Things Japanese/Architecture

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Architecture. The Japanese genius touches perfection in small things. No other nation ever understood half so well how to make a cup, a tray, even a kettle a thing of beauty, how to transform a little knob of ivory into a microcosm of quaint humour, how to express a fugitive thought in half-a-dozen dashes of the pencil. The massive, the spacious, the grand, is less congenial to their mental attitude. Hence they achieve less success in architecture than in the other arts. The prospect of a Japanese city from a height is monotonous. Not a tower, not a dome, not a minaret, nothing aspiring heavenward, save in rare cases a painted pagoda half-hidden amidst the trees which it barely tops, nothing but long, low lines of thatch and tiles, even the Buddhist temple roofs being but moderately raised above the rest, and even their curves being only quaint and graceful, nowise imposing. It was a true instinct that led Professor Morse to give to his charming graph on Japanese architecture the title of Japanese Homes, the interest of Japanese buildings lying less in the buildings themselves than in the neat domestic ways of their denizens, and in the delightful little bits of ornamentation that meet one at every turn,—the elaborate metal fastenings, the carved friezes (ramma), the screens both sliding and folding, the curiously ornamental tiles, the dainty gardens with their dwarfed trees. What is true of the dwelling-houses is true of the temples also. Nikkō and Shiba are glorious, not as architecture (in the sense in which we Europeans, the inheritors of the Parthenon, of the Doges Palace, and of Salisbury Cathedral, understand the word architecture), but for the elaborate geometrical figures, the bright flowers and birds and fabulous beasts, with which the sculptor and painter of wood has so lavishly adorned them.

The ordinary Japanese house is a light frame-work structure, whose thatched, shingled, or tiled roof, very heavy in proportion, is supported on stones with slightly hollowed tops resting on the surface of the soil. There is no foundation, as that word is understood by our architects. The house stands on the ground, not partly in it. Singularity number two: there are no walls—at least no continuous walls. The side of the house, composed at night of wooden sliding doors called amado, is stowed away in boxes during the day-time. In summer, everything is thus open to the outside air. In winter, semi-transparent paper slides, called shōji, replace the wooden sliding doors during the day-time. The rooms are divided from each other by opaque paper screens, called fusuma or karakami, which run in grooves at the top and bottom. By taking out these sliding screens, several rooms can be turned into one. The floor of all the living-rooms is covered with thick mats, made of rushes and perfectly fitted together, so as to leave no interstices. As these mats are always of the same size,—six feet by three,—it is usual to compute the area of a room by the number of its mats. Thus you speak of a six mat room, a ten mat room, etc. In the dwellings of the middle classes, rooms of eight, of six, and of four and a half mats are those oftenest met with. The kitchen and passages are not matted, but have a wooden floor, which is kept brightly polished. But the passages are few in a Japanese house, each room opening as a rule into the others on either side.

When a house has a second storey, this generally covers but a portion of the ground floor. The steps leading up to it resemble a ladder rather than a staircase. The best rooms in a Japanese house are almost invariably at the back, where also is the garden; and they face south, so as to escape the northern blast in winter and to get the benefit of the breeze in summer, which then always blows from the south. They generally have a recess or alcove, ornamented with a painted or written scroll (kakemono) and a vase of flowers. Furniture is conspicuous by its absence. There are no tables, no chairs, no wash-hand-stands, no pianoforte,—none of all those thousand and one things which we cannot do without. The necessity for bedsteads is obviated by quilts, which are brought in at night and laid down wherever may happen to be most convenient. No mahogany dining-table is required in a family where each member is served separately on a little lacquer tray. Cupboards are, for the most part, openings in the wall, screened in by small paper slides, not separate, movable entities. Whatever treasures the family may possess are mostly stowed in an adjacent building, known in the local English dialect as a "godown," that is, a fire-proof storehouse with walls of mud or clay.[1]

These details will probably suggest a very uncomfortable sum total; and Japanese houses are supremely uncomfortable to ninety-nine Europeans out of a hundred. Nothing to sit on, nothing but a brazier to warm oneself by, and yet abundant danger of fire, no solidity, no privacy, the deafening clatter twice daily of the opening and shutting of the outer wooden slides, draughts insidiously pouring in through innumerable chinks and crannies, darkness whenever heavy rain makes it necessary to shut up one or more sides of the house,—to these and various other enormities Japanese houses must plead guilty. Two things, chiefly, may be said on the other side. First, these houses are cheap, an essential point in a poor country. Secondly, the people who live in them do not share our European ideas with regard to comfort and discomfort. They do not miss fire-places or stoves, never having realised the possibility of such elaborate arrangements for heating. They do not mind draughts, having been inured to them from infancy. In fact an elderly diplomat, who, during his sojourn in a Japanese hotel, spent well-nigh his whole time in the vain endeavour to keep doors shut and chinks patched up, used to exclaim to us, "Mais les Japonais adorent les courants d'air!" Furthermore, the physicians who have studied Japanese dwelling-houses from the point of view of hygiene, give them a clean bill of health.

Leaving this portion of the subject, which is a matter of taste, not of argument, let us enquire into the origin of Japanese architecture, which is a matter of research. Its origin is twofold. The Japanese Buddhist temple comes from India, being a modification of the Indian original. The other Japanese styles are of native growth. Shinto temples, Imperial palaces, and commoners dwelling-houses are alike developments of the simple hut of prehistoric times. Persons interested in archaeological research may like to hear what Sir Ernest Satow has to say on the little-known subject of primeval Japanese architecture. He writes as follows[2]:—

"Japanese antiquarians tell us that in early times, before carpenter's tools had been invented, the dwellings of the people who inhabited these islands were constructed of young trees with the bark on, fastened together with ropes made of the rush suge (Scirpus maritimus), or perhaps with the tough shoots of wistaria (fuji), and thatched with the grass called kaya. In modern buildings the uprights of a house stand upon large stones laid on the surface of the earth; but this precaution against decay had not occurred to the ancients, who planted the uprights in holes dug in the ground.

"The ground plan of the hut was oblong, with four corner up rights, and one in the middle of each of the four sides, those in the sides which formed the ends being long enough to support the ridge-pole. Other trees were fastened horizontally from corner to corner, one set near the ground, one near the top, and one set on the top, the latter of which formed what we call the wall-plates. Two large rafters, whose upper ends crossed each other, were laid from the wall-plates to the heads of the taller uprights. The ridge pole rested in the fork formed by the upper ends of the rafters crossing each other. Horizontal poles were then laid along each slope of the roof, one pair being fastened close up to the exterior angles of the fork. The rafters were slender poles or bamboos passed over the ridge-pole and fastened down on each end to the wall-plates. Next followed the process of putting on the thatch. In order to keep this in its place two trees were laid along the top, resting in the forks, and across these two trees were placed short logs at equal distances, which, being fastened to the poles in the exterior angle of the forks by ropes passed through the thatch, bound the ridge of the roof firmly together.

"The walls and doors were constructed of rough matting. It is evident that some tool must have been used to cut the trees to the required length, and for this purpose a sharpened stone was probably employed. Such stone implements have been found imbedded in the earth in various parts of Japan in company with stone arrow-heads and clubs. Specimens of the ancient style of building may even yet be seen in remote parts of the country, not perhaps so much in the habitations of the peasantry, as in sheds erected to serve a temporary purpose.

"The architecture of the Shintō temples is derived from the primeval hut, with more or less modification in proportion to the influence of Buddhism in each particular case. Those of the purest style retain the thatched roof, others are covered with the thick shingling called hiwada-buki, while others have thed and even coppered roofs. The projecting ends of the rafters (called chigi) have been somewhat lengthened, and carved more or less elaborately. At the new temple at Kudan-zaka,[3] in Yedo, they are shown in the proper position, projecting from the inside of the shingling; but in the majority of cases they merely consist of two pieces of wood in the form of the letter X, which rest on the ridge of the roof like a pack-saddle on a horse's back,—to make use of a Japanese writer's comparison. The logs which kept the two trees laid on the ridge in their place have taken the form of short cylindrical pieces of timber tapering towards each extremity, which have been compared by foreigners to cigars. In Japanese they are called katsuo-gi, from their resemblance to the pieces of dried bonito sold under the name of katsuo-bushi. The two trees laid along the roof over the thatch are represented by a single beam, called muna-osae, or roof-presser. Planking has taken the place of the mats with which the sides of the building were originally closed, and the entrance is closed by a pair of folding doors turning, not on hinges, but on what are, I believe, technically called journals. The primeval hut had no flooring; but we find that the shrine has a wooden floor raised some feet above the ground, which arrangement necessitates a sort of balcony all round, and a flight of steps up to the entrance. The transformation is completed in some cases by the addition of a quantity of ornamental metal-work in brass."

The same authority's account of the palaces of early days is as follows:"[4] "The palace of the Japanese sovereign was a wooden hut, with its pillars planted in the ground, instead of being erected upon broad flat stones as in modern buildings. The whole frame work, consisting of posts, beams, rafters, door-posts, and window-frames, was tied together with cords made by twisting the long fibrous stems of climbing plants, such as Pueraria thunbergiana (kuzii] and Wistaria sinensis (fuji). The floor must have been low down, so that the occupants of the building, as they squatted or lay on their mats, were exposed to the stealthy attacks of venomous snakes, which were probably far more numerous in the earliest ages, when the country was for the most part uncultivated, than at the present day … There seems some reason to think that the yuka, here translated floor, was originally nothing but a couch which ran round the sides of the hut, the rest of the space being simply a mud-floor, and that the size of the couch was gradually increased until it occupied the whole interior. The rafters projected upward beyond the ridge-pole, crossing each other, as is seen in the roofs of modern Shintō temples, whether their architecture be in conformity with early traditions (in which case all the rafters are so crossed) or modified in accordance with more advanced principles of construction, and the crossed rafters retained only as ornaments at the two ends of the ridge. The roof was thatched, and perhaps had a gable at each end, with a hole to allow the smoke of the wood-fire to escape, so that it was possible for birds flying in and perching on the beams overhead, to defile the food, or the fire with which it was cooked. "

To this description of Sir Ernest Satow's, it should be added that fences were in use, and that the wooden doors, sometimes fastened by means of hooks, resembled those with which we are familiar in Europe rather than the sliding, screen-like doors of modern Japan. The windows seem to have been mere holes. Rush-matting and rugs consisting of skins were occasionally brought in to sit upon, and we even hear once or twice of "silk rugs" being used for the same purpose by the noble and wealthy.

Since 1870, the Japanese have begun to exchange their own methods of building for what is locally termed "foreign style," doubtless, as a former resident[5] has wittily observed, because foreign to all known styles of architecture. This "foreign style" is indeed not one, but multiform. There is the rabbit-warren style, exemplified in the streets at the back of the Ginza in Tōkyō. There is the wooden shanty or bathing-machine style, of which the capital offers a wealth of examples. There is the cruet-stand style, so strikingly exemplified in the new Tōkyō Prefecture. The Brobdingnagian pigeon-house style is represented here and there both in wood and stone. Its chief feature is having no windows, at least, none to speak of. After all, these things are Japan's misfortune, not her fault. She discovered Europe, architecturally speaking, at the wrong moment. We cannot with any grace blame a nation whom we have ourselves misled. If Japan's contemporary efforts in architecture are worse even than ours, it is chiefly because her people have less money to dispose of. Moreover, Nature herself confines them to the flat and the little:—three storeys are a dangerous experiment in this earthquake-shaken land.

Books recommended. Japanese Homes, by Prof. E. S. Morse.—Domestic Architecture in Japan, and Further Notes on Japanese Architecture, by Josiah Conder, F.R.I.B.A., printed in the "Transactions of the Royal Institute of British Architects," 1886-7. Both the above authors have illustrated their works profusely, Prof. Morse giving representations, not only of architectural details proper, but of all the fittings and domestic articles of a middle-class Japanese household. Mr. Conder gives drawings of temples and palaces.—The Feudal Mansions of Yedo, by T. R. H. McClatchie, in Vol. VII. Part III. of the "Asiatic Transactions." This is a full description of the ancient yashiki, or Daimyōs residences.—For what the doctors have to say about Japanese houses from a sanitary point of view, see Drs. Seymour and Baelz, in Vol. XVII. Part II., pp. 17-21. of the "Asiatic Transactions." There are other papers by Messrs McClatchie, Brunton, and Cawley, more or less concerned with Japanese architecture, scattered through the publications of the same Society.

  1. "Godown" (pronounced go-down, not god-own) seems to be a Telugu or Tamil word, which passed first into Malay, and was adopted thence into Asiatic English. See that most delightful of dictionaries, Yule's Hobson-Jobson.
  2. We quote from a paper entitled The Shintō Temples of Ise, printed in Vol. II. of the "Asiatic Transactions."
  3. Commonly known as the Shōkonsha. See Murray's Handbook for Japan, 7th edition, p. 123.
  4. See an elaborate paper on Ancient Japanese Rituals, in Vol. XI. Part II. of the "Asiatic Transactions."
  5. Mr. E. G. Holtham, in his Eight Years in Japan.