At the end of a long day at work at the offices of Japan’s professional baseball league, Asumi Fujiwara returned to her apartment and changed into her pajamas. She wanted to get a light workout before bed, so she put her vinyl yoga mat on the floor in front of the toilet and unrolled it, past the one-burner stove and toaster for a slice of bread, until the foot of the table.
After a quick stretch, she got up to get into the warrior stance. Instead of extending her arms fully, though, she pulled her elbows out to her sides. “I need to change my poses, or I’m going to hit something,” said Fujiwara, 29.
This is life in a 9 square meter apartment in Tokyo.
With its high-end real estate and the most populous metro area in the world, Tokyo has long been known for small accommodations. But these new apartments — known as three-mat rooms for the number of Japanese rugs that would fill the space — are pushing the boundaries of normal life.
A real estate company, Spilytus, has been leading the charge towards ever-smaller spaces. It has operated these “shoebox” apartments since 2015, and with more than 1,500 residents today in its 100 buildings, demand remains strong.
While the units are half the size of an average studio in Tokyo, they have 12-foot ceilings and a sleeping loft. They’re also elegant, with pristine white floors and walls, and with a few efficient arrangements you can squeeze in a washing machine, refrigerator, a sofa and a desk.
Apartments are not for those on a tight budget. Cheaper apartments can be found, although they are usually decades old. But the micro-apartments, which are rented for $340 to $630 a month, cost a few hundred dollars less than other studios in similar areas. And they’re situated close to downtown Tokyo’s hot spots like Harajuku, Nakameguro and Shibuya, which are usually pretty expensive, with luxury boutiques, cafes and restaurants. Most of the buildings are close to metro stations – the main feature for many young people.
More than two-thirds of the buildings’ residents are people in their 20s, who in Japan earn an average of $17,000 to $20,000 a year, according to government data. . (Tokyo salaries are the highest.) Some are lured by minimal upfront fees and the lack of a deposit or “gift money” — a non-refundable landlord payment that can be as much as three months’ rent — for many rentals.
The small spaces work for the lifestyle of many young Japanese people. In Japan, it’s not customary to have guests over, with nearly a third of Japanese people saying they never have friends over, according to a survey by Growth From Knowledge, a data provider for the consumer goods industry.
Fujiwara has not even welcomed her boyfriend in the nearly two years she has lived in this apartment. “This space is for me,” she said.
Many Japanese, young and old, also work long shifts, leaving little time to spend at home. And a growing share of Tokyo residents are living alone, making smaller spaces more desirable. These people are more likely to eat out or grab one of the many dining options at convenience stores or markets, so there’s less need for a full kitchen.
Yugo Kinoshita, 19, a college student who works part-time setting up food bowls at a chain restaurant, is among those for whom an apartment is little more than a place to sleep.
When his shift ends at 11pm, he is exhausted. Eat your free meal, go to a public bath (I sit) and passes out as soon as he returns to his Spilytus unit. Other than that, her days are filled with work for college nutrition and seeing friends.
When he spends a few hours awake at home, the box that works as a TV stand turns into a study table and kitchen counter. To clean the floor, all he needs is a lint roller.
Even after tearfully saying goodbye to his Nike Dunks collection because there was no place for them, Kinoshita said that, at this point in his life, he “wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
For some, the tiny apartments offer a gateway to long-awaited independence.
Two years ago, Kana Komatsubara, 26, started looking for an apartment to finally move out of her parents’ house in the suburbs of Tokyo.
She wanted a newly built space with easy access to work and separate bathroom and shower rooms (a common request in Japan) – all within her relatively tight budget. She wasn’t necessarily looking for a micro-unit, but her search led her to a Spilytus apartment.
“Of course the bigger the better. It never hurts to have a good space,” she said. “This was simply the best option for me at the time.”
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves