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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Eco Living Japan: A Book Review

During my time in Japan, the vast majority of my time spent when sight-seeing, was visiting temples, shrines, and castles—buildings all… and taking photographs of things I wouldn’t normally see in western architecture.

One of the things I hated to see while there back in the 1990s, were old Japanese buildings of obvious Japanese architectural style being torn down and replaced with houses that looked “North American”—A-frame constructs that lacked any sort of Japanese look or tradition. It was disappointing.

I don’t have an issue with modern-looking facilities being constructed for schools, business et al… but even several weeks into my stay in Japan, I was hopeful Japan was not becoming like Toronto, but was maintaining it’s unique Japanese look.

When Tuttle Publishing asked me if I would be interested in providing a book review for Eco Living Japan by writer Deanna MacDonald, I accepted but warily did not know what to expect.

I like “green” things even though I’m not a green person, and I have a tremendous interest in architecture—especially classic feudal Japanese architecture.

Receiving a hardcopy book—there’s nothing like feeling paper in our hands… see not very green, but for reading… nothing beats a paper book—I glanced through it, and quite frankly, I wasn’t impressed.

But I’m a fair guy… I hadn’t actually read anything other than the Foreword and Preface… both of which were written in a complicated and officious manner by Edward Suzuki and Geeta Mehta, respectively, who I guess really know their green architecture but not the true audience of the book.

Reading the Introduction and Preface made me afraid to read the rest of the book.

I know what I like when it comes to architecture, but I am not an architect. Big words and descriptions on a topic I am not an expert in (the things I am an expert in… I don’t think I’m an expert in anything… jack-of-all-trades, and all that)… I put the book down for a couple of days, and picked it up because I figured I owed Tuttle Publishing a fair shake.

Reading the actual book as written by MacDonald—what a difference!

Where the initial read of the Preface and Introduction scared me with architect-language, author MacDonald presented me—the reader—with terms and phrases that were very easy to understand.

I actually liked Eco Living Japan!

The book is separated into five sections:
  • Borrowed Landscapes—putting nature into the design;
  • Reinventing Tradition—moving towards a more sustainable future;
  • 'Smart' Green—innovation, technology and sustainability;
  • Reuse, Renew, Recycle, Renovate—alternatives to a throwaway culture;
  • Sustainable Japan Abroad—featuring the international impact of Japanese design.
First off, I was pleasantly surprised to see a house from Toronto (where I currently reside) mentioned prominently in the book in the Sustainable Japan Abroad section.

Anyhow… the book informs the reader that Japan tends to scrap the majority of its houses every 30 years or so. I did not know that.

Initially, the reason for the short life of a house was because Japanese houses did not meet the ever-changing ‘earthquake’ codes of Japan. But that’s not the case nowadays.

Building companies emphasize their new ‘seismic’ standards and encourage the demolition of oldish homes via ‘fear-selling’.

But, as MacDonald points out, there is no longer that need to sell fear.

While I do not live in an earthquake zone, my current house is 71-years-old, and my previous house was purchased as a 105-year-old residence. The older one was purchased completely redone internally, revamped externally—a mix of classic look with modern convenience.

It’s actually what I expected to see in Eco Living Japan—and did in one of the chapters… so that made me happy.

MacDonald’s Eco Living Japan book offers us decent photos showing the external and internal features of multiple houses that back up each chapter’s key points.

She even includes ‘blueprint’ diagrams of each home.

I do have a complaint, however.

The photos should be presented in a more linear fashion—that is to say, outside photo, blueprints, and then lead us through the house from the front hall, living area, kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms, then gardens… but each photo essay of each house is different, and I found myself having to flip back and forth between photos and blueprints to get a better feel of just how the house was laid out.

Explanations for how each house was constructed—including materials—was easily explained and understood.

I even came away from the book wishing I had the financial resources to hire any of the many architects mentioned to create a green home for myself.

That alone should tell you how impressed I was by Eco Living Japan’s content.

Oh… one more point… since the book uses the word “Living” in its title, very few of the buildings photo essayed looked ‘lived in’… everything was so clean and stark—and I get it, you are showing off the architecture—but there were only a couple of instance where people were in the photos, blurred out or otherwise. Living implies people… not every photo essay of a house cries out for humanity, but there should be evidence that people actually live in and use the green house being described. A little complaint, to be sure.

Retailing for US$29.95, the elegant 240-page hardcover book is a pretty good read, and if you aren't careful, you might learn something. Contact Tuttle Publishing at

Andrew Joseph
PS: After 364 days of unbirthday parties and wishes, Happy Birthday, Alice!

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