View onto a domestic garden in Nara, Japan © Susan Andrews

Turning Japanese

18th March 2011

In the West, the Japanese house has reached an almost iconic status for its architecture, its decoration and its style… but could this neat, carefully constructed version of Japanese life be a myth? A new exhibition, about to open at the Geffrye Museum, takes this as its theme.

A tatami room

At Home in Japan, with its telling subtitle Beyond The Minimal House, aims to question the widespread stereotype of the Japanese house as stark and spare, characterised by large empty spaces devoid of people and things. This fascinating exhibition opens the doors of contemporary urban homes to find out how private domestic lives are lived in Japan today, and examines a variety of aspects of the home – from decoration, display, furniture and the tatami mat, to eating, sleeping, ‘gifting’, cleaning, hygiene, and worship.

To generate an authentic experience, At Home In Japan recreates the layout of a standard urban apartment. Visitors travel through an entrance hall, a ‘western style’ room, tatami room, bathroom, eventually, reaching the LDK – ‘living-dining-kitchen’ – area, the largest communal space inside a Japanese home. Each of these rooms is filled with a broad selection of the everyday possessions with which inhabitants might surround themselves.

This is both an exhibition about interiors, and an active engagement with day-to-day spaces and objects, so that visitors may not only experience a degree of what it feels like to be at home in contemporary Japan, but can also encounter another culture on an empathetic level – instead of gazing at and imagining its exotic nature from a distance.

At Home In Japan has been based on original research carried out over a 12 month period by its curator, social and cultural anthropologist Dr Inge Daniels of Oxford University, inside thirty urban homes in Kobe, Kyoto, Nara and Osaka. It’s really about as authentic as it can get – and is enhanced by Susan Andrews’s marvellous photographs, which can also be seen and cherished in The Japanese House: Material Culture in the Modern Home, a much-more-than-coffee-table-book on which Daniels and Andrews collaborated.

At Home In Japan is at the Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Road, London, E2 8EA, from 22 March to 29 August. Admission: £5/£3 concessions. Under 16s: free. The nearest London Overground station is Hoxton, directly behind the museum; the nearest tube is Liverpool Street station (15 minute walk).

A range of extra related events to the main themes of the exhibition is also taking place. There will be a Study Day on Saturday 14 May (10am-4.30pm; tickets £40/£30 concessions) which will explore the historical influence of Japanese art, design and culture on homes and gardens across the world, before examining the West’s vision of Japanese homes and the reality of life in Japan today. Speakers include the curators, Dr Inge Daniels and Susan Andrews. On Wednesday 18 May, there will be a Special Evening, with a curator-led talk and a demonstration of Japanese food and customs (5.45pm-8.30pm; tickets £6, including exhibition entry and glass of sake). There are also childrens activities during the Easter and May half-term holidays.

See www.geffrye-museum.org.uk or call 020 7739 9893 for more details.

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