Chris Frederick

On Living in Japan

January 15, 2013

First, a quick disclaimer: I was born and raised in the United States. As a result, when I make observations about Japan they are based on—and contrasted with—my own experience living in the U.S. Needless to say, my life experiences may or may not be similar to your own. If you haven’t lived in the U.S. or known anyone who has, you may not find some of my observations to be very surprising at all; in fact, you may find my assumptions to be more interesting! Nevertheless, I hope that at least some of what I write here will be informative to you.

I have lived in Japan for nearly nine months now, and I think that I am finally ready to share several observations that I’ve made about domestic life here. Note that I am explicitly focusing on (what are to me) interesting aspects of Japanese residences; I will not discuss cultural differences between Japan and the U.S. per se. Although it’s true that I have immersed myself in the Japanese language and culture from abroad for over twelve years, I don’t feel qualified to pontificate on the Japanese people, language, and culture; I couldn’t do the subjects justice, nor would I wish to expend the requisite time and effort to do so if I could. No, I’m more interested in shedding some light on what it’s like to live in a Japanese home, to illustrate a number of small ways in which the trappings of everyday life differ between Japan and the United States.

Bedding

Japanese futons are far different from their eponymous doppelgängers in the western world. The differences are striking.

Japanese Futon:

Japanese futon

Western-Style Futon:

Western-style futon

Some salient facts about Japanese futons include the following.

  • A futon mainly comprises a (relatively thin) mattress and a comforter or blanket. An expensive winter comforter might be filled with down and a summer blanket may be little more than a bed-sized towel.
  • Futons are typically laid out on tatami flooring at night and are folded up and stored in a closet during the day.
  • Futons are supposed to be aired out in sunlight regularly.

I like the simplicity of the futon as well as its space-saving efficiency, and I am consistently amazed at how warm a good futon comforter can be. Nevertheless, there is also something to be said for sleeping on a thick, western-style mattress.

Laundry

As far as I can tell, most Japanese households don’t have dryers—and even the households that do use them very sparingly. (I’ve seen washing machines with built-in drying units in stores, but I haven’t actually seen one of these models in use yet.) Of course, the lack of dryers makes perfect economic sense if you think about it because they use a lot of electricity, which is relatively expensive here—and getting more expensive and even scarce now that all but two of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors are offline. I’m sure that there are other reasons, as well, but in any event a corollary to the lack of dryers is the need to line dry all of one’s laundry, and a corollary to that is a heightened sensitivity to the weather. (Dehumidifiers actually appear to be sold primarily for drying laundry indoors on rainy days.) Thankfully, it’s sunny more often than not where I live—and in the middle of the summer a pair of jeans can dry out in two hours flat—but when it does rain, as well as during the winter months, clothes can take an entire day to dry. I recognize and appreciate the fact that this is a more environmentally friendly way to live, but I still can’t help but find the process of hanging clothes, waiting for them to dry, and then folding them again extremely tedious and time-consuming. At least I have a lot of podcasts that I can listen to!

Balconies

Since most people line dry their clothes and air out their futons in the sun, balconies are a pretty important component of Japanese homes. These balconies are usually rather large—at least by my (U.S.) standards—to accommodate both the clothing and bedding. Furthermore, because clothes dry better in direct sunlight, houses and apartment buildings tend to be designed so that every residence has a balcony that faces east, west, or—preferably—south. North-facing balconies are much less common.

Water

I’ve noticed that every Japanese home and apartment I have been in has used a tankless water heater instead of (what I consider to be) a “traditional” hot water tank. To their credit, the tankless water heaters work perfectly fine once you get used to the slight lag between the time that you open a hot-water faucet and the time that the hot water actually arrives from the heater.

What’s particularly interesting to me about these tankless water heaters is that they are usually operated by “remote controls” installed in both the kitchen and the bathroom, and for the vast majority of the day these controls are turned off. So even though water should theoretically be heated on demand, it usually isn’t heated at all because the heater itself is off. This means that tap water is tepid in the summer and frigid in the winter. Furthermore, the washing machines I’ve seen aren’t even connected to a hot water tap (if you want hot water you can either pour it in with a bucket or use a tube to suck it out of your bathtub—more on that later), so clothes are almost always washed in cold water, which not surprisingly doesn’t dissolve laundry detergent very well in the winter. I’m actually a bit surprised that people don’t have more problems with pipes freezing, but then again, temperatures don’t drop below freezing very often or very long in most of Japan. That being said, I have heard that heating works differently in the northern prefecture of Hokkaido, where the weather is colder and snow more common in the winter.

At this point, you may be wondering: if the tankless water heater is usually turned off, what in the world is it used for?

Baths

The answer is that, in general, hot water is used for bathing. In the U.S., this is often just a shower in the morning. In Japan, this is often a shower and a bath in the evening.

Japanese bathtubs are deeper—sometimes significantly so—than their counterparts in the U.S. They are meant for soaking, for relaxing after a long day, and for warming up in the winter. The water in the tub is used by all the members of a household, so everyone is supposed to take a shower and clean themselves off before they get in the tub. The remote control (often) installed above the bathtub is used to individually adjust the water temperature for the shower and the bath (the latter by periodically circulating hot water through a filter in the side of the tub). In my experience, bath water temperature is usually between 40° and 42°C (104° and 107.6°F), and I can attest to the fact that it really does feel good to take a nice, relaxing bath at the end of the day (except in the summer, anyway). As an added bonus, you can reuse the bath water for your washing machine’s first wash and rinse cycles!

Showers

Because you are expected to take a shower before you get in the bathtub, there is usually a hand-held shower head hanging on a rail next to the tub for you to use. There is also often a plastic stool for you to sit on while you shower yourself and a shallow bucket for you to fill with water—either from the tub next to you or from a faucet installed somewhere near the shower head—for rinsing yourself off in addition to or in lieu of the shower head. Furthermore, to facilitate showering outside of the tub, the entire room is built out of materials that are designed to get wet and there is even a drain in the floor.

Bathrooms

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that Japanese bathrooms are designed very differently from their western counterparts. A western-style bathroom typically consolidates a shower/bathtub, toilet, and sink in the same room. In Japan—excluding western-style hotel rooms—these are split up into three separate rooms. The toilet is located in a room about as large as a small walk-in closet; the sink is usually in the next small room down the hallway, which also commonly has the household’s washing machine; and the bathtub and shower are in most cases adjacent to the room with the sink and washing machine, and may be accessed through a door between them.

This setup definitely has its advantages: three different people can use the sink, toilet, and shower simultaneously without getting in each other’s way. Personally, I happen to think that it’s more sanitary to keep the toilet and shower in separate rooms anyway.

Heating and Air Conditioning

I’ve known about this for several years now, but I still admit that I was a bit surprised when I first discovered that very few Japanese residences have the kind of central heat/air systems that are common in the U.S. (Good insulation seems to be lacking, as well, with one possible exception being buildings in Hokkaido.) Instead, Japanese homes are typically heated and cooled one room at a time. In other words, you need to install a heater or air conditioner in every single room you want to heat or cool. Thankfully, you have a bit of flexibility in choosing how to heat your home: you can use any combination of electric space heaters, kerosene heaters (some of which have a flat surface on top for placing a kettle), gas heaters, “hot carpets”, kotatsu, and even heated toilet seats. Unfortunately, you have fewer options for cooling your home: you can really only use mechanical fans, hand fans, and wall-mounted air conditioners. You can—and probably should—carry a towel around for wiping your sweat off periodically, too, especially in the middle of the summer when it’s 35°C (95°F) outside and the humidity hovers around 70%.

Energy Costs

As I mentioned earlier, heat and electricity are expensive. I know that I represent an extremely small sample size, but consider the following energy costs.

  • For electricity, I now pay a base service charge of ¥819 plus ¥17.05 for each kWh up to 120, ¥21.09 for each kWh between 121 and 300, and ¥22.52 for each kWh over 300. In addition to that, I pay ~¥1.7/kWh in “fuel costs” and ~¥0.33/kWh in “renewable energy costs”.
  • For natural gas, I now either pay a base service charge of ¥724.50 and ~¥190 per cubic meter on months that I use less than 25 m3, or I pay a base service charge of ¥1890 and ~¥145/m3 on months that I use more than 25 m3.

To be fair, these rates feel exorbitant to me because I was used to paying for cheap hydroelectric power. Specifically, I used to pay a base service charge of ~$4.50 plus ~$0.05 for each kWh up to 10 per day and ~$0.10 for each kWh after that. So not accounting for my current “fuel costs” and “renewable energy costs”, my base service charge has more than doubled and my cost per kWh has quadrupled.

Feel free to work out how much your energy costs differ from these.

Ovens

Ovens don’t appear to be a standard appliance in Japanese residences, so you would need to buy your own standalone oven—and find somewhere in put it—if you wanted to do any baking at home. Of course, given the high cost of gas and electricity here, this may be for the best anyway.

Moving

I think that moving is unpleasant regardless of where you live, but in Japan it is particularly annoying—to put it mildly—because you have to bring and install almost all of your major appliances yourself. These include your refrigerator/freezer, your washing machine, your air conditioners, your heaters, and in some cases even your kitchen stove. (Thankfully, you aren’t expected to move your bathtub or water heater.) I had no idea how fortunate I was to have these appliances provided for me whenever I moved into a new apartment in the U.S.

That being said, moving in Japan isn’t without its advantages, either: I’m told that after you’ve moved into an apartment your rent doesn’t tend to change too much, unlike in the U.S. where your rent is often subject to yearly increases. I knew a number of people in the U.S. who decided to move because they had essentially been priced out of their own apartments. Of course, there are always exceptions: I hear that apartments in Kyoto have some kind of yearly “lease renewal fees” instead.

Recycling

Japan is very environmentally conscious with respect to trash and recycling. It has to be: with a population of over 125 million people in a country smaller than the state of California—most of which is forested or mountainous—there isn’t enough space to bury everyone’s garbage in landfills. Instead, as far as I can tell, the vast majority of residential trash is either burned or recycled. Households are responsible for separating their trash and recyclables into several categories, which include combustibles, non-combustibles, plastic, paper, aluminum, glass, and PET bottles. Virtually all disposable consumer goods have clear labeling to indicate how they are categorized. I really wish the United States would adopt a stricter recycling system like this, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Final Thoughts

If I was asked what all of these observations have in common, I would have to say that they are all attempts to conserve space and resources, both of which are very limited in Japan. Nearly everything about the Japanese home reflects this reality. While I can fully appreciate the frugality inherent in the trade-offs that have been made, I still sometimes miss the little luxuries that I used to take for granted.