TOKYO — Roomy, wood-framed American-style homes, complete with imported mailboxes approved by the U.S. postmaster general, are gaining popularity in Japan, where they are known as 2-by-4s because of the size of lumber used in building them.
Promoters of the 2-by-4 attribute the surge in popularity to the discovery by Japanese home buyers that the houses offer more room and greater strength and comfort than the traditional Japanese house.
"The rise of 2-by-4s here is much more than a 'blip' or passing fad," said Richard Skorick, an American architect here. "Their popularity doesn't have much to do with East vs. West but with being able to provide a means of building that people can afford."
Traditional Japanese homes are built of wood and paper, with the weight on the corners to support thin walls. They have no central heating. The 2-by-4 homes, in contrast, distribute their weight along planes supported by a wooden frame and platform and have thick, insulated walls.
They also make effective use of land, which is a major cost of building a home in Japan. The site often can cost five to 10 times as much as the house that sits on it.
The number of American-style homes built in Japan last year rose to 24,095 units, up roughly 20%, according to the Japan 2x4 Home Builders Assn. Though obviously still constituting just a small fraction of housing in Japan, they readily stand out among the cramped and drafty traditional abodes, sometimes called "rabbit hutches." Atsushi Kajiyama, the association's vice president, predicted that the number of 2-by-4 housing starts would grow 10% to 20% a year.
Kajiyama said most buyers tend to be not the youthful looking for uniqueness but "the older, more educated buyers" who value efficiency and structural strength. "The young may be idealistic and want to be unique, but they can't afford to buy houses," he explained in an interview.
Those who admire 2-by-4s say the many small structural elements and thick walls make them more resistant to noise, earthquakes, bad weather and aging than traditional Japanese houses. One of these admirers is Osamu Fujiwara, president of Monsanto Japan, a chemical company.
Fujiwara built his 2-by-4 in Tokyo two years ago. Some parts of the 10-room house were made in the United States--white colonial columns, dormers, a brick chimney, an oak mantel over the fireplace.
But inside, Fujiwara and his wife, Michiko, have retained Japanese traditions: two tatami rooms for serving tea to guests, a big Japanese bath and an entry step for donning slippers.
Fujiwara said spacious homes often cost twice as much here as in the United States but are still more economical than maintaining traditional Japanese ones. "Japanese look for what's cheap, strong, convenient and energy-conserving," he said. "In the United States, if you spend $1 million, you can get a very nice house. In Tokyo, $1 million gets nothing."
Ironically, most Japanese assume that the American-style homes are Canadian, because the Canadian government and Canadian lumber industry publicized them in the early 1970s and now sell about three-quarters of the wood used to build them, said Ikuo Yamaguchi of the Western Wood Product Assn.