At the end of a long day at the Japan Professional Baseball League offices, Asumi Fujiwara returned to her apartment and changed into her pajamas. She wanted to do a light workout before bed, so she placed her vinyl yoga mat on the floor in front of the toilet, passing it past the single kitchen burner and toaster at a slit and towards the foot of his desk.
After a few stretches, she got up to put herself in a warrior position. Instead of fully extending her arms, however, she pulled her elbows into her sides. “I have to modify my poses or else I’ll hit something,” says Fujiwara, 29.
Such is life in a 95 square foot apartment in Tokyo.
With its high real estate prices and the most populous metropolitan area in the world, Tokyo has long been known for its small accommodations. But these new apartments – known as three-tatami rooms, based on the number of standard Japanese floor mats that would cover the living space – are pushing the boundaries of normal living.
A real estate developer, Spilytus, is leading the charge towards ever smaller spaces. It has operated these shoebox apartments since 2015, and with more than 1,500 residents now in its 100 buildings, demand has remained strong.
While the units are half the size of an average Tokyo studio, they have 12-foot ceilings and an attic for sleeping. They are also elegant, with immaculate white floors and walls, and with efficient organization, it is possible to slip in a washing machine, a refrigerator, a sofa and a desk.
Apartments are not for those on a very tight budget. Cheaper apartments can be found, although they are usually decades old. But the micro apartments, which rent for $340 (€341) to $630 (€632) a month, cost a few hundred dollars less than other studios in similar neighborhoods. And they’re located near trendy central Tokyo spots like Harajuku, Nakameguro, and Shibuya, which are usually quite expensive, with upscale shops, cafes, and restaurants. Most of the buildings are located near metro stations, the top priority for many young people.
More than two-thirds of tenement residents are people in their twenties, who in Japan earn on average between $17,000 and $20,000 a year, according to government data (wages in Tokyo are the highest). Some are drawn to the low upfront cost and the lack of a deposit or “cash gift” – a non-refundable payment to the landlord that can amount to up to three months’ rent – for many properties.
Small spaces suit the lifestyle of many young Japanese people. In Japan, it is not customary to host guests in homes, with almost a third of Japanese saying they have never had friends, according to a survey by Growth From Knowledge, a data provider for the consumer goods industry.
I wouldn’t live anywhere else
Fujiwara hasn’t even had her partner in the nearly two years she’s been living in her apartment. “This space is for me,” she says.
Many Japanese people, young and old, also work long hours, leaving little time to spend at home. And a growing share of Tokyo residents live alone, making small spaces more desirable. These people are more likely to eat out or grab one of the many prepared meal options at convenience or grocery stores, so a full kitchen is less necessary.
Yugo Kinoshita, a 19-year-old college student who works part-time making beef bowls at a restaurant chain, is one of those for whom an apartment is nothing more than a place to sleep.
At the end of his shift, it is one o’clock to midnight and he is exhausted. He eats his free staff meal, goes to a “sento” bathhouse, and passes out the second he returns to his Spilytus unit. Otherwise, her days are filled with homework for her nutrition degree and seeing friends.
When he spends a few waking hours at home, the box that acts as a TV stand turns into a study desk and a kitchen counter. To clean the floor, all he needs is a lint roller.
Even after having to tearfully say goodbye to his collection of Nike Dunks because there was no room for them, Kinoshita says that at this point in his life, “I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
For some residents, the tiny apartments provide a gateway to long-delayed independence.
Of course, the bigger the better. It never hurts to have a bigger space
Two years ago, 26-year-old Kana Komatsubara started looking for an apartment so she could finally move out of her parents’ house in suburban Tokyo.
She wanted a newly built space, easy access to work, and toilets and showers in separate rooms (a common request in Japan) – all within her relatively tight budget. She wasn’t necessarily looking for a micro-unit, but her search led her to an apartment in Spilytus.
“Of course, the bigger the better. It never hurts to have a bigger space,” she says. “It was just the best option for me at the time.”
On a recent afternoon, Komatsubara, a nail stylist, walked for a minute from her nearest subway station in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, through a narrow alley lined with worn houses, and unlocked the main door. of his building.
She climbed three flights of narrow stairs—the buildings don’t have an elevator—to her bedroom, which was behind one of the identical burgundy doors lining the common hallway.
Inside, a tiny “genkan,” or entrance, had room for exactly three pairs of shoes. A 20-inch-wide hallway led to the main room, past the kitchen sink, where Komatsubara leaves a tube of toothpaste and a bottle of mouthwash.
She stores her work gear, like blue-light machines for gel nails and mannequin hands for practice, in the place intended to hold a washing machine. A plastic garbage bag hanging from his doorknob needs to be taken out almost daily.
One of the benefits of small life, she says, is less ice cream. Her mini-fridge doesn’t have a working freezer, so she eats less of it. That, added to her daily boxing routine, means she’s in better shape.
As I got older, my requirements, what I want from an apartment, changed
Baseball league employee Fujiwara was lured to her micro-apartment after the pandemic began. She lived in a shared house, but not having space for herself when working from home caused stress and anxiety.
Her reduced space has pushed her to live more sustainably, she says. “Small living has helped me think twice every time I want to buy something new,” she adds.
Yet next to his sink is a stack of about 40 brown paper cups. “I don’t have space to dry dishes,” says Fujiwara.
She and Komatsubara would like to have more space for clothes, which they carefully hang in their lofts. Komatsubara visits her parents at the start of each season, most recently to trade her cropped tops for sweaters.
The two women have forgone having washing machines – they are expected in most Japanese apartments – in order to use space more efficiently, and instead go to a laundromat once or twice a week.
Kinoshita has a washing machine, but without a dryer, he hangs his wet clothes on the railing where his curtains should be. He also can’t do some of the homework for his nutrition degree at home because his kitchen is too small.
Komatsubara has decided to leave her apartment, as she wants something even cheaper.
“As I got older, my requirements, what I want from an apartment, changed,” she says. — This article originally appeared in the New York Times