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HAVING got a glimpse, and a slight glimpse only, of the ancient house in Japan, it may be of interest to consider briefly the character of the house in neighboring islands forming part of the Japanese Empire, and also of the house in that country which comes nearest to Japan (Korea), and from which country in the past there have been many both peaceful and compulsory invasions, — compulsory in the fact that when Hideyoshi returned from Korea, nearly three hundred years ago, after his great invasion of that country, he brought back with him to Japan colonies of potters and other artisans.

The Ainos of Yezo naturally claim our attention first, because it is believed that they were the aboriginal people of Japan proper, and were afterwards displaced by the Japanese, — a displacement similar to that of our North American savages by the English colonists. Whether the Ainos are autochthonous or not, will not be discussed here. That they are a savage race, without written language, — a race which formerly occupied the northern part of the main island of Japan, and were gradually forced back to Yezo, where they still live in scattered communities, — are facts which are unquestionable. How far the Aino house to-day represents the ancient Aino house, and how many features of the Japanese house are engrafted upon it, are points difficult to determine.


The Ainos that I saw in the Ishikari valley, on the west coast of Yezo, and from Shiraoi south on the east coast, all spoke Japanese, ate out of lacquer bowls, used chop-sticks, smoked small pipes, drank sake, and within their huts possessed lacquer boxes and other conveniences in which to stow away their clothing, which had probably been given them in past times by the Japanese, and which were heirlooms. On the other hand, they retained their own language, their long, narrow dug-out; used the small bow, the poisoned arrow, and had an arrow-release of their own; adhered to their ancestral forms of worship and their peculiar methods of design, and were quite as persistent in clinging to many of their customs as are our own Western tribes of Indians. That they are susceptible to change is seen in the presence of a young Aino at the normal school in Tokio, from whom I derived some interesting facts concerning archery.

Briefly, the Aino house, as I saw it, consists of a rude framework of timber supporting a thatched roof; the walls being made up of reeds and rush interwoven with stiffer cross-pieces. Within, there is a single room the dimensions of the house. In most houses there is an L, in which is the doorway, which may in some cases be covered with a rude porch. The thatched roof is well made and quite picturesque, differing somewhat in form from any thatched roof among the Japanese, — though in Yamato, as already mentioned, I saw features in the slope of the roof quite similar to those shown in some of the Aino roofs.


Entering the house by the low door, one comes into a room so dark that it is with difficulty one can see anything. The inmates light rolls of birch-bark that one may be enabled to see the interior; but every appearance of neatness and picturesqueness which the hut presented from without vanishes when one gets inside. Beneath one's feet is a hard, damp, earth floor; directly above are the blackened and soot-covered rafters. Poles supported horizontally from these rafters are equally greasy and blackened, and pervading the darkness is a dirty and strong fishy odor. In the middle of the floor, and occupying considerable space, is a square area, — the fireplace. On its two sides mats are spread. A pot hangs over the smoke, for there appears to be but little fire; and at one side is a large bowl containing the remains of the last meal, consisting apparently of fish-bones. — large sickly-looking bones, the sight of which instantly vitiates one's appetite. The smoke, rebuffed at the only opening save the door, — a small square opening close under the low eaves, — struggles to escape through a small opening in the angle of the roof. On one side of the room is a slightly raised floor of boards, upon which are mats, lacquer-boxes, bundles of nets, and a miscellaneous assortment of objects. Hanging from the rafters and poles are bows, quivers of arrows, Japanese daggers mounted on curious wooden tablets inlaid with lead, slices of fish and skates' heads in various stages, not of decomposition, as the odors would seem to imply, but of smoke preservation. Dirt everywhere, and fleas. And in the midst of the darkness, smoke, and squalor are the inmates, — quiet, demure, and gentle to the last degree. Figs. 306 and 307 give an idea of the appearance of two Aino houses of the better kind, but perhaps cannot be taken as a type of the Aino house farther north on the island.

Let us now glance at the house of the natives of the Hachijô Islanders, as described by Mr. Dickins and Mr. Satow.1 From their communication the following account is taken: —

"As may readily be supposed, there are no shops or inns on the island, but fair accommodation for travellers can be obtained at the farmers' houses. These are for the most part substantially-built cottages of two or three rooms, with a spacious kitchen, constructed with the timber of Quercus cuspidata, and with plank walls, where on the mainland it is usual to have plastered wattles. The roof is invariably of thatch, with a very high pitch, — necessitated, we were told, by the extreme dampness of the climate, which renders it desirable to allow as little rain as possible to soak into the straw. Many of the more prosperous farmers have a second building, devoted to the rearing of silkworms, which takes its name (kaiko-ya) from the purpose to which it is destined. There are also sheds for cattle, usually consisting of a thatched roof resting on walls formed of rough stone-work. Lastly, each enclosure possesses a wooden godown, raised some four feet from the ground on stout wooden posts, crowned with broad caps, to prevent the mice from gaining an entrance. The style resembles that of the storehouses constructed by the Ainos and Loochooans.

"The house and vegetable-garden belonging to it are usually surrounded by a stone wall, or rather bank of stones and earth, often six feet high, designed to protect the buildings from the violent gales which at certain seasons sweep over the island, and which, as we learned, frequently do serious injury to the rice-fields by the quantity of salt spray which they carry a long distance inland from the shore."

From this general description of the house which incidentally accompanies a very interesting sketch of the physical peculiarities of the island, its geology, botany, and the customs and dialect of the people, we get no idea of the special features of the house, — as to the fireplace or bed-place; whether there be shōji or ordinary windows, matted floor, or any of those details which would render a comparison with the Japanese house of value.

As Mr. Satow found in the language of the Hachijô Islanders a number of words which appeared to be survivals of archaic Japanese, and also among their customs the curious one, which existed up to within very recent times, of erecting parturition houses, — a feature which is alluded to in the very earliest records of Japan, — a minute description of the Hachijô house with sketches might possibly lead to some facts of interest.

The Loochoo, or Riukiu Islands, now known as Okinawa Shima, lie nearly midway between the southern part of Japan and the Island of Formosa. The people of this group differ but little from the Japanese, — their language, according to Mr. Satow and Mr. Brunton, having in it words that appear obsolete in Japan. In many customs there is a curious admixture of Chinese and Japanese ways; and Mr. Brunton sees in the Loochooan bridge and other structures certain resemblances to Chinese methods.

The following extract regarding the house of the Loochooans is taken from an account of a visit to these islands, by Ernest Satow, Esq., published in the first volume of the "Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan:" —

"The houses of the Loochooans are built in Japanese fashion, with the floor raised three or four feet from the ground, and have mostly only one story, on account of the violent winds which prevail. They are roofed with tiles of a Chinese fashion, very strong and thick. The buildings in which they store their rice are built of wood and thatched with straw. They are supported on wooden posts about five feet high, and resemble the granaries of the Ainos, though constructed with much greater care."

Another extract is here given in regard to the house of the Loochooans, by R. H. Brunton, Esq., published in the "Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan"2: —

"The streets in the towns present a most desolate appearance. On each side of these is a blank stone wall of about ten or twelve feet high, with openings in them here and there sufficiently wide to admit of access to the houses which are behind. Every house is surrounded by a wall, and from the street they convey the impression of being prisons rather than ordinary dwellings. . . .

"The houses of the well-to-do classes are situated in a yard which is surrounded by a wall ten or twelve feet high, as has been already mentioned. They are similar to the ordinary Japanese houses, with raised floors laid with mats and sliding screens of paper. They are built of wood, and present no peculiar differences from the Japanese style of construction. The roofs are laid with tiles, which however are quite different in shape from the Japanese tiles. Over the joint between two concave tiles a convex one is laid, and these are all semi-circular in cross sections. The tiles are made at Nafa, and are red in color; they appeared of good quality. The houses of the poorer classes are of very primitive character. The roof is covered with a thick thatch, and is supported by four corner uprights about five feet high. The walls consist of sheets of a species of netting made of small bamboo, which contain between them a thickness of about six inches of straw. This encloses the whole sides of the house, — a width of about two feet being left in one side as an entrance. There is no flooring in the houses of any description, and there is generally laid over the mud inside a mat, on which the inmates lie or sit."

Considering the presence for so many centuries of strong Chinese influence which Mr. Brunton sees in the Loochooans, it is rather surprising to find so many features of the Japanese house present in their dwellings. Indeed, Mr. Brunton goes so far as to say that the Loochooan house presents no peculiar differences from the Japanese style of construction; and as he has paid special attention to the constructive features of Japanese buildings, we must believe that had differences existed they would have been noted by him.

It seems to me that the wide distribution of certain identical features in Japanese house-structure, from the extreme north of Japan to the Loochoo Islands, is something remarkable. Here is a people who for centuries lived almost independent provincial lives, the northern and southern provinces speaking different dialects, even the character of the people varying, and yet from Awomori in the north to the southernmost parts of Satsuma, and even farther south to the Loochoos, the use of fusuma, shōji, mats, and thin wood-ceilings seems well-nigh universal. The store-houses standing on four posts are referred to in the description of the Hachijô Islanders as well as in that of the Loochooans as resembling those constructed by the Ainos; yet these resemblances must not be taken as indicating a community of origin, but simply as the result of necessity. For travellers in Kamtchatka, and farther west, speak of the same kind of store-houses; and farther south they may be seen in Singapore and Java, — in fact, in every country town in New England; and indeed all over the United States the same kind of storehouse is seen. Probably all over the world a store-house on four legs, even to the inverted box or pan on each leg, may be found.

Through the courtesy of Percival Lowell, Esq., I am enabled to see advanced sheets of his work on Korea, entitled "The Land of the Morning Calm;" and from this valuable work the author has permitted me to gather many interesting facts concerning the Korean dwellings. The houses are of one story; a flight of two or three steps leads to a narrow piazza, or very wide sill, which encircles the entire building. The apartment within is only limited by the size of the building; in other words, there is only one room under the roof. The better class of dwellings, however, consist of groups of these buildings. The house is of wood, and rests upon a stone foundation. This foundation consists of a series of connecting chambers, or flues; and at one side is a large fireplace, or oven, in which the fire is built. The products of combustion circulate through this labyrinth of chambers, and find egress, not by a chimney, but by an outlet on the opposite side. In this way the room above is warmed. There are three different types of this oven-like foundation. In the best type a single slab of stone is supported by a number of stout stone pillars; upon this stone floor is spread a layer of earth, and upon this earth is spread oil-paper like a carpet. In another arrangement, ridges of earth and small stones run lengthwise from front to back; on top of this the same arrangement is made of stone, earth, and oil-paper. In the third type, representing a still poorer class, the oven and flues are hollowed out of the earth alone. Mr. Lowell remarks that the idea is a good one, if it were only accompanied by proper ventilation. Unfortunately, he says, the room above is no better than a box, in which the occupant is slowly roasted. Another disadvantage is experienced in the impossibility of warming a room at once. He says: "The room does not even begin to get warm until you have passed through an agonizing interval of expectancy. Then it takes what seems forever to reach a comfortable temperature, passes this brief second of happiness before you have had time to realize that it has attained it, and continues mounting to unknown degrees in a truly alarming manner, beyond the possibility of control." This curious and ingenious method of warming houses is said to have been introduced from China some one hundred and fifty years ago.

A house of the highest order is simply a frame-work, — a roof supported on eight or more posts according to the size of the building; and this with a foundation represents the only fixed structure. In summer it presents a skeleton-like appearance; in winter, however, it appears solid and compact, as a series of folding-doors, — a pair between each two posts, — closes it completely. These are prettily latticed, open outward, and are fastened from within by a hook and knob. By a curious arrangement these doors can be removed from their hinges, the upper parts only remaining attached, and fastened up by hooks to the ceiling. This kind of a house and room is used as a banqueting hall and a room for general entertainment. It may be compared to our drawing-room.

Dwelling-rooms are constructed on quite a different plan. Instead of continuous doors, the sides are composed of permanent walls and doors. The wall is of wood, except that in the poorer house it consists of mud. Says Mr. Lowell: "In these buildings we have an elaborate system of three-fold aperture closers, — a species of three skins, only that they are for consecutive, not simultaneous, use. The outer is the folding-door above mentioned; the other two are a couple of pairs of sliding panels, — the survivors in Korea of the once common sliding screens, such as are used to-day in Japan. One of the pairs is covered with dark green paper, and is for night use; the other is of the natural yellowish color of the oil-paper, and is used by day. When not wanted, they slide back into grooves inside the wall, whence they are pulled out again by ribbons fastened near the middle of the outer edge. All screens of this sort, whether in houses or palanquins, are provided, unlike the Japanese, with these conveniences for tying the two halves of each pair together, and thus enabling easier adjustment." The house-lining within is oil-paper. "Paper covers the ceiling, lines the wall, spreads the floor. As you sit in your room your eye falls upon nothing but paper; and the very light that enables you to see anything at all sifts in through the same material."

It will be seen by these brief extracts how dissimilar the Korean house is to that of the Japanese. And this dissimilarity is fully sustained by an examination of the photographs which Mr. Lowell made in Korea, and which show among other things low stone-walled houses with square openings for windows, closed by frames covered with paper, the frames hung from above and opening outside, and the roof tiled; also curious thatched roofs, in which the slopes are uneven and rounding, and their ridges curiously knotted or braided, differing in every respect from the many forms of thatched roof in Japan.

The Chinese house, as I saw it in Shanghai and its suburbs, and at Canton as well as up the river, shows differences from the Japanese house quite as striking as those of the Korean house. Here one sees, in the cities at least, solid brick-walled houses, with kitchen range built into the wall, and chimney equally permanent; tiled-roof, with tiled ridges; enclosed court-yard; floors of stone, upon which the shoes are worn from the street; doorways, with doors on hinges; window openings closed by swinging frames fitted with the translucent shells of Placuna, or white paper, the latter usually in a dilapidated condition; and for furniture they have tables, chairs, bedsteads, drawers, babies' chairs, cradles, foot-stools, and the like. The farm-houses of China in those regions that I visited were equally unlike similar houses in Japan.

From this superficial glance at the character of the house in the outlying Islands of the Japanese Empire, as well as at the houses of the neighboring countries, Korea and China, I think it will be conceded that the Japanese house is typically a product of the people, with just those features from abroad incorporated in it that one might look for, considering the proximity to Japan of China and Korea. When we remember that these three great civilizations of the Mongoloid race approximate within the radius of a few hundred miles, and that they have been in more or less intimate contact since early historic times, we cannot wonder that the germs of Japanese art and letters should have been adopted from the continent. In precisely the same way our ancestors, the English, drew from their continent the material for their language, art, music, architecture, and many other important factors in their civilization; and if history speaks truly, their refinement even in language and etiquette was imported. But while Japan, like England, has modified and developed the germs ingrafted from a greater and older civilization, it has ever preserved the elasticity of youth, and seized upon the good things of our civilization, — such as steam, electricity, and modern methods of study and research, — and utilized them promptly. Far different is it from the mother country, where the improvements and methods of other nations get but tardy recognition.

It seems to give certain English writers peculiar delight to stigmatize the Japanese as a nation of imitators and copyists. From the contemptuous manner in which disparagements of this nature are flung into the faces of the Japanese who are engaged in their heroic work of establishing sound methods of government and education, one would think that in England had originated the characters by which the English people write, the paper upon which they print, the figures by which they reckon, the compass by which they navigate, the gunpowder by which they subjugate, the religion with which they worship. Indeed, when one looks over the long list of countries upon which England has drawn for the arts of music, painting, sculpture, architecture, printing, engraving, and a host of other things, it certainly comes with an ill-grace from natives of that country to taunt the Japanese with being imitators.

It would be obviously absurd to suggest as a model for our own houses such a structure as a Japanese house. Leaving out the fact that it is not adapted to the rigor of our climate or to the habits of our people, its fragile and delicate fittings if adopted by us, would be reduced to a mass of kindlings in a week, by the rude knocks it would receive; and as for exposing on our public thoroughfares the delicate labyrinth of carvings often seen on panel and post in Japan, the wide-spread vandalism of our country would render futile all such attempts to civilize and refine. Fortunately, in that land which we had in our former ignorance and prejudice regarded as uncivilized, the malevolent form of the genus homo called "vandal" is unknown.

Believing that the Japanese show infinitely greater refinement in their methods of house-adornment than we do, and convinced that their tastes are normally artistic, I have endeavored to emphasize my convictions by holding up in contrast our usual methods of house-furnishing and outside embellishments. By so doing I do not mean to imply that we do not have in America interiors that show the most perfect refinement and taste; or that in Japan, on the other hand, interiors may not be found in which good taste is wanting.

I do not expect to do much good in thus pointing out what I believe to be better methods, resting on more refined standards. There are some, I am sure, who will approve; but the throng — who are won by tawdry glint and tinsel; who make possible, by admiration and purchase, the horrors of much that is made for house-furnishing and adornment — will, with characteristic obtuseness, call all else but themselves and their own ways heathen and barbarous.


1 Notes of a visit to Hachijô, in 1878. By F. V. Dickins and Ernest Satow. Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, vol. vi. part iii. p. 435.

2 Vol. iv. p. 68.

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