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Friday, October 7, 2011

Being Small In Japan

The 1979 Suzuki Alto came with a garage.
Japan has long been associated with bringing the miniaturization of products to the forefront, whether it was for its transistor radios, Sony Walkman devices, capsule hotels, bonsai trees and more.

But why have the Japanese done this?

While historically not an overly tall race - I believe I read something 20 years ago that the average Japanese man was the same height as an average French man at 5'-6" (167.64 cm)—I believe this is more of a cultural thing, rather than a physical thing.

Yes, houses and apartments in Japan might be considered small by western standards... and in the simple backyard of the house I live in now in Canada, a minimum of three Japanese houses could be built... but then one could also add three Canadian homes in the backyard space. So, the point is moot.

I look at the whole miniaturization aspect as the Japanese simply wanting to take a bit of the world with them.

Bonsai trees... the weirdly wonderful art of tree bondage. Tie a tree up with copper wire, bend it to a shape pleasing to your eye, clip and trim it so that its form is stunted, and repeat ad nauseum. Voila! You have a fully-grown dwarfed tree that can sit anywhere in the house. Nature is captured and placed in the living room.

Although - and this I find hard to believe - Japanese botanists have taken bonsai to a further extreme and have created a miniature bonsai.

While the average size for a regular bonsai tree is between 19- to 48-inches, the mini bonsai tree can be anywhere from two- to 10-inches tall.

It has always been man's goal to subjugate nature, I think. It's why we have survived as a species. Let the debate rage on as to whether or not we are currently thriving, however.

Japanese miniaturization...  there is something called the kei-haku-tan-sho (light-thin-short-small) trend in this country, and it is something wholeheartedly embraced by its populace... for a very long time.

Here in the 21st century, the Japanese tend to live in small homes. It may be because property is expensive, or simply that developers are trying to maximize a buck - or a yen, as the case may be.

Smaller plots are a way of life. But why? The argument can be made that the Japanese have always lived in small domiciles (except for the rich, famous who have always sought to live in something bigger and better).

I postulate that because Japan was originally and agrarian nation, space has always been at a premium. If you have land, you need to plant rice (or some other crop).  Therefore, housing was kept to a minimum in order to use up as much available space to plant the crop. You have to pay off your daimyo (literally the land lord or lord of the land you are allowed to squat on).

Despite the fact that fewer people (per capita) seem to be involved in farming and are now involved in more urban pursuits, that old-fashioned image of the small home persists. Small lots, small homes, small rooms et al. Backyards? If you have one, I'm betting it's not as large as mine.

And, because people live in small homes, you can't fill it up with large items. Nowadays, that means small televisions and stereos and small hand-held devices, computers, phones. Hell, even at Tokyo Disneyland, I noticed that Mickey Mouse had a Minnie Mouse.

Sorry... do you know how many decades I had been saving that joke? 

I do wonder about the small television thing in Japan. In North America, we value the larger screen sizes much like a penis. Bigger is better... unless its too big and you pass out from lack of oxygen to the brain. Yes, we too in NA can reach a limit where the screen is too large and you have to go to another room to watch it properly.. but with space a premium in Japan, bigger is not always better... but they can at least make it skinnier!

In recent history, with the majority of Japanese utilizing the public transit system of buses and trains, the Sony Walkman was invented. For those of us in N.A. who drove, why would we ever think of creating something like that?

Well... a long time ago, we did create the paperback novel.heck... I even have an 1830s hardback book that is about 2-inches tall containing four Shakespeare plays - created for the carriage rider.

Still... my favourite Japanese mini thing are its cars. There are varieties of car we will never see in North America. I think. The Smart Car seems to be proving that good things do come in small packages... a message Japan has been trumpeting for years.

While NA always joked about the small size of Japanese cars, Japanese automaker Suzuki took it to another level when in 1979 it introduced the Suzuki Alto. It's base price was ¥470,000 (back in 1979, that was about $1,900... today in 2011 it's about ~$6,400). And... you want to talk tiny? It had 28 horsepower. Chances are you would never have made it up a small hill.

Other miniaturizations include clothing manufacturers suddenly reducing the ski jacket thickness from 20mm to 50mm.

Again, with space as a premium - and perhaps armed with the knowledge that people who use a hotel for an overnight stay are (excepting those using it for sex) just there to sleep. Say hello to the Japanese Capsule Hotel. Also known as Coffin Capsules, these tiny holes in the wall are 36" wide x 36" tall x 72" deep. It does come with a light, radio, television, linen and a curtain to cover the glass entrance - and it costs anywhere between ¥3,500 and ¥5,000. And should you require it, there is a general public washroom, vending machines (for booze, drinks, snacks, porn magazines), a locker, a small food kiosk or restaurant, sleeping robes... 

Now... despite Japan's penchant for small items, I do recall one place where they are not so stingy... and in fact, generally outdo their North American counterparts.

Beer. While you can purchase small cans of beer in Japan at its plethora of vending machines, generally speaking, Japanese beer bottles contain one (1) liter of beer.

I have heard that it is considered poor manners to order a one-liter bottle of beer for yourself. What if you are by yourself? Is it okay then? Are you allowed to sip from your bottle of beer, or do you have to let someone pour for you?

Whatever... the Japanese are big on beer and manners but sure do appreciate their small culture.

I also like the mini skirts many adult women were to emulate the catholic high school girl student look.

Somewhere it's a small world after all,
Andrew Joseph
PS: Okay, in the image above... that is a toy car  - a kid's plaything of a 1979 Suzuki Alto... but, they are about the same size as the real thing. However... the colour is all wrong... shouldn't it be white? 

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