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The Japanese have long endured crowded cities and scarce living space, with homes so humble a scornful European official once branded them rabbit hutches. But in recent years, Japanese architects have turned necessity into virtue, creating unorthodox and visually stunning houses on remarkably narrow pieces of land. In the process, they're redefining the rules of home design.

Lucy Craft reports on the Japanese micro house.

LUCY CRAFT: Few Americans would consider a parking space big enough to build a house on. But in Japan, homes are rising on odd parcels of land, some as tiny as 300 square feet. Yet home doesn't really do justice to these eye-catching architectural gems, fashioned from a high-tech palate of materials like glittering glass cubes, fiber-reinforced plastic or super-thin membranes of steel.

The need to do more with less space has sparked a boom in house designs that are as playful and witty as they are livable. One of Japan's leading designers of�kyosho jutaku, or ultra-small homes, is Tokyo architect Yasuhiro Yamashita.

Mr. YASUHIRO YAMASHITA (Architect): (Through translator) If you tried to build a normal house on a super-small plot of land, it would end up being really cramped. So in order to make the house as roomy as possible, we have to think up new structures and assembly.

CRAFT: Ultra-small homes conserve space, first of all, by dumping conventional elements like entranceways, hallways, inner walls and closets. Windows, in a variety of shapes and sizes, may be scattered across a wall, or concealed near the base. A bathroom might be separated by just a curtain. Furniture can be folded into the wall, allowing a single room to serve multiple purposes. And designers indulge in fantasy-like asymmetrical walls, cantilevered floors, or cover their houses in a translucent skin, in order to exploit all available natural light.

Yamashita built a long, skinny, cathedral-like futuristic home on a sliver of land and named it Lucky Drops.

Mr. YAMASHITA: (Through translator) Lucky Drops was built on an extremely long and narrow space. So light could only enter only from the ceiling. All the light comes in from the top. So the whole house becomes like a Japanese paper lantern.

CRAFT: The boom in quirky small homes was fueled by new design and materials technology, which have slashed the price of a custom-built home by as much as two-thirds, making these homes affordable for singles and middle-class couples like Minoru and Aki Ota, a couple in their 30s. Their home sits on less than 500 square feet and all walls, floors and even the kitchen table are made entirely of precast concrete.

Mr. MINORU OTA: (Through translator) We weren't interested in a big house in the suburbs. We were happy to live in a comfy place downtown. It's not that we wanted to live in a micro-house, but it's turned out to be plenty of room for two and convenient.

CRAFT: The home features narrow windows at ground level, strategically placed to reveal bits of scenery, and flood the house with light.

(Soundbite of dish washing)

CRAFT: Washing dishes at the counter - it's also made of concrete - Aki Ota says the house has proved warmer than they expected, but the novelty hasn't worn off four years into their residence. She says it's like living in an art museum.

Azby Brown, author of�"The Very Small Home," says the phenomenon's impact on Japanese popular culture has been huge.

Mr. AZBY BROWN (Author, "The Very Small Home"): Where the forms of these houses are very unusual, asymmetric, seemingly unbalanced or lopsided, it's because there's a room or certain functions that need to be accommodated. And rather than make everything be symmetrical and line up, they just said, well, if this living room is going to have to stick out over the parking space, so be it.

CRAFT: The real genius of ultra-compact homes is the use of visual tricks that make tiny spaces appear roomier.

Mr. YAMASHITA: (Through translator) People tend to think of homes simply in terms of floor space. We architects think in 3-D. Using all three dimensions, we can make a space look larger and more functional. It becomes easier to devise ways of bringing in more light and air.

Mr. BROWN: It's really a kind of a psychological jujitsu.

CRAFT: Again, Azby Brown.

Mr. BROWN: That changes your sense of perception from the things that would make you feel claustrophobic perhaps, and rather focusing on the life and the people that you're with.

CRAFT: Super-small luxury houses might seem counter-intuitive to most Americans, who measure their floor space in the thousands of feet, not hundreds. But Brown, who has lectured on the subject for New York City planners, says the techniques in Japan could offer lessons on how to comfortably house residents in other teeming cities.

Mr. BROWN: We are larger people physically than the Japanese, historically. We do tend to need more space. We're less comfortable in some sitting positions, like sitting on the floor, than most Japanese are. But I think we could also accommodate ourselves to it.

CRAFT: As for the Japanese, who have updated their small-house design based on traditions such as the teahouse, they haven't just accommodated to ultra-tiny homes - they now revel in them.

For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.

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