Tokyo is notorious for the tiny dwellings its residents squeeze themselves into. Chances are that you—unless you want to commute for 90 minutes or so every day—inhabit such a space yourself as rents are high for anyplace central. But even though your place might be small, that doesn’t mean it can’t be nice. Here are a few tips on how you can make the most of your typical Tokyo apartment.

How to furnish and decorate a small Japanese apartment

Don’t turn to the dark side

Light colors are ideal for small apartments as they make the space appear bigger. So keep your walls white and choose a place with light-colored flooring. This rule can also be extended to your furniture, especially for large items like your bed or sofa.

Mix with a few splashes of color

tatami bedroom with futon and table with blue seat pillow
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Now, all white or all beige can be a bit sterile or boring. Add color accents, preferably staying in one theme or palette (think hues or blue or a pink and gold theme) to keep things classy. This works well when picking out items like cushions, a throw, or your living room carpet.

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Look up

Besides being rabbit hutches, many Japanese apartments also have low ceilings which can make a space feel even more confining. Work against this theme by drawing the eyes up and using the little space you have available—all the way up to the ceiling! This can be done by using wall art decals (which can also be easily removed again as Japanese landlords usually do not allow you to make changes to your place).

white cupboard with a plant in antique-looking plant pot
Create the illusion of higher ceilings in your apartment by decorating all the way up the wall. | Photo by

If you have pictures or other wall art, hang them slightly higher than what you are used to. Finally, you could also fix some higher level bookshelves to your walls, but keep in mind that you will be responsible for flawlessly repairing any drill holes!

Choosing the right furniture for a Japanese apartment

One item, many uses

Space is scarce, so furniture in Japan is often multifunctional. There is of course the obvious sofa bed you could choose for a 2-in-1 spacesaver. Besides that, lots of Japanese furniture has extra storage space added in, which come in handy in tiny apartments. Look for sofas and beds with built-in storage compartments, or things like nesting side tables that can be brought out when you have guests and then put neatly away when not in use.

Know when it is time to fold

In the same vein, take a look at foldaway items. The ultimate one would be a Murphy bed that folds up against a wall; however, more approachable choices might be folding chairs, side tables and other items you can bring out for guests and then store in your oshiire (the traditional Japanese built-in closet) when you want to use the space for something else.

Support the local economy

Honestly, we can’t stress this one enough. You might be feel the urge to hit your nearest IKEA, but you might want to consider Japanese furniture brands first. The dimensions of the their items—from dining tables to sofas—are proportional to the average Japanese apartment size (read: smaller), so you will be able to fit in a lot more without overloading your space. Nitori is on par with IKEA price-wise (aka affordable). If you are more the fancy minimalist, check out Muji. For indie furniture and decor shops, visit Meguro Dori.

decorate a small japanese apartment
Size-appropriate furniture for a small apartment. | Photo by

If you need some help to assemble your new flatpack furniture, whether it’s Nitori or IKEA, Anytimes allows you to find someone to do it for you for a reasonable price.

Keep it simple

Don’t clutter your space with a bunch of small furniture items. Get a small sofa in lieu of several chairs, go for a proper couch table with storage instead of an array side tables, and get one chest of drawers in place of a disorderly pile of storage boxes pushed against a corner.

wood storage chest with lamp, speaker and vase of flowers
Photo by

Marie Kondo to the rescue: Solving the eternal storage problem

Put that away

There is a reason why the godmother of tidying up—Marie Kondo—is Japanese. Most Japanese homes are a far cry from the zen, minimalist image you might have had before you landed in Narita. Rather, most apartments are an overflowing mess of shoes, clothes, and daily-use items that just can’t seem to find a permanent home in your place. This is usually due to the lack of storage if you live in 20 sqm (or less).

So what is one to do? First, take a good look at the storage space that your potential new place offers when you are apartment hunting. It should have at least a decent-sized built-in closet, but many other places also have other amazing hat trick storage units—like hatches in the floor or overhead storage. That cluttered and messy look that most of us hate mainly comes from having stuff all over the place. If you can clear surfaces by putting stuff away, it will make things appear clean, tidy, and yep, larger.

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Balconies aren’t just for laundry

decorate a small japanese apartment
Photo by WONG

Almost all Japanese apartments come with a balcony—yay! You might have noticed that your neighbors mainly use theirs for only one purpose though: drying their laundry and airing their futons.

Your balcony can definitely turn into additional storage space for things like your luggage or other seldomly used items. Just make sure to get a waterproof cover for them (which could be as simple as a large garbage bag).

Thinking outside the box

Live in a shoe box? Think outside the box. The way you would have furnished your place back home might simply not work here. So, when in Rome Tokyo, consider alternatives like maybe getting that funky, 70s-style Murphy bed, or not having a sofa and couch table set-up, but rather an armchair in a corner with a fluffy rug and floor pillows you can get out for visitors.

teal armchair  - decorate a small japanese apartment
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Getting creative is probably one of the most fun parts of being a cheapo in a small Tokyo apartment, so here is a great secondhand furniture store and here are some online resale sites you can check out to snatch up some bargains for your new abode.

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