Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A Man's Home Is His Shiro (城)

There is a popular saying here in Japan that, if a man wants the best in life, he should have a Japanese wife, Chinese food, and an American house. Indeed, like so many things here in the Land of the Rising Sun, house design has become increasingly based on the American model. The traditional layout of a large, central chamber divided into compartments by fusuma (襖 - sliding partitions, usually made of painted or printed wood or cardboard in a wood frame), surrounded by shouji (障子 – sliding screens made of wood-framed paper), and ringed by a wide corridor that can be fully opened to the outside is giving way to the more familiar, Western idea of fixed, hard-walled construction. The shouji and fully-opening outer corridor once served as environmental control, but air conditioners have made them unnecessary. Now solid walls with insulation are becoming the norm, as are Western-style hinged doors that latch. Traditional sleeping mats and zabuton (座布団 – seat cushions placed directly on the floor) are also giving way to Western-style beds and chairs, leading to the customary tatami (畳 - woven grass mat) floors being increasingly replaced with carpeting. In terms of basic design, Japanese houses are clearly becoming more and more similar to their American counterparts. However, the Japanese identity has far from disappeared; on the contrary, it is still readily visible.

When entering even a very modern Japanese home, one is bound to find a space just inside the door, usually of the same material as that just outside (i.e. cement, stone, or brick in most cases), which is where the shoes are removed and kept. This space, referred to as the genkan (玄関 – usually translated as simply “front door”), is actually considered “outside”, and an arriving guest will often simply walk into it and announce his presence in the traditional manner even after ringing the doorbell. The genkan is usually followed by a step which marks the border between “inside” and “outside”.

A typical genkan in a modern home

As I said before, tiled or carpeted floors are fast becoming the norm in Japan, but most modern houses still have at least one washitsu (和室 – literally “Japanese room”) with tatami floors, a low table, which may be a kotatsu (火燵 – a traditional heated, foot-warming table), surrounded by zabuton, and a tokonoma (床の間 – decorative alcove). I mentioned in an earlier post that the tokonoma in my house is crammed full of dolls and souvenirs. That is unusual. Usually the décor of a tokonoma is quite simple and elegant, such as a kakejiku (掛け軸 – hanging scroll) and either a vase of arranged flowers or a bonsai miniature tree. It goes without saying that the atmosphere of the washitsu is very much a traditional, Japanese one.

A tatami-floored washitsu with a tokonoma visible in the background.

Religion is an endangered species in Japan, but most houses still include a kamidana (神棚 – household Shinto shrine) and butsudan (仏壇 – Buddhist altar). The kamidana normally resembles a miniature shrine building, and, like a shrine, it usually faces east. It is considered the living space of the household guardian spirits. It is also where the good luck talismans for the year, purchased at a shrine during the New Year holidays, are usually placed. The butsudan, on the other hand, serves mainly as a memorial for dead ancestors. It may or may not contain a figurine of Buddha and/or Kannon (the bodhisattva of mercy), but it will most likely have memorial plaques if not photographs of deceased family members. More pious (or traditionally-minded) families will quite often first place gifts they’ve received on or near the butsudan so that the ancestors get “first dibs”. Also, while one doesn’t usually pay much deference to the kamidana, it is normal to place incense in the butsudan and even pray to it. (More pious individuals, such as my in-laws, even talk to their ancestors on occasion via the butsudan, informing them of important events.) Even if most Japanese nowadays call themselves “skeptical” if not atheist, the ancient religious customs are still very much the norm in the modern household.

A kamidana. This one is actually rather small.

This butsudan, on the other hand, is a rather nice one.

My own home is a rather interesting case. When my in-laws had it built about fifty years ago, they never really intended to use it beyond just the upstairs bedrooms since they ate and spent their free time with my mother-in-law’s parents over in the main house. It was first built in the traditional style, but not quite complete. The outer corridor originally wrapped around three sides. No need was seen for a genkan, since guests invariably went to the main house, so now my family is forced to use the roofed back porch as such (and our shoes often wind up very wet if it rains). Over time, as my wife grew up (and my father-in-law became more ambitious and self-obsessed), one section of the corridor was converted into an extra bedroom (now used by my kids) and a study, and the most visible section of outer doors was walled over in a decorative style. The tatami floors were all carpeted over. The tokonoma, as I mentioned before, is in an upstairs room since that was all my in-laws originally intended to use (and also because there’s no room for it elsewhere). Since the butsudan in the main house has the family memorials, there’s no need for one in mine, but we do have a cute, little kamidana on the east wall of the kitchen. We are now in the process of having the house enlarged and, in many ways, modernized. When the work is completed, hopefully this year, the Japanese-style layout will be gone. The kids will have separate bedrooms, and both the kitchen and living room will be larger. Generally speaking, the house will be much more Westernized.

But at least we’ll have a real genkan.


  • The couple of times I've been to Japan I've always stayed in the ‘traditional’ room, wa shitu, it’s called as I understand. I kept hitting my head on the doorframes! Everybody had a good laugh at that.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:27 PM  

  • Sigh, I'd like to enlarge our house by a couple of rooms, but we're paying off a bathroom/kitchen remodel.

    Any plans for central heat? Probably too spendy, eh?

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 1:02 AM  

  • Thanks for sharing this information. How interesting. I reckon forget the carpets - just have a tiled floor and mats - so nice and clean. I really wanted polished boards in our living room but when we were reblocking we discovered the floor was just yucky board - like chipboard!(House is 30s and fake Californian Bungalow). I hate carpets but we have an old one, which we cover with pandanus mats.

    By Blogger Peceli and Wendy's Blog, at 6:10 AM  

  • Informative post.

    The first couple of times someone opened the front door and stepped into our genkan and announced themselves really took me by surprise.

    Our house is about 12 or so years old and a blend of Western and traditional styles. Three rooms have tatami mat floors, the rest of the house wood. One bedroom and the toilet have hinged doors, the rest are shouji. The only thing that I find inconvenient about it is the lack of storage space - and we really don't have very much "stuff".

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 7:35 AM  

  • Swinebread
    Yes, that different average height thing can really be a problem, can't it? ;-) My mother and sister had a kind of similar but totally different problem when they borrowed kimonos to wear at my wedding. You see, Western women tend to average a bit bigger than Japanese women in a certain part of their anatomy, and that definitely became an issue. The solution didn't sound very comfortable, but they still had fun wearing the kimono.

    Central heating? What a concept! I don't think anyone even makes a household version here, but I could be wrong.

    Our soon-to-be-removed outer corridor has a beautiful floor of rare, expensive hardwood, but it was really drafty in winter, so I put vinyl flooring over it. Now it sounds like the uncle who's in charge of the construction is planning on laying down real wood flooring throughout our new living room space, taking out the old, carpeted-over tatami for good.

    I would actually like to have one tatami room in the house, but it's not a good idea if you have actual furniture (beyond a traditional, low table). Hence the carpeting.

    I know what you mean. Younger people don't usually do it, but the older generations still do. This is particularly true in the rural outback of Namegata. People who are in their 40s or older generally open the front door and walk right in, bellowing their greeting loudly, after ringing the doorbell. The fact that my house doesn't really have a genkan confuses them. (Usually they open the door and lean in while shouting.)

    I know what you mean about the storage problem. That's why there's a storage shed and a large greenhouse on the property, but my father-in-law has filled both of them with useless junk he refuses to throw away...and insists that we not put useful items in there so there'll be enough room for the trash!

    Needless to say, between my wife's wardrobe and my musical instrument collection, our house contains quite a bit of stuff!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 3:05 PM  

  • nice, interesting post. i love what i've seen of japanese homes - on TV and such. i like the old style, but i understand going to more westernized styles. i love the sliding doors w/ the paper... but i would think it wouldn't be too quiet or you wouldn't have much privacy. that would be hard.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:10 PM  

  • What a great post, as usual. Too bad none of your pictures are showing up save for the Washitsu, which I like. (Did you ever watch Star Trek in the 90s, and how similar the crew quarters look, or even how Japanese some of the alien houses or costumes looked?)

    I enjoy learning things about Japan.

    The washitsu in its simplicity and serenity sounds like a nice thing to have in a Westernised Japanese home.

    I would go for that look/those colours in one of my rooms if I had a house, probably with a Japanese flavour.

    f I stayed in Japan I would need a normal bed, though. I'm like the princess and the pea when it comes to sleeping comfortably.

    I had no idea the Japanese were abandoning the family shrines. Last I heard, after leaving the shoes (facing outwards) in the genkan, a guest is expected to pay respects to the ancestors. However, this was probably close to 20 years ago.

    I will shut up now.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 4:44 PM  

  • Olivia
    I wonder why those pictures aren't showing up in your browser. Is it a security setting?

    As a Star Trek fan, I know well what you mean. Do you remember the futuristic martial arts duel in the episode "The Icarus Factor"? There are banners in the background written in Japanese. One of them translates as "You stupid idiot."

    I'm with you. I really love and appreciate the Japanese atmosphere and element in the home, but I still need my Western conveniences.

    Polite people still leave their shoes toes out in the genkan, but the practice of guests paying their respects to the family ancestors kind of faded out with the exception of special calendar occasions geared toward that sort of thing. I don't know the reason for that change, but I know anything with any religious undertone tends to make people edgy nowadays, particularly after all that Aum Supreme Truth cult stuff in the mid 90s. People still practice most of the old traditions themselves, but expecting others to do so is now considered rude.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 8:26 PM  

  • Hm, I am not sure about that episode as I am not regular with my sci fi.
    But that is funny about the translation!

    Which reminds me - I am sure you know about the site.

    Ah, I had forgotten about that cult, they're the ones behind the ricin attacks in the metro, right? No wonder.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 3:34 PM  

  • Glad to know you'll get to expand - do you have the same type of problems w/folks not finishing, not doing a good job, like sometimes here?

    Love to hear more about the Tarot (though I'm not into divination myself, for obvious reasons) it traditional, or a Japanese style?

    Keep us updated on the renovations!

    By Blogger ladybug, at 10:25 AM  

  • Olivia
    Aum was responsible for a sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system, another (attempted) sarin attack on a dormitory complex for court justices (which missed its target), attempted VX gas attacks on a number of individuals, and the murder of a lawyer and his entire family. They have also been implicated in a number of different things such as insurance fraud, abduction and imprisonment, blackmail, filing phony property and zoning permits, and attempting to acquire and stockpile military hardware (including an attack submarine they'd bought from Russia!).

    The guru has recently been sentenced to death, and the newly-declared leader of the cult, once his loyal mouthpiece, is now trying to dismiss him as a corrupt and misleading fraud.

    Oh, gee...

    Construction companies in Japan in general can't be trusted any further than you can throw them. Many if not most (if not all) of the larger ones have ties to organized crime, and they make most of their earnings through municipal pork projects they earn through bribing city officials. I've heard all kinds of horror stories about substandard or incomplete construction, costly delays without explanation (and mob intimidation against people that threaten lawsuits), completed projects that bear little or no resemblance to the original agreement, etc.. That's why I'll only deal with construction outfits that involve people I know.

    The enlargement of my house is being carried out by the same guy that built it in the first place. He's my wife's uncle.

    The two Tarot decks that I have were both brought over from the U.S.. One is an Aquarian deck (easy to understand) that I bought myself in my college days. The other is a Golden Dawn (very esoteric...) deck that was given to me by a woman I was involved with, also in my college days. I don't use them so much anymore, but when I do I tend to consult both decks...and it's amazing how much they tend to agree...but with very different personalities.

    A friend of mine (who was far more into that sort of thing than me. She's a Wiccan, after all,) once described my two decks as follows:

    "For example, when I want to ask you, 'Should I buy the new car I'm thinking about,' your Aquarian deck says, 'You have a perfectly good bicycle. Use it.' Then your Golden Dawn deck says, 'If you buy the car, you'll enjoy it, but then you'll be in debt and totally miserable. If you don't buy the car, you'll be thinking how much you wish you had and totally miserable. Either way, you're screwed! Ha ha ha ha!'"

    That's a pretty accurate assessment.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 6:09 PM  

  • Thanks for the info on the Tarot!

    It's good to know you have someone reliable, that you already know to do the renovations!

    Here's a link to a modern tarot deck "in progress" by a Washington Artist

    So far it's the one I'm most attracted to...but for me, divination is mostly a crap shoot.

    By Blogger ladybug, at 5:45 AM  

  • I've found it depends on who does it. I've met some people who seemed to have a knack for it, and their predictions and/or revelations tended to be spot on most if not all the time. There were also some that were obviously just playing with their cards and had no idea what was going on.

    I've posted on this before, but I seemed to have the knack in my late college days (I was even a subject of research...and the researchers wound up pretty frightened, as did I!) but I think I've pretty much lost it now.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 5:31 PM  

  • By the way, the pics on this post show up now, but my internet here is much faster anyway.
    Good pics.

    I think a genkan is a good idea for any country. Sandy, muddy, snowy...

    By Blogger Olivia, at 1:02 AM  

  • Hmm Well I was just searching on Google for some Tarot readings of some Tarot reader
    and just came across your blog, generally I just only visit blogs and retrieve my required
    information but this time the useful information that you posted in this post compelled me
    to reply here and appreciate your good work. I just bookmarked your blog

    By Anonymous Tarot cards, at 2:19 PM  

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