House and Home in ‘Modern’ Japan, Part III

I wondered if my last post, where I brought up my perspective on sukiya architecture, and where I was clearly not bubbling over with enthusiasm for it, might have brought some angry or defensive comments from readers who are, or might be, fond of it. However, such is not the case. Okay, well, I’ll move on with this look at Georgetown Professor Jordan Sand’s work House and Home in Modern Japan: Architecture, Domestic space and Bourgeois Culture 1880~1930. I had commenced writing this review with every intention to write but one post on the book, however now this has morphed to three posts. Sometimes things go that way when there is so much ground to cover if I am to give the work any justice. Also, it seemed better to break the review up, as I am wary in this age of hyper-reality that many readers may not be habituated to, or have the time for, long sit-down reads at the computer. Sand’s work has a lot to say and my review of the piece really amounts to little more than a surface skim, a touching on occasional highlights at best.

In the last installment I mentioned Johns Hopkins’ PhD Morimoto, and his advocacy for increasing Japanese domestic consumption to bring it into parity with American and Western European standards. Morimoto came to be the spokesperson for the Culture Life Reform Group. Morimoto believed that the ‘right’ forms and practices for a ‘modern’ life could be empirically determined, and that empirical study would reveal them to be predominantly Western. By the 1920s, the Culture Life (Bunka seikatsu) movement had gained a wider audience, which though it engendered some fragmenting and divisiveness in the aims of the movement, caused the movement to morph in a representation for a Utopian dream of cosmopolitan modernity:

This dream appealed especially to the new urban residents who entered the growing white-collar workforce during and after the war. Their desire for a life unencumbered by either local traditions or the established distinctions of native and foreign was met by a plethora of new publications and commodities purveyed under the name of bunka…. The concept related centrally to consumption practices, which invited its exploitation for commercial purposes and therefore its rapid vulgarization. The mass market’s incessant pursuit of the new guaranteed the devolution of bunka until it became simply a popular label for shoddy new-fangled things.”

By this point, the term bunka had lost its brand power, and thus was replaced by a new term, modan (the Japanese rendering of the word ‘modern’). This term has in fact stuck in Japan, just as it has in the West – after all, once you have ‘modern’ there’s no place to go other than perhaps futuristic, and that doesn’t always sell so well.

The new cosmopolitan identity being pushed by the marketers and social reformers connected implicitly to the hierachical vision of the nations of the world ranked within the imperialist order. Prior to 1900, the Japanese ethos was one of being a victim of imperialist powers (England, Germany and other western powers hopped on the bandwagon with the US and compelled the Japanese, now ‘open for business,’ to unequal trade agreements. This perception of inequality gradually began to shift as the 1900s approached:

Politically, the end of unequal treaties in 1899, decisive victory over China in 1895, alliance with Great Britain in 1902, and successful conclusion of the war with Russia in 1905 freed the post-Meiji generation from the burden of cultural inferiority borne by earlier nation-minded intellectuals…. The situation made it easier for intellectuals in the 1920s to regard the “culture life” as a universal value and a right that belonged as naturally to themselves as to the people of other progressive – which was to say, dominant – nations.

For men in this new modan world seeking to climb in the professional sphere, investment in things Western and expenditure on self-cultivation or socializing were strategically indispensable:

To gain company employment, one had to acquire a variety of cultural capital ranging from mastery of etiquette in a Western room to general knowledge about modern technology, world politics, and contemporary art and music. Getting ahead also depended on dressing well (in Western suits), spending liberally on entertainment, and “maintaining a good address.

Enter the salaried company employee – or sarariman, a term that entered the Japanese language in the 1920s. While they were often lampooned in the press, or portrayed as somewhat desperate (both to avoid slipping back into the lower class, the proletariat, or desperate to climb that ladder ever higher) and while some claimed these new class of workers lacked a true lifestyle of their own, there were some attractions to it:

…the lifestyle appeared reasonably respected, low-risk, and clean, as well as assured of a certain amount of leisure time. For men, it included play opportunities in the city’s cafes and dance halls. A considerable part of the positive appeal was consumption-based: separation of the man’s work from the home made it possible to maintain a tidy suburban house and garden with running water and gas in the kitchen and a few electric appliances, ideally with a Western room containing rattan chairs, a set of one-yen books, a radio or gramophone, or better still, a piano or organ; a clean change of Japanese clothes in the evening and Western clothes for the breadwinner, a white kappōgi apron and silk kimono for his wife, and Western clothes for the children. Modest as it was, a life composed of such things suggested ease to most Japanese, and offered those who enjoyed it a tangible sense of sharing the bourgeois culture whose achievement had been a national mission for the past generation and more.

By the Summer of 1922, the suburban house itself had become a commodity, a symbol of a lifestyle of the middle classes. As suburbs sprang up and more and more detached single family homes were built, more and more experimentation took place with the latest architectural trends. The ‘culture house’ was thus born, a product of the architecture world’s ideals, and a phenomenon largely defined by the fact that they were owner-occupied instead of rented. A social commentator at the time remarked:

If you walk the suburbs of Tokyo, everywhere you will find rows of Japanese-Western eclectic half-barracks, made as if from a single mold…most of them, more than being syntheses of Japanese and Western, are Japanese houses of only three rooms, with a “Western room” of 4-1/2 or 6 mats attached, so that from the outside they have a feeling like someone wearing Western clothes and geta. They have acquired “Western style,” as it were, to about the same degree that the master of the house or his wife speaks English. It goes without saying that the “Western-style” “reception room,” is furnished with three-legged rattan chairs and two or three series of one-yen books.

As Sand points out, the crucial point in the above description is that these new houses were assessed largely upon the basis of their outward appearance – “culture style” referred most of all to houses which stood out visually from their neighbors:

The result was to objectify the dwelling, making it a commodity or an ensemble of commodities more than an orderly and efficient instrument for producing model families and model national subjects. In the mass market of images, outward visual appeal was the way that commodities distinguished themselves.

Promoters of the culture villages and garden cities…drew on this new meaning for the dwelling, appealing to the dream content of the commodity. Suburban land made a particularly fertile object for the investment of fantasy since its value was latent; the site itself was empty, so one could inscribe any ideals in it. The people who bought or built themselves culture houses in the new suburbs need not have been lost in irrational fantasy to share the cosmopolitan hopes of progressive architects and suburban entrepreneurs of cosmopolitan culture, they began transforming the periphery of Tokyo into bedroom communities of white collar nuclear family households.“

The era of the carpenter-built and designed house was beginning to wane with the advent of these new building patterns, and the insertion of the architect into the existing system of relations between clients and craftsmen and the subsequent mass-marketing of architectural advice and building plan books in the 1920s. This represented a major shift:

Prior to this time, the only published pattern books for domestic architecture were hinagatabon, densely packed compendiums of drawings showing standard ornamental elements such as tokonoma alcove and shelf combinations or decorative transoms (ranma), in elevation without explanatory captions. Other design ideas and technical know-how were acquired through apprenticeship and on-site building experience. Carpenters usually worked only with a floor plan, drawn on a board in single lines with points indicating posts. The absence of full-wall elevations and other drawings reflects not simply the modularity of Japanese architecture, but the fact that after long apprenticeships, experienced carpenters were able to solve design problems through a vocabulary of formulas from past solutions, in a process of bricolage that has been observed in vernacular building around the world. Some master carpenters considered it a matter of pride not to study plans on site.

The new architect-produced tracts and plans warned their customers, as a matter of course, not to trust the carpenter due to their lack of “scientific knowledge” – but to hire an architect instead. These architects stressed such things as ‘family-centered’ plans, laid out general principles of ‘taste’, stressed the importance of ‘scientific hygiene’, and emphasized that without the expertise of the architect, grave errors were likely to be made. The architect’s focus on external visual aesthetics in relation to house-building transformed what was formerly a practice-based system of production.

With the new push for the middle classes to be sophisticated in terms of Western dress and etiquette, and the need therefore for a western space within the house with which one could ‘properly’ receive guests dressed in a Western modan manner (i.e., sitting in chairs as opposed to on a tatami matted floor), architects inserted themselves as the arbiter of this new domestic ideal. This insertion became much more of a reality in the 1920s with the introduction of the Urban Building Law, which went into effect at the same time as a new Town Planning Law. These laws were the product of extensive communication between white collar elites in the government Home Ministry and the Society of Architects, with the aim,

…of introducing zoning regulations, lot lines for minimum road width, land readjustment procedures for creating uniform blocks, density and height limits, and restrictions for fire safety. Uchida Yoshikazu, a student of Sano Toshikata at Tokyo University, was the key representative of the Society of Architects. He and Sano formed the core of a group working to transform the practice of architecture in Japan from an applied art into a science that combined structural engineering and social policy…. In order to enforce the law, bylaws stipulated that plans for all new construction be submitted to the police. Since architects knew the police regulations and were trained in drafting, as few carpenters were, this had the effect of creating work for them as representatives for the carpenters or clients….

The law combined with new materials and building techniques to affect the relationship between clients, designers and carpenters in other ways, with the result of devaluing the aesthetic importance of the carpenter’s work. For carpenters, standards of joinery and type, grain, and finish of woods, left exposed and uncoated, were the marks of a building’s quality. Neither of these things had a role in culture house design, where significance lay instead in overall planning and the visual impression of the whole. To make wooden structures more resistant to earthquakes , the Urban Building Law required builders to stiffen joints with metal bolts [and plates], diminishing the need for complex joinery. Carpenters maintained old techniques out of pride, but some of their refined, labor-intensive techniques could be sidestepped to reduce costs. Imported lumber, plywood, paint, paper stencils, and wallpaper made it easier to build an attractive Western-style house that showed few of its structural timbers. American pine began to displace native woods in the Tokyo market after World War I. It cost about half the price. Greatly boosted by the demand for lumber after the earthquake, American imports surpassed the native product in 1925. With cheap imported lumber and paint to hide it, a Western house could now actually be cheaper to build. One writer on culture houses encouraged readers to choose their own lumber in order to avoid being overcharged by carpenters. The combination of these factors not only affected the autonomy of the carpenter on the building site and interrupted old trade ties that had supported vernacular production (which might indeed take advantage of the innocent client) but also created a rift between the tastes of the new client building a house, whose eyes were trained on marks of “culture”, and the carpenter, whose craft began with appreciation of the wood itself.“

And there you have it – the beginning of the end for the master builder tradition in Japan. I note how key it was for the architects to gain control over the house-building industry to be able to draw. This ability to represent something on paper empowers both architects in dealing with laws and clients in dealing with both builder and architect. The carpenter of today aspiring to do more design would be wise to heed the lesson I think. It is instructive in the case of Japan to witness how the age of vernacular building was removed from relevance through a rhetoric of reform, an increasing range of people advocating for it, and how everyone engaged in that process of re-shaping or seeking to change dwelling spaces marketed some image of cosmopolitan modernity – which was what planning, designing, and building were now all about. It was not so much that vernacular building practice was entirely swept aside by this new process; neighborhood carpenters still worked much as they always had – rather the traditional now became infused with images and ideas and techniques, and a cycle of changing fashions took hold, much as it had in North America with the advent of the Greek revival style in the 1830’s. Western designs now provided much of the raw material for these commercialized cycles, and architects provided the authority as arbiters of design taste.

Japanese traditional domestic architecture was primarily about configuring the house as a stage for viewing the surrounding garden in the most advantageous manner possible. As this garden formed a private world for the household, the lot was often surrounded by a fence and the house itself only partially visible from the street. The adoption of ever greater Western ideas into this architecture made some profound changes in that traditional building culture in several ways. Here’s Sand’s description of a model housing development built for an Exposition, the Culture Village:

First, in the most obvious sense, the houses at Culture Village were for looking at. Ironically, they were not for going into; visitors were allowed to enter the houses only by special invitation. This only made them more purely visual objects (or objects for voyeurism), since the typical fairgoer’s experience of them was limited to peering in doorways and through the windows. Here for the first time, were detached houses, the quintessentially private architectural form, built expressly for public display.

Second, graphic styles now made the house a specular object…. Houses were consciously rendered as aesthetic objects, [illustrated] in single point perspective, giving primacy to vision, creating allure, and embodying the eye of possessive individualism.

Third, in magazine advertisements and elsewhere in the mass media after the exposition, images of houses became popular symbols, used to evoke both progress and cozy domesticity. The Ajinomoto Company, makers of mono-sodium glutamate flavoring, advertised their product in the newspapers of late 1922 with a sketch of a steep-roofed half-timber style house and the words “appropriate to the name of Culture.” Soap companies, soy-sauce manufacturers, a chocolate maker and other producers of items for home use employed similar images. They were the first advertisements in Japan to exploit the home as a signifier of consumer satisfaction.

Finally, culture houses were dwellings rendered visible actually, and physically, since the new houses appearing in suburban neighborhoods of the time were available to view from nearby streets. Surrounded by low fences rather than high walls and hedges, often two stories where most of their neighbors were one, with gables facing the side street, and dormers or attic windows cut into the gables rather than heavy, unbroken masses of roof tile (as if the eyes of the culture house were set higher on the head than native eyes), culture houses were conspicuous additions to the landscape.“

At this point I feel I have adequately painted the broad brush strokes outlining the changes that occurred in Japan as the result of Commodore Perry’s visit and the Meiji restoration which subsequently unfolded. With the industrialization of society and the commodification of virtually every aspect of life that seems thus engendered, the old ways of vernacular building were shredded, and marginalized, as architects assumed authority for much of the design, and faddism became established, thus uprooting the old practice of building based on experience and pattern. Styles came and went – Japan had crazes for the West Coast bungalow style, then the Spanish Mission style, followed by re-cycling in of native styles in waves of reaction to the foreign imports; these re-imaginings and reconfigurings of native styles, such as sukiya, created new hybrids. Thus the native traditions came to recast themselves in new aesthetic terms and in adherence to new ideals.

Sukiya, the stylized ‘rustic hut style’ of male literati and retired elites, became again a fashion among those longing for a return to a romanticized ‘old country’ Japan (a common response to the rapid shift to modernity in many countries, including the US and Western Europe with the Arts and Crafts/Art Nouveau movements of the early twentieth century), and the farmhouse as archetype was connected to ideals of ‘simplicity’. It was in 1922 that the work Nihon no Minka (People’s Dwellings of Japan) was published, and this book coined and popularized the term minka. Indeed, I must confess that this writer also romanticizes minka to some extent, and sees in them something noble, beautiful and authentic. Certainly, I take from minka a pattern of building and a structural system – an aesthetic I will examine in further detail in future posts.

Jordan Sand’s work brought me face to face with realizations about the point in history in which I was born, and how much of the normality in which I grew up, and continue to inhabit, is entirely a construction. There was a certain shock of recognition I felt as I read the account of the changes that were wrought in japan during a 50-year period crossing the fin de sicle line. I now realize that much of Japanese modern culture, which at times seemed so familiar when I lived there, was/is similarly a largely-constructed social and material reality, to serve certain needs and interests, and that much of that reality was a conscious borrowing from the West, part and parcel of Japan’s national effort to get onto a level playing field with the West.

A recommended read for those interested in the history of building and culture, and the effects of the industrial revolution on building practice and tradition.

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

  1. Ajinomoto is no good. They don't deserve to be in your otherwise excellent article Everything they make is a neurotoxic or carcinogenic poison, like Aspartame and MSG. This is one of the biggest corporate killers on the planet! Please read this article:


    Here is another excellent one explaining how it got approval:

    Aspartame – Rumsfeld's Bioweapon Legacy

    Best wishes from Stephen Fox, Founder, New Millennium Fine Art
    Santa Fe, New Mexico

  2. Hi Stephen,

    thanks for the comment. I can see that the mention of msg pushed a button there, and I'm sorry you're upset.

    Now, as far as the mention of msg is concerned, I was quoting Sand in the first place, and second I made no endorsement of the product – that WASN'T the point of the passage. The point of the passage was the adoption of the motif of 'house and home' to sell commercial products, as a new phenomenon in Japan at the time. The particulars of which products adopted that motif was not of particular relevance, it was only to list a few examples. Please read for contextual meaning. If I was to avoid every word, that taken alone would upset someone, well, I wouldn't be left with much to write about, now would i?


  3. I understand entirely, and did so understand when I posted my comment. However, this company is the scourge of modern health all over the world, which may seem out of context or off topic, but it affects millions, including builders, architects, and carpenters.

    Great column, by the way: well done, and very illuminating, I state as a former News editor.

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