The traditional Japanese house is an icon in terms of the nation’s history and culture. If you are a fan of classic movies set in Meiji-era Japan, or are a fan of Japanese culture, you’ll likely recognize the traditional Japan house. From its wood and paper external doors to its distinct clay tiled roof, such houses are a staple of Japan’s culture.
Japan houses in historic times were constructed of simple materials. Wood was the main building material that formed the foundation and frame of a home, but the wealthy used stone. Other materials included clay for roofing tiles and rice paper and straw for interior floors and walls. Another thing to note was that homes and dwellings of the time were considered temporary; it was customary for a family to rebuild their home about every twenty years. Here in this article, we’ll go over the traditional design elements and construction techniques that you may not have known about.
What are Traditional Japan Houses?
In ancient Japan, people’s houses and homes were very much a far cry from the homes of the Meiji Era as covered in this article. They usually split these early and primitive homes into two categories: pit-dwelling houses and elevated houses. Pit-dwelling homes were a simple affair, consisting of a ring of columns inserted into a large pit dug into the earth and then surrounded by a simple grass or thatch roof. Elevated homes were a little more complex, consisting of a small structure built elevated from the ground.
The design of this latter type of home was originally used to store grain and other foodstuffs away from the ground so that pests wouldn’t be able to reach it. These simple homes would persist until about the 11th century when the concept of what we now consider being the historic Japan house solidified. During this century, the aristocracy of Japan built a unique style of homes for themselves.
The style of the house, called shinden-zukuri, was the precursor to the historic Japanese house. These houses were symmetrical, with their rooms connected by internal hallways and were built in the center of lavish gardens. This allowed the residents of the house to enjoy seasonal events and nature alike. Later, as the political power in Japan shifted from the early nobles to the samurai, or the warrior class of Japan, the core aspects of traditional Japanese culture took root. To distinguish themselves from the commoners and lower classes, the samurai created their own style of home called shoin-zukuri.
Commoners and city-dwellers had their own form of home called gassho, which often had a narrow and long footprint due to the dense populations of cities. Today, the traditional Japan house is a symbol of Japan’s cultural heritage, and historically accurate examples can be found across the country that accurately represent where people from all walks of life lived.
Ten Fun Facts about the Traditional Japanese House
The traditional Japan house featured several design elements unique to Japanese culture. While many of the design elements were necessary due to the technological limitations of Japanese society of the time, others were tied closely with the early Buddhist and later Shinto teachings, customs and practices of the Meiji Era.
Because glass was unavailable as a building material for much of Japan’s history, early Japanese architects had to settle for alternative ways to light the rooms of a home. One solution was shoji. A shoji is a sliding panel door that is made of translucent paper and set in a grid-shaped wooden lattice. Used in both interior and exterior walls, shoji panels allowed sunlight and shadows to diffuse through the home. However, shoji were difficult and expensive to maintain, often requiring replacement with damage and isolating its use to that of the upper classes.
Another limiting factor in the design of a traditional Japan house was the lack of nails and other metal joinings typical in Western construction in a style known as wagoya. As iron and other metals were considered luxuries, architects of the time devised wood joinery techniques unique to Japan. It was typical for large wooden buildings be built with no nails, and by using only complex wooden supports and joints held together with rope.
Not entirely unlike porches used in the construction of Western homes, the engawa was a low, open corridor that wrapped around the entirety of some Japan houses. Engawa rarely featured rails and were made of wood planks although exceptions to this rule exist. You could access most – if not all – of the rooms of a typical Japanese dwelling from a doorway that opens onto the engawa. Amado, or storm shutters, are often attached to the outside portion of the engawa, protecting the occupants from wind and rain and transforming the engawa into a kind of narrow corridor.
A feature unique to Japan houses both new and old, the tokonoma is an elevated alcove inside a room where hosts recieve guests. It’s customary purpose is to serve as a spot to display artwork, such as paintings, shodo (japanese calligraphy) or ikebana (flower arrangements). There is a list of manners and etiquette you should follow regarding the tokonoma. For instance, it was customary for a guest to seat with their back to the tokonoma. The tokonoma is usually a bare space with only one or two pieces of artwork on display.
As mentioned above, amado are storm shutters designed to seal up and protect a home or residence in Japan for privacy and safety, as well as from storms and the elements. They are necessarily sturdy as typhoons were and still are a frequent occurrence in Japan. When not in use, amado panels are stored away.
In Japan houses, the genkan is the main entrance to the home, and is also usually the place where residents can greet guests. Typical genkan have a lower-level floor where a person can remove and leave their shoes, as in Japan it’s bad manners to wear shoes inside the house. There are several customs associated with the genkan. For example, it is customary to leave one’s shoes facing the door, and it’s considered unsanitary to step in the lower part of the floor of the genkan in socks or bare feet.
Another common sight in Japan houses both old and new are tatami, which are a hybrid mat and carpet floor covering made of rice straw. Once a luxury that only the wealthy could afford, they are now common enough in Japan to that they are used as a unit of measurement when discussing floor area. A tatami room is also a thing, and can be comparable to a dining or living room where residents can spend time with guests or eat meals.
Kotatsu are low tables with a built-in heater and covered by a thick futon blanket. As the traditional Japan house lacked central heating, the humble kotatsu was a common sight in the winter months in Japan. Today they are ubiquitous since many homes in Japan lack central heating and occupants typically use space heaters to stay warm. While kotatsu today use built-in electric heaters to keep their occupants warm, those from during the Meiji Era and later often burned coal or wood in small stoves built into the center.
In Japanese, ofuro is the word for a bath. Early in Japan’s history, bathing was a communal activity, where people would visit public baths – called sento – each evening. By the Meiji Era however, many homes had baths of their own. By design, most homes in Japan have their bath separate from the toilet and the rest of the bathroom, and frequently have an adjoining dressing room of their own.
The baths themselves are usually deep but short in terms of dimensions. It was also customary to clean oneself completely before taking a bath. Early such examples were large wooden barrels heated by wood or coal fires lit beneath, and this style of bath remains popular even today.
Essentially a small household altar, the Kamidana in Shintoism is a small shrine used to remember and honor departed family and loved ones. The kamidana is placed high off the floor on in an alcove of its own and surrounded by items denoting luck, including food and beverages. It’s also customary to light incense at a kamidana each morning, as a way of honoring the departed.
The history of Japan is a long and colorful one stretching back thousands of years, and even the subject of architecture is a topic with incredible depth all on its own. We hope this article has helped you not only better understand what makes traditional Japanese houses so distinct, in terms of construction methods and design styles, but how certain elements of the architecture offer a reflection of Japan’s rich culture.