How to model Japanese buildings
This page covers techniques that can be used to make it look like you have a lot more different buildings, rather than by just using those that are commercially available. I have never scratchbuilt any buildings at all, yet managed to full a 3.6 x 1.2m layout with lots of different looking structures !!!
Many of the ideas I will present will relate back to the details of actual buildings I have made for my layouts, and they can be seen on this page. You may find it easiest to have this page open at the same time as you read here, so it will be easy to see what the buildings I refer to look like.
I have used, and will explain each of the following ideas ...
Of course it is not much use using a building in the first place if it doesn't 'look Japanese' !!! Either that or it cannot be 'made' to look Japanese by using some combination of the ideas below. You may then ask, "I've never been to Japan, so what do Japanese buildings look like, so that I can make sure I don't get something that is unsuitable?"
Firstly it depends on whether the area you are modelling is rural or urban. I think anywhere in Japan fits into one of these two categories - there is nothing really in-between!! Secondly, it also depends on the era you are modelling.
RURAL - If you are modelling a rural area, then there are several types of buildings available, and they are all from Japanese manufacturers. I don't know of any other nationalities buildings that are really suitable here. As of early 2007, Tomytec have just released a fine range of 6 different farmhouses, each with other outbuildings, walls, etc on a small 'plot of land'. Tomix and Tsugawa also make small thatched roof farmhouses.
URBAN - This covers just about anything else that is around, and there are many different structures available from Greenmax, Tomix, Kato and others. Bear in mind that there will be different types of buildings in the middle of a city compared to those in a more urban/rural fringe area.
MODERN ERA - most buildings available can be used to represent modern times, because even recently you still see older preserved wooden structures in the middle of more recently built ones. Certain areas of large cities that were not bombed during WWII still have many of these historic structures, often grouped together. However Japan does not really have any decent preservation laws, so the numbers of these are getting less and less as greedy developers build more and more high-rise residential and commercial towers.
'EARLIER ERA - don't ask me 'how' much earlier, but if you are only running steam, then you shouldn't have tall concrete commercial buildings alongside the tracks :-) Suitable older type mainly wooden structures are available from Kato, Greenmax and Tomytec, as well as the collectible 'My Home Town' series from Bandai.
Most Japanese urban areas look like a confusing hodge-podge of seemingly different types of buildings all mixed up together at random. Your guess is not far from the truth !! Four main factors govern this ...
The 'Sunlight Law', which was passed in the 1960's in an effort to restrict high buildings from creating too much shade on their neighbours. This gives rise to the distinctive sloped or stepped top sections of many taller buildings. This can be seen on the Tomix 4034 mansion complex, and on of the buildings I made from the Greenmax 46-8 set.
Japanese building regulations have a much lower Floor-Area-Ratio (less than 2 to 1) than any other country. This means that Japanese houses are very small in most cases, and need at least 2 and often 3 floors to give enough usable living space.
Japan is the only advanced country that does not try to put power and telephone cables underground. Therefore the streets are filled with wires on both sides going in all directions at varying heights.
Japanese cities also do not have any sign control and any zoning laws to separate industrial, commercial, residential, and agricultural types of land. Walk for about 10 minutes in most neighbourhoods, and you will come across a mixture of residential houses, rice paddies, shops and offices, factories, golf driving ranges, pachinko parlours, and all of these covered with sign and billboards, and surrounded by vending machines. In one half hour walk in Yamagata (which is not a large city), I countered over 50 vending machines.
So in summary, if you combine the Sunlight Law with regulations that encourage machinery boxes and billboards on rooftops, and add to this the absence of any zoning and sign control, the lack of trees, open land and parks, and factor in vending machines and overhead wires everywhere, you get the chaotic look of the typical Japanese urban landscape that makes a type of visual clutter that is not seen in cities of any other country.
Other than the older wooden type buildings, most recently constructed buildings are built of concrete or a type of wall panelling, both of which are then covered with a decorative finish. The finish is generally made to look like tiles, but may sometimes even look like bricks; however there are VERY FEW actual brick buildings in Japan (because of earthquakes). This means that you may be able to get away with using some brick buildings (Tomix has one in the 4019 set & 4043), but I wouldn't have very many. Other decorative finishes may be used to make a building look like the English Tudor or German styles, with white walls and brown timber beams on the outside, but again this would be rare. Other than relatively plain flat walls, other styles can also vary from colonial to art-deco, as well as many buildings that look like they come from outer space, or have some kind of weird theme (often Love Hotels!!!).
Of course all of the buildings made by Japanese manufacturers can be used, but selected American and European (mainly German) can also be used, as long as they have look relatively modern with smooth flat walls, and plain square windows (not like the American double sash type). For examples, see the American and German ones I used on the 'Building Details' page. Some features of a building that are not suitable may be able to be hidden - for example, most German multi-story building kits seem to have shops on the ground floor, with large glass windows. You may be able to make this unseen as the the 'back' of the building, or replace the shop front with a little kit bashed section of plain wall.
(and colour) is also important. Older residential buildings often have a tiled
roof, but they are a larger more curved shape tile than you see on western
houses. They also have heavily decorated ridge cappings, as well as other
'stuff' along the edges that I don't know what it is for. Some buildings have a
type of sheet metal roof (like depicted on the Tomix 4026 and a choice on
Greenmax 33 & 34). Commercial buildings will normally always have a flat
roof, with lots of 'equipment' scattered around, as well as billboard hoardings.
So the sloped tiled roof that comes on most of the German kits need to be
changed somewhat - except for the Auhagen house kit, which is good in that it
gives you a choice of either style.
Two buildings exactly the same can be used effectively in a number of ways ...
Place them on different parts of the layout, where is it difficult to see them both at the same time.
Even if they are placed close together, some other type of view block, like other buildings or trees (but don't use too many trees on a Japanese urban layout !!) will again prevent you from seeing them together.
Place them facing in different directions, so that the observer will see a different combination of windows/doors/roof lines. This is also very effective in situation #2 above.
Also see section '3. Colour' below, for another way to enhance this idea.
Two buildings of the same type can often look completely different, just because they are different colours. This variation also effectively enhances the techniques used in section '2 - Position'.
This idea is also provided in some ways by the manufacturers, as
the Tomix 4013/4018/4034/4046/4047/4048/4049 and Kato
23-402/403/404/405/408/431/432/433/434/435 buildings, all come in two different
colour variations. Of course you can also repaint a building yourself.
Another factor that characterises Japanese cites is the LACK of colour variety in the buildings. Bright colours are rarely seen, although it seems that everywhere you go, there is always one bright yellow building standing out amongst the rest !!
Colours used are white, cream, beige and pale versions of green, blue and gray. 'Loud' colours like red, yellow, pink or purple and dark shades of gray, green or blue should be used very sparingly. For the small amount of repainting that I do, it is more convenient to use spray cans rather than setting up an airbrush, and I rely on the following colours mostly ...
TAMIYA General Range
TS-1 - Red Brown. Was bought to simulate a wooden finish, but is the wrong shade.
TS-3 - Dark Yellow. A darkish yellow with a slight touch of olive green - this was used on the extended version of Tomix 4018 & 4020, as well as a couple from Greenmax 33 & 46-4.
TS-4 - German Gray. A bit too dark for normal use, but good for roof tops and even street surfaces.
TS-27 - Matt White. Plain white sometimes doesn't look 'right', but is OK if used sparingly. See Tomix 4019-3 & 4034 and Greenmax 30.
TS-39 - Mica Red. Was bought for another purpose, but was used on one building to make it stand out like a similar one I saw from Shibuya Tokyu station (Greenmax 46-8). Has a slightly sparkly finish.
TS-46 - Light Sand. A darkish yellow that is a popular choice and was used on Greenmax 30.
TAMIYA Aircraft Range
AS-2 - IJN Light Gray.Very pale, comes out almost white.
AS-5 - Luftwaffe Light Blue. Is more like a light gray with a bluish tinge.
AS-7 - USAAF Neutral Gray. A medium gray.
AS-14 - USAF Olive Green. Is really too dark and was used sparingly. See Tomix 4019-1.
AS-15 - USAF Tan. Used on Greenmax 46-6 & 46-8.
AS-18 - IJA Light Gray. Has a slight greenish tinge.
Most of these colours are quite pale, and whilst the top of the can looks different, often there is only a very subtle difference on the model. Most of these have been used on many buildings.
1923 - Gunship Gray (FS36118). Fairly dark but slightly bluish gray, used on Greenmax 46-4 & 46-6.
1933 - Camouflage Grey (FS 36622). A very pale gray and a popular colour, as it seems I have 4 cans of it !!! Can be seen on Greenmax 33 and Tomix 4019-2.
1992 - SAC Bomber Tan (FS 34201). More like a pale olive green than a tan.
1993 - SAC Bomber Green (FS 34159). A dark olive green. I don't remember if I have used this colour or not - the can seems very full :-)
2909- Light Ivory. A very pale ivory/yellow, and a popular choice. Used on Tomix 4019-1 and Greenmax 33, 34 & 44.
2937 - Grey Primer. One of my favourites, as it is quite thick and covers slight blemishes after kit-bashing. It is a light to medium gray, and often stays as the buildings colour !!
MR COLOR (Sanyo Gunze)
42 - Mahogany. A dark brown with a reddish tinge. Was for a wood colour, but the wrong shade.
67 - Purple. Was bought for another purpose, but was used sparingly on one building (Greenmax 34).
84 - Budou or Sepia. A dark brown with a purplish tinge ('budou' is Japanese for Grape). Was for a wood colour, but the wrong shade.
The additions of different window or roof top signs and/or billboards could also come under this category. Kato's Diotown buildings come with a large variety of signs, and the Greenmax kits also have a large variety of signs for billboards. Also don't forget to paint the roof areas (and the verandas & stair wells) of kits that are all made of one pre-coloured plastic eg the Tomix 4034 Mansion buildings. A gray colour to simulate concrete or a tar finish will usually look OK.
Greenmax's buildings would have to be very typical of smaller Japanese houses and shops, so I suggest the colour combinations that they have given on the kit boxes would be worth trying. Here is what they suggest for 3 different kits. Of course it is unlikely that you will be using Greenmax's paints, so just go by the general colour type - I have not given their names (if you look at the file name of the colour sample, it is the Greenmax colour number).
33 - 6 small shops
34 - 6 houses
46-4 - 4 three storey shops
|Roof / Foundation|
|Cooling Tower / Water Tank|
No, this doesn't relate to those dozens of spam emails that most people seem to get every day offering you a complete guaranteed solution if somehow you feel you are size-challenged down below !!!
Many buildings can be made into a different looking version
without too much trouble, because that is the way the clever manufacturer (presumably)
Tomix - certain buildings like the 4018/4020 & 4046/4047/4048/4049 office buildings and the 4034 mansion, all come in sections, sometimes 1 floor each, sometimes 2 floors. I have also doubled the height of 4025 & 4035.
Kato - their range of 'Diotown' office buildings comes in 2 floor section.
Because the floor sections of these Tomix and Kato buildings just clip together, using two or more of these buildings means that you can make a higher version of the same building, which can then also be made to look MORE by different using some of the techniques in sections 2 & 3.
Greenmax - these are unpainted kits, and many have wall sections with scoring in the back to enable you to cut and change the size of the part. Many of the wall sections can also be used beside and/or on top of others, to give a wider or taller version of the same building. I have done this with all the buildings in series 29, 30, 33, 34, 44, 46-6, 46-7 & 46-8.
Using the versatile parts from the Greenmax range, I have made many versions using the parts of the kits from series 33, 34, 46-6, 46-7 & 46-8. The last one is particularly good, but is not available any more as a separate item.
Also adding extra detail to an existing building can also give variety. For example an awning over the front, or extra vents, piping and/or exhaust details on the sides and/or roof can help.
Whole page contents and images 2010 Doug Coster
E&OE - all details subject to change without notice. Details current at 01/01/2010