Tokyo’s Micro-Apartments See a Surge in Popularity: The Secret of Living in a “Shoe-Box”

Lifestyle Guide to Japan

So-called “three-mat apartments” are popping up across Tokyo, with rents as low as ¥50,000 a month. These flats are attractive to many young tenants who tolerate the astonishingly tiny living space, prioritizing convenient location and low rent.

April is a time of transition in Japan—the beginning of the financial year, the start of the academic year, and the time when new graduates commence employment. In the lead-up to these fresh starts, many people relocate in readiness for their new life. Those seeking a new dwelling no doubt consider the rent and location, but apartment size is also a key deciding factor. Recently, young people are turning to a new style of living—astonishingly tiny apartments.

A typical “three-mat” dwelling in a Ququri-brand apartment block.
A typical “three-mat” dwelling in a Ququri-brand apartment block.

The real-estate developer Spilytus operates apartment buildings under the Ququri brand. Each apartment has a shower room, separate toilet, and kitchenette, with a living area measuring just three tatami mats—a standard way to measure room size in Japan—in floor space. (One mat is defined as 1.62 square meters, making a three-mat room less than 5 square meters in size). Depending on the tenant’s furniture, it may be standing room only. Even with the addition of a loft area measuring around 6.5 square meters, these units offer a grand total of just over 11 square meters of living space. The photo above aptly illustrates the cramped living conditions.

A floorplan of one story in a Ququri apartment complex. The 9-square-meter figure includes the hallway and kitchenette space in the count.
A floorplan of one story in a Ququri apartment complex. The 9-square-meter figure includes the hallway and kitchenette space in the count.

The past two years have shown no signs of a wane in popularity for Ququri apartments. The company has around 1,200 units in Ebisu, Nakameguro, Shinjuku, Shibuya, and other carefully chosen, trendy parts of Tokyo. The rooms are constantly occupied, and the company is constructing new buildings each year. Breaking with tradition, the firm does not require a deposit, reikin (“key money,” a nonrefundable gratuity paid to the landlord), or lease renewal fees. This, coupled with free internet access, makes these mini-apartments very appealing for young people.

What kind of person would choose to live in such a tiny apartment, and what factors do they take into consideration? We asked a representative of Spilytus for greater insight.

Most Tenants in Their Twenties or Thirties

The idea for Ququri arose from the experiences of the company’s president, Nakama Keisuke. When Spilytus had just been established, Nakama was working day and night, catching the first train to work and the last train home. He considered living near the office, which was then in Shinjuku, but rents in that bustling area of Tokyo were mostly over ¥100,000 a month. Cheaper rooms existed, but tended to be decades old, with musty tatami flooring and combined bath/toilet facilities—a step down from the Japanese standard home layout, which places the toilet in a separate room from the bathing area.

All he wanted was an inexpensive, modern apartment, close to work, regardless of the size. This was the seed that became Ququri.

The apartments attract more male than female tenants, at a ratio of 6:4. Most tenants are aged in their twenties or thirties—around 60% are company employees, and students make up a further 30%. Only 10% of occupants are over 40, some of whom rent a mini-apartment in addition to their regular home. Rents vary according to the location, but range from around ¥50,000 to ¥80,000 a month, with fashionable areas like Ebisu at the higher end of the scale.

Location and Rent the Key Factors

Without exception, prospective tenants are mostly concerned about accessibility and the rent. These days, with all the entertainment you need in just a smartphone, more people prioritize convenient location over floor space.

One occupant, who has lived in a Ququri apartment for four years, says that having few possessions means no qualms about lack of floor space. Although otherwise very satisfied, this person noted some drawbacks: the occasional noise from other occupants and the lack of a balcony.

Another long-term resident stated that when he moved in three years ago, he was surprised at how small it actually was. But because he is so busy, the apartment is basically used only to sleep, so the size does not really matter.

The company installs fiberglass for sound and thermal insulation, sandwiched between double-board walls. The firm is now constructing concrete apartment blocks in addition to the wood buildings that have been the standard so far.

“The Convenience Store Is my Fridge”

Naturally, there are also benefits for the real estate company. More spacious dwellings offer greater flexibility in designing the room, kitchen, bathroom, and storage space, but all this comes at a cost. The set size and floorplan of Ququri units cuts planning time to a minimum.

Recent minimalist and decluttering movements may be another reason behind some people’s decision to choose Ququri. Many residents do not even own a television, instead using their smartphones or laptops to watch programs.

The Spilytus representative recounted some memorable tenant anecdotes, including one resident who did not even own a refrigerator, declaring: “The convenience store is my fridge.” Another claimed to have lost 15 kilograms after moving in, thanks to a vastly reduced commute, which provided time to jog each morning.

Demand for the apartments shows no sign of abating, with the company turning away applicants or placing them on waiting lists every day due to a lack of vacancies. The trend looks likely to continue.

Tales from a Second-Year Resident

To hear the other side of the story, we interviewed a resident, Aiko (not her real name) who has lived in a Ququri apartment for two years. Originally from the Kansai region, she found the apartment following a job transfer that brought her to the capital. A travel afficionado, Aiko has visited 35 countries, and currently works for an organization that strives to attract tourists to Japan.

Aiko first chose the tiny apartment because it was a perfect match for her requirements: “a loft, separate rooms for the toilet and shower, and no need for a bath,” irrespective of the floor space.

Still, her first impression upon moving in was just how small it actually was.

Aiko is upfront about the pros and cons of living in such cramped conditions. On the plus side, she does not accumulate things, and has used her ingenuity to create a relaxed living space. However, she complains that shoe storage is limited, a drawback for her as a collector of vintage sneakers.

Despite the very limited kitchen space, Aiko has found that she can use her dining table for many preparation tasks. Another example of her innovation is cleaning products—by buying smaller sizes, she fits them all into a single box meant for filing documents.

Aiko’s room is tiny, but perfectly organized and quite livable.
Aiko’s room is tiny, but perfectly organized and quite livable.

Is Bigger Really Better?

Day-to-day living for Aiko centers on the dining table—for reading and study, as well as meal preparation and dining. She says that she only uses the loft to sleep.

Aiko owns no television, and says she has no intention to buy one. “I want to value this space and my time,” she notes.

When asked she has ever wanted somewhere more spacious, Aiko says that, in her previous, bigger place, she “just accumulated things.” She also found it had areas of dead space, and that it was hard to heat properly in winter. “Since moving here, I’ve never thought I’d prefer somewhere bigger.”

Aiko is adamant about her intention to stay in her tiny apartment. “The living conditions match my requirements perfectly. I also like the matching white walls and floor—I can choose furniture in any color and be sure it will suit my place. I’m thrilled to live somewhere with such a smart design.”

What advice would she offer to prospective mini-apartment dwellers? Aiko states that, with a little ingenuity, anybody can make a small flat feel like home. She especially recommends them to people seeking a minimalist lifestyle. Aiko’s room is indeed sparse and tidy—she certainly has not accumulated anything unneeded.

The view from the loft.
The view from the loft.

The spread of minimalist lifestyle concepts, with their detachment from materialism, have no doubt boosted the popularity of “three-mat” apartments. The trend seems likely to continue for now.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on February 11, 2020. Translated and edited by Nippon.com. All photos courtesy of Spylitus.)

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