TOKYO >> Twenty-five-year-old Sotaro Ito lives in a 31-square-foot apartment with a loft in the capital’s retro-hip Koenji district.
His apartment looks more like an office cubicle, with a desk and computer chair dominating a third of the room. A reading pillow is propped up against one of the walls, but there isn’t enough space for him to stretch out his body. A clothesline rope stretches between two wall sconces for him to dry his laundry, and his kitchen is equipped with a small sink and a single induction cooktop.
What his room lacks in space, however, is made up for in height. The ceiling of the apartment is 11-3/4 feet high and three windows have been built into the exterior wall, letting in plenty of light. A white ladder takes Ito up to a 14-3/4-square-foot loft that’s 4-1/2 feet high — tall enough for him to sit upright. And unlike many single-person apartments with so-called “unit baths” that combine a toilet and bathtub, Ito’s crib has separate rooms for a shower and high-tech bidet toilet.
“I looked at 10 apartments before deciding on this one,” he says.
When it comes to downsized living, Tokyo has it all. From capsule hotels and compact prefabs to communal share houses, land scarcity and high property prices have pushed real estate agents and architects to work with limited space, resulting in tiny homes and rabbit-hole apartments in the capital.
There’s now a booming market for cleverly designed small apartments targeting young professionals who are happy to forgo floor space in exchange for affordable rent and inner-city convenience. And in the age of Marie Kondo, there seems to be a minimalist appeal to these intricately designed studios.
Ito, an IT engineer, says out of all the places he saw, this one checked off the most items on his wish list. He had been looking for a relatively new apartment conveniently that had a separate toilet and bathroom that is located near train lines. His budget was in the neighborhood of $550 to $640.
Still under construction at the time, he signed a rental contract based on the room’s blueprint and moved in last October.
Ito now pays about $610 a month, excluding utility fees. Internet connection is free and no deposit was required, eliminating a big chunk of upfront costs. While the practice is changing, most property owners in Tokyo still ask tenants to pay anywhere from one to four months rent in advance, a significant financial burden for new occupants.
“So far it’s been comfortable. I keep my belongings to a bare minimum, and it’s easy to get around since everything is literally within arm’s reach,” he says. “It gets cramped when friends visit, however. One person has to sit on the floor, while another goes up to the loft.”
Ito’s property is designed and managed by Spilytus Co., whose tiny apartments have been spearheading the trend for smaller accommodations. Boasting a 99% occupancy rate, the company has been rapidly growing since its founding in 2012 and has seen annual revenue top $27.4 million.
Typically comprising 20 or so single rooms with lofts, Spilytus has built about 70 of these two-story apartments in Tokyo. To prevent other firms from emulating its design, the firm acquired a patent last year.
While there has been a surge in demand for small living spaces over the past few decades, the concept behind the lifestyle has been around much longer.
Architect Takamitsu Azuma’s Tower House is considered a pioneer in the small-housing movement. Built in 1966 when the capital was experiencing rapid urbanization and space became a premium, the six-story concrete building that served as Azuma’s family residence stands on a 65-1/2-square-foot triangular plot of land in the capital’s Jingumae neighborhood, providing about 210 square feet of total living space.
The trend toward smaller homes and apartments continued to accelerate as rural-to-urban migration resulted in an influx of residents to large cities, particularly Tokyo. Last year, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the capital saw a 9% increase of residents from the previous year, despite the nation’s shrinking population.
Another affordable housing option has helped to accommodate the influx: a modern version of dormitory living for adults.
Co-working giant The We Company offers communal living spaces called WeLive apartments, targeting itinerant millennial tech workers. Tiny bedrooms are available for tenants who are willing to trade personal space for access to shared amenities and an opportunity to live in popular neighborhoods.
Other startups are capitalizing on the trend.
Anju Ishiyama, a 30-year-old sharing-economy evangelist, Japan, is living in an apartment on the 13th floor of a modern high-rise in Shibuya, a shopping and entertainment district and the center of Tokyo’s youth culture.
There are 19 apartments on her floor ranging from 108 to 143 square feet in size, each occupied by one to four tenants who come and go as they please — many juggle multiple jobs and have offices and residences elsewhere. There’s a shared kitchen space and lobby, as well as a gym.
“We’re an ‘expanded family,’” Ishiyama says, explaining the concept behind Cift, a shared housing project that launched in 2017. Rather than a residential lease agreement, prospective tenants are interviewed by Cift before being accepted into the community.
“We all take part in everyday duties from housekeeping to child-rearing,” Ishiyama says.