than 98 per cent of the Japanese possessed at least one colour television (53.1 per cent of which were larger than 28 inches), a washing machine, a vacuum cleaner and a refrigerator (75.4 per cent of which had a capacity in excess of 300 litres) (AS 2004: 181).[11] All those participating in my study possessed similar appliances, and large fridges and washing machines occupied valuable living space. Few possessed flat-screen televisions, but it was common to have a large colour television in every room. Moreover, computers were common in half the homes; desktop models were placed in studies, and about one-third were laptops.

Starter Homes

The women in my sample who married between 1960 and 1985 possessed large pieces of storage furniture that formed part of their dowry. Electronics and kitchen appliances had either been bought by the husband or purchased using money the couple collected at their wedding. When Mr and Mrs Ebara married in 1978, Mrs Ebara's parents bought them futons and major pieces of furniture such as closets, while Mr Ebara's family supplied kitchen appliances and other electrical devices for the kitchen. These latter goods have been replaced several times since, while the majority of her dowry furniture, placed in the master bedroom on the first floor, has remained. Similarly, most other women in this age group continued to use their dowry furniture to store their possessions, even if this meant, in the case of those living in small homes without built-in closets or storage rooms, that the bulky furniture compromised their already limited space available.

Fig. 28a

In many European countries, furniture acquired during particular moments in the lifecycle, such as birth, marriage or death, is considered to be imbued with family lineage and will therefore be maintained across generations.[12] Traditionally, the Japanese dowry also embodied genealogical connections and expressed the status of a women's family. However, the goods that a Japanese bride brought with her were only supposed to last for one generation, and it has been usual for the majority of dowry possessions to be disposed off upon the death of the owner. Mrs Kema, a single researcher in her mid-forties, who lost both her parents in 2003, kept some of their personal items, especially jewellery, while formal clothing such as suits and kimonos were distributed among relatives. However, because ‘they had too much wear and tear’, most other possessions, including her mother's dowry furniture, were thrown away.[13]

By contrast, during their lifetime most women treasure their dowry furniture (as well as other dowry items such as kimonos) as these items are often the only remaining connection between themselves and the families they had to leave behind as brides. This attitude was particularly strong among several elderly widows who lived happily among their dowry furniture. For example, Mrs Nakae senior, who is in her mid-eighties and lives with the family of her eldest son in the family home in Kyoto, has surrounded herself with her 1930s dowry furniture in her six-mat tatami bedroom. Similarly, 85-year-old Mrs Kobayashi proudly showed me a large standing mirror, a common dowry item from before the Second World War, that was centrally placed in her Western-style bedroom while her dowry chests were stored in a storage room nearby. Mrs Yamada, a 91-year-old friend of the Kuwaharas, offers an interesting final example. During the mid-1930s, when she was of marriageable age, her family commissioned Mrs Kuwahara's father, a carpenter, to produce her dowry furniture. Aware that after her death her own family would dispose of these possessions, which she cherished, Mrs Yamada repeatedly enquired whether Mrs Kuwahara would like the furniture as an example of her late father's craftsmanship.

Fig. 28b

My fieldwork data suggests that, since the 1990s, brides (and their families) are no longer considered solely responsible for buying furniture and other households goods for the starter home.[14] The main reason for this change is a shift in marriage patterns. The average age at which people marry rose from 27.6 years for men and 24.6 years for women in 1970 to 30.4 and 28.2, respect ively, in 2000. It remains unacceptable for unmarried couples to live together, but most young people experience an extended period of time living on their own, whether as students or as company employees before they marry.[15] Upon marriage they will bring possessions, particularlyfurniture, that have accumulated during this period to the shared home.

The Sawais, who are both in their late twenties, married approximately eighteen months before my study began. They live in a rented apartment in Kyoto. With some of the money they received during their wedding party they purchased a double bed, but most pieces of furniture in their home, such as two chests of drawers, they had used while at university. Some bookshelves in Mr Sawai's study even dated back to his high school days. When the Iwaiis junior, another married couple in their early thirties with a one-year-old baby, moved in together they used some of the money received at their wedding to buy a number of appliances, such as a stove and a fridge. The other furniture in their home consists of pieces that each of them purchased when they lived on their own in Tokyo. Two large display shelves in their dining-kitchen are actually bookcases that Mr Iwaii bought when he moved to Kyoto to start his PhD. Another bookshelf is used to store tableware in their dining-kitchen. Their television is more than 17 years old and once belonged to Mr Iwaii's grandmother, a VCR was a wedding gift from a friend, and they received a small desk and plastic storage units from foreign students who had since returned home.

Finally, when the Matsuis married in 1996 they used money received at their wedding to buy much of the furniture that was in the two-storey house in Nara where they were living with their four-year-old daughter when I met them in 2003 Fig. 28b). For example, there are the two steel racks they had bought at a local home centre. They used the top shelves to display decorative items on and the lower shelves for storing documents. When they moved from rented accommodation into their current home in 2001 they only bought a wooden sideboard for storing tableware that matches their other furniture. A second, new purchase was their large kitchen table, imported from Italy, which they bought in a local design shop. The other pieces of furniture in their LDK area were either gifts, handmade items or things from their childhood. A number of display shelves in their living room had belonged to Mrs Matsui when she was a child and there was the small shelf that was made by Mr Matsui when he was at high school. A chest of drawers belonged to a friend who had planned to throw them away, while a low table was a gift from her mother. As we have seen in the previous chapter, Mrs Matsui had painted most of this furniture white so that it blended into the overall aesthetic scheme of their home.

Like most other people of their generation, the three couples discussed above did not possess the range of bulky, free-standing closets that constituted inalienable wealth for their mothers. Instead, most used the built-in wardrobes that are standard in recently built accommodation. Other pieces of furniture and appliances were individually purchased before marriage, jointly bought for the starter home or passed on by family and friends. These latter objects make manifest a variety of social, formal and informal, relationships that constitute the couple but also the individuals within that relationship. These changes across the generations thus point at a more general shift from the extended paternal family unit based on primogeniture to a family structure that also values the bond between a couple, and does not necessarily disadvantages women (see Chapter 3).

Life Cycle Rupture Points: ‘If I Had A House Like A Castle, I Would Take Everything’

A house with many shelves, storage rooms and wardrobes is considered to be a good house but is this really so? It happens that when storage space increases the number of hoarded goods also increases.

Fujiwara, Tatakau maihomu

The Japanese sociologist Fujiwara frames the paradox at the base of the Japanese storage problem by making an important link with hoarding. My research, similarly, suggests that we need to rethink storage within the context of the amassing of goods and disposal practices. Since the 1960s there has been a steady increase of the number of possessions in the Japanese home. The relatively small size of the contemporary dwelling, [16] but more importantly the scarcity of pragmatic disposal strategies means that a large number of possessions ‘hang around, get in the way and seem to fill all available spaces’ (Cwerner and Metcalfe 2003: 237). As Gregson, Metcalfe and Crew (2007) have pointed out in the UK context, social processes such as couple formation or separation, increased geographical mobility and house purchase may lead to things being cast off.

© susan andrews

The last three examples discussed above shed light on couple formation in contemporary Japan. It is common for the recently married to live temporarily in rented accommodation. However, because the ideal of home ownership remains strong among Japanese of all classes and ages, soon after the birth of their first child most would like to move into their own house.[17] This said, because most newlyweds move into relatively small residences, children leaving the nest does not necessary mean that parents will be able to release space. Kuwahara Keiko, who is twenty-three years old, directly linked her ability to take her things with her with the size of her future marital home, saying, ‘if it was a house like a castle, I would take everything’. Moreover, Ueda narrates the example of an elderly couple whose home was turned into an extra storeroom for their married children (Ueda 1998: 142–4). This last case might be extreme, but my data confirms that children’s possessions tend to linger in the parental home for much longer than anticipated. When the Sakais’ 28-year-old son married in 2002, for example, he left many of his things behind, and as a result his room eventually became used as an extra storage space.

Two related issues that add to the Japanese domestic storage problems, and which I have already dis cussed briefly in Chapter 3, are, first, that increasing numbers of women in their mid-thirties, who have missed the window of opportunity to marry, continue to live at home. Second, if the husband is an eldest son, it remains common for his family to move back in with his parents. The merging of two families into one home leads to new, pressing storage needs, as the following example illustrates. After his first child was born in 1975, Mr Takahashi junior moved back into his parents’ house, built during the 1960s in a commuter town close to the city of Nara. In order to accommodate the young family a second storey was added to the house, and as the family expanded with the arrival of another daughter, and as they accumulated more possessions, a number of storage spaces were added, including, for instance, a closet above the staircase, a loft under the roof and two sheds in the garden.

In Chapter 2 I have discussed the tensions between natives and newcomers in urban areas, and have identified the geographical mobility of the latter as an important contributing factor to these disputes. Indeed, it is common for young couples such as the Sawais, who are renting, to move house frequently in accordance with job opportunities, while ambitious employees and professionals have to consider frequent work transfers. Still, geographical mobility in Japan is relatively low as once people have bought a house they are unlikely to move.[18] The main occasion on which Japanese people may sort through and possibly dispose of some of their accumulated surplus is when they rebuild their house. Because the average life expectancy of Japanese houses built during the 1960s and 1970s is only about forty years, it is common for couples in their sixties to destroy and rebuild their homes on the same plot (as the Yanos did) (see Spread 8). Other reasons cited for rebuilding a house were the death of elderly relatives and the return of a son or daughter to the family home (as with the Nishikis and the Wadas), but also the occurrence of disasters such as fires (the Noguchis) and earthquakes (the Kuwaharas).

Conclusion: Conduits And Containers, Circulation And Accumulation

Objects are also discarded much more rapidly in Japan than probably anywhere else. Perfectly func tional but simply out-of-date equipment, fashions or furnishings will be replaced rapidly by those who can afford to do so; possession of the latest enhances cultural capital like almost nothing else. Variety or originality is not the point: newness is. (Clammer 1997: 24)

This statement, made by one of the foremost specialists on Japanese consumption, could not contrast more sharply with the findings of my research. It brings to the fore problems inherent in the early research about consumption that tended to focus on the beginning of the consumption process, for example by exploring shopping practices, and primarily highlighted issues such as fashion, taste and style (Hetherington 2004). More recent research about mundane consumption practices in the home, by contrast, reveals that consumption is a much more complex social and material process, and that taste and aesthetics are just one among many ideological concepts with which people may or may not engage. Within this context a number of recent pioneering ethnographies conducted in UK homes, which have drawn attention to disposal as an integral part of the consumption process, question the assumption that the act of throwing away is carefree and call disposal a social, anxiety-laden activity ‘constitutive of and expressive of relations of care and concern’ (Gregson, Metcalfe and Crewe 2007: 683).

This body of research has also highlighted the role storage devices play in complex, domestic processes of divestment. Kevin Hetherington, for example, argues that domestic ordering and sorting processes are fluid, and storage devices such as closets and chests, but also fridges and bins, are in-between spaces or so-called conduits of disposal where items are held until ‘their uncertain value state is addressed’ (Hetherington 2004: 166). Similarly, in an article that focuses on the storage of clothing, Gregson and Beale point out that wardrobes are not stable, bounded containers but ‘temporary, transitory, spatial junctures, holding places in the lives of things’ (Gregson and Beale 2004: 699).

The kura storehouse used by the Tokugawa elite, discussed above, offers a good example of a Japanese storage space that operated as a temporary holding place for domestic goods, in this case valu ables such as heirlooms and seasonal items. Indeed, through the regular circulation of goods between the house and the storehouse people were able to create the iconic, minimal spaces that have become associated with the stereotype of the Japanese house. However, in contemporary Japan store houses, like other storage devices, function primarily as final resting places for the surplus of goods kept in the home. In homes with insufficient storage, once storage devices are full and things start to leak out into the living space, inhabitants might feel pressed to evaluate their possessions. Those that have the option of creating extra storage space, on the other hand, can postpone assessment indefinitely.

Moreover, particular types of domestic objects are disposed of differently. In the UK context, Gregson has argued that the less tangential things are to people's everyday life the greater the frequency with which their worth is re-evaluated, and the greater their potential for being discarded. Thus, objects in flow that are regularly handled, such as clothing, or things that are frequently touched, such as domestic appliances, are more open to scrutiny and are therefore more rapidly replaced. These are the types of goods that may be influenced by fashion cycles, as referred to in the start of this section by Clammer. By contrast, objects placed in storage devices, which are taken out of circulation, are rarely assessed (Gregson 2007: 160–4). However, the sheer volume of the surplus contained in many Japanese homes means that this difference in mobility might only be partially true. For example, in the case of textile objects, although many items of clothing, bedding and towels are regularly circulated inside the home, many more are stored away. Over time, these possessions are moved deeper inside storage furniture, and they become part of an indistinguishable category of unused goods (fuyôhin).

© susan andrews

Finally, the usage of storage devices as conduits or containers is closely linked with the temporality of the dwelling. Whereas most dwellings in the UK tend to last for a long time with numerous people moving in and out over the years (Gregson 2007: 160), contemporary Japanese homes function more like containers that hold a particular group of inhabitants who during one generation fill the space with their possessions. As the original space starts to reach its capacity storage might be added, but eventually, after four decades, as the accumulation of stuff nears its absolute limits, the building reaches the end of its life and will be destroyed. In theory, the destruction of the house offers an unique opportunity to rid oneself of most of its contents. I was, therefore, surprised to find that people held on to a relatively large number of goods that were considered ‘troublesome’. In the next chapter, I will investigate the widespread reluctance to dispose of certain things that need to be treated with special care.

© susan andrews

Spread 7: Women And Their Kimonos: Mrs Takahashi's (1974) And Her Daughter Yasuko's (2006) Wedding Photographs

Although the kimono ceased to be worn on an everyday basis before the mid-twentieth century, many Japanese women continue to possess large numbers of these garments. The prime kimono wearers in my 2003 sample were middle-aged and elderly women, who carefully stored a large number of them, folded and wrapped in rice paper covers, in special kimono closets. The majority of these kimonos (and their storage chests) were part of their dowry. As young brides they had brought kimonos in a variety of colours and patterns in tune with the seasons, the particular occasion and also the age of the wearer (Dalby [1993] 2001). Some, who study traditional arts such as the tea ceremony, regularly have the opportunity to wear a kimono, but most primarily don them for formal family occasions, such as weddings and funerals, or for important social events such as official dinner parties. Some of the younger married women, such as 37-year-old Mrs Matsui, told me that they started to wear kimonos when their children entered school and they regularly had to attend formal events such as entrance ceremonies.

Unmarried girls wear kimonos at life-cycle celebrations and festivals. Moreover, during the New Year period, many young women wear a winter kimono topped with fur, while yukata, kimono-like robes made from cotton with fashionable patterns and colours, are popular during summer festivals. At the Seven Five Three festival (sichigosan), held on 15 December, for example, seven-and three-year-old girls (as well as five-year-old boys) visit temples or shrines in traditional Japanese dress. During the coming of age ceremonies (seijin no hi), held on 15 January for 21-year-olds, as well as high school and university graduation ceremonies, men wear Western formal dress, while a large percentage of women choose to wear a kimono. Finally, during their wedding ceremony most women will wear a white silk kimono with wig, cap and full ‘traditional’ make-up, which may afterwards be covered with a colourful, patterned kimono (uchikake), while for the reception most will change into a Western-style wedding dress. Moreover, at weddings married female family members tend to wear a black formal kimono with an elaborate, multi-coloured design on the skirt (tomesode).

Fig. 28f

A dowry kimono was only supposed to last for one generation, and during a woman's lifetime her kimonos would be repeatedly dyed. Moreover, when the cloth could no longer be worn it would be put to other uses. However, in post-war Japan as kimonos ceased to be worn on a daily basis, when a woman passed away, her new or rarely worn dowry kimonos would be divided among maternal relatives (ishôwake). This said, many participants in my study argued that these days people prefer to ‘return’ money instead, and dowry kimonos are either thrown away or sold to antiques wholesalers. During the 1990s, many kimonos were sold to foreign tourists in special ‘second-hand’ kimono shops, and antique/temple markets. However, since the beginning of the millennium there has been an increased interest from Japanese customers in second-hand kimonos. This may be due, firstly, to the fact that during this time trendy urban women in their twenties and thirties have appropriated the kimono as a fashion statement. These consumers deliberately challenge established kimono-rules, such as wearing antique kimonos in colours or patterns ‘inappropriate’ to one's age.

A second reason for the increased popularity in second-hand kimonos is that many women recycle them into a range of other objects. Mrs Sakai, a housewife in Osaka, and her daughter Yuka are critical of ‘people who live in mansions or so, who sell their kimono in a carton box for 5, 000 yen, and all their dowry items …’ Both women proudly showed me some handbags they made from a kimono and an obi they had saved from a friend's storehouse that was destined to be destroyed with all its contents inside. Moreover, Mrs Sakai used kimonos that had belonged to her own and her husband's parents to produce Western-style clothing such as dresses and blouses. These kinds of hybrid clothes are so popular that a professional industry has developed. Mrs Kagemori, the 63-year-old retired academic in Osaka, for example, paid professionals to turn most of her dowry kimonos into items of formal Western dress.

I came across many other examples of textile objects created from old kimonos. The cover of Mr Nakao's prayer book placed in the Buddhist home altar was made of an old kimono belonging to his mother. In the Iwaiis’ Western-style guest room closet doors were covered with fabric from one of Mr Iwaii senior's grand mother's kimonos. Finally, the Matsuis, Wadas and Ms Kema possessed Ichimatsu display dolls dressed in kimonos made from fabric of their mothers’ old kimono. This last example, clearly illustrates that kimonos, like the closets they are stored in, embody maternal family ties. However, whereas closets are only supposed to last one generation, kimonos can be made into a variety of other textile objects, and may thus be easily passed on across the generations.

© susan andrews

Spread 8: Rebuilding The Family Home; The Yanos’ Photo-Diary

On 20 May 2003 – a day of great prosperity (daian) – a ‘house-building ceremony’ (jichinsai) took place on an empty plot of land in Kyoto – the spot where the Yanos’ 40-year-old two-storey family house had stood and where their new house would be erected. In the preceding months, the whole family was involved in sorting through, packing and moving their possessions. This was a very slow process as in each cupboard, closet and drawer long-forgotten items were discovered.

One important category of goods (1) that could not be easily disposed of was items closely associated with their family history. These were (a) personal items that had belonged to deceased ancestors, (b) gifts given for life-cycle event such as hina-dolls belonging to their unmarried eldest daughter and, finally, (c) objects made by the Yanos’ three children when they were little, such as drawings and school calligraphy. All these goods were thoroughly evaluated before the finally decision about whether to keep them or to throw them away was made. To speed things up, different members of the family were given the responsibility of deciding about the fate of things found in different storage spaces. However, this strategy proved unsuccessful because frequently things that one person decided to throw away were later rescued from the garbage pile by someone else. A second, larger group of stored away object (2) were decorative souvenirs and gifts. Some, such as a miniature scroll with views of famous tourist spots in Yokohama, were gifts from their children's school trips more than twenty years earlier. However, the majority of these items, such as two miniature lion masks could no longer be traced back to any particular person or event. Some of these souvenirs were disposed of, some I received as presents, but many resurfaced in a glass display case in the house the family occupied while their new house was build.

Once the Yanos had sorted through their possession the demolition crew moved in. They swiftly tore down the building and cleared the site of debris. Before the construction of the new house could start, a local Shinto priest conducted a house-building ceremony that consists of a number of cleansing rituals to ensure that the building and its inhabitants will be spared from atrocities such as fires and earthquakes. The ceremony will also protect those working on the site against accidents, and across Japan similar rituals are held before construction work starts on any building, whether private or public. Mr Yano, paid for the ceremony, which cost ¥40, 000 (about £200), but the head carpenter and his staff played a key role in the proceedings. Before the Shinto priest arrived at the site, they transformed the plot into a sacred space by raising four bamboo branches, each about 2.5 metres tall, at the four corners and tying them together with a sacred rope. On entering this space all participants washed their hands with a special set of wooden ceremonial tools. Another group of workers crafted a delicate earthen cone topped with rice plants, an edifice symbolizing a rice field that plays a central role in the proceedings. Towards the northern end of the site, the priest erected a table with offerings: a large, tiered pounded rice cake, an arrangement of fruits and vegetables and several bottles of sake. Most of these offerings were later collected by Mrs Yano who used them as the main ingredients for a soup that the family consumed on returning home.

Fig. 28h

The ritual blessings started with the priest facing the makeshift altar and reciting sacred texts to purify the ground (harae). All the participants stood behind him in quiet observance until each person (including the anthropologist) was invited to step forward and offer a sacred sasaki leaf to the deities. Then, Mr Yano ‘symbolically’ ploughed the ‘rice field’ with a wooden shovel in order to invite prosperity for all members of his family. The procedure continued with the priest blessing the four corners of the site, waving a sceptre decorated with white paper festoons, followed by Mr Yano, his wife and the head carpenter pouring sake and salt on each corner of the plot as well as over the ‘rice field’ cone. Finally, the priest placed a small wooden box with sacred earth from the local shrine on top of the earthen mount. The head carpenter buried this sacred box in the centre of the plot before construction work began. The ceremony officially ended with all those present sharing a cup of sake, while Mrs Yano distributed bags with sweets among the workers, and handed the head carpenter and the priest an envelope with money.

© susan andrews


[1] The Misawa company has been producing the ‘kura-house’ since the beginning of the 1990s and, in 1996, it won the ‘Good Design Grand Prize’

[2] Another unexpected benefit of the storage room mentioned in the catalogue is its positive effect on children. First, it is a dark, mysterious space where they can play with friends, and, second, it is claimed that when children see family treasures kept in these spaces ‘they will become conscious of the existence of their ancestors and the way people are linked, and they will start to treat things with respect’ (Misawa Homes 2003: 81). By contrast, in folk tales old storehouses are often depicted as uncanny places where troublesome objects such as dolls may come alive. The kura evoked particularly unpleasant memories for one of my participants who during his childhood was often locked into the kura as punishment for naughty behaviour

[3] I have no data about whether or not kura-houses actually help to reduce the number of things people keep in their everyday living spaces

[4] Repeated destructive fires also led to the development of a chest on wheels (nagamochi kuruma) that was placed close to the entrance so that clothing and personal possessions could be wheeled off in case of a fire (Hanley 1997: 44)

[5] Kura are still a common sight in places that have preserved a ‘traditional’ housing stock, such as some parts of contemporary Kyoto; most continue to be used as storehouse, but some have also been put to new, often commercial uses such as craft shops or art galleries

[6] After her parents passed away, they turned the second floor of her family home into two rental apartments

[7] The creation of new storage methods during the eighteenth century has been linked with the drastic increase in consumer goods, especially clothing, in the home (Hanley 1997: 43–4). Portable storage tools such as containers and chests of drawers (tansu) were previously used, but the variety of storage chests increased and new storage solutions such as storage rooms developed (Koizumi 1980: 110–1)

[8] The word kagu, literally household goods, referred to all the movable articles in the home. Only after the introduction of Western-style furniture has the term been primarily linked with furniture (Sand 1996: 177)

[9] Unlike Western clothing, kimonos are stored away folded into flat packs placed in special covers made of rice paper that protect garments against humidity and insects

[10] Rural Japan participated equally in this new consumer culture. Television played a crucial role in the dissemination of a ‘mainstream’ lifestyle all over Japan, as ownership jumped from fifty-five per cent in 1960 to ninety-five per cent in 1964 (Partner 1999: 140)

[11] The ‘three sacred containers’ is a slogan framed during the 1950s that refers to the television, the washing machine and the refrigerator. There was mass consumption of these domestic goods during the post-war affluence, but since the beginning of the twenty-first century the three must-have treasures have become the wide-screen television, the DVD player and the digital camera (AS 2004: 45)

[12] For example, beds were passed on as heirlooms because of their intrinsic worth and connection with family history (on the practice in eighteenth-century France, see Auslander 1996: 274)

[13] Some smaller dowry items such as tiered, lacquered boxes and beautifully decorated plates destined for disposal ended up in my possession

[14] In the Kansai region the man's family gives betrothal gifts consisting of a sum of money equivalent to three months wages (or approximately ¥1, 000, 000 (about £5, 000)). The woman's family will reciprocates ten percent of this money to the groom's family, while in the Kantô region (from Nagoya northwards) the woman's family is expected to return about half the value of the initial gift

[15] After four years of university education most women will return home to live with their parents until they marry

[16] Employees at Misawa Homes argued that because land is so expensive only large conglomerates of developers are able to buy large-size properties. To maximize profit they will either built high-rises or divide the property into tiny lots

[17] In 1998 sixty per cent of all homes in Japan were owned (AS 2004: 189). The ideal of home ownership only became widespread during the post-war period when the number of houses provided by the government was largely insufficient and in order to ease the housing crisis beneficial short-term loans were offered to home buyers (Yamashita 2003: 70–5; Uchida 2002: 75)

[18] Those working for the army, civil servants and managers in the private sector are expected to move regularly because of job transfers. However, once a family home is purchased the family tends to stay put, while the breadwinner either commutes for long hours or lives away from home in rented accommodation