House and Home in ‘Modern’ Japan, Part I

Today I want to review a fine book that I came across recently, “House and Home in Modern Japan: Architecture, Domestic space and Bourgeois Culture, 1880~1930”, by Georgetown University’s Jordan Sand. Part of the Harvard University’s East Asian Monographs collection, this scholarly work first appeared in 2003. Like many academic publications on what might be considered, by some, as fairly obscure topics, was Sand’s Ph.D dissertation at Columbia. This work looks at the ways that westernizing reformers reinvented Japanese domestic space and family life during early in the twentieth century.

I found the book quite enlightening in many respects, and I should say from the outset that part of the reason that I find such topics of interest, going beyond my love of Japanese traditional wooden architecture – and I am currently re-calibrating just exactly what traditional means in that context – is my interest in the Meiji restoration. For those readers unfamiliar with the term, a click on the link will at least give you an introduction to the topic. The Meiji was a period of incredible accelerated cultural and social change in Japan – essentially the culture made the leap from a feudal structure and way of life to an industrialized consumer society in the space of 50 years, and this coming on the heels of a 250-year period of isolationist seclusion (termed sakoku) and almost no change.

The wheels of change were set in motion by Commodore Perry and the Black Ships (so called because of their color and the fact they were coal-burning paddle wheelers belching soot) which arrived in Tokyo Harbor in July 1853, throwing the Shogunate rapidly into turmoil.

Above is a Japanese woodblock print of Commodore Perry, which I dare say flatters the man. The Shogunate tried to expel Perry, and asked him to leave, rattled some swords, etc., however he was well-prepared for such an event (his journey was to Japan came after several previous attempts by other US navy ships to enter Japan had been rebuffed – and Perry had made careful study of there prior encounters). Perry was there to force Japan to open up to trade no ifs, ands, or buts. This is where we get the term gunboat diplomacy – you know, “open your port and trade with us on our terms or we’ll shoot”. How US trade policy towards other nations might have changed in the years since Perry and the Black Ships, I’ll leave for the reader to decide.

Apparently, in a counter-threat, Perry handed the Japanese delegate a couple of white flags and told them they could raise the flags when they wanted the bombardment to cease. Perry’s ships were equipped with the latest Paixhan guns, a French invention which used hollow explosive shells – kind of the, er, neutron bomb of its day. While there is no account of this particular in Perry’s own book describing the encounter (and I am in the middle of reading the Perry account at this juncture), the main point is that the Japanese could clearly see that they were militarily outmatched by the Black Ships. The few Japanese dignitaries allowed on board Perry’s vessel saw the guns and, according to Perry’s account, knew what they were. Just the fact that Perry’s ships could move effortlessly, and in formation, against the current and wind left the Japanese awestruck.

A few days later Perry was able to present a letter from US President Millard Fillmore (hah- now there’s a US President that almost no one, I dare say, remembers!) to an Imperial representative, stating the ‘treaty conditions’. As you might imagine, the playing field for those treaty conditions was hardly sloped, as it were, to favor Japanese interests.

Perry returned to Tokyo harbor 1 year later, this time bringing twice as many ships, loaded with trade goods such as whiskey, a telegraph line and even a mile long 1/4 scale railroad with engine and cars. He then proceeded to set up a trade fair of sorts. The Shogunate, which was a military dictatorship of sorts, crumbled under this threat, partially due to internal conflict and its own perilous financial condition at the time, and quickly signed the treaty with no conditions. Shortly thereafter, as an expeditious means of resolving internal conflict at a time of external threat, nominal political authority in Japan reverted to the Emperor – a young man named ‘Meiji’. A really good account of Meiji’s life and the period of upheaval and tumult in which he reined can be found in Donald Keene’s excellent work “Emperor of Japan: Meiji and his World 1852~1912”, linked to at the right of this page.

The rapid industrialization and modernization of Japan both allowed and required a massive increase in production and infrastructure. This saw the transition of societal elites (especially high-ranking samurai and other members of the military) into business elites. Control of the country by the military eventually became control of the country by a military-industrial cabal of interlocked companies, the zaibatsu, and the small number of families that exerted control at the top of the pyramid, which was, just like the ‘good old days’, hierarchical in nature.

Japan, emulating the Western example, in the interest of catching up and getting on an equal footing with the Western powers which threatened it, built industries such as shipyards, iron smelters, and spinning mills, etc., etc., which were then sold to those well-connected entrepreneurs. Consequently, domestic companies became consumers of Western technology and applied it to produce items that could be sold cheaply in the international market. With this, industrial zones grew enormously, and there was massive migration to industrializing centers from the countryside. Thus urban centers exploded in size. Industrialization additionally went hand in hand with the development of a national railway system and modern communications.

Sands book ties in incredibly well with another work which I reviewed several month’s back, Gwendolyn Wright’s “Moralism and the Modern Home” (also linked at the right of the page). For some strange reason I had never thought that the same sort of changes that were radically reshaping North American social circumstances at the fin de sicle period, along with building patterns and architecture – namely the industrial revolution and the push for a consumer society – might also be affecting other places around the globe, like Japan. As Sands notes:

A generation of research has revealed domesticity as one of the peculiar ideological constructs of Western modernity. Since the publication of Philippe Ariè’s Centuries of Childhood; social historians have steadily dismantled the notion that the intimate family is historically unchanging, universal and natural. The Victorian “cult of domesticity,” now a staple feature of nineteenth-century English and North American histories, has been described as manifested in a heightening of affection among family members or in a sentimentalization of home life and motherly duties and romanticization of childhood. The origins of the new family morality have been imputed to the growth of capitalism, to industrialization, to Protestant reform movements, and to the trend towards having fewer children

While in the West, the social shift and emergence of this cult of domesticity developed as an internal process, in Japan the same ideology was entirely an import, and was viewed as such and was markedly in contrast to the very different native patterns of domestic life. It is interesting to trace the flow of ideas, many of which were made possible by both the mass-marketing of texts and the rise of female literacy:

By the beginning of the twentieth century, writings on the home and its management were flowing across national borders as well, with at least as much ease as other commodities in the world, impeded only by the costs of translation. International expositions and congresses further accelerated the global flow of goods and ideas. The new feminine discipline of home economics was promoted at the expositions, sparking the formation of bourgeois women’s organizations in several countries and filtering from there into higher education. American nutritional science, which had a transformational effect on food markets and kitchen work from the 1890’s, drew its authority from German experts. Conversely, the modified Taylorism of American home economist Christine Frederick moved from the United States to Germany and Japan in the 1910s and 1920s. At the turn of the twentieth century, Swedish author Ellen Key’s writings on motherhood, translated into numerous languages after her first appearance at a Women’s Exhibition in Copenhagen in 1895, sparked fierce debate in the feminist movement (itself highly international in character) and won he more devotees abroad than in her native Sweden. In Japan, a partial translation of Key’s Century of the Child from the 1902 German edition was published soon afterward. Other works followed, and Key’s ideas played a central role in the “Protection of Motherhood” debate among Japanese feminists in the 1910s.

Consider for a moment that these ideas concerning house and home, as a space to be molded around an ideal model of a nuclear family, were quite new with little counterpart in the Japanese past. The field of architecture was also new- the first architecture graduates from the Imperial college of Engineering were in 1879, students of Englishman Josiah Conder. The counterpart to the architect in reforming domestic space was the ‘professional’ housewife, whose role was very much a creation of the modern, state-run educational system. Certain home-based functions were also transferred to the outside – while women were supposed to mold themselves into professional housewives, ‘scientifically’ managing home affairs, child-rearing became reoriented toward state educational goals. Similar processes were happening to men, a re-framing of moral-grounding and social deconstruction, and these affected men’s roles, the division of labor, the types of goods produced and consumed, and even the aesthetics of house design. Further, these processes were driven by the state and the social/economic elites, namely the aristocracy and the newly minted business tycoons that controlled it, and thus the new private sphere of the home was fast becoming a public construction.

Part and parcel of the changes being advocated so as to bring Japan into line with the models of other industrialized, consumption-based economies, were changes to the Japanese language to reflect new ideas. Take the word ‘home’ for which there was no ready equivalent in Nihongo – the word katei, 家庭, gradually shifted in nuance to come to stand for the English term. Paired with such terms as katei eisei (home hygiene) and katei kyōiku (home education), the term katei acquired a feminine connotation as a modifier of other words. This came about too as a result of shifts in public perception that the home was now primarily to be a woman’s domain. Where once the house served as living space for an extended family along with servants, adopted children, and even concubines, the new models put forward a household that was nuclear in pattern, with the presence perhaps of parents-in-law, where the hubby went off to work at the office or factory, the kids went off to be trained to work in those offices and factories at the new schools (modeled on Prussian antecedents, right down to the uniforms), and the housewife was to have the ‘job’ of managing the household affairs, again in a ‘scientific’ manner.

What struck me as I read through Sand’s account of the process of selling these ideas to the Japanese public and their adoption, is (1), how virtually all of it was an artificial construct designed, more than anything else to provide a compliant workforce and sell more consumer goods, and (2), how conveniently the nuclear family model suits consumer societies. After all, if one has smaller households and nuclear families as opposed to larger households with extended families and associated members, then one is going to need more houses and apartments. Thus more real-estate can be developed, more toaster ovens can be sold more cars, more furniture, more roads more sewers, more of everything. I had never made this connection before but now it seems so obvious. Duh! The detached house with nuclear family is the industrialist’s and marketer’s dream.

Speaking of furnishings, another word which underwent change in meaning was the term kagu,家具, used today as an equivalent to the English word ‘furniture’ – it only acquired this meaning in the 1910’s and 1920’s, the period in which the department stores began to sell goods under that name:

Prior to this time, kagu, the Chinese characters for which literally denote “household articles” generally, referred to all movable property in a house, from artworks to bedding to kitchen utensils. Books describing zashiki or reception-room decoration therefore had not spoken of kagu but instead used locutions such as dōgu (tools), kizai (receptacles), and buppin (articles). The word kagu came to refer specifically to the appointments of a room rather than to all material possessions of the household as, through the diffusion of Western furniture, more people learned the experience of furnishing, acquiring things to fill domestic spaces.

It has long been a commonplace that the traditional Japanese house has no furniture. This is not to say that the Japanese households lacked possessions. Apart from the screens, scroll paintings, and other decorative objects desired for the properly appointed zashiki, every household had some quantity of objects for daily use, along with chests for storage. The most important items of such movable property were usually acquired in the form of dowry. Decorative objects and writing tools of the zashiki constituted a system of goods belonging primarily to the master of the house, whereas dowry articles made up the core of a female domain outside the zashiki. The size and content of dowries varied widely with class and region, but there were some basic common elements. These included a toilet-table and mirror, a sewing box, lightweight wooden chests of drawers (tansu) and lidded oblong chests (nagamochi) containing kimono and bedding. Kimono and bedding were often among the most valuable assets a family possessed.“

This explanation goes some distance towards clearing up some of the circumstance around Japanese furnishings, or kagu as they are now termed. Personally, I do not take my furniture-making inspirations, by and large, from Japanese furniture – both because the number of classic examples from which to draw upon is comparatively small, and secondly because, by and large, tansu are rather cheaply-made items. Chinese furniture offers far more examples, styles and types, and the quality Ming pieces, in my view, are unmatched by any other tradition.

Another interesting shift occurred in this period, again as a result of the move to a consumer society, and that concerned how gender-specific systems of goods circulated in society and how they occupied space in the home. Sand:

Before modern mass production and marketing, men acquired decorative objects through inheritance, orders to craftsmen, or purchase and exchange among connoisseurs and dealers in antiquities. In the canons of zashiki decoration, pieces of artistic value were stored out of sight, to be displayed seasonally and selectively. Selective display also sustained the functioning of connoisseurs’ circles, in which the value of objects was determined according to rarity and lineage. Where the custom of dowry prevailed, the most valuable items in the female system of goods for the house were made at home or ordered from craftsmen to be assembled for the wedding, an event which occurred once in a lifetime. These goods then entered the storehouse or private rooms of the dwelling, where they would reside until transported as dowry to a later generation. Indeed, for urban dwellers, dowries could be permanent in a way that houses could not, since they were carried (and designed to be carryable) wherever the household went, and it was common to move house (or rebuild after fires) many times.

To introduce ready-made goods, the department store needed strategies to penetrate and alter the world configured by these two systems of goods. Mitsukoshi [ed.; a famous Japanese department store] engaged each in a different manner.” (emphases mine)

Mitsukoshi gradually expanded its traditional role as a dry goods shop to include all the standard dowry elements, and gradually cranked up the marketing aspect through the use of advertising and mail ordering, taking advantage of the newly built nation-wide railway service.
The penetration of Mitsukoshi’s marketing efforts into rural areas, even places that formerly had no dowry gift custom, which led to an urban cultural association to the dowries, and many people then came to assemble their dowries according to Tōkyō or Ōsaka practices:

By the late 1920s the national diffusion of metropolitan dowry customs had resulted in standardization of storage chest manufacture, as regional craft designs were replaced by a plainer, more uniform “Tokyo style”.

And that is a familiar pattern that continues unabated the world over today – the mono-culture of modern life, where we have, apparently, ever-more choices between ever-more similar, ever-cheaper products from ever-fewer, ever-larger companies.

Cracking into the predominantly male world of decorative art objects was a tougher task for Mitsukoshi and others like it. The practices among the male literati, of production, exchange and appreciation kept them in a closed world “inhospitable”, as Sand puts it, to mass marketing:

Defenders of this world regarded the proper expression of national taste to be manifested in the custom of keeping precious goods concealed. From a Japanese point of view, one collector writing in Shumi magazine in 1907 noted, European interior decoration appeared “childlike,” because Europeans put everything they owned on display, whereas Japanese displayed only one thing at a time. “You may have lots of gold screens,” he observed, “but only one will be standing [in the house], and the rest are shut up in the storehouse.” Westerners also differed from Japanese in their attitudes toward individual works of art. In an ordinary house in the West it was usual to have two or three original oil paintings and a number of copies and photographic reproductions (shashin-ban) of famous works. The idea of displaying copies or prints was anathema in Japan, where people would accuse you of being “vulgar” or “lacking taste” if you hung such things in the house. He explained this by presenting the elite connoisseur’s mode of appreciation as a national trait: “Japanese have a tendency to appreciate in paintings or works of calligraphy not the thing itself but the work together with the personality of the artist or calligrapher. Therefore, no matter how great the original painting may be, if the work is a copy and not the original artist’s hand, it is dismissed as tasteless and unrefined.

In the case above, “Japanese” as Sand points out, meant Japanese with the means to acquire scrolls and screens by known artists and the storehouses to keep them – the wealthy – which naturally limited the market. Mitsukoshi therefore sought to familiarize a growing number of Japanese with high art, through expositions, press- releases, and so forth. Mitsukoshi went so far as to create an art gallery within its stores, something which persists to this day. Paintings were then presented as indispensable for interior decoration, and presented images and essays extolling the Japanese as a ‘nation of art lovers’. Inexpensive paintings were made available in quantity and described with pseudo art-world terms of appreciation,

These were, in effect, the prices of admission to an imagined world of connoisseurship, proffering its own “masters” and marks of value, without the requirement of personal intimacy with the producers and purveyors in the art business or the need to fear embarrassment in the game of authentication.

Another change in the Meiji that helped this process along related to the provision of space with a house in which to display artwork – prior to the Meiji, Tokugawa-era social codes had prohibited the use of decorative alcoves, or tokonoma, to those of higher social rank. With the Meiji, these codes were abolished and thus the alcoves began to proliferate in rented and newly built houses. Actually, since the tokonoma only allowed normally for the display of a scroll on the back wall, the only real space left in the house for a painting to hang was that between the lintel (nageshi) and ceiling, a space of 18~24″ in height typically. Thus the paintings that tended to sell well were on the smaller side.

Of course, in order to sell more paintings and larger paintings along with more furnishings, and newly ‘needed’ appliances, the Japanese house itself had to be changed to accommodate, and that will form the subject of part II in this review of Jordan Sand’s work House and Home in Modern Japan.

Thanks for dropping by today. For part II, click here.

3 Replies to “House and Home in ‘Modern’ Japan, Part I”

  1. It always struck me as no surprise that Dec 7, 1941 (Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour) occurred partly because of Commodore Perry in the 1850s.

    Otherwise, a very interesting (as usual) historical enlightenment.


  2. Chris,
    Have you run across the book “The Great Wave” by Christopher Benfy c. 2003 Random House Ballantine Books.
    It explores the connections/repercussions between the New England area and Japan. It portrays people becoming fascinated with the others culture but not finding happiness in there. Star crossed lovers maybe. Kind makes WWII seem the falling out of the “a fare”.

    another interest book that I've loaned out to John Burt is “Across a Bamboo Fence” c 1949 Tuttle Publishing. Its a small paperback ( must be from occupied Japan as its priced in Yen and Dollars); the authors is the wife of a us officer who brings her 3 children with her to Japan. She tells the story of her time in Japan. Kind of maybe explaining to Americans the everyday people/ culture she is interacting with. She doesn't take the approach of the heavy handed american victor.
    One of her stories is a about a japanese man who was fascinated with a childs toy they had brought from the States. His remark was that it was no wonder that the US won the war, since its industry was so vast that it could tricycles for “children” AND all its war supplies.
    Sorry I could supply a link a google search didnt turn up references to it. Loooong out of publish.

Anything to add?

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