Oh, Give Them a Home: Japanese, Americans in Architectural Exchange : Trade: Katsumi Sato can retreat to his log cabin near Mt. Fuji. Across the Pacific, a Californian sells “re-interpretations” of Japanese country homes.


Once upon a time, in a land called Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln was born in a rustic log cabin to a dirt-poor farm family. Nearly 200 years later, Katsumi Sato constructed his own log home in Matsumoto, a rural village separated from Tokyo by Mt. Fuji.

History repeating itself, perhaps? Not by a long shot.

Sato’s cabin is a rustic vacation retreat from the bustle of the Japanese publishing world in which he works, not a primary residence for the poor and the rural. It is also one of a growing number of log homes springing up in the Far East, thanks to exporting efforts of enterprising North American companies.

Halfway around the globe, the same phenomenon is happening, but in reverse. From his offices in Newport Beach, Thomas F. Newcomer, president of Haiku Houses, peddles “re-interpretations” of 16th Century Japanese country homes to well-heeled Westerners.


An odd architectural exchange, indeed, but log cabins in Japan and Japanese-flavored homes in places like Carpinteria, Mendocino and San Juan Capistrano celebrate similar symbols--wood and wealth, simplicity and status.

“Japanese log fans don’t think they buy the American history,” Sato muses. “But they enjoy the North American nature, big wood. . . . The log house has its own special mood, pure nature.”

As Newcomer strolls into his newest Haiku House--a 1,400-square-foot summer home on the beach in Rincon Point near Carpinteria--he pauses, turns to a visitor and proclaims:

“It’s the uniqueness of the home that’s the major emphasis. It has the Asian influence of serenity and simplicity. People really connect with nature here. . . . Stand back and experience it.”

Part of that experience, however, is the kitsch factor. Log homes are so hot in Japan that Asahi runs full-page newspaper ads for beer showing laughing Asians and Anglos on a mountaintop sucking down brews in front of a woodsy cabin.

Conversely, Haiku Houses touts its structures as “an environment for living” and graces its glossy brochures with the Japanese symbol kura. Unfortunately, the closest English translation, according to Sanseido’s New Concise Japanese-English Dictionary, is “warehouse.”

To Newcomer, there is no inconsistency between a pricey 20th Century home and its humble beginnings as a rice warehouse. “The structural frame is similar,” he said. The elevated construction “kept it off the ground. It evolved into a temple, though it originally started out as a storehouse.”

Log cabins in the East and Haiku Houses in the West are an example of the “strangeness that things yanked out of one culture and put into another have,” says Ronald Rose, an architect and visiting professor at USC’s School of Architecture. “This typically happens in cultural exchanges, particularly between East and West.”

Although Japan is a very “homogeneous” culture, its consumers do have an eccentric streak, said Rose, who has worked in and taught about Japan. Such eccentricity often crops up in architecture.

“There are very bizarre avant-garde houses being built there,” Rose says. “There are also people there who make traditional Japanese houses. But I can see someone saying, ‘On my block, I’m going to have a log cabin.’ There is a place there in this great homogeneous world for people with very strange desires.”

The log cabin has its roots in Scandinavian countries, where early forms were built as far back as 800 A.D. The first American log cabins were built in the Delaware Valley in 1638 by immigrants from Sweden and Finland. Such construction spread south and west as American pioneers moved from their original settlements.

But they didn’t spread East to Japan until the mid-1980s. James R. Schueler, president of Rocky Mountain Log Homes in Hamilton, Mont., shipped his first custom log home to Japan in 1985. Today, he sends about 50 there each year. In 1988, he expanded his territory to include Taiwan; in 1989, Korea, and this year he’s tackling Thailand.

Sales of his custom cabins (“We’re way past the Abe Lincoln style,” he says) have increased each year, and Korea is shaping up as his most promising market. While he’s constructed houses, a shopping center and a retirement home in Japan, Schueler is negotiating more extensive resort construction in Korea.

Trade imbalances favoring Japan and Korea--along with Eastern tastes for Western lifestyles--have sparked the building mini-boom, Schueler says. Industry estimates place the number of U.S. log home manufacturers at about 250. Of that, about 10% are exporting to the Far East.

Joseph Honick, managing director of the American Building Products Export/Import Council, figures that about 300 log homes will be exported to Japan in 1990, up from 15 to 20 just five years ago. No statistics are available for other countries.

Schueler charges $50 to $90 a square foot for his log homes, depending on the lavishness of design and materials. For export, he figures that the cost is about double. Regardless, about 10% of his business comes from the Far East.

Although Japan is the major market for log houses, Korea is shaping up as No. 2. Kyung Churl Pack, president of Ko Kyun Industrial Co. of Seoul, was part of a recent trade mission visiting the United States from Korea looking for traditional and non-traditional products to import.

“Log homes are in a very, very early stage of development as far as the Korean market is concerned,” Kyung said. “I am just looking for an opening at this early stage, so when the market opens up, we are there.”

Like Japan, Korea is experiencing a rapid increase in housing starts and there is a dearth of wood for construction--all combined with an historical love of wood. As a result, importing pre-cut, numbered, ready-to-construct log houses is a natural solution to the problem, Kyung said.

“The building material (in log cabins) is more natural,” he said. “Today, everything is synthetic. Concrete is not natural. In log cabins, the insulation value is far better, construction cost is less, the lines are softer. You don’t need to wallpaper. You don’t need to paint.”

The houses are “pole and beam” structures in which up to 16 Douglas fir supports are sunk into the ground and hold the roof. No additional foundation is needed.

Although Haiku Houses is working on reducing the costs of its products, you pay for what you get. A Haiku House costs $85 to $120 per square foot--not including land. A good tract home runs $60 to $80 a square foot.

“I have not visited a home that has been constructed where the people do not take off their shoes,” Newcomer said. “It’s cute as heck. The house influences you into a way of living and an attitude, one of more tranquility and less stress.”

For Katsumi Sato, an American log cabin does about the same thing.

“When people make something, it’s always a straight line,” he said. “Logs are round. It’s nature’s way.”