Relationship between cities and “solitary spaces”

“Solitary space” refers to a space where a “state of being alone” is maintained by some kind of partition.

The partition can be a physical and “visible partition” such as a wall or door of a house or a partition in a restaurant, or it can be an “invisible partition” set up by mobile media such as a smartphone or a Walkman years ago.

The “state of being alone” refers to the act of temporarily leaving a group that one belongs to, such as family members or colleagues, and becoming an anonymous entity, for example, on the way to work or school, or in the toilet. It includes so-called “ohitori-sama,” or single persons, but it is not limited to them.

On the other hand, the term “ohitori-sama” mainly refers to single people who are increasing in number owing to late marriage, no marriage, and an aging society, and it has the character of a marketing term targeting those single people.

In recent years, the number of products and services targeting “ohitori-sama” has been increasing. For example, hotels and restaurants, which used to avoid having solo guests, now have plans and menus for “ohitori-sama.”

In the past, singles were considered a minority and tended to be received negatively. However, the number of single-person households in Japan has been increasing year by year, and the 2010 national census revealed that they are the most common family type. Single persons have become a majority.

With the addition of the word “sama (dear),” “ohitori-sama” contains the meaning of positively regarding living as a single person, who has become one of the majorities.

In the first place, a city is a place where many single people from Japan and overseas gather, including those who go on to higher education or find employment. This is not limited to Japan. On the other hand, there are many kinds and numbers of “solitary spaces” in Japanese cities.

For example, capsule hotels that were established in 1979 are a Japanese invention. The Walkman was also released in the same year. Manga cafes and Internet cafes that followed are also said to be derived from capsule hotels.

The distinctive nature of “solitary space” in Japan

Why is there a lot of “solitary space” in Japanese cities?

It can be said that Japan is a society with strong peer group pressure. At schools and workplaces, homogeneity within a group is required, and some kind of mutual surveillance tends to be created. So, people feel suffocated by peer group pressure, and the desire to escape from it increases.

In addition to this, mutual surveillance is further strengthened today by smartphones and social media. You could say that this is the era of the “always-connected society,” where you are always connected to someone through your smartphone, etc.

The desire to escape from the stress of such an “always-connected society” and cut off human relations with others is considered to be one of the reasons why modern people seek “solitary space.”

In other words, people have conflicting desires to connect with someone, “connect orientation,” and to be alone, “disconnect orientation.”

Of course, the desire to connect and disconnect is not unique to Japanese people. However, compared to Westerners, for example, Japanese people are not good at making eye contact with others and tend to be overly conscious of how other people see them.

This is related to the fact that many restaurants in Japan have had a lot of partitioned space to block the view of other people since before the COVID-19 disaster.

It is also believed that the influence of Japan’s unique culture is behind the spread of small spaces with partitions such as capsule hotels to such an extent. In Japan, narrow or small does not necessarily mean being poor.

A teahouse is a typical example. Japanese people have found subtle beauty and spiritual expansion in narrowness and smallness.

Capsule hotels, where multifunctional devices such as mattresses, televisions, alarms, and lighting are neatly crammed into a small space, can be thought of as reflecting the aesthetics of smallness found in Japanese culture.

New “solitary space” created in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic

The spread of the COVID-19 infection, in the meantime, has brought about new changes in the nature of “solitary space.”

Conventional “solitary space” can be broadly classified into three types. The first is the “private type” which is a completely partitioned room with privacy, such as a studio apartment.

The second is the “semi-private type”, which is not completely partitioned, but equipped with a device that blocks the view, like a capsule hotel.

The third is the “shared type” in which people with the same interests and tastes gather and share time and space while spending individual time. In other words, a “space for being alone together.”

For example, this applies to a concept hostel. However, the term “people” here does not mean anyone. It means highly homogeneous people filtered by social media.

In addition to these three types, the COIVID-19 pandemic has created situations such as parents working remotely in their living room while children take online classes. In order to block out sound, we have seen many cases where a simple “solitary space” such as a tent or box are introduced in living rooms. A type of further creating individual rooms inside a room can be called “close separation type” in the sense that a person is separated from people nearby.

Another type created under the COVID-19 pandemic is a situation in which each person is in a different place but they all gather at an online drinking party or an online live concert. You can say it is a “separate connection type” as it connects people in remote areas.

Recently, “izakaya” (Japanese-style bar) sets for one person are sold as products for online drinking parties. The “separate connection type” is a way to connect “solitary spaces”, which used to be separated from one another, online, although technically you cannot say it is a “solitary space.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing about various changes not only to “solitary space” but also to the existing way of space. For example, in universities, classroom-learning-type classes such as lectures in large classrooms are becoming more and more online, and as a result, the need for classrooms with fixed desks and chairs, which make up the majority of university classrooms, is decreasing.

In face-to-face classes, it is easy to create emergent communication between a teacher and students or among students. However, traditional classrooms with fixed desks and chairs that put a strain on students are not suitable for classes designed to create emergent communication.

In fact, in many face-to-face classes, only a teacher and students face each other in the class, and all the students look forward and do not face each other. You can say that students are more face-to-face in the online classes with a video camera on.

In the future, there will be a need to increase the flexibility in the placement of desks and chairs in the classroom to enable students to relax and speak. It is also important to have places on campus where students can be “alone” and where they can do things “together.”

Besides schools, the same applies to workplace spaces. As exemplified by remote work, the boundaries of housing (first space), workplaces (second space) and restaurants (third space) cross over.

In addition, other ways of working, such as coworking and workcation, have come to be seen. However, the important thing is that people can easily switch between “connection” and “disconnection” with a belonging group, including colleagues. In short, whether at school or at work, it is essential to have an environment in which you can freely move between a space where you can be “alone” and a place you can be “together.”

However, most “solitary spaces” in Japanese cities are commercial spaces such as restaurants and entertainment facilities. In other words, they are “chargeable spaces” where people have to pay for the right to be there, for example, ** yen per ×× minutes.

In the future, the question of whether conditions to enable “one person” and “people” to find their own places in public space such as parks and open spaces, besides schools and workplaces, are established will be increasingly asked. It is necessary not only to choose from the options of “solitary spaces” already available, but also to think about creating options themselves.

* The information contained herein is current as of October 2021.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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