Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/March 1886/Japanese House-Building


By Professor EDWARD S. MORSE.

THE first sight of a Japanese house—that is, a house of the people—is certainly disappointing. From the infinite variety and charming character of their various works of art, as we had seen them at home, we were anticipating new delights and surprises in the character of the house; nor were we on more intimate acquaintance to be disappointed. As an American, familiar with houses of certain types, with conditions among them signifying poverty and shiftlessness, and other conditions signifying refinement and wealth, we were not competent to judge the relative merits of a Japanese house.

The first sight, then, of a Japanese house is disappointing; it is unsubstantial in appearance, and there is a meagerness of color. Being unpainted, it suggests poverty; and this absence of paint, with the gray and often rain-stained color of the boards, leads one to compare it with similar unpainted buildings at home—and these are usually barns and sheds in the country, and the houses of the poorer people in the city. With one's eye accustomed to the bright contrasts of American houses, with their white, or light, painted surfaces; rectangular windows, black from the shadows within, with glints of light reflected from the glass; front door with its pretentious steps and portico; warm red chimneys surmounting all, and a general trimness of appearance outside, which is by no means always correlated with like conditions within—one is too apt at the outset to form a low estimate of a Japanese house. An American finds it difficult indeed to consider such a structure as a dwelling, when so many features are absent that go to make up a dwelling at home—no doors or windows such as he had been familiar with; no attic or cellar; no chimneys, and within no fireplace, and of course no customary mantel; no permanently inclosed rooms; and, as for furniture, no beds or tables, chairs or similar articles—at least, so it appears at first sight.

One of the chief points of difference in a Japanese house, as compared with ours, lies in the treatment of partitions and outside walls. In our houses these are solid and permanent, and, when the frame is built, the partitions form part of the framework. In the Japanese house, on the contrary, there are two or more sides that have no permanent walls. Within, also, there are but few partitions which have similar stability; in their stead arc slight sliding-screens, which run in appropriate grooves in the floor and overhead. These grooves mark the limit of each room. The screens may be opened by sliding them back, or they may be entirely removed, thus throwing a number of rooms into one great apartment. In the same way the whole side of a house may be flung open to sunlight and air. For communication between the rooms, therefore, swinging-doors are not necessary. As a substitute for windows, the outside screens, or shōji, are covered with white paper, allowing the light to be diffused through the house.

Where external walls appear they are of wood unpainted, or painted black, and, if of plaster, white or dark slate-colored. In certain classes of building the outside wall, to a height of several feet from the ground, and sometimes even the entire wall, may be tiled, the interspaces being pointed with white plaster. The roof may be either lightly shingled, heavily tiled, or thickly thatched. It has a moderate pitch, and, as a general thing, the slope is not so steep as in our roofs. Nearly all the houses have a veranda, which is protected by the widely overhanging eaves of the roof, or by a light supplementary roof projecting from beneath the eaves.

While most houses of the better class have a definite porch and vestibule, or genka, in houses of the poorer class this entrance is not separate from the living-room; and, since the interior of the house is accessible from two or three sides, one may enter it from any point. The floor is raised a foot and a half or more from the ground, and is covered with thick straw mats, rectangular in shape, of uniform size, with sharp, square edges, and so closely fitted that the floor upon which they rest is completely hidden. The rooms are either square or rectangular, and are made with absolute reference to the number of mats they are to contain. With the exception of the guest-room, few rooms have projections or bays. In the guest-room there is at one side a more or less deep recess divided into two bays by a slight partition; the one nearest the veranda is called the tokonoma. In this place hang one or more pictures, and upon its floor, which is slightly raised above the mats, rests a flower-vase, incense-burner, or some other object. The companion bay has shelves and a low closet. Other rooms also may have recesses to accommodate a case of drawers or shelves. Where closets and cupboards occur, they are finished with sliding screens instead of swinging-doors. In tea-houses of two stories the stairs, which often ascend from the vicinity of the kitchen, have beneath them a closet, and this is usually closed by a swinging-door.

In city houses the kitchen is at one side or corner of the house, generally in an L, covered with a pent-roof. This apartment is often toward the street, its yard separated from other areas by a high fence. In the country the kitchen is nearly always under the main roof. In the city few out-buildings, such as sheds and barns, are seen. Accompanying

Fig. 1.—Side-Framing.

the houses of the better class are solid, thick-walled, one or two storied, fire-proof buildings called kura, in which the goods and chattels are stored away at the time of a conflagration. These buildings, which are known to the foreigners as "godowns," have one or two small windows and one door, closed by thick and ponderous shutters. Such a building usually stands isolated from the dwelling, though often in juxtaposition; and sometimes, though rarely, it is used as a domicile.

In the gardens of the better classes summer-houses and shelters of rustic appearance and diminutive proportions are often seen. Rustic arbors are also to be seen in the larger gardens. Specially constructed houses of quaint design and small size are not uncommon; in these the ceremonial tea-parties take place. High fences, either of board or bamboo, or solid walls of mud or tile with stone foundations, surround the house or inclose it from the street. Low rustic fences border the gardens in the suburbs. Gateways of various styles, some of imposing design, form the entrances; as a general thing they are either rustic and light, or formal and massive.

Whatever is commonplace in the appearance of the house is toward the street, while the artistic and picturesque face is turned toward the garden, which may be at one side or in the rear of the house—usually in the rear. Within these plain and unpretentious houses there are often to be seen marvels of exquisite carving and the perfection of cabinet work; and surprise follows surprise as one becomes more fully acquainted with the interior finish of these curious and remarkable dwellings.

The framework of an ordinary Japanese dwelling is simple and primitive in structure; it consists of a number of upright beams which run from the ground to the transverse beams and inclines of the roof above. The vertical framing is held together either by short strips, which are let into appropriate notches in the uprights to which the bamboo lathing is fixed, or by longer strips of wood, which pass

Fig. 2.—Pounding down Foundation-stones.

through mortises in the uprights, and are firmly keyed or pinned into place (Fig. 1). In larger houses these uprights are held in position by a framework near the ground. There is no cellar or excavation beneath the house, nor is there a continuous stone foundation as with us. The uprights rest directly, and without attachment, upon single uncut or rough-hewed stones, these in turn resting upon others, which have been solidly pounded into the earth by means of a huge wooden maul worked by a number of men (Fig. 2). In this way the house is perched upon these stones, with the floor elevated at least a foot and a half or two feet above the ground. In some cases the space between the up-rights is boarded up; this is generally seen in Kioto houses. In others the wind has free play beneath; and, while this exposed condition renders the house much colder and more uncomfortable in winter, the inmates are never troubled by the noisome air of the cellar, which too often infects our houses at home. Closed wooden fences of a more solid character are elevated in this way; that is, the lower rail or sill of the fence rests directly upon stones placed at intervals apart of six or eight feet. The ravages of numerous ground-insects, as well as larvæ, and the excessive dampness of the ground at certain seasons of the year, render this method of building a necessity.

The accurate way in which the base of the uprights is wrought to fit the inequalities of the stones upon which they rest is worthy of notice. In the emperor's garden we saw a two-storied house finished in the most simple and exquisite manner.Fig. 3.—Foundation-Stone. It was, indeed, like a beautiful cabinet, though disfigured by a bright-colored foreign carpet upon its lower floor. The uprights of this structure rested on large, oval, beach-worn stones buried end-wise in the ground; and, upon the smooth rounded portions of the stones, which projected above the level of the ground to a height of ten inches or more, the uprights had been most accurately fitted (Fig. 3). The effect was extremely light and buoyant, though apparently insecure to the last degree; yet this building had not only withstood a number of earthquake-shocks, but also the strain of severe typhoons, which during the summer months sweep over Japan with such violence. If the building be very small, then the frame consists of four corner-posts running to the roof. In dwellings having a frontage of two or more rooms, other uprights occur between the corner-posts. As the rooms increase in number through the house, uprights come in the corners of the rooms, against which the sliding-screens, or fusuma, abut. The passage of these uprights through the room to the roof above gives a solid constructive appearance to the house. When a house has a veranda—and nearly every house possesses this feature on one or more of its sides—another row of uprights starts in a line with the outer edge of the veranda. Unless the veranda be very long, an upright at each end is sufficient to support the supplementary roof which shelters it. These uprights support a cross-beam, upon which the slight rafters of the supplementary roof rest. This cross-beam is often a straight unhewed stick of timber, from which the bark has been removed. Indeed, most of the horizontal framing-timbers, as well as the rafters, are usually unhewed—the rafters often having the bark on, or perhaps being accurately squared sticks; but, in either case, they are always visible as they project from the sides of the house, and run out to support the overhanging eaves. The larger beams and girders are but slightly hewed; and it is not unusual to see irregular-shaped beams worked into the construction of a frame, often for their quaint effects (Fig. 4), and in many cases as a matter of economy.

For a narrow house, if the roof be a gable, a central upright at each end of the building gives support to the ridge-pole from which

Fig. 4.—Section of Framing.

the rafters run to the eaves. If the building be wide, a transverse beam traverses the end of the building on a level with the eaves, supported at intervals by uprights from the ground; and upon this short uprights rest, supporting another transverse beam above, and often three or more tiers are carried nearly to the ridge. Upon these supports rest the horizontal beams which run parallel with the ridge-pole, and which are intended to give support to the rafters (Fig. 5).

In the case of a wide gable-roof there are many ways to support the frame, one of which is illustrated in the following outline (Fig. 6). Here a stout stick of timber runs from one end of the house to the other on a vertical line with the ridge-pole, and on a level with the eaves. This stick is always crowning, in order to give additional strength. A few thick uprights start from this to support the ridge-pole above; from these uprights beams run to the eaves; these are mortised into the uprights, but at different levels on either side, in order not to weaken the uprights by the mortises. From these beams run short supports to the horizontal rafters above.

The roof, if it be of tile or thatch, represents a massive weight—the tiles being thick and quite heavy, and always bedded in a thick

Fig. 5.—End-Framing of Large Building.

layer of mud. The thatch, though not so heavy, often becomes so after a long rain. The roof-framing, consequently, has oftentimes to support a great weight; and, though in its structure looking weak, or at least primitive in design, yet experience must have taught the Japanese

Fig. 6.—Roof-Frame or Large Building.

carpenters that their methods were not only the simplest and most economical, but that they answered all requirements. One is amazed to see how many firemen can gather upon such a roof without its yielding. I have seen massive house-roofs over two hundred years old, and other frame structures of a larger size and of far greater age, which presented no visible signs of weakness. Indeed, it is a very unusual sight to see a broken-backed roof in Japan.

Diagonal bracing in the framework of a building is never seen. Sometimes, however, the uprights in a weak frame are supported by braces running from the ground at an acute angle, and held in place by wooden pins. Outside diagonal braces are sometimes met with as an ornamental feature. In the province of Ise one often sees a brace or bracket made out of an unhewed piece of timber, generally the proximal portion of some big branch. This is fastened to an up-right, and appears to be a brace to hold up the end of a horizontal beam that projects beyond the eaves. These braces, however, are not even notched into the upright, but held in place by square wooden pins, and are of little use as a support for the building, though answering well to hold fishing-rods and other long poles, which find here convenient lodgment (Fig. 7).

The framework of a building is often revealed in the room in a way that would delight the heart of an Eastlake. Irregularities in the

Fig. 7.—Outside Brace.

form of a stick are not looked upon as a hindrance in the construction of a building. From the way such crooked beams are brought into use, one is led to believe that the builder prefers them. The desire for rustic effects leads to the selection of odd-shaped timber. Fig. 4 represents the end of a room, wherein is seen a crooked cross-piece passing through a central upright, which sustains the ridge-pole.

As the rooms are made in sizes corresponding to the number of mats they are to contain, the beams, uprights, rafters, flooring-boards, boards for the ceiling, and all strips are got out in sizes to accommodate these various dimensions. The dimensions of the mats from one end of the empire to the other are approximately three feet wide and six feet long; and these are fitted compactly on the floor. The architect marks on his plan the number of mats each room is to contain—this number defining the size of the room; hence, the lumber used must be of definite lengths, and the carpenter is sure to find these lengths at the lumber-yard. It follows from this that but little waste occurs in the construction of a Japanese house.

The permanent partitions within the house are made in various ways. In one method bamboo strips of various lengths take the place of laths. Small bamboos are first nailed in a vertical position to the wooden strips, which are fastened from one upright to another; narrow strips of bamboo are then secured across these bamboos by means of coarse cords of straw, or bark-fiber (Fig. 1). This partition is not unlike our own plaster-and-lath partition. Another kind of partition may be of boards; and against these small bamboo rods are nailed quite close together, and upon this the plaster is put. Considerable pains are taken as to the plastering. The plasterer brings to the house samples of various-colored sands and clays, so that one may select from these the color of his wall. A good coat of plaster comprises three layers. The first layer, called shita-nuri, is composed of mud, in which chopped straw is mixed; a second layer, called chu-nuri, of rough lime, mixed with mud; the third layer, called uwa-nuri, has the colored clay or sand mixed with lime—and this last layer is always applied by a skillful workman.

Many of the partitions between the rooms consist entirely of light sliding-screens. Often two or more sides of the house are composed entirely of these simple and frail devices. The outside permanent walls of a house, if of wood, are made of thin boards nailed to the frame horizontally—as we lay clapboards on our houses. These may be more firmly held to the house by long strips nailed against the boards vertically. The boards may also be secured to the house vertically, and weather-strips nailed over the seams—as is commonly the way with certain of our houses. In the southern provinces a rough house-wall is made of wide slabs of bark, placed vertically, and held in place by thin strips of bamboo nailed crosswise. This style is common among the poorer houses in Japan; and, indeed, in the better class of houses it is often used as an ornamental feature, placed at the height of a few feet from the ground.

Outside plastered walls are also very common, though not of a durable nature. This kind of wall is frequently seen in a dilapidated condition. In Japanese picture-books this broken condition is often shown, with the bamboo slats exposed, as a suggestion of poverty.

In the cities the outside walls of more durable structures, such as warehouses, are not infrequently covered with square tiles, a board wall being first made, to which the tiles are secured by being nailed at their corners. These may be placed in diagonal or horizontal rows—in either case an interspace of a quarter of an inch being left between the tiles, and the seams closed with white plaster, spreading on each side to the width of an inch or more, and finished with a rounded surface. This work is done in a very tasteful and artistic manner, and the effect of the dark-gray tiles crossed by these white bars of plaster is very striking (Fig. 8).

The Japanese dwellings are always of wood, usually of one story and unpainted. Rarely does a house strike one as being specially marked or better looking than its neighbors; more substantial, certainly, some of them are, and yet there is a sameness about them which becomes wearisome. Particularly is this the case with the long, uninteresting row of houses that border a village street; their picturesque

Fig. 8.—Arrangement of Square Tiles on side of House.

roofs alone save them from becoming monotonous. A closer study, however, reveals some marked differences between the country and city houses, as well as between those of different provinces.

The country house, if anything more than a shelter from the elements, is larger and more substantial than the city house, and, with its ponderous thatched roof and elaborate ridge, is always picturesque. One sees much larger houses in the north—roofs of grand proportions and an amplitude of space beneath, that farther south occurs only under the roofs of temples. We speak now of the houses of the better classes, for the poor farm-laborer and fisherman, as well as their prototypes in the city, possess houses that are little better than shanties, built, as a friend has forcibly expressed it, of "chips, paper, and straw." But even these huts, clustered together as they oftentimes are in the larger cities, are palatial in contrast to the shattered and filthy condition of a like class of tenements in many of the cities of Christian countries.

In traveling through the country the absence of a middle class, as indicated by the dwellings, is painfully apparent. It is true that you

Fig. 9.—Street in Kanda Ku, Tokio.

pass, now and then, large comfortable houses with their broad thatched roofs, showing evidences of wealth and abundance in the numerous kura and out-buildings surrounding them; but, where you find one of these, you pass hundreds which are barely more than shelters for their

Fig. 10.—Street View of Dwelling in Tokio.

inmates, and, within the few necessary articles render the evidences of poverty all the more apparent.

Though the people that inhabit such shelters are very poor, they appear contented and cheerful notwithstanding their poverty. Other classes, who, though not poverty-stricken, are yet poor in every sense of the word, occupy dwellings of the simplest character. Many of the dwellings are often diminutive in size; and, as one looks in at a tiny cottage containing two or three rooms at the most, the entire house hardly bigger than a good-sized room at home, and observes a family of three or four persons living quietly and in a cleanly manner in this limited space, he learns that in Japan, at least, poverty and constricted quarters are not always correlated with coarse manners, filth, and crime. The accompanying sketch (Fig. 9) represents a group of houses bordering a street in Kanda Ku, Tokio. The windows are in some cases projecting or hanging bays, and are barred with bamboo or square bars of wood. A sliding-screen, covered with stout white paper, takes the place of our glass-windows. Through these gratings the inmates of the house do their bargaining with the street venders. The entrance to these houses is usually by means of a gate common to a number. This entrance consists of a large gate used for vehicles and heavy loads, and by the side of this is a smaller gate used by the people. Sometimes the big gate has a large square opening in it, closed by a sliding-door or grating—and through this the Inmates have ingress and egress.

Fig. 11.—View of Dwelling from Garden, in Tokio.

The houses, if of wood, are painted black; or else, as is more usually the case, the wood is left in its natural state, and this gradually turns to a darker shade by exposure. When painted, a dead black is used; and this color is certainly agreeable to the eyes, though the heat-rays caused by this black surface become almost unendurable on hot days, and must add greatly to the heat and discomfort within the house. With a plastered outside wall the surface is often left white, while the framework of the building is painted black—and this treatment gives it a decidedly funereal aspect.

The sketch shown in Fig. 10 is a city house of one of the better classes. The house stands on a new street, and the lot on one side is vacant; nevertheless, the house is surrounded on all sides by a high board-fence—since, with the open character of a Japanese house, privacy, if desired, can be secured only by high fences or thick hedges. The house is shown as it appears from the street. The front door is near the gate, which is shown on the left of the sketch. There is here no display of an architectural front; indeed, there is no display anywhere. The largest and best rooms are in the back of the house; and what might be called a back-yard, upon which the kitchen opens, is parallel with the area in front of the main entrance to the house, and separated from it by a high fence. The second story contains one room, and this may be regarded as a guest-chamber. Access to this chamber is by means of a steep flight of steps, made out of thick plank, and unguarded by hand-rail of any kind. The roof is heavily tiled, while the walls of the house are outwardly composed of broad thin boards, put on vertically, and having strips of wood to cover the joints. A back view of this house is shown in Fig. 11. Here all the rooms open

Fig. 12.—Old Farm-House in Kabutoyama.

directly on the garden. Along the veranda are three rooms en suite. The balcony of the second story is covered by a light supplementary roof, from which hangs a bamboo screen to shade the room from the sun's rays. Similar screens are also seen hanging below.

The veranda is quite spacious; and in line with the division between the rooms is a groove for the adjustment of a wooden screen or shutter when it is desired to separate the house into two portions temporarily. At the end of the veranda, to the left of the sketch, is the latrine. The house is quite open beneath, and the air has free circulation.

The country house of an independent samurai, or rich farmer, is large, roomy, and thoroughly comfortable. I recall with the keenest pleasure the delightful days enjoyed under the roof of one of these typical mansions in Kabutoyama, in the western part of the province of Musashi. The residence consisted of a group of buildings shut in from the road by a high wall. Passing through a ponderous gateway, one enters a spacious court-yard, flanked on either side by long, low buildings, used as store-houses and servants' quarters. At the farther end of the yard, and facing the entrance, was a comfortable old farm-house, having a projecting gable-wing to its right (Fig. 12). The roof was a thatched one of unusual thickness. At the end of the wing was a triangular latticed opening, from which thin blue wreaths of smoke were curling. This building contained a few rooms, including an unusually spacious kitchen. The kitchen opened directly into a larger and unfinished portion of the house, having the earth for its floor, and used as a wood-shed. The owner informed me that the farm-house was nearly three hundred years old. To the left of the building was a high wooden fence, and, passing through a gateway, one came into a smaller yard and garden. In this area was another house quite independent of the farm-house; this was the house for guests. Its conspicuous feature consisted of a newly-thatched roof, surmounted by an elaborate and picturesque ridge—its design derived from temple architecture. Within were two large rooms opening upon a narrow veranda. These rooms were unusually high in stud, and the mats and all the appointments were most scrupulously clean. Communication with the old house was by means of a covered passage. Back of this dwelling, and some distance from it, was still another house, two stories in height, and built in the most perfect taste; and here lived the grandfather of the family—a fine old gentleman, dignified and courtly in his manners.

  1. From "Japanese Homes and their Surroundings." By Edward S. Morse, Director of the Peabody Academy of Science; late Professor of Zoölogy, University of Tokio Japan; Member of the National Academy of Science; Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, etc. With Illustrations by the Author. Boston: Ticknor k Co. 1886.