At Home, in the World

Neighborhood in Urayasu, Japan. (Jess Yu/Dreamstime)
What our houses say about our lives

Why do the Japanese live in such little houses? Why do Americans live in such big ones?

In a recent conversation, a man remarking upon the neatness and ingenious space management of Japanese homes — what we, for lack of a better English word, describe as typically Japanese “elegance” — insisted that the Japanese have developed the art of living in small spaces because they “have no choice,” Japan being a crowded island with relatively little buildable space.

Homo economicus orientalis, in other words.

But that explanation doesn’t really hold up. Japan has a lower density of population than does the Netherlands, and the Dutch don’t live in tiny Japanese-style houses at all, though they usually do live in smaller houses than do people in Atlanta. Like Japan, the Netherlands is overwhelmingly urban, with more than 90 percent of the people living in cities. About one-third of the land in Japan is suitable for habitation, but most of the population lives on a much smaller footprint, and about half of the nation’s 127 million people live on 2 percent of its land.

Japan hasn’t always been a populous, modern, urban, industrial, high-tech country. More than a century ago, visitors to the countryside of what was a largely agrarian Japan remarked upon what we remark upon now: Its small, elegantly proportioned, sparsely furnished homes. There is something in that that we Westerners find attractive, a promise of liberation. We Americans, the middle classes of whom somehow manage to have too much and too little at the same time, have a funny relationship with our stuff, and the thought of simply escaping it is appealing to many of us. Every time I move, which is fairly often, I get rid of as much stuff as I can, and I always arrive wishing I had jettisoned more.

(“The liberator who destroyed my property has realigned my perceptions.”)

Americans have a curious interest in Japanese aesthetics: The high nerds watch Japanese anime, and the high jocks wear Adidas-made sneakers designed by the avant-garde fashion guru Yohji Yamamoto. We love everything from their martial arts to their car culture. In Doctor Strangelove, World War II veteran Lionel Mandrake talks about his torture at the hands of the Japanese and then adds, “Strange thing is they make such bloody good cameras.” That’s a joke that you couldn’t explain, but which doesn’t need to be explained.

A certain style jumps out at us as Japanese in a way that the products of, say, Norway or Singapore seldom if ever do. I do not speak Japanese, but some of this I think may be explained by consideration of the Japanese term mottainai, which in its narrow sense expresses a horror at waste but contains much more than that, including the low feeling of not deserving the blessings in life one has. It is said to be essentially untranslatable.

But you know it when you feel it.

#share#There is something about houses that tells us a great deal about a people. I visited a number of very poor homes in India, in both urban and rural settings, and was struck by the cleanliness and orderliness inside them. That was especially dramatic in comparison with the nearby public spaces outside, which were generally unclean and disorderly, and in not a few cases were actual sewers and garbage dumps. The dramatic difference between the proprietary attitude toward private spaces and the neglectful attitude toward public ones mirrors an unfortunate, much deeper, and unfortunately much more significant aspect of Indian life, its excessive and sometimes destructive communal aspect. Indians who would literally give the shirt off of their backs for friends and family were, to my eye, shockingly indifferent to neighbors and fellow citizens one or two degrees removed from their own group. That people would be so generous — to a fault, really — and so callous at the same time was difficult for me to understand. But their houses told the story: What’s mine is mine and dear to me — and what isn’t, isn’t. This is how a society with such deep notions of duty and probity coexists with its traditions of bribery and public malpractice.

My Indian friends sometimes tried to explain to me that their communal attitudes were like Americans’ racial attitudes, which is true to the extent that “Chopsticks” and Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 both are works for piano. A colleague visiting the United States for the first time asked me, a little bit worried, whether he, a dark-skinned South Indian, should expect to have trouble in the South. He was highly educated, cultivated, enormously financially successful, and a little bit famous, too. I told him that the worst he should expect was people asking him for medical advice or trying to marry off their daughters. He didn’t quite get it, until he did.

Every generation, the square footage of the average American house grows, while the average size of the family residing within it declines.

We Americans are unlike the Indians and the Japanese in our domestic arrangements. Our homes, and the lives conducted therein, are sloppier than one would expect, and they stand in contrast to our magnificent public spaces. In places as humble as my hometown of Lubbock, Texas, to troubled big cities such as Philadelphia and St. Louis, we have splendid parks that would be the envy of most cities in the world. New York’s Penn Station is a disaster, but Grand Central isn’t, and Washington’s Union Station is really quite something if Joe Biden isn’t wasting your time. In The Book of Mormon, a poor African woman sings a song about what she imagines to be the civic greatness of Salt Lake City, and of course her imagination does not begin to do justice to the actual place. (I still am not sure how deeply the authors appreciate their own joke.) You can spend a very pleasant afternoon having lunch at a sidewalk restaurant on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia and remain entirely ignorant of the brutality with which life routinely is conducted only a mile or two away. But, goodness — mottainai! — those poor people’s homes are full of stuff.

The mid-century modern houses of Southern California tell you more about the optimism, prosperity, and naïve indifference to the past that characterized that wonderful era in American history than ten history books would. The remains of the little cabins at Valley Forge tell a different kind of story.

Every generation, the square footage of the average American house grows, while the average size of the family residing within it declines. That tells a story, too. Japan’s is not the only civilization experimenting with voluntary extinction.