NIPPONIA No.25 June 15, 2003
Tidy Storage, the Japanese Way
Fold up Small, Open up Big
Fold, stack, and put away nice and neat — the Japanese certainly know how to use a small space effectively. "Compact" and "easy-to-carry" are concepts applied in production, and a part of Japanese culture.
On these pages, we will look at some everyday and traditional items using limited space, and we will see a high-tech application, as well.
Photos by Sugawara Chiyoshi and the Heibonsha Photo Department
Written by Sanada Kuniko
"Japanese houses have nothing inside!" said Westerners visiting Japan in the mid-1800s. "Nothing" was a bit of an exaggeration, but it does seem, at first glance, that traditionally laid-out rooms have no furniture.
What were Japanese homes like in the past? To answer that question, let's turn back the clock to the 1960s, when older customs still influenced lifestyles in the home. Those customs show us the Japanese genius for placing things out of sight.
In those days, the typical house had two main rooms — a cha-no-ma and a zashiki — plus a small kitchen and a toilet. (Most houses had no bath, and people used to go to a neighborhood public bath.) The cha-no-ma would have four-and-a-half tatami mats (about 7.4 m² ), and the zashiki, six mats (about 10 m²). The cha-no-ma was the center of family life, and it was used for sleeping, eating, receiving guests, and the like.
To be comfortable in these two tiny rooms, families had to use space efficiently. Let's look at a typical day in the cha-no-ma. In the morning, one or more members of the family would wake up, then fold up their futons and bedding and put them in the closet. Next, a low table called a chabu-dai would be set on the tatami floor, after the legs were unfolded. The family sat around the table for breakfast, and then the table legs were folded in and the table was placed on its side, out of the way. If guests came, zabuton cushions were taken out of the closet, one for each person to sit on. When the guests left, the cushions went back in the closet, one on top of the other. At bedtime, the futon and bedding came out of the closet again.
So each room did have furniture. It was just put away out of sight when not in use.
Thus, a Japanese-style room serves different purposes — furniture is used only when it is needed. This contrasts with a Western-style home, with its beds in the bedrooms, table and chairs in the dining room, and sofa in the living room, each room having furniture and space for a specific purpose.
The Japanese room is multi-functional because of the tatami mats, which are made for sitting and lying on. Today, they cover the entire floor of a Japanese-style room, but in ancient times, until around the 15th century, they were laid just in part of a room, and only when needed. Otherwise, they were stacked on top of each other out of the way. They were, in the typically Japanese fashion, movable pieces of furniture.

Chabu-dai tables have folding legs (photo on top shows one set of legs folded in). Standard height, around 31 cm. (Photo credit: Yamamoto Shoten Antiques. Tel: +81-3-3468-0853)

A chabu-dai table set for four. A common sight in homes in the 1960s. The rice tub in the foreground holds enough rice for all family members.

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