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Three main types of urban houses can be identified in the cities of the Meiji Era (1868-1912); the yashiki (usually translated into English as ‘mansion’ or ‘residence’), the machiya (litterally ‘townhouse’), and the nagaya (litterally ‘long house’). Among these typologies, only the nagaya does not reflect the concept of “roofed bridge” proposed by Treib, although all of them seem to find their origins in the design of the old rural house minka. The main house of a minka in the Osaka area at the end of the Edo Period was roughly formed by an earth-floored room (doma) which served as entrance, work and cooking area, but sometimes even stable, and adjacent raised floor level covered by tatami mats partitioned into smaller rooms (zashiki, litterally ‘floor to sit on’) which housed functions as sleeping, storage, dining and guest rooms. The surface average of minka houses in Osaka area was, at the time, around three bays by two (about six by four meters), even if sometimes kitchen area was housed in a separate building. Outbuildings served also as sleeping quarters for hired men, while hired women presumably slept in the main house4. The most internationally known characteristic of such spaces is undoubtly their flexibility. The interior partitions on the raised level were mostly provided through sliding paper doors of two types: the fusuma, made with opaque paper on a wooden frame, and the shoji - mainly employed for exterior openings - made with translucent paper on a wooden frame. Those sliding doors are pointed out by some authors as a later development of portable folding screens from older times which made part of house furniture beside actual portable tatami mats as well. N. Kawazoe writes about the Kyoto Imperial Palace: “On the limits between interior and exterior there were very thin bamboo screens which could be opened up during daytime and deployed in the evening. The inside space was composed by some non-partitioned rooms utilized as storage or sleeping rooms. At special events, all necessary furniture was put in place and folding screens were installed in order to prevent against wind and vision. Portable tatami mats were placed on the wooden floor for people to sit down, but green and ornamented ones were reserved to the Emperor and his Ministers”. Thus, the interior space of Japanese traditional urban houses could also be adaptated following different needs such as the reception of a guest, the demands of everyday life, the familiar ceremonies, the change of year’s seasons.

This system of light pannels did not provide privacy to house’s occupiers: fusuma and shoji were not soundproof at all, which was maybe not a major difficulty for Japanese people in those days, accustomed to sleep even at five or six persons per room. The lack of privacy will only become a problem to be solved around the middle of the 20th century, when the autonomy of each member of the household will increase and dwelling patterns imported from the West will include soundproof, fixed walls, and fusuma doors will be limited to one or two Japanese-style rooms inside modern apartments.

Luxurious and huge residence, the yashiki was the house of the aristocracy located in special areas of the city apart from downtown. It looked like an elaborated rural house or a simplified little palace surrounded by a walled greenery zone which searched to recall the court life of Kyoto and its refined gardens. The garden was to be equal to the house in prominence, even though sometimes it surpassed this latter. The yashiki type has still much to do with the concept of palaces, both considering its interior partition and its relationship with the gardens around: the bidivision into earthen floor (doma) and raised floor levels remains probably from the minka heritage, but the passage from the zashiki rooms to the garden outside is often made through a corridor-veranda (amado) closed to the exterior either by shoji or by wooden boardered sliding doors. The idea of transparence and integration between interior and exterior is thus spacialized, reinforcing the possibilities of different utilizations of the spaces: the intermediate corridor improves protection from cold weather, but becomes an opened veranda in hot time by the suppression of closing sliding pannels.

The townhouse type called machiya, as we can still find it today in the Osaka area, is much smaller than the yashiki. It was the house of merchants, often containing a shop in its compound. Instead to the yashiki, the machiya was not surrounded by a garden but was nearly organized around a little inner garden. There is the same bidivision into earthen floor - housing food preparying and other domestic duties - and raised floor - housing two or three zashiki and a little lattice-enclosed veranda (engawa) on the street facade. A second storey used to house two more zashiki and also a kind of smaller engawa under the roof, over the ground floor’s engawa. Schematically, we can draw the machiya ground floor plan as two long, parallel bands of covered spaces: one, on the earthen floor, is the sequence ‘entrance-doma-courtyard’, and the other, mostly on the raised floor, is a sequence of ‘engawa-zashiki-zashiki-inner garden-zashiki-back garden’. The toilet and the Japanese-style bath tub (ofuro) were ranged on the raised floor on the limits between the inner garden and the courtyard behind the doma. These townhouses were, in average, ten or eleven shaku (3.03 or 3.33 meters) in width, from 7.5 shaku (2.27 meters) for the narrowest ones to 18 shaku (5.45 meters) for the widest ones4 . These data refer to Nara urban houses at the eve of the Edo Period, but they are not very different from remaining machiya dimensions in today’s Naramachi District or in preserved parts of Osaka and Kyoto. But there are still some other common points to the typologies of Meiji Era urban houses we presented until here.

One of the zashiki rooms, usually the nearest to the inner garden in the case of the machiya, was the main guest room housing the buddhist or shinto altar and the alcove (tokonoma) with seasonal poems and flower arrangements. The presence of these elements characterizes this room as the most prestigious and most representative space of the house. The storage of food, precious or seasonal vessel and furniture pieces, as well as merchandises in the case of shops, was provided by a separate earthen walled building (kura), whose size and number of stories - usually up to two or three - attested of the family’s wealth. The walls of the kura were about 30 centimeters of clay constituting the only really fireproof part of the whole house. Another common point is that the dimensions of all building’s elements were based on the size of the tatami, normalized in the second half of the 19th century at roughly 1.80 x 1.80 meters5. That means all sliding doors and even pieces of furniture could be easily interchangeable, including the doors of the oshiire 6. With the promulgation of the modern constitution and the inauguration of a constitutional government in 1890, Tokugawa building restrictions were lifted allowing wealthy merchant class overt access to the Architecture of luxury. That is why we can find frequently in such houses a refined manipulation of space and light, the careful use of materials - mostly wood, earth and paper - and elaborated fashions of the shoji intersect, as well.

Although the origins of the nagaya can be found around the 10th century, during the Edo Period it will become a very common pattern for low income people as urban workers or artisans living in the rear yards of the machiya. However, the start of the industrialization after the Meiji Restoration had as an associated effect - like in Western countries - a crowd of population inside the biggest urban, newly industrialized areas. Thousands of nagaya were thus built at the time as units arranged in compounds along streets in a row house or tenement manner. Suzuki, I. and Gold, S. describe the dwelling unit as “cheaply built one-story rental tenements butted up against one another in rowhouse-like fashion. In terms of plan, these basic units consisted of only one room divided into two zones - the doma functionning as the entry, kitchen and working area, while the rear section was a raised platform surfaced with tatami mats used for living, eating and sleeping. Invariably, two rows of apartments would face each other forming a very narrow alley, in which were located some common facilities and frequently little shrines. This central space, which was utilized as a common courtyard for all the tenants, was a very lively place”7. The main differences between the machiya and the nagaya were their size - a nagaya unit is much smaller -, their tenure - the machiya was owned by its inhabitants while the nagaya was rented or lent by the boss -, and living conditions - the inhabitants of a nagaya were forced to social interchange in nearly miserable conditions in a crowded environment, while in a machiya lived almost always a three-generations family within a sometimes luxurious environment. The nagaya is probably the very first Japanese collective housing typology, with its shared spaces and facilities built on an older idea of collective life, which existed since much before the Meiji Restoration and was not definitively banned by the constitution of 1890. The villager way of living, which would be transferred to the new industrial urban peripheries, included very local units of five to ten neighboring families leaded by a local elder head who was responsible for their good behavior, but had also to turn in reports of any doubtful acts and surrender any wanted individual to the government. R. Benedict observes that “even in the 1920s, when Japan had national political parties, which in any country means an alternation of tenure between ‘ins’ and ‘outs’, local administration generally remained untouched by this development and was directed by elders acting for the whole community” 8.

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