Sheltering in small places

Sheltering in small places

What life indoors looks like in Tokyo’s cramped homes

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency on April 7, urging residents to stay at home to stem the rise in coronavirus infections.

Although the government’s move falls short of implementing a strict lockdown, authorities in areas such as Tokyo are calling for a temporary shutdown of businesses such as bars and “pachinko” pinball parlours – although the details are still being worked out.

For residents in Tokyo, where the majority of new cases are being reported, that means spending more time at home - often tiny by Western standards.

The average home in the Tokyo prefecture is 66 square meters (710 square feet), compared with 80 square meters (860 square feet) in London. However, apartments in the city tend to be smaller than this.

Tokyo’s homes

Explosive growth in construction during the post-war boom years reshaped the city and how millions of people live. Like many cities, it is home to vast high-rise housing blocks, where apartments are often small. Although leafier neighbourhoods to the west of central Tokyo have more standalone homes, some with lawns, many of those houses stand next to apartment buildings. About one out of four Tokyo residents lives alone.

The government’s latest Housing and Land Survey, conducted in 2018 and released last year, gives insight into the homes of Tokyo’s 6.8 million households.

The average floor space of homes in Tokyo is 65.9 square metres. Of that area, there’s an average 41 square metres deemed “dwelling” space. This consists of living spaces such as bedrooms, lounge areas, kitchen and dining areas.

This may seem incredibly small but in comparison to some other densely populated cities, such as Hong Kong, homes in Tokyo are larger on average.

However, places do get smaller than those in the illustration above. Out of Tokyo’s 6.8 million households, there are more than 1.4 million that are less than 19.7 square meters (212 square feet) in size, or less than half the average size shown above. Across Japan there are 5.7 million homes smaller than 19.7 square metres.

These small rooms include both old, wooden apartments with tatami mat floors, as well as more modern apartments fitted with compact kitchens and modular bathrooms known as “unit baths” that include a shower, bathtub, sink and toilet. People who live in these apartments often sleep on futons, which are folded and put away in the morning – one of Japan’s most traditional space-saving methods.

But homes get even smaller than that. 75,900 households in Tokyo have only 9.8 square metres of “dwelling” space.

A handful of such tiny homes are shared. But they represent a small fraction of Tokyo’s housing stock.

Office and residential buildings are seen from the observation deck of the Tokyo Skytree in Tokyo, Japan. June 18, 2019. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Personal space

On average, Japan has 2.3 people per household and Tokyo about 2 people per household. Here’s what that looks like per person.

In 2015, the population density across Tokyo prefecture was the highest among Japan’s prefectures, at 6,168.7 persons per square kilometer. This was more than 18 times higher than the national average but less than Hong Kong’s average of 6,940 people per square kilometer.

The illustrations in this page are based on data from the prefecture, marked in black outline on the map below, as well as some smaller islands out of view to the south. This area includes some of the most densely populated areas in Japan.

The state of emergency, giving authorities more power to press people to stay at home and businesses to close, will last a month and be imposed in the capital, Tokyo, and six other prefectures, accounting for about 44% of Japan’s population.

Life in a ‘state of emergency’

Reuters spoke to several Tokyo residents to see how being asked to stay at home - in sometimes cramped conditions - felt amid the coronavirus crisis.

Hiromichi Otsuka - 83 years old

He lives alone in a 20-square-metre apartment in Tokyo. It has two rooms as well as a toilet and bath. He used to be a company employee but has been retired for more than 20 years.

“It’s pretty tough at the moment; there aren’t many places to go. Up to now I had been going to cafes and pachinko parlors.”

“I try to meet friends and get out of my apartment as much as I can. When I am at home I usually read. I used to play golf but a lot of people I played with are dead now.”

Taiga Fukutani - 44 years old

He lives in a 35-square-metre apartment in Nakano ward in Tokyo with his wife and two-year-old son. He is working as an Uber Eats delivery man. Fukutani used to perform at events and show pubs, and has also appeared on TV. But as the virus crisis deepened in mid-March, his entertainment work dried up and he’s now forced to make ends meet with jobs outside his industry.

“I have to support my family, so I am not spending much time at home despite the self isolation.”

“I think people living in smaller homes in Japan are going to feel more stressed out than in other places where homes are bigger. I heard that there are more people getting divorced because of the coronavirus.”

His apartment is located in a residential building next to a small park, shinto shrine and near a main thoroughfare that swings around the western part of central Tokyo. The entrance where people take of their shoes leads into a small kitchen with two rooms behind it. The small living room has an inner paper sliding door that can be drawn across it instead of a curtain. The bedroom floor space is taken up with a semidouble bed for Fukutani and his wife, and a futon laid on the floor for their son. There is a separate toilet and Japanese style tub in a small bathroom.

“We live in a small place so my son gets annoyed if he has to stay there all the time, which is why I take him to the park, but we don't go anywhere on the train, we just stay local.”

Yuriko Yamada, 28 years old, and Tetsuro Tanaka - 27 years old

They live together in a 33-square-metre apartment in Nakano ward in Tokyo. Both started working from home recently and described themselves as company employees.

“I started working from home yesterday and until then had been going to my office as usual, so I am unsure how it’s going to work out. I recently bought a Nintendo Switch, and I have a boxing game, so I think I will try that out to help cope with being at home all the time. I will probably do some reading and cooking as well. I will keep in touch with friends through Line and Zoom.”

Yuriko Yamada

They spoke to Reuters on their way to buy food and other supplies.

“It feels strange working from home, I feel more nervous. I am managing to get the same amount of work done,” Tanaka said. “It’s hard at the beginning, but I think people will get used to being at home the longer it goes on.”

“And now that is both of us, our place is going to be a bit cramped.”

Tetsuro Tanaka

Sources: Housing and Land Survey, Official Statistics of Japan; London Datastore, Greater London Authority; Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong.

By Simon Scarr, Marco Hernandez, Manas Sharma, Ritsuko Ando and Tim Kelly.
Additional reporting by Minami Funakoshi and Anand Katakam.
Editing by Gerry Doyle

Video by Yasuteru Ueda, Akira Tomoshige, Akiko Okamoto | REUTERS