Unexpected lessons from Japan life
Living in Japan, I’ve been exposed to intricate facets of Japanese culture. Yet, I’ve also been learning some unexpected insights into Western culture. What seemed like common sense in one corner of the world may not hold the same meaning elsewhere. In particular, beliefs about homeownership, housing stability and home life are at the top of my mind. And in this country, western perspective on those topics seems to be very disconnected from an intentional lifestyle.
Aspirational media & aspirational mindset have followed me here.
I think a lot of people can relate to the “if I could just” mindset. If I could just _____, then I could relax and be happy. For me, my if is generally related to having a good home. I’ve moved sixteen times in my life, a handful of which were during childhood. As an interior designer, I think it would be an easy assumption to make that my desire to create finished spaces may be related to a desire for environmental security.
And I don’t think I’m alone. While most of you are probably not career interior designers, home improvement and home design media is a giant industry. From HGTV to home magazines, renovation tik tok and abandoned house renovation YouTube, the non-stop stream of home improvement narratives is out of balance with how much homemaking we really need to live a good life.
The environmental toll of renovation isn’t worth it.
When a home is “dated,” we assume it needs to be updated. Even in spaces that are completely livable, we might assume that renovations we don’t need are an “improvement.” What we assume to be common sense contributes to the fact that “Construction creates an estimated third of the world’s overall waste, and at least 40% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.” (BBC)
Some activists even suggest a global moratorium on construction. Many of us are shocked at the global imbalance of housing – where people are pushed out of affording their homes in places like Seattle and New York, yet millions of houses sit empty in Japan.
While I don’t have an answer on how we could try to remedy this stark imbalance, one thing that has become clear to me is that
The mindset that feeds non-stop construction is not the same mindset that should populate vacant houses in Japan.
We are on a never-ending quest for security.
I, and maybe you too, have looked to homeownership as the key to finding security. Which makes the massive quantity of cheap and free houses in Japan so immensely tantalizing. Like maybe we could finally get a break. But homeownership doesn’t work the same here in Japan. And possibly more importantly, our quests for security will be never-ending, regardless of the state of our homes.
Pema Chodron said it best in her book, “When Things Fall Apart.” She describes that the hope for an imagined future state is a way of dissociating from our present. “To think that we can finally get it all together is unrealistic.” Our lives will always be in a constant rhythm of things coming together, then things falling apart. And while we are hard-wired to always be striving for a solid sense of security, this is a futile effort. She suggests that one must give up on the hope that true, solid, unwavering security is achievable. “We are all addicted to hope.” She says, “Without giving up hope—that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be—we will never relax with where we are or who we are.”
It is easy to misunderstand Japanese architecture.
There were also a few misunderstandings that I (and probably my international audience) hold about abandoned Japanese houses.
First, I am familiar with the fascination about abandoned houses online and their lure. With poor photography, years of vacancy, less-than-graceful exits of previous residents, and the prevalence of pests and termites, it can be easy to assume that these houses need a gut job. That isn’t always true for a few reasons. The first is that houses simply operate differently here, and that is purely a cultural difference. These houses were never intended to be air-tight, well-insulated, or modern (more on old traditional Japanese houses). Houses aren’t expected to last forever. And rural Japanese culture does not consider fashionable home design to be a virtue. Much more respected, in my community at least, are modesty and selflessness.
Second, people tend to underestimate the power of thorough cleaning, minor repairs, and homemaking. Sure, the “before” photos might be shocking for those not used to seeing an abandoned house, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the house needs to be renovated. It might just need time and care.
My new approach is the pursuit of intentional living.
My akiya didn’t need a renovation. It needed a good cleaning, happy moments, good meals, and special people. When it comes to the never-ending quest for security, I’ll go out on a limb to say those things are much more important than any renovation. And with the state of construction and the environmental footprint, we’d all be better off reexamining our expectations for our homes.
In the short time I’ve lived in Japan, I am lucky to have met my partner, whom I want to share my life with. He works doing rural revitalization in cooperation with the local community, so we share the same drive and vision to maintain space and do well with our neighborhood. As he operates kiwi fields in the mountains, I’m joining him in his home from this point on. We will continue to do renovation projects. It is completely necessary, as homes do need ongoing maintenance and homemaking. But the focus will be more on living a good life, and less on creating picture-perfect home images.
I hope you will still stick around. ~B