This Week in The Paperhouses Journal: JAPAN

Culture / Japan

Less is and more. What we can learn from Japan's population housing patterns.

Japan is fascinating. I remember growing up in Belgium thinking of Japan as the society of the future. All the technology we wanted was Japanese, all the industry we needed was Japanese, all the clean energy we desired was Japanese. Everything “Made in Japan” was so perfectly designed… Japan was ahead of the curve!

This is still all true but it is also true that this trendsetting, industrial, productive society isn't making enough babies. With too few gears in the axle of this over-large industry, their incredible wheel of progress becomes too large to roll at high speed. However, in “discovering” modern demography, Japan has realized its challenges and becomes, despite itself, the world’s most exemplary social labratory.

Why is this relevant? First, because demography is a key to national economic performance–population changes explain in part the economic performance of Japan in the last 15 years, as Krugman pointed out in his blog last February* (a phenomenon also ailing Europe right now), which in turn determines its  capacity to invest. Second, and more interestingly to us, because demography shapes the needs of the housing market. We are interested in this relation: people x space, and demography is at the exact intersection of this conversation.

Is less more?

Japan has almost no net immigration, one of the highest life expectancies in the world, plummeting fertility rates, a shrinking household size and an increasing proportion of single professionals. Numbers show that the population has been decreasing since 2008.

However, that notwithstanding, the number of households has increased 37% since 1980. How is that possible?


The key to these numbers is social dynamics. The average household decreased from 3.2 in 1980 to 2.4 in 2010. According to the last census, 32% of households are now one single person and although the population entered slow decline, the number of households is expected to continue to increase.

In other words, Japan has fewer people and needs more houses!

From a financial standpoint, the Bank of Japan’s aggressive monetary policy has increased foreign investment in property shares and has conditioned Japanese people, who do not want to lose to inflation, to shift their money out of banks and into real estate. Social dynamics have found in the new economy a powerful ally, and together they are taking over the housing market: new house construction has escalated by a staggering 14.5% compared to last year according to Bloomberg News.

This is an opportunity for Japan (and an opportunity for all) to rethink “modern living” and define a model that understands and respects spatial conditions, social relations between family members, neighbors, and all other social networks. This is an unprecedented opportunity for architects and designers to propose their visions. Japan may be no less fascinating to us all as an exmample of rapidly changing housing works and demography, as it is fascinating as an exemplar of modernity in the global age.

Read our interview with Florian Busch about what it means to have a practice in Japan. Kenya Hara guest-blogs on the role of design and architecture in fomenting “housing literacy.”