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Topic section: Homelife
The Japanese approach to the home is a metaphor for a wider attitude towards nature and the outside world. Traditional architecture is bound by spiritual principles.
Picture: 1990-5037_J3_0008s1embed.jpg
A traditional room with screens, straw matting and minimal furniture, about 1895.
Credit: NMPFT
 Structures are flexible, allowing homes to bend before the wind or shake during mild earthquakes. Likewise, the Japanese mindset can be bent – but not broken – under western influence.

Traditional Japanese homes are designed with simplicity, flexibility and harmony in mind. Unlike western homes, wher

By the mid-1970s over half of Japanese homes boasted western-style dining suites

e rooms serve specific purposes, Japanese rooms are multifunctional. Interior spaces are defined not by solid walls but by translucent sliding panels, curtains and ‘shoji’ screens – made from rice paper or wooden latticework, these diffuse natural light. Flexible furnishings occupy these spaces. They are simple, portable and functional. To the Japanese, homes and garden co-exist as symbolic spaces, revealing hidden harmonies. The spiritual approach is apparent in the increased popularity of feng shui. Although Chinese in origin, feng shui is widespread in Japan and stresses harmony and balance. Western celebrities including Bill Clinton and Madonna are rumoured to have adopted feng shui. British Airways, BUPA and other companies have used it to try to enhance their businesses
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Biwajima Bridge after the earthquake, Japan, 1891.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library


Japanese architecture first became westernised in the late nineteenth century when public buildings were built of stone and brick. However, homes remained traditional. Domestic architecture only westernised after the Second World War as traditional houses became symbols of poverty. Cities expanded and high-rise apartment blocks were built. By the mid-1970s over half of Japanese homes boasted western-style dining suites. Meanwhile, traditional Japanese dining furniture – low tables with tatami mats for sitting on – declined in popularity. Recently there has been a shift back to a more tra
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Embroidered screen with bronze and porcelain items, Japanese, 1876.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
ditional domestic architecture. These buildings represent a fusion of cultures, retaining underfloor heating and western-style bathrooms.

Once, traditional Japanese crafts such as ceramics, prints and silks decorated British homes. Now, Japanese electronic goods are commonplace and Japanese companies are global. Their products have a reputation for quality, reliability, innovation and design. Yet appearances can be deceptive. ‘Matsui’ sounds Japanese, but is a brand name for Currys, demonstrating a lack of confidence in British technology.

The Japanese approach to life is spiritual, yet robust. Could it be the case that these qualities have helped Japan to resist western domination?

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Topic section: Leisure
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Japanese food and sports are both very healthy. It is now easy to find Japanese restaurants and judo classes in Western cities. Meanwhile, the Japanese have eagerly taken up Western sports, such as baseball, and go to American-style fast-food bars.  > more

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Topic section: Looking at you, looking at me
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Despite many ideas and technologies exchanged between Japan and the West, mutual understanding has lagged behind. Western ideas about the Japanese and their way of life have always been strongly influenced by stereotypes in the popular media.  > more
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