Japanese and American 'Sense of Space'

I teach a graduate Landscape Design Studio at Columbia University.  I ask my students to select an excerpt from the assigned book, 'The Hidden Dimension' and correlate a personal experience to describe it.

This is what a student, Yuji Yamazaki, an architect, wrote. It is a very enlightening piece!   ...I had to share. (He said it was ok.)

“We learn from the study of culture that the patterning of perceptual world is a function not only of culture but of relationship, activity, and emotion. 

Therefore, people from different cultures, when interpreting each other’s behavior, often misinterpret the relationship, the activity, or the emotion. 

This leads to alienation in encounters or distorted communications.”

~ Edward T. Hall, Hidden Dimension

I have been living with my girlfriend for over 5 years now. My girlfriend, born and raised in the Long Island, NY,  sees certain things in a way that I don’t quite understand, especially things that relate to space and privacy.

Edward Hall mentions that there is no word to describe “privacy” in Japanese language.

 But I think that there is “sense” of privacy that you can develop in Japan.  A way to establish this sense of privacy is to block out other’s presence.  In densely populated cities, Japanese nuclear families are accustomed to share the most intimate space.  That is probably why we don’t have “privacy” in our vocabulary.

Growing up in Japan, I could go months without talking to my brother even though we shared a small 10’ x 10’ room, and it was not considered as being rude, it was rather respecting by mentally blocking out each other.  

But my girlfriend would perceive this type of silence as a queue to ask me “Is everything okay?

We  live in a small one-bedroom apartment, very similar size to the one with my brother. In Japanese setting, I can establish a sense of privacy by simply holding newspaper in front of my face and be silent—Japanese privacy is established. 

 In my girlfriend's culture, when you are in a room together, you are assumed to participate each other’s presence.  “What are you reading?”, “Wanna a cup of coffee?”, or “I’m bored” are the usual intrusion toward the silence.  You need to go to the other room and shut the door to have privacy.


Her privacy takes four walls and a shut door, which is about 100 square feet, my privacy takes 30” by 30” newspaper, which takes about 6 square feet. Growing up in a Long Island house with her own room, my girlfriend has yet to learn about my portable Japanese privacy, and I have yet to learn when and where to have that privacy.

GREAT INSIGHT!  My female advice, Yuji, is to politely answer her questions ......we never stop asking questions...



  1. Even though I am an American, I understand this very well. As an introvert, I can establish my own sense of privacy even in the midst of a crowd, simply by being quiet and withdrawing into myself. My sister, however, is an extravert who thinks if two people are together in a space, they should be talking. If I'm not talkative, she thinks I'm mad at her, when actually I'm just wanting a bit of peace and quiet!


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