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Japanese Home Standards Changing

June 9, 2002

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TOKYO (AP) _ Yuri Hagiwara knows foreigners who scoff at Japanese homes as rabbit hutches will find her home absurdly tiny even by this island-nation’s notoriously cramped standards.

The cube-shaped house measures just 18 feet (5.5 meters) by 18 feet (5.5 meters) and sits like a humble wooden box next to a patch of clover. Hagiwara had to get rid of her cupboard, shelves and loads of books to move in.

While acknowledging it isn’t for everyone, Hagiwara is proud of her home as a masterpiece in design. Its timely message for modern Japan: More isn’t always better.

Japanese like Hagiwara who insist on homes that make artistic statements are a gradually growing batch as the recent plunge in housing prices makes classier homes within reach for almost everyone in a nation notorious for outrageous prices.

``We see American homes on TV shows. They have a big sofa, a kitchen in the back, lots of bedrooms upstairs,″ said Hagiwara, a 40-year-old writer, who lives in the little house with her husband and two daughters. ``All I have to say is that I’d like to welcome them to this rabbit hutch.″

Adapted from a 1952 design for the ``minimum house″ by architect Makoto Masuzawa, Hagiwara’s home is starkly simple with its wooden pillars, one wall of glass and sliding shoji screens. At night, it turns into a shimmering cube of powdery light.

The unimaginative plainness that has long dominated Japanese modern homes is stunning _ given this country’s reputation for superb design admired worldwide in its temples, kimono and rock gardens.

That is slowly changing.

No more are Japanese resigned to staid homes with drab interiors. Stores selling furniture and household items in chic shapes and colors are popping up in Tokyo’s hangouts for youngsters.

One critical change is that home ownership is growing far more affordable since the collapse of the ``bubble″ economy a decade ago when land and stock prices crashed.

Land prices have slid by a third over the last 10 years, according to the government. Home prices have come down, averaging 48 million yen (dlrs 386,000) from 68 million yen (dlrs 548,000) a decade ago.

Fashionable high-rise condominiums are sprouting up as hard-pressed businesses sell off prime property amid a persistent slowdown. That was unimaginable just some years ago when pricey land was coveted as a foolproof asset.

The number of new condominiums going up in the Tokyo area doubled from 62,000 in 1991 to 121,000 last year.

Instead of ``commuter towns″ in the suburbs _ the typical dream house of the past _ some people are opting for urban apartments boasting elaborate hallways and fountains.

Developers say they must woo finicky consumers with eye-catching designs because no one is in a rush to buy when prices are falling.

``People are starting to want to live in places out of a TV family drama,″ said Jun Kanai of Mitsui Fudosan Co., which sells about 5,000 condominiums a year. ``The quality of housing is going up.″

One Mitsui condominium complex going up in Tokyo offers several options to add sophisticated touches to your home such as gallery-like lighting, dark wood floor paneling and specially designed sinks.

A designer-selected package of such options adds an extra 4 million yen (dlrs 32,000) to the 80 million yen (dlrs 644,000) cost for each condo. The condominiums are being snatched up, with all 140 in the initial sale sold out.

Since April, Hagiwara’s home is selling for 14.6 million yen (dlrs 118,000) at an online shop run by a Tokyo start-up that sells furniture. The buyer can have the same house built anywhere, although the price of the land is separate. There are no plans so far to export the home.

``Our vision is to build a new housing culture,″ said Yasuyuki Okazaki, who heads Commdesign, which sells Hagiwara’s house.

Hagiwara says living in her house forces her family to constantly examine their values: What do you really need?

``Being rich does not mean owning a lot of things,″ she said.

Her family uses the library to save on shelf space. The children play in closets because they don’t have rooms of their own. Magnets are never allowed to clutter the fridge.

Hagiwara’s 11-year-old daughter Sumire thinks it’s fun to have a house that’s different but is determined to move out _ to the doghouse.

``I want to sleep there with the dog,″ she said.

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