Recently, there have been a crop of modern Japanese homes without windows that look outside the home. Open to the sky, they are daylit by skylights and open courtyards. These internal spaces offer brighter living conditions than typical homebuilder homes with their familiar pitched tiled roofs and small windows veiled by net curtains. However, the lack of any view to the outside world is puzzling and, some might argue, unsociable.
Homes in dense urban neighborhoods are built with as little as 400mm between them. In such confined conditions there are obvious privacy concerns. Windows looking into such dark interstitial voids are unable to capture much daylight. Gaining the abundant daylight from above does seem logical. Furthermore, the cramped conditions of Japan’s townscapes do not exactly offer picturesque vistas. Perhaps homeowners are trying to escape the unplanned urban cacophony of overhead power lines, narrow treeless streets, blanks walls, and deteriorating houses. While the simplicity may be appealingly minimalist, one wonders what is their motivation for severing visual contact with the outside world?
The American urban theorist Jane Jacobs famously espoused dense and diverse communities – much like Japan’s – so that neighbors can keep a constant eye out for one another. Western urban planners insist on streets overlooked by windows in order to reduce crime. Being a relatively safe place, Japan might be able to afford ignoring Western logic in regard to crime, but it might come at a cost of local social cohesion?
The trend for insular homes reflects long-held cultural affinities for private seclusion and inner reflection. Personal introspection is a spiritual ideal that has permeated Japanese culture, particularly as embodied in the practice of Zen Buddhism. This ideal is physically enshrined in sand gardens such as Kyoto’s iconic Ryonji Temple, which is itself enclosed by a surrounding wall.
In daily life, a tacit understanding of public and private is also reinforced by society’s firm mores and a pervading sense of modesty. Even the homes of the wealthy are seldom large or ostentatious. In Japan, money affords privacy and the modest luxury of space for a garden.
Unlike traditional homes set behind their gated walls within private gardens, the current crop of modern windowless houses takes removal one step further, eliminating the home’s connection with the environment. Although traditional Japanese gardens are highly contrived simulacrums of the natural world, they provide a psychological – if not genuine – link to nature. Rolling hills of moss, flowing rivers of pebble and, of course, windswept bonsai trees that bloom and transform with the seasons, all create a subtle and ever-changing backdrop to daily life.
One might argue that information has now become the scenery of daily life. Nowhere is technology more embedded in the day-to-day than in modern Japan. Social or economic engagement through digital technology obviates the need to face-to-face physical contact. Even in the virtual world, Japan’s technological society prefers to retreat behind anonymous façades. Online, the Japanese are shy to reveal their faces to the world. It is typical to use images (anime characters, pets, etc) rather their own photos as avatars on popular social media sites such as Mixi or Twitter.
Western media has made much of the younger Japanese who are withdrawing from the social ambitions of their parents’ generation. Young “grass eater’ males are turning their backs on traditional notions of masculinity and marriage. With it, they shrug off Japan’s conventions of domesticity and the professional ideal of being a salary man. Disengagement has more extreme subcultures, ranging from ottaku (nerds) who claim virtual girlfriends to the Hikko Mori – shut-ins who live in complete isolation, rarely if ever emerging from their homes.
The trend for windowless homes can be interpreted as a wider metaphor for an inward-looking nation. Faced with a rapidly shrinking population and its economic clout waning, Japan seems unable to contemplate increasing immigration in order to address these problems. Meanwhile, Japanese enrollment in overseas universities has reached its lowest level for years. Students simply prefer to stay at home. Despite relying almost entirely on foreign exports, it seems Japan is ironically retreating from the world stage.
It may be an exceptionally introverted client who asks an architect to design a house without windows. Then again, the phenomenon conveniently sums up the collective psychology of this once ambitious nation all too well – a society that prefers to stay inside, guards its right to anonymity, and seems content to let the rest of the world pass by whilst quietly enjoying the private comforts of home.
 For example, unlike Western restaurants that have large glazed frontages to advertise their popularity and ambience to passers-by, Japanese eateries can seldom be seen into from the street. Their entrances are usually discrete and often veiled by a banner-like curtain (noren). Inside, private dining rooms (ozashiki) provide dining parties privacy behind screens.