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The Japanese House (Part 1)

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The house that I live in is like an old tree. Every year, something turns brown and falls off. It is within a five-minute walk from the university where I used to work and the rent is very cheap, but for a good reason. It is a post-and-beam, wood framed stucco house with no insulation built nearly half a century ago in post-war Japan. The house is often colder than outside during the winter and almost always hotter than outside during the summer. I think they used something like this to torture POWs during the Second World War.

Every year in May, a swarm of winged ants crawled in from between the floorboards and then died inside the house, leaving a dark carpet of dead insects on the floor. Some people said they were mature termites in their yearly mating flight. It was quite believable because the floors sank like trampolines in several places in the house. Believe it or not, this house was an improvement over the last one we rented and the price was extraordinarily cheap for a house so conveniently placed in Japan. So we suffered the draft, braved the heat, weathered the onslaught of termites, cockroaches, centipedes, mice, slugs, snakes, rogue cats, and finally bats until my wife finally cried out that enough was enough. We needed a new house.

This time, however, she did not want to move into another cheap house for rent. She wanted to own. She wanted a house that was genuinely new. And thus began a long and tortuous search for a new house that spanned six years. The new house is expected to be completed within the next month or so, hopefully. It really better be completed on time because the landlord already has the next occupant lined up. The poor guy is the landlord’s son-in-law. My heart bleeds for him.

I am perfectly sure that I can easily squeeze a dozen essays from this lengthy adventure, maybe even a book. But for the time being, let me just write about the curious Japanese factory product called the “maker home.” A “home maker,” or more accurately a ho-mu may-kah, in Japan is not a person who keeps house. It is a manufacturer of pre-fab housing. Just as Chrysler is a “car maker,” Misawa is a “home maker.” A house built by a “home maker,” as opposed to a traditional carpenter, is called a “maker home.” Home making is an industry with many brands and there is a hierarchy among them. Daiwa, Misawa, and Mitui are competing to be the Jaguars and BMWs of the maker home market. Then there are the second tier companies that are competing to be the Toyotas and Hondas and it goes all the way down to the Hyundais and Ford Pintos. In every city in Japan, there is a housing exhibit, a faux neighborhood of the latest model homes where dozens of makers are represented. One tour through such an exhibit will give you a better insight into modern Japanese culture than anything else imaginable.

My house is evidence that post-war Japanese homes were drafty hellholes and that is the legacy industrial home makers are attacking with a vengeance. Just watch Japanese television—every other TV commercial shows a happy, beautiful family with adorable children and cute puppies in the latest draft-proof, fire-proof, earthquake-proof house. In each model home there is a section of the walls and foundations on display so that the customers can look under the hood, so to speak, and see what fine engineering makes each home so impenetrably hazard proof.

One brand stands out in particular in this regard. It is called Sekisui Heim, a division of the Sekisui Chemical Company. In their model homes, there is a gallery of photographs showing neighborhoods leveled by fire, earthquake, tornado, etc. And in the center of every photo there is a Sekisui Heim house standing unscathed without so much as a broken window. My drafty house has single glass windows. Sekisui houses have not only double glass windows, but huge panes that reach from floor to ceiling with triple and quadruple layers of glass. The salesman proudly demonstrated the sophisticated contraption that lets you open and close these heavy monsters with one hand. Each room had a different window just so the customers could try them out, so we went from room to room just to open and close all the varieties of high-tech windows. Then the salesman took us up on the flat roof which was halfway covered with solar panels. The roofing was visible on the other half. It was shiny steel.

“Err, doesn’t it rust?” I asked stupidly.

“Oh no” said the salesman, “this is the finest stainless steel. It’s the same kind used on the space shuttle. It won’t rust in a hundred years.”

He went on to explain that the walls were covered with state-of-the-art ceramics.

Not only was the house airtight and indestructible, the quasi-science-fiction house could be put together in a day. The whole house with all the details will take about a month to finish, but the outer shell will be assembled in the first day and the builders will lock the keys to the house and turn on the burglar alarm when they go home on that day. This insures that the house will have full security from day one and nobody will be able to, say, plant a hidden microphone into your house while it is being built. I asked how much it cost and it was 50 million yen, roughly half a million dollars, for a house of fifty tsubo. One tsubo is about 3.306 square meters and each square meter is about 10.764 square feet, so it works out to about 1780 square feet. I cannot honestly say that this wonder house looked very much like home to me, but I do not doubt that there is a market for a house like this in the United States among very rich and very paranoid tech geeks in Silicon Valley. In Japan, such a house was being sold to the average Joe. And it is not the least popular of brands.

We went through all the houses on display, each brand more hermetical than the last, until we were overloaded with the information thrown at us. Some of the houses looked more like huge consumer appliances than homes. They would be cool gadgets to play in. Others looked a little more like regular houses until the salesman started talking about the heat loss coefficient, the Q value and the C value of the master bedroom. Now I know why Japanese people are so lacking in passion. How can you possibly have sex after memorizing the C value of your bedroom?

We went home with shopping bags full of pamphlets on maker homes. We pored over them for weeks trying to figure them out. In the end, we decided that airtight homes were not for us. We hated the drafty un-insulated house, but a house so tightly sealed that a single light bulb could heat the whole room was not my idea of a home. We huddled under the blankets in the frigid room, but defiantly agreed that we wanted a house only reasonably insulated.

On one of those cold, stormy nights, we were watching television when a news program reported of a flood in a town far away. The river had overflowed. The whole neighborhood was leveled by the horrendous current. And then, on camera, there was one of those modern homes, still intact without a single broken window, uprooted from its foundation and floating down the river. Indestructible to the very end, gallantly swaying through the muddy swirling torrent until the camera lights could not reach it any more, it disappeared into the darkness.


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