Written by Maciamo on 21 April 2004 (updated on 5 May 2014)
There are numerous differences between the European houses and apartments and Japanese ones. American homes tend to fit somewhere in between, sometimes closer to Japanese homes, sometimes to European ones, depending on the region and architectural style.
Construction & structural differences
Japanese houses don't have cellars or basements. It is apparently prohibited by laws. What a waste of space in crowded cities like Tokyo. No wine cellar, no additional place to store food, but since they don't normally have central heating, so they don't need a boiler.
Japanese houses don't have any attic or loft. That may also look like a waste of space, but actually, they are often built on 3 floors instead of 2, so the attic is just an additional floor right under the roof (which means freezing in winter and stifling in summer).
Many new Japanese houses have flat roofs with a terrace on the top. This is a creative gain of space - convenient to dry the laundry. As it rains much less in Tokyo than anywhere in Northern Europe, that's fine.
Walls are thin (about 10 cm /3 inches) and hollow. It's almost possible to destroy them with a kick or a small hammer. That is because of earthquakes and gives a feeling of "paper house" to the habitations. That's a sharp contrast with the European stone or brick walls thickened by an additional layer of concrete blocks, thermic insulation (glass fiber...) and plaster. Thermal insulation is exceedingly rare in all but the newest Japanese houses. I was personally grew up in a house with 80 cm (30 inches) deep stone walls that would not be destroyed by a sledgehammer or a powerful gun, so Japanese walls appear especially flimsy.
As I mentioned above, central heating is uncommon and so is floor heating. I suppose that this is because Japanese homes typically have wooden floors everywhere instead of tiled floors. The Japanese use heat themselves mostly with portable "gas heaters" blowing hot air into the room like an air conditioner, not with fixed radiators.
European houses don't usually have air conditioning, because summers aren't hot enough in the north and are very dry in the south, so that the shade and thick walls are enough to keep it cool inside. All Japanese houses (except in Hokkaido ?) have air conditioning in almost every room, as it would be unbearable during the muggy summer without it.
Windows and doors normally open by sliding, especially in slighty older (can't be very old in Japan) or traditional buildings. Window frames don't have partition in the the middle (just contours).
Rooms and utilities
On top of the lack of cellar and loft, Japanese houses very rarely have a pantry or larder (I admit it is getting unusual in Europe too), a study room or den (except very rich people), a utility room, a garage (except in the countryside), or ball room (only kidding on this last one).
Japanese washing machines open from the top rather than from the side, just like American ones.
Japanese rarely have a dishwasher or tumble dryer (eventhough they make the 2 in 1 washer-dryer models now, if space is an issue).
The bathroom is usually small because it is limited to the bath and shower space. It lacks a "dry ground" for the sink(s), furniture (for the towels, soap, cosmetics...) or make-up table. The sink and furniture lie outside the bathroom, sometimes on another floor (e.g. on the landing between 2 rooms or next to the entrance hall), which is very peculiar for Westerners. Toilets are always in separate rooms too, so that the euphemistic expression 'going to the bathroom' looses its meaning in Japan.
Japanese houses in big cities very rarely have a garden (AmE = yard), contrarily to houses in most of Europe, even in big metropolis like London and Paris.
The architecture is very standardised by Western standard. Most new houses and apartment buildings are in concrete. They are either painted directly on the concrete or decorated with colourful wall tiles giving a fake look of bricks facade. The style is the same in all Japanese cities from the northern tip of Hokkaido all the way down the southern reaches of Kyushu 3000 km (2000 miles) away. Needless to say that European/Western architecture vary not only by geographical region but also by neighbourhood within a single city or village, and often also from house to house in a same street. This is due to the stronger sense of individualism of Westerners, but also to the fact that Western houses tend to last much longer than Japanese ones. When a city has buildings spanning several centuries, the evolution of architectural styles is far more striking than when all buildings were built in the last 40 or 50 years, as is the case in Japan.
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