Is bigger always better? Advertisers tell us so, estate agents tell us so, the bully in the playground told us so. In a world where businesses seek global domination, race to build taller, bigger structures and acquiring possessions is a national sport, we are programmed to believe in bigger, to believe in having more.

The needs, comfort and proportions of the human have long been considered in the design of furniture, interiors and architecture. But there may be another dimension to enjoying the spaces around us. The average living space for a family in urban Japan totals around 430 square feet (40 square meters). Yet two out of three Japanese say that in general they are content with this. In the UK, enormous spacious rooms, big grand houses are what many strive for. But do we need them? Can we learn to be content with what we have, with a smaller space? Why is the average urban family in Japan happy with so little space whilst we seemingly are not?

Design

Nold Egenter discusses this particularly Japanese attitude in some depth, in his paper published in 1992. Egenter considers that the spatial needs of the Japanese are closely related to the design of their homes, and a key factor in determining Japanese house design is the cultural tradition of the Japanese – their architectural heritage and way of living developed under cultural and geographical conditions very different from those of the west.

Egenter notes that religious traditions and rituals, rather than practical or material needs, dictate life in and the layout of the traditional Japanese house.

A Japanese house is not just about architecture. The structure and layout of a traditional Japanese house incorporates religious seats, Buddhist ancestral altars and religious niches. The hearth and the water source are treated as seats of deities, particularly in rural areas, and are often the centre of certain religious activities. These ritual spots are located throughout the interior and surrounding exterior so that the whole internal space of the house becomes hierarchically structured, like a Shinto sanctuary or Buddhist temple.

Ritual

The behaviour of inhabitants and guests is focussed on these religious areas of the home from childhood onwards, being part of an individual’s education and part of social life.

The home therefore becomes a place of spiritual behaviour, repetitive and always in the same form. Ritual is part of daily life. In contrast, ritualism and the spiritual value of a home is often an alien concept to Europeans. Since the Age of Enlightenment, European cultural history has most valued rationality and science. Then in the twentieth century in particular we have been subject to designers’ whims or versions of rationality, such as that of the Bauhaus, and of course the latest trends.

Society

Historically, the Japanese are social beings, with a common identity. Togetherness and cooperation rather than the paramountcy of the individual is crucial to Japanese society. In Japan the nail that rears its head is hammered down. Japanese religious traditions involve many social obligations, and tradition is an important part of life. Religious rituals within the home are often social occasions and so relate the individual living space to society as a whole. At each festive occasion traditions are followed that take inhabitants away from the routine of everyday life by continuing the traditions of the past. Therefore tradition and society are intertwined and the spiritual quality of the Japanese house is preserved together with certain behaviours.

So…

It becomes a little easier to imagine why in Japan a home so small can be enough. Comfort and physical need relate to and are perhaps subordinate to spiritual wellbeing, and the quality of the space, in a non-materialistic sense, is paramount.

In the UK, our homes have not developed as primarily traditional or spiritual places. But living a secular life does not mean we cannot create our own traditions and small rituals in which we take pleasure and that we would only do at home. Structure our space well, design it for those private rituals or social occasions we treasure, and be happier in our homes for it. If we could develop this focus in our own ways, perhaps we would be happier with our lot – with less, with smaller.

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