Why does Japan offer vacant houses

Lots of wood, little living space, one or two floors, barely furnished, the floors made of a rice-straw mat. This is what a traditional Japanese house looks like. Even after the Second World War, a lot was built in the traditional style, as seen in old films. But that time seems to be over. Hundreds of thousands of traditional houses have been demolished in recent years. They either had to make way for new homes or "Mansion", "Danchi" or "Apato", the other three house categories in which the Japanese live. In the big cities in particular, the way of living has changed - and has primarily oriented itself towards the West. Millions of old homes are still standing in the provinces, and you can still see them in Tokyo and Osaka, albeit less each year. You live in Japanese in them, there is no other way. They are sparsely furnished and the closets offer enough storage space. Their floors are covered with tatami, pressed rice straw mats. The tokonoma belongs to the largest room, an alcove as a place of honor, for example for a special calligraphy.

On the south side, the engawa, a Japanese veranda, separates the rooms from the garden. Thanks to the glass sliding doors of the Engawa, the winter sun is often strong enough to warm the house, which is not insulated, during the day. The winter nights, on the other hand, are very cold in these houses and there is occasionally a thin layer of ice on the water in the squat toilet in the morning. The Japanese don't heat the whole house, only the rooms in which they spend most of their time. The kitchen, bathroom and toilet in the old houses could not be heated. In the hot summer, on the other hand, they are airier than the new ones.

In the old houses you live on tatami floors with cushions. In the middle of the largest room there is usually a low table where you can eat in your knee or cross-legged position and the children do their homework. The other rooms are empty and, unlike in the west, have no special purpose - so there are no bedrooms, and no beds either. If you want to sleep, take your futon out of the closet and place it in the middle of the room. Always in the middle. In Japan, rooms are traditionally organized from the center, not from the edge as in Europe, where the beds are against the walls. In any case, the rooms of traditional houses hardly have solid walls. On the one hand they are separated by sliding doors to the next room and the engawa, on the other hand by a closet or a window.

Younger Japanese usually no longer want to live traditionally. They have got used to sitting at tables and find the old, uninsulated houses uncomfortable and too cold in winter. In addition, they are mostly dilapidated because houses are rarely renovated in Japan.

A good address counts more than a large apartment - you hardly ever visit each other anyway

The traditional houses are not only disappearing because they are shabby or because the inheritance tax is so high that the next generation can often not afford to keep their parents' home. Although both are true, these are not the main motivations for demolishing old houses and building new ones. Those who can afford it want to move into a new house, not one in which someone has lived before. Ownership is very important. The Japanese regard everything else as a temporary measure. Until a few years ago, even in Tokyo, more than half of all families lived in their own homes. Across the country, almost two-thirds of households still own their homes. The desire for - new - property is also reflected in property prices. A single family home that is more than 25 years old is considered written off. The buyer only has to pay for the property. He can even ask the seller to pay for the demolition. Even if a house stays in the family, the next generation builds from scratch. New homes today are mostly semi-finished houses from "Panasonic Home" or "Toyota Home", which are made up of wooden supports and girders with walls made of chipboard or plastic panels. Their interior design has gradually become more western over the decades. There is only one room with a tatami floor, which is used for yoga or just as a storage room. At the same time it is a reference to tradition. The homesickness for the old is also reflected in the fact that many Japanese, when they go on vacation inland, want to sleep on futons in tatami rooms.

At home they prefer beds, they don't like to live on the floor either. On the other hand, they hold on to the traditional bathroom, in which one takes a shower next to the bathtub, in the new houses as well. You don't get into the hot tub until you've been carefully washed. And above all to relax. The whole family bathes in the same water, one after the other. Instead of the old squat toilet, however, there is now a washlet, a toilet with a buttocks shower.

The new houses appear narrower than the old ones because they are obstructed with furniture. And in many cases there are three or four new houses on a plot of land that used to be only one. All that remains of the garden with cherry and tangerine trees is a narrow flower border. The construction clearances are so tight that the neighbors could reach the soy sauce from kitchen window to kitchen window. They do not, of course, because it is a good custom to ignore one another so as not to disturb one another.

In popular districts of Tokyo, construction companies, but also, for example, the Odakyu private railway are gradually buying up old houses in order to then merge their plots and block out concrete blocks. The apartments in such blocks are called "mansions". They are becoming more and more popular, partly because they are said to be safer. The entrance to the house at the bottom remains locked, you need a code to open the door. Although the crime rate is the lowest of all industrialized countries, many Japanese are afraid of burglars - also because the media stir up this fear.

Living in a mansion is also a question of status, at least if the apartment block is in a good area of ​​the city. Many Tokyo residents value a prestigious address more than a large apartment. In any case, her friends and colleagues do not see her mansion; one hardly invites oneself home. Beyond the good address, proximity to the nearest underground or suburban train station is important.

However, not every apartment in an apartment building is a "mansion". Social housing, company buildings for employees and cooperative housing are called Danchi. These blocks often do not have a common entrance, the apartments can be reached via arcades. If the Danchi is at least at a good address, then it is considered acceptable. But actually one would rather not live in a Danchi. And certainly not own a Danchi apartment.

Japan clings to the fiction that the whole nation belongs to the middle class. That is even less true today than it was a few decades ago. In terms of housing, Japan is a class society. A more or less wealthy middle class lives in the homes and mansions, while workers and those people who are gradually breaking away from the lower middle class live in the Danchi. The actual lower class of flats, on the other hand, lives in the Apato. These are apartments from 14 to 28 square meters in one and two-story lousy wooden buildings with iron girders; Noble barracks, as it were, in which you can hear every word the neighbor says. An outside staircase leads to the upper floor, the door of the Apato - a nipponization of the word "apartment" - opens onto the arcade. An Apato has a loo, tiny bathroom, and kitchenette.

Millions of Japanese live in such apato. With a monthly rent of 500 to 800 euros, these are actually too expensive for what they offer - especially for those who have to live on the minimum wage. The Apato were invented after the Tokyo earthquake in 1923 as temporary emergency shelters. But they have become the type of apartment for the lower strata of society.

In this series, SZ reports on the subject of living in important metropolises. Published so far: Rome (17th / 18th August) and Madrid (7th / 8th September)