We don't feel crowded living in Tokyo because we don't know anything else. We see pictures of Wyoming and wonder how people could be happy living on the moon. Of course, it requires a certain discipline to live so close together, but we were born into a disciplined world so it is hard for us to imagine living any other way. Besides, there are advantages.
For one, it's less expensive to live in a small space, so money which might be spent on an extravagant house with a rolling lawn can be used to enrich the soul. The thought of a backyard pool is absurd and anyway there is no backyard. If you live in a small space, you can't buy things just for the fun of acquiring them because you have no place to put them. What things you do buy--books, for instance--must be very carefully chosen, which is a useful exercise in itself. Pictures to hang on the wall must be small, which is a whole exquisite aesthetic. In Tokyo, an extensive wine cellar is six bottles. We are forced to be discriminating.
Your refrigerator and oven and dishwasher and washing machine, if you have them, will be as small as a crate of beer and your automobile, scooter, and even bicycle will be on the same scale, but of course Japanese manufacturers are practiced at the art of miniaturization and the cost of their products is in line with their size. (Japanese small cars, called k-jidosha, are the best in the world but there is no call for them abroad simply because most foreigners are too lanky to fit into them.) Very unfortunately, consumers in foreign countries rarely see the results of this Japanese small-scale thinking as they disdain products noticeably smaller than they are used to. Outside Japan, big is OK and small is somehow suspect. In Japan, the reverse is true.
If you don't have a kitchen at all, like many small apartments, you don't need kitchen appliances or plates or wine glasses and you'll always eat out, thus ensuring that you'll be in daily communication with your neighbors living a similarly simplified life and also that the neighborhood is well supplied with cheap, congenial places to eat where everybody knows everyone. Similarly, if your apartment doesn't have a bath, in the evening you'll adjourn to the local sento, the public bath, where again the community gathers, naked, to scrub itself. The tendency for newer small apartments to squeeze in a bath just big enough to sit down in is decried by those who think Japan's sense of community is thus threatened. They think it essential for national unity that children grow up thinking the only way to really get clean is to submerge oneself in hot water up to the chin at the neighborhood sento. (The government evidently thinks so too, as it subsidizes the entrance to sento.)
If you live on tatami mats, you don't need a full-size table or any chairs, and your bed can be folded up and put away to create an open space. Once you get used to living this way, western-style rooms seem cluttered. Small rooms are easy to heat and in the summer easier to keep cool with any of the hundreds of models of electric fans of all sizes, beginning with fans the size of an alarm clock, provided each summer by Japanese manufacturers.
There's no room to let newspapers and magazines accumulate, so everything must be read carefully and put in a pile to be disposed of on the first Newspaper-and-Magazine Disposal Day. No drowsy reading allowed.
Because we live so close together, we must talk softly and move gently, which is why Japanese traveling abroad often find their new surroundings jarring. Because there is no retreat from living close together short of moving to a hut in the mountains, Japanese families, who must eat together around one low table, and sleep together in the same room, are wonderfully cohesive and sharing everything--TV, computer, printer--comes naturally.
One of the great advantages of living together so closely is that there is little "size envy," little unhappiness that your neighbor's house is bigger than yours, simply because in Tokyo it is unlikely to be. In Tokyo, we have the concept of shakkei, "borrowed scenery," which is the idea that anyone can look at a beautiful garden such as the splendid Rikugi-en in Bunkyo-ku or Hamarikyu-onshi-teien in Chuo-ku and to that extent it is theirs. They don't have to own it. It belongs to everybody. Somehow, it is not possible to feel this way about Central Park in New York.
- Natasha Nakamura