House and Home in ‘Modern’ Japan, Part II

The previous post in this look at Jordan Sand’s book, House and Home in Modern Japan: Architecture, Domestic Space and Bourgeois Culture 1880~1930 set the stage, so to speak, with a broad look at the tectonic shifts that occurred in Japanese society and culture as a result of the Meiji Restoration. Commodore Perry’s visit in the 1850’s, the subsequent forcing of a trade treaty upon the Japanese, followed by the dissolution of the bakufu, or military government headed by the Shogun and the re-invention of the Japanese state in a new model, with Emperor Meiji as leader, if only as figurehead. This was an incredible shift, a shift manifested in all aspects of Japanese society.

In this post I want to begin to look at some of Sand’s commentary in regards to Japanese architecture and what happened to it during this 50 year period. Japan, like our society and many others, was sold ‘modernity’ by an educated elite looking to increase their own wealth and consolidate power:

Under the domination of the educated bourgeoisie, the most valuable commodity in social terms was translated knowledge from the West…The pages of late Meiji and Taishō publications presented their readers with countless images of European places and people, as well as improbable-seeming quotations from Western experts or anecdotes about figures drawn from pantheons of Western heroes. The use of Western images, stories, and opinions in Japanese print reflected an intellectual fixation produced by Japan’s tenuous position as the only non-white country among the powers, and a latecomer – and the internalization of that position by many Japanese intellectuals…Because modernity came from overseas, Japanese had continually to make accommodations in both directions, to fit the native into Western-based modern milieus, and to fit the Western into native cultural strategies.

The progress of modernity in Japan, according to Sand, occurred in two stages, divided roughly by WWI – bourgeois modern, followed by mass-society modern. In the first stage, Japan was essentially engaged in a game of catch-up and nation-building, in which the intellectuals and other elites who constituted and patterned a Western-style bourgeois culture as part of a struggle to find their place in the order of nations. Japan was very much wanting to gain parity with the nations oppressing it with unequal trade treaties, and, most especially, with extra-territoriality clauses in those treaties which allowed non-Japanese nationals to be free from subjection to Japanese laws. These clauses were taken as symbolic of the West’s view of the Japanese as a lesser people. The second stage in the process, mass-society modern, was one of turning Japan into a player in the new systems of global mass-mediated consumerism, in which intellectuals reconfigured the Japanese culture for a wider public, and at the same time sought to define a cosmopolitan, urbane identity and lifestyle which could be dangled like an attractive carrot.

In working to cultivate that sense of modern urban chic, so highly sought after, both then and now, the question of taste, and the vexing matter of how to sell it and how to inculcate it, comes up for consideration:

Like katei, shumi, the modern Japanese word corresponding to “taste”, was new in common parlance at the turn of the twentieth century…The ability to discern the “true and great” presumed a selection of things. Beyond literary circles, the pressure of things – commodities seeking selection and placement – was encouraging a broad reordering of matters of taste. For in the same historical moment that the neologism shumi emerged in literary and popular discourse as a device for distinguishing value in things (and by extension, people), new encounters with commodities and opportunities for acquisition were awaiting the populace in the emporia of Japan’s major cities. Although most journals of the time advertised books, cosmetics, and patent medicines, advertisements [now] introduced readers to gramophone shops, dealers in art and antiquities, a maker of gold and silver dishes bearing the title of imperial arts commissioner, and a specialist in frames for windows and Western paintings, as well as personal adornments such as diamonds and panama hats.

The thing which frames this situation was the preceding collapse of the nation under rule by the Shogun and the new grouping of competing elites under the ‘Emperor Banner’ as it were. The previous codified order of the Tokugawa Shogunate, included rules governing dress, social roles, architectural styles and so forth, was abolished, and as they say, nature abhors a vacuum:

With the collapse of an ascriptive order governed by convention and sumptuary regulation, bourgeois society places aesthetic choices in an autonomous sphere, just as the bourgeois individual is conceived as isolated and self-governing. By extension, the bourgeois interior is composed as the personal expression of its occupants. Bourgeois taste may be hemmed in by social convention – indeed, when fixed rules no longer define what is permissible, the pressure to keep up appearances is greater than ever – but it is as consumers making choices that families and individuals in bourgeois society express themselves. The ideology of the autonomous individual is tied to the ideology of a personal taste that transcends status or practical necessity. At the same time, bourgeois society treats aesthetic discernment as indispensable cultural capital. Thus is cloaks what is in fact a class strategy – and in this sense eminently “practical” – with an appearance of disinterestedness and purity.

Selecting good for the home became a key part of class identity, however the new Western models being put forward as ‘modern’ gave rise to some inherent conflicts between Japanese traditional house spaces and Western (ie., Victorian) ones – just where does one put all these commodities?:

Compared with densely populated Victorian interiors, Japanese rooms appeared empty. To cope with this difference, one either had to claim that minimalist “simplicity” was the essence of Japanese taste or view the Japanese interior as a blank canvas awaiting the expression of individual artistic impulses liberated from feudal convention. Since no bourgeois ideologue advocated indiscriminate Westernization, and none believed that things could remain as they had been, finding a way to redesign the domestic interior to express both of these positions became a vital part of the bourgeois project.

It’s a curious reversal in between Western and Japanese culture – in the West, wealth display takes the form of a room crammed, more often than not with objects, or ‘eye-candy’, while in Japanese taste, wealth is expressed by the artfully spare interior, and this was predicated on having enough space in one’s house (or ownership of a storehouse, or kura) to keep a room free of aesthetically undesirable objects of daily use, that is, owning a house with a sitting room, zashiki, that could be purposefully dedicated to display and guest reception. A game for those with financial means, in other words.

The solution, in many cases was to build houses which had both Japanese and Western style spaces. This started with houses which had one Western room – nowadays, the process has led to the reverse, with most new houses being primarily western in layout and room purposing, with one vestige of old – a Japanese room with tatami mats, shōji and so forth.

One figure who would in time become a leading figure in a circle of architects designing a new style in Japanese residential architecture was Takeda, Goichi:

In 1901, freshly graduated from architecture school, he arrived in London, from where he journeyed north to visit Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art. He then followed the trail of Art Nouveau to Brussels, Paris, and Vienna before his return to Japan in 1903. His first commission upon returning was a house for the president of Shirokiya Department store, a certain Fukushima, Yukinobu. The house was completed in 1907, and it’s exterior, roofline and half-exposed timber gable evoked the German folkhouse. The house drew heavily from European sources, except for one room, which was built with elements of indigenous residential architecture, including exposed posts, nageshi molding, and ranma (decorated transoms used for inter-room ventilation).

Takeda, in fact, was the first Japanese modernist architect to write a treatise on the Japanese tearoom, a point Sand’s expands upon:

The delicate, stylized rusticity of sukiya architecture, derived from the aesthetics of tea, provided Takeda with a native vocabulary that could be used in residential designs, and that seemed a comfortable marriage with the vanguard of European design. Europeans looking east in this period recognized little distinction of style among Japanese houses, but from Takeda’s vantage point, sukiya represented the most aesthetically evolved in a range of indigenous building traditions. Unlike the vernacular idioms of most domestic architecture, sukiya was a conscious style; its rules were shared by practitioners everywhere that it was practiced. There were pattern books an architect could turn to for particular motifs and famous, much-coveted paper models of tearooms. In subsequent residential designs, Takeda tried combining sukiya motifs, such as the use of woven bamboo or wood strips on walls and ceilings, with later architectural features from Art Nouveau, the American bungalow, and later the Spanish Mission style.

This really brings up an important point, and one that I think is lost on many observers of Japanese domestic architecture, or at least is one commonly misunderstood. Starting with Edward Morse’s nineteenth century work Japanese Homes and their Surroundings, the impression conveyed in numerous books and magazines about Japanese architecture has been that sukiya, as such, IS the style of Japanese domestic architecture. Morse was fond of the sukiya style of architecture, however his work, along with Ralph Cram’s (please see my earlier post on Ralph Adams Cram), give the impression that sukiya is the ordinary run of Japanese house construction. Far from it. These two gentlemen came to their impressions, undoubtedly, as a result of their visits to Japan in the late 1800’s where, as men of education, wealth, and culture, they were undoubtedly the guests of many well-to-do-Japanese of similar social standing, and thus the spaces where they spent much of their time were spaces often featuring sukiya detailing.

Sukiya, in my view, is/was largely an affectation of a coterie of male literati and wealthy men – usually business men – in retirement. These were predominantly urban folk who sought an alternative to the boredom of competition among the wealthy that manifested in gold leaf, lacquer, and openwork silver decoration, etc, and their reaction was to try and reconnect with the imagined ancestral farmhouse and it’s rusticity. After all, if gold piled on gold no longer stimulates, let’s clear the board and try bark on poles. With sukiya, though the effect may be one of studied rusticity, it is in fact a meticulously-metered rusticity, and image overtakes reality in terms of sound constructional practice. No form of Japanese architecture makes greater use of veneers, hidden metal fasteners, and non-durable, even flimsy, construction than sukiya. It is very artificial, and the surfaces and interplays of material presented, while trying to evoke the primitive hut, and the simulate the crudity of a farmer’s lashed-together pole structure, are for me unconvincing. Its a pretentious charade and overly precious. I’m not fooled. While there is great skill and knowledge wrapped up in the traditions of sukiya carpentry, the fundamental artifice of the end result leaves me a bit cold.

Many Japanese architects did study tours of England, Germany and the United States, and brought back with them ideas which they then tried to recombine into the Japanese domestic architecture. With varying success I might add. All the turmoil and change in the country led many to look for ways to have architecture that created more intimate spaces in which the new model of nuclear family could live in harmony and joy. And increasingly, this new model of family was to be a middle class family, living in subdivisions. In 1919 an organization was formed to push the agenda of bourgeois architects and reform-minded domestic ideologues, called the Everyday Life Reform League, which itself emerged out of a government-led thrift and diligence campaign, the “Movement to Foster the Nation’s Strength”. In July 1920 the league’s Dwelling Reform Committee announced a 6-tenet program for the ‘improvement’ of houses:

1. Dwellings should be gradually modified for chairs.

2. The layout and appointments of dwellings should be modified from the past orientation toward guest to a family orientation.

3. The construction and equipment of dwellings should avoid empty ornament and place weight on practicalities such as hygiene and safety.

4. Gardens should place weight on practicalities such as health and safety and not have the decorative bias of traditional gardens.

5. Furniture should be designed for simplicity and sturdiness, in keeping with the reform of the dwelling.

6. In large cities, the construction of common dwellings (apartments) and garden cities should be encouraged, according to the conditions of the area.“

There was considerable idealism among those proposing such reforms at the time, as there often seems to be, I dare say, among those who think human affairs can be quantified, analyzed and then managed, by them, for the good of ‘all’. Ahem. This optimism soon begat satire, as the ideas of the management class often do among the great unwashed. As Sand describes this editorial in a popular woman’s magazine of the time, Shufu no tomo:

Since prices for everything keep rising today, we thought that we had better institute a great reform of matters concerning our living. To begin with, we had our house, which had been made of straight-grained cryptomeria wood [sugi], rebuilt entirely in straight-grained cypress [hinoki]. Then we bought a new automobile. We evicted the tenants in the rented houses adjacent to our estate and expanded our garden, increasing our fountains to three times their former size. We used tiles of the highest polish for the roof, so the poor people who pass by can look round-eyed in wonder at such a palace. We recognized that the times also called for a major reform of the family’s clothing, so we decided not to employ any kitchen maid, let alone general house maid, who cannot wear ordinary silk or better…We also send our shopclerks all over the country to buy up rice and cotton cloth at any price, and we don’t let go of it until the market prices skyrocket, so our profits just get bigger. In this way, we pile reform upon reform, and our assets grow in a way that is quite amusing. Everyone in the family worries only about what luxury we can indulge in to shock the poor people of society. It is too funny for words to hear them speaking of whether or not the middle classes and the workers shall be able to eat.

So, not everyone was buying into the marketing at least, and realized that ‘reform’ was largely an exhortation to consume more stuff, and that the reforms were always proposed by those that had the means to undertake it, say enlarging a house of thirteen room to eighteen rooms. In time, the League lost it’s credibility and then its relevance among most of the people toward whom it was aimed. Soon however it was superseded by another reform movement, the Culture Life Research Group, and it’s magazine “Culture Life” (Bunka seikatsu). Soon, ‘culture life reform’ became a national slogan, and the group’s leader, Morimoto, Kōkichi, an economist by education, became a recognized ‘expert’ and pundit. Sand described Morimoto’s ideas succinctly:

At the core of Morimoto Kōkichi’s economic studies was his effort to determine an empirical standard for what he conceived the culture life to be. Having taken a doctorate in economics at John Hopkins University, Morimoto was influenced by both the work of contemporary Anglo-American economists and by the experience of life in the United States. In [his] books such as Living Problems: an Economic Study of Life (1920) and From Survival to Living (1921), as well as in two periodicals of the Culture Life Research Group, Morimoto compared data on income and living costs in American and European cities with Japanese government statistics and his own survey results to adduce the discouraging fact that Japanese were on average far poorer than the denizens of the dominant Western nations. His opening lecture in Bunka Seikatsu kenkyū introduced the statistics of a French insurance specialist on the monetary value of an individual citizen in different nations at the time of the war, with the value of a Russian at the bottom of the list, recorded as 4,040 yen. Morimoto went on to report that calculation revealed the value of a Japanese to be the same as that of a Russian. This was less than half the value of a citizen of England or the United States. The statistical disparity represented “primarily the scale of productive capacity in a society”, and the fundamental reason that Japan was unproductive was to be found in “living problems of the people themselves”: bad consumption habits, in Morimoto’s view, were the basis of Japan’s low level of productivity. Japanese had not yet achieved what he called “an efficient standard of living.

Economists can leave one with some warm and fuzzy feelings sometimes, eh? I tend to think economists tend to think the same way today, though they may not wish to be so crass, at least not publicly, about the value of a human life in dollars and cents. What’s a life worth? What’s your life worth? Are you productive enough? How would Morimoto feel about the American worker’s productivity of today, now that most of the manufacturing jobs have been sent overseas? Is pushing papers around a room full of desks in some sort of Kafkaesque pattern and ‘industries’ busy devising complex financial instruments than no one can understand – is that productive?

In part three I’ll conclude this review of Jordan Sand’s book on House and Home in Modern Japan. We’ll take a look at the direction the Culture Life movement took, at the Culture Life Villages and the changes in house design that were spawned.

–>> Go to part III

2 Replies to “House and Home in ‘Modern’ Japan, Part II”

  1. the “keeping up with the jones” theme reminds me of a TEDtalks video with the grandson of Charles and Ray Eames.

    toward the end there is a recording of Charles mentioning that in India, the lowest classes eat off a banana leaf. Those a little better off eat off a ceramic tray. Further variations follow with increased wealth and sophistication. Then the people of a certain station and knowledge enjoy their meal … on a banana leaf

  2. Heffesan, thanks for sharing the banana leaf anecdote – too true!

    I also enjoy watching those TED talks, and if ever I get a high speed connection here at home, I'll be checking out more of them.


Anything to add?

error: Content is protected !!
%d bloggers like this: