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CHAPTER VI
IN THE HOUSE

A Japanese house is one of the simplest buildings in the world. Its main features are the roof of tiles or thatch, and the posts which support the latter. By day the walls are of oiled paper; by night they are formed of wooden shutters, neither very thick nor very strong. As a rule, the house is of but one story, and its flimsiness comes from two reasons, both very good ones.

The first is that Japan is a home of earthquakes, and when an earthquake starts to rock the land and topple the houses about the peoples' ears, then a tall, strong house of stone or brick would be both dangerous in its fall and very expensive to put up again. The second is that Japan is a land of fires. The people are very careless. They use cheap lamps and still cheaper petroleum. A lamp explodes or gets knocked over; the oiled paper walls burst into a blaze; the blaze spreads right and left, and sweeps away a few streets, or a suburb of a city, or a whole village. The Jap takes this very calmly. He gets a few posts, puts the same tiles up again for a roof, or makes a new thatch, and, with a few paper screens and shutters, there stands his house again.

A house among the poorer sort of Japanese consists of one large room in the daytime. At night it is formed into as many bedrooms as its owner requires. Along the floor, which is raised about a foot from the ground, and along the roof run a number of grooves, lengthways and crossways. Frames covered with paper, called shoji, slide along these grooves and form the wall between chamber and chamber. The front of the house is, as a rule, open to the street, but if the owners wish for privacy they slide a paper screen into position. At night wooden shutters, called amado, cover the screens. Each shutter is held in place by the next, and the last shutter is fastened by a wooden bolt.

The Japanese are very fond of fresh air and sunshine. Unless the day is too wet or stormy, the front of the house always stands open. If the sun is too strong a curtain is hung across for shade, and very often this curtain bears a huge white symbol representing his name, just as an Englishman puts his name on a brass plate on his front-door. The furniture in these houses is very simple. The floor is covered with thick mats, which serve for chairs and bed, as people both sit and sleep on them. For table a low stool suffices, and for a young couple to set up housekeeping in Japan is a very simple matter. As Mrs. Bishop, the well-known writer, remarks:

"Among the strong reasons for deprecating the adoption of foreign houses, furniture, and modes of living by the Japanese, is that the expense of living would be so largely, increased as to render early marriages impossible. At present the requirements of a young couple in the poorer classes are: a bare matted room (capable or not of division), two wooden pillows, a few cotton futons (quilts), and a sliding panel, behind which to conceal them in the daytime, a wooden rice bucket and ladle, a wooden wash-bowl, an iron kettle, a hibachi (warming and cooking stove), a tray or two, a teapot or two, two lacquer rice-bowls, a dinner box, a few china cups, a few towels, a bamboo switch for sweeping, a tabako-bon (apparatus for tobacco-smoking), an iron pot, and a few shelves let into a recess, all of which can be purchased for something under 2."

These young people would, however, have everything quite comfortable about them, and housekeeping can be set up at a still lower figure, if necessary. Excellent authorities say, and give particulars to prove, that a coolie household may be established in full running order for 5-1/2 yen--that is, somewhere about a sovereign.

In better-class houses the same simplicity prevails, though the building may be of costly materials, with posts and ceilings of ebony inlaid with gold, and floors of rare polished woods. The screens (shoji) still separate the rooms; the shutters (amado) enclose it at night. There are neither doors nor passages. When you wish to pass from one room to the next you slide back one of the shoji, and shut it after you. So you go from room to room until you reach the one of which you are in search. The shoji are often beautifully painted, and in each room is hung a kakemono (a wall picture, a painting finely executed on a strip of silk). A favourite subject is a branch of blossoming cherry, and this, painted upon white silk, gives an effect of wonderful freshness and beauty.

There is no chimney, for a Japanese house knows nothing of a fireplace. The simple cooking is done over a stove burning charcoal, the fumes of which wander through the house and disperse through the hundred openings afforded by the loosely-fitting paper walls. To keep warm in cold weather the Japanese hug to themselves and hang over smaller stoves, called hibachi, metal vessels containing a handful of smouldering charcoal.

In the rooms there are neither tables nor chairs. The floor is covered with most beautiful mats, as white as snow and as soft as a cushion, for they are often a couple of inches thick. They are woven of fine straw, and on these the Japanese sit, with their feet tucked away under them. At dinner-time small, low tables are brought in, and when the meal is finished, the tables are taken away again. Chairs are never used, and the Japanese who wishes to follow Western ways has to practise carefully how to sit on a chair, just as we should have to practise how to sit on our feet as he does at home.

When bedtime comes, there is no change of room. The sitting-room by day becomes the bedroom by night. A couple of wooden pillows and some quilts are fetched from a cupboard; the quilts are spread on the floor, the pillows are placed in position, and the bed is ready. The pillows would strike us as most uncomfortable affairs. They are mere wooden neckrests, and European travellers who have tried them declare that it is like trying to go to sleep with your head hanging over a wooden door-scraper.

As they both sit and sleep on their matting-covered floors, we now see why the Japanese never wear any boots or clogs in the house. To do so would make their beautiful and spotless mats dirty; so all shoes are left at the door, and they walk about the house in the tabi, the thick glove-like socks.


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