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Traditions fade as Japanese spruce up homes

By Staff
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TOKYO, May 5 (Reuters) Sick of living in cramped conditions, many Japanese are ditching centuries-old traditions and unique materials to redesign their homes in what some critics decry as a bland international style.

Gone are imposing entrance halls and warrens of tiny straw-matted rooms. These have been swept aside to make way for large open-plan kitchens and living rooms, says Erisa Sumita, editor of upmarket interiors magazine ''I'm Home''.

''In the old days, people would speak to guests in the entrance hall, or else show them through to a reception room. It was highly unusual to have a visitor come into your kitchen,'' she says.

Though one of the world's wealthiest countries, and one that is credited with inventing minimalist design, lack of usable building space in Japan has been making home life cramped and chaotic for many even middle-class families.

But as living space starts to increase -- the average was 94 square metres (about 1,000 square feet) in 2003 compared with 70 square metres in 1973 -- and families shrink, Japanese consumers with cash to spare now want to transform their homes into elegant showpieces where they can entertain their friends.

The home renovation trend which swept the Western world a decade ago is now also changing the way Japanese live.

Underlining the seachange in style, a quarter of a million people descended on a new branch of IKEA outside Tokyo in the week after its April opening.

The trend goes beyond furniture. Home renovation shows have become a staple of television schedules, while interior and architectural magazines catering for all tastes and budgets line the bookstore shelves.

''Compared with 10 or 20 years ago, homes are now seen more like clothes,'' says Masaki Takayama of Tokyo architectural firm Etre Design. ''Like cars too, interiors have become something fashionable. Through my work, I've seen Japanese people's attitude change completely.'' SLEEPING IN CUPBOARDS Some of the most startling examples of the old way of life in Japan came to light on ''Before-After'', a popular home remodelling programme shown weekly by Asahi Broadcasting for four years.

In one case, parents were forced to share sleeping quarters with their two grown children before they renovated their home -- in another household, family members curled up in cupboards to sleep.

One woman's kitchen was so narrow she could not even stand in front of the cooker while preparing meals.

''I was shocked by some of the ''before'' situations,'' says Jun Iwata, Osaka-based producer of the show. ''I sometimes wondered why on earth people were living like that, or whether they didn't find it inconvenient.'' By calling in experts to completely remodel homes at relatively low cost, often leaving their owners in tears of gratitude, Asahi found it had a ratings winner on its hand. It has only abandoned its weekly format because of new laws requiring time-consuming asbestos checks, Iwata said.

''It's not only about renovating the home, but showing how doing this can make every day life more comfortable for the whole family,'' Iwata says of the show's popularity. ''We were able to show people that renovating your house can be a chance to lead a happier life.'' But editor Sumita is concerned the new trends mean homeowners are abandoning Japan's unique style in favour of a non-descript international look.

''New homes tend to be large, well-lit and to be decorated in white. There doesn't tend to be anything Japanese about them,'' she said, adding that her ''I'm Home'' magazine has recently focused on older homes in an effort to present an alternative.

Industry watchers put the interest in interior design partly down to a new interest in entertaining at home.

''Japanese people did not have the sense that the home was somewhere to be sociable. It was a place where only people one knew extremely well would come,'' Iwata said.

All this could mean big business for IKEA and its competitors.

Reuters CH DB0947

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