Published: Sunday March 8, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday March 16, 2015 MYT 6:51:52 PM

When less is more

For a country like Japan which has a dense population and limited area, our columnist appreciates their creative use of space.

Two weeks ago, I was in Japan for a short holiday. Being the Japanophile that I am, I’m always intrigued by Japanese society and culture. Not only am I learning the language, I’m also attempting to put on an anthropological hat when observing their society and culture.

To me, they are a society of extremes; extremely polite with an extremely violent past, extremely rigid and oppressive, yet extremely wacky and OTT (over the top) on the other, extremely friendly and respectful, yet extremely hierarchical and proud. Of course, these are just vague stereotypes and I’m sure there are middle grounds, but these are some of the aspects of the Japanese that never fail to excite me.

This time around, I paid extra attention towards the Japanese use of space. I’m not a designer or an architect, but my recent visit had made me more aware of their use of space.

Japan’s population is around 127 million, with over 50% concentrated in the three major urban centres of Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. Flying into Tokyo, one can understand better the Japanese lack of space. I remember flying over rugged, ominous-looking outcrops – mountains which form the Japan backbone.

“Nearly 73% of the land is mountainous andonly about 14% is arable,” writes Pradyumna P. Karan in Japan In The 21st Century: Environment, Economy And Society. “Since 1950, there has been a strong tendency toward regional concentration. The Tokyo Metropolitan Area, though less than two percent in terms of area, has a concentration of nearly 24% of the national population.”

The lack of space means that the Japanese are good at making space. Tokyo always amazes me with its many layers. You can find restaurants in unassuming buildings, basement bars, underground shopping malls and ramen shops tucked away in and around corners. As buildings grow taller, underground spaces grow wider. “The use of underground spaces is one of the major changes in Japanese urban cores,” writes Karan. ‘Underground space complements the CBD ground-floor space, which has become popular for retail use with the development of subways and urban expressways.”

Space is not only in the physical sense but also psychological. Small spaces in eateries mean that one usually shares tables with total strangers. In Yokohama, I went into a small family eatery which sits not more than 15 people. It was full except for one table for four, where two seats were already occupied. They had to maximise their space, so I was seated there.

It took awhile to get used to and I was self-conscious because we’re not used to sharing spaces. But this opens up possibilities of meeting new people. Because I was a foreigner, the two gentlemen in front of me didn’t talk to me, but I saw two couples who didn’t know each other who also shared a table start chatting. It reminded me of how I used to share taxis. If while lining up, the person behind me happens to go the same direction, I would offer to share the taxi and split the cost. It’s a pity that we don’t do this anymore.

If these eateries are small, their lavatories are smaller. To make do, the toilet is two-in-one. On top of the tank is the handwash basin! A simple solution, yet I was so impressed.

We took a walk in Noge, where a row of old shophouses were refurbished into bars. These bars were tiny! Each is the size of a room and can comfortably fit six people. We couldn’t go in because they were full with groups of people who looked like they already knew each other and we didn’t want to intrude. We just peeked inside and they looked intimate and cosy. Like having your own personal bar.

Back in Malaysia, we have the luxury of space, yet we keep reclaiming land and carrying out deforestation. This is not to say that the Japanese are not guilty of such things. After their land use is maximised, they have to look elsewhere to create space.

But for us, have we done enough to save space? Can we salvage our long-lost custom of sharing? What if our forests were inaccessible like the Japanese mountains? How then would we accommodate our growing population and our dependence on agricultural income?

For a country with limited area yet densely populated, I notice that the Japanese don’t waste space.

Perhaps we can learn from them how to utilise our spaces better now, instead of having to deal with the consequences later.

■ Sharyn Shufiyan believes that cultures adorn a society, much like Tapestry on a piece of cloth. She puts on an anthropological hat to discuss Malaysia’s cultures, subcultures and society(ies).

Tags / Keywords: Tapestry, columnist, Japan

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TO GO WITH STORY by Anne BEADEThis photo taken on March 3, 2015 shows foreign tourists waiting for a green light in the Ginza shopping district in Tokyo. Last year Tokyo logged a record 13.41 million international visitors, double the number of 2011 and more than half of the 20 million it hopes to attract during the 2020 Olympic Games.  AFP PHOTO / Toru YAMANAKA

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