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Design Review: Volume 4, Issue 3 (June-July 1952)

The Japanese House

page 53

The Japanese House

Through the centuries the home of the Japanese peasant, farmer and artisan has remained the same—a simple, unpretentious residence and charming because of those very qualities. Fashionable design has not affected its construction. Changes have come very, very slowly, and principally since the introduction of Western ideas after the restoration of the Emperor Meiji in 1868—changes such as the use of glass for windows, electric power and iron for pipes instead of lengths of bamboo. Before the Meiji era even the nobles and aristocracy lived in houses similar to those seen everywhere in Japan to-day, except that they were much larger and their refinements of decoration more delicate and notice-able; but, once Japan accepted the ideas of the Western world, the wealthy and noble families vied with each other in building vast mansions, most of them modelled on Victorian lines (even to heavily-embossed wallpapers) or old English manor houses or French chateaux of the Renaissance period. But even these mansions always contained a wing built in Japanese style, as were—and are to-day—the quarters for the servants. These notes, however, are not concerned with this magnificence, for most of these large houses reflect this word, but only the simple traditional buildings the Japanese call home. In this respect they are, as a nation, curiously like the British peoples in their love of home and all that the word implies.

Rooms and furniture and interior decoration as we know them have little or no counterpart in the Japanese house, and, as land is so valuable, page 54 not an inch of space is wasted. Consequently, even in distant farming communities, the houses are huddled together in little villages or hamlets, the owners going to and coming from their patches of farmland each day at dawn and dusk. Only the larger landowners — and they are comparatively few — built their homes on their farms. Wherever you go you come on these farming communities among the hills, a few houses among tiny gardens in the valleys, clinging for the most part to sloping ground, with only narrow paths and tracks dividing them, since streets would be a waste of space. In the larger towns and cities, of course, dwellings are packed one against the other along narrow streets, so closely that a Japanese remarked to me one evening when we stopped to listen to all the noises: ‘Now you know why we never have any family secrets in Japan.’

During my years in Japan I lived in three different houses, and visited many others ranging from those of simple farmers and fishermen to royal residences and the mansions of the aristocracy. Two of my houses were exactly as their owners left them at the end of the war; the third had been remodelled on European lines by the installation of modern plumbing, carpeted floors, an open fireplace and our own furniture, bath and shower, but it still retained its essential character, and I must admit that the welding of styles and ideas was most successful.

A Japanese house is always built sufficiently high off the ground to permit the free current of air under-neath it. Blocks of granite or rock from the hillside, used as foundations in olden times, have now been replaced by concrete or wooden piles. The main supports for the roof are usually slim trunks of pine or cedar, stripped of their bark and polished. These are so fitted into the house that they frequently become part of the decoration of the interior. The outer walls are a simple plaster made of clay and finely chopped rice straw, shovelled to a proper degree of consistency by withered old crones who do most of the heavy work for the men. This plaster is laid thickly between and over lathes of bamboo, the outer and inner walls being smoothed and sometimes whitewashed, but more often retaining the ochre colour of the clay. A modern conceit is to allow a few boards to show on the outer walls, so that the larger houses take the appearance of English cottages of the Elizabethan period. There are few houses built entirely of wood—more since the end of the war. Creosote or a brown stain takes the place of paint, which is never used. There are few windows in the small Japanese house, since sliding glass and paper screens take their place.

The roof is of tiles, dull red or page 55 blue-grey, according to the district, though one still sees numbers of thatched roofs in the country areas—reeds, rice straw or the bark of the cedar. Tiles and other rough pottery are made in almost every district, the kilns being built on hill slopes, one above the other, so that no heat escapes through chimneys. These tiled roofs make a quaint pattern of every hillside village. Little porches are deliberately placed to break the main lines, and tiny Shinto or Buddhist lions, so familiar outside every shrine or temple, usually surmount the highest point of the roof. Tile-ends at the eaves carry some modest design, the more wealthy using the family crest. In the era of the Tokugawas, the shoguns who isolated Japan from the rest of the world and raised the country's standards of art almost to a religion, their family crest, three hollyhock leaves, was employed as a decorative feature on the roofs and pillars and gates of many shrines and temples.

The house itself is oblong in shape, sometimes modified in design so that one end extends to enclose one side of the garden. It therefore takes the form of the letter T with one shoulder removed. A narrow verandah occupies the length of the sunny side of the house and opens on to a garden. This verandah serves several purposes. Most of the compartments of the house open on to it; it enables the whole house to be lighted and aired without using windows; it becomes a corridor for general traffic from room to room, and a view of the garden is obtained from it. The outer screens of this verandah are now of glass and wood, with additional runners for storm shutters used during the rainy and hurricane seasons. Tiny screws fitted with butterfly nuts enable the owner to secure these screens if he wishes to lock the house.

The only parts of the house which are divided by what we would term walls, also of clay and straw plaster, are the kitchen and the bathroom. All the other space, except in houses occupied by the wealthier and officer classes, are divided by paper screens about five to five and a-half feet high. Above these screens there are permanent divisions to allow for the grooves in which the screens slide. These screens, which were evolved before the days of glass, serve a variety of purposes, and are in themselves quite beautiful. Those from temples are works of art and are much sought after should a temple be demolished. The inner screens are made of thick opaque paper surrounded by bands of lacquer or polished wood. They are beautifully painted in the Japanese manner with a few sprays of bamboo or blossom, a twisted tree, the shape of a mountain or birds in flight. This decoration is never heavy, and quite often consists only of a few strokes of gold or silver paint. Screens which open on to the verandah and the kitchen wall are made of fine layers of wood for the lower third, and a grey paper for the two upper thirds. This paper is divided into tiny panes with slivers of bamboo, and the light which filters through is most restful. By the use of these screens a Japanese house may be opened and closed as the seasons dictate; for instance, in the summer, which is oppressively hot, they are removed to allow a greater circulation of air; in winter the whole house may be closed into a series of small compartments, thus preserving all the available heat. There is no difference in the design of the Japanese inn, so that such a thing as complete privacy is unknown. Nor are there such things as fireplaces in the Japanese home. Fuel is as scarce as arable land in this country, where not a leaf or a twig is wasted when a tree is demolished. Charcoal is used for both heating and cooking. Large and beautifully decorated crocks of pottery known as hibachi are placed in the rooms. A few inches of sand in the bottom prevents them from burning the matting on the floor, and on this glows the charcoal fire. The family sits round the hibachi, usually with the hands draped over the rim. All cooking is done on small charcoal braziers, with a minimum of pots and pans, since all Japanese food is simple and usually boiled or fried. Its tastiness comes from the sauces used.

Thick mats of rice straw, encased in closely woven matting and known as tatami, cover the floors. These page 56 are polished with wax, and exude a faint and not unpleasant musty smell. They are supported on rough boards and are taken up twice a year, in spring and autumn, and given a thorough dusting. The floor grooves for the sliding screens divide the house into compartments, and a compartment is never referred to by its size in feet and inches, but always by the number of mats it takes—three, five, seven or nine. The numbers are never even, and the mats are never laid evenly, but one sideways, one lengthways, so that the darker coloured edging of the mats gives a pattern to the floor. Footwear is never worn in a Japanese house, but is removed and left at the entrance porch, which is provided with cupboards and a selection of long-handled shoe horns. This entrance porch is paved at ground level, with a high step on which to sit, either to chat and bargain, as in the small shops, or to remove and put on footwear. Rows of shoes and wooden geta at the entrance to a Japanese inn reveal the number of guests staying there. When the Japanese wear European boots and shoes they never look tidy about the feet, because boots or shoes are always one or two sizes too big, so that they may be easily slipped on and off.

The interior of a Japanese house is an interesting study in simplicity. There is little or no furniture. One sits, eats and sleeps on the soft tatami matting. Japanese raise and lower themselves without using the hands as a lever, hence the excessive development of thigh and leg muscles. But they do it most gracefully, and sit for hours with their crossed legs tucked under them. Visitors are given silk cushions on which to sit round low lacquer tables at mealtimes. At night thick padded quilts known as futon are laid on the floor, and similar quilts used as covers. Pillows are tiny, filled with rice husks and tucked into the nape of the neck. Pyjamas are always provided for guests, though a loose-fitting cotton kimono is the more usual sleeping kit.

The interior of the house contains many cupboards, cunningly arranged so that their sliding screens resemble those forming the walls. Here everything is put out of sight—all the family possessions; all the clothing, which is always laid flat; all the bedding; even the tiny stand mirrors before which the women kneel to put on their make-up or arrange their hair and kimono. Kitchen and eating utensils are similarly kept out of sight and, as each member of the family has his own chopsticks, washing-up is simplified. The Japanese are fond of collecting pottery, but even the choicest collections are kept in cupboards each piece wrapped in its own cloth and in its own box. These are brought out only if a visitor is really interested. But there is one place, and one place only, where some possessions are displayed—a raised alcove and the place of honour. In it hangs a kakimono (small wall picture), and on the floor below it is a flower arrangement, a piece of pottery, lacquer or bronze, the whole forming a most agreeable picture. Each is changed regularly and according to season, and the womenfolk spend hours exploiting their artistic ability, which is considerable, even among the peasants.

Every Japanese home has a bathroom, and everyone uses it. But there is no running hot and cold water or bath as we know it. The room is on ground level, paved with tiles or stone blocks or, in later years, concrete, and drains into a neighbouring gutter. The bath itself is usually a kind of copper with a false wooden bottom. It is heated from below, and the fire stoked page 57 through a hole in the outer wall. The whole family uses the same bath water, but only after cleansing themselves thoroughly before getting into the bath. Tiny pine-wood pails are provided for this purpose, since the Japanese believe that the bath water must be left as clean as when they entered it. In the thermal regions—and they are many and splendidly utilised in Japan—water is fed into beautiful tiled baths by bamboo pipes from the neighbouring springs.

There is always an ornamental garden to a Japanese house, however small it may be. It may consist only of a few small trees in pots and a few stones and patches of garden moss, but the wealthy classes excelled in creating gardens of amazing beauty. There are no formal flower beds, borders or shrubberies. Rocks and stones and gnarled trees, flowering shrubs, stone lanterns, pools and cascades are arranged so that a perfectly balanced picture greets the eye from every angle. Formality is abhorred. The garden is reached from the verandah, not by formal steps, but by blocks of stone or granite used as such. Holes are bored through flattish rocks, so that the water oozes up through them and drips over the edges to give the effect of natural fountains. In Kyoto, the old capital of Japan and its art centre to-day, streams run down from the pine-clad hills which surround the city, and here the wealthy residents have created gardens of incredible beauty. Only human patience and time itself could have shaped the trees as one sees them here, or designed pools and cascades among the groves of cherry and maple, pine and bamboo, with the houses themselves so much a part of these gardens that architect and gardener must have worked together.

The Japanese make great use of their woods. One of the more charming refinements is to cut sections from the trunks of ancient trees, parts of which have rotted with age, and use them as panels above the sliding screens. The decayed portions are removed, thus leaving an unusual pattern of the solid wood, sometimes almost as delicate as irregular lattice work. Sections of such wood are also used as a base on which to stand vases and flower containers, and very attractive they are in design.

Except in houses which have been Westernised, the lavatory of a Japanese house is primitive in our eyes. All human excreta is used as fertiliser; consequently a sewage system as we know it does not exist. A small pottery trough let into the paving of the floor with a rounded hood at one end suffices, and over this the user squats on his haunches Each house or building has its own holding tank, which is emptied regularly and the contents taken out to the farmlands in small wooden tubs. One of the more familiar sights in Japan is the morning and evening procession of carts filled with these buckets leaving the cities. Necessity has driven the Japanese to the use of this fertiliser. Without it the country would become a waste land, since the importation of sufficient modern fertiliser is beyond the nation's economy.