The wasting of Kawara

The following thing happened to us (me and Kana) quite recently. It sparked a lot of thoughts, and I still cannot forget what we saw.

The current pandemic wave was quite overwhelming, so we tried to stay indoors as much as possible, but once the number of infections fell, we decided that we really needed a walk to just get out and uncompress a little.

We chose a day and time when we expected the least amount of people outside (even though we live now in a suburb of Tokyo so devoid of people that it gets eerie at times) and went for a walk to take some photos at the Jindaiji shrine. We go there often because of the unique retro architecture.

We had a great time just strolling around, exploring, taking reference photos, and just taking in the atmosphere of the shrine and the surrounding streets. We even lucked out – some shops were open even though there was almost no one there to visit – so we were able to eat delicious soft ice (Nashi – Japanese pear taste)! We quickly returned home after an hour when we noticed that some people began to appear, but either way – we had a great time.

The thing I want to talk about happened on our way back home. While walking and talking about stuff, as we usually do, we noticed a Japanese-style house beginning to be demolished. A crew of about ten people was removing any smaller parts, like windows, doors, or the tatami floor mats, to get the house ready for the heavier equipment to move in. Some of the workers were on the roof stripping it down from the blue ceramic roof tiles called “kawara” in Japanese. I always was a fan of such tiled roofs – one of the iconic elements that make Japanese architecture of many regions look so splendid and colorful. Sadly, in the modern suburbs, such as the one we currently live in, where most houses were built in the last thirty or so years, kawara tiled roofs are becoming a rarity. We looked as the demolition crew staff picked the roof clean from the beautiful tiles.

“The tiles are so nice. I’m sure the developer will reuse them somewhere,” just as Kana said that, we watched the workers haphazardly throw the ceramic tiles from the roof straight down onto a truck, breaking each and every tile in the process.

“Well, I guess Japan does not need any tiled roofs anymore.”

We went away with heavy hearts, hearing the noise of the tiles being smashed behind us. With every crash, I felt a sting of pain in my heart. Rather than walk away, it felt like we ran away as quickly as we could without actually running.

I hate work done so wastefully. Especially if a company is destroying something unique and beautiful for the sake of efficiency. It would not take much effort to take down the tiles carefully and tie them into neat bundles to sell in recycled materials shops or even in regular home improvement stores (or “home center,” as they are called in Japan). We both were fuming on our way home.

While also angry at what we saw, Kana pointed out that the heavy kawara tiles fell out of favor gradually because they have the nasty habit of, well, actually falling down during earthquakes or typhoons and even killing people in some cases.

Fair enough, I thought. While it’s a shame that there seems to be no safer alternative to the kawara tiles that would look as good on the roofs of modern buildings, I’m sure we could figure out some uses for the beautiful old ones that are taken down. If I was building a house, I would certainly use them despite the risk, but that’s me writing this text on a thirty-year-old computer just because it looks cool and retro.

Since then, I have been told that there are many technical reasons not to reuse such old tiles in a way that has to be structurally reliable (for new roofs, for example). Apparently, home improvement stores will not accept them nor sell used ones for safety reasons too. But I think that just because there is no system for repurposing them (and other parts like them), shrugging and throwing them away is just wasteful.

An often sight.

Even I can think of some uses for the tiles that would make the suburb more colorful, that do not come with the danger of being hit in the head by one falling. One is, for example, traditional Japanese fences. Probably for economic and efficiency reasons, almost all of the fences in our suburb are made of concrete blocks and are just plain ugly. These block walls also have the tendency to fall down during earthquakes and kill small children, so they themselves are being replaced recently with equally ugly prefabricated metal fences.

Why not get back to the beautiful wooden or clay traditional designs with Kawara tiles crowning them. These fences look beautiful, age gracefully, and can be made from ecologically sourced wood and recycled materials. Also, because angled beams on the back support such fences, they are quite sturdy. I remember seeing somewhere that the tiles on such walls have holes drilled into them for wires that hold them in place, just in case. This simple solution might not work for a whole tiled roof – making holes in the tiles would not improve its leakproof qualities – but for a fence or any other decorative element, this method seemed to work well.

The same tiles could be used for any number of small garden sheds, gates, resting spaces, public toilets, and other small buildings. Even in the neighboring Jindaiji Flower Garden, quite a few wooden garden gazebos are all covered by splendid kawara tiled roofs.

I can also think of something even more straightforward. I’m sure that if such roof tiles would be sold at a home center store, in packages of maybe five tiles each, some people wanting to make their gardens prettier would certainly make use of them. In a book about Japanese gardens given to me recently by Kana’s father (he designs and builds Japanese gardens professionally), I found a whole chapter about making paths, patterns, and divisions using roof tiles. A flower bed with an edge made with vertically placed deep blue ceramic tiles would look very pretty. Indeed in the garden designing handbook, the use of recycled, old material was an important point — old millstones and building fragments for garden paths, bases of lanterns, stream bridges, etc. “The Japanese garden designers prefer old and reused materials because they give the garden an atmosphere of being old and grounded. Like they were always here.”

I hope that this sentiment and respect for old but good quality and beautiful things will also be more present in other domains. Yes, it’s easy and efficient to hire a company that will send a whole old house to a landfill and build a new catalog number product in its place. But in this process, building by building, neighborhood by neighborhood, the atmosphere of Japan rebuilt after WWII, and in the Showa period, the image that we know and identify as “uniquely Japanese” is lost with them.

In the case of the building I’m talking about, a few months later, more trucks started coming in. A crane set up a steel skeleton of a family house that was later filled in with prefabricated walls: gray and covered with a fake tile texture. A few weeks more and another box house was ready to be lent.

5 thoughts on “The wasting of Kawara”

  1. It’s always sad to see wasteful demolition, be it a whole house or ripping out an interior when design fashions change. I also dislike a lot of modern housing styles – in the UK most of our new build homes are box like with tiny windows. It seems such a shame to build like that as I imagine they’ll get torn down or adapted to be brighter and more liveable, creating yet more waste in the process.

    It’s good news that you’re able to get out for walks again and I love the paintings you’ve made to accompany this piece.


  2. Such a sad story, beautifully rendered by your drawing style. Your experience reminded me of the Japanese exposition at Venezia Biennale this year, where they displayed every separate piece of a japanese house from the ’50s that was demolished in 2019.
    In a way that was the exact opposite of what you saw, with the goal of architets being to reuse the preserved material to create new objects.
    You can find the details here:

    It would be great if beauty and elegance was the main goal of arhcitectures residential areas, instead of creating ghettos of anonymous buildings and decorations that don’t actually help the well-being of people with low income.


  3. I live in a post Soviet country and all I see around me are those ugly gray boxes! I hate the sooo much, and my whole childhood and teen years I’ve been wanting to live in a place that looks just like Japan! It’s extremely sad to see a picture like this:(
    I wish I could build a house like that, or maybe at least resolve these kawara tiles into a wall/fence.


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