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Friday, January 27, 2012

Asian Miscellany (20)—Housing in Heian Japan

[a] Housing RF
My last few posts in "Asian Miscellany" have been driven by deadline—and many of them will follow in the coming weeks and months, since I have signed contracts to deliver a whole passel of encyclopedic material to various publishers before a self-imposed deadline of January 30th. As I explained in the introduction, this series of posts allows me to try out a few ideas that I plan eventually to include in various encyclopedias or on-line sites that have asked for my input. They are not the same as the pieces that will eventually be published, but constitute more of a "long draft," meant to work through a few ideas as I work on brief essays that often mandate strict "word counts" of 250, 500, 1,000, or 2,000 words. 

For the next dozen or so posts, I have been asked to write about Heian Japan (794-1185). It is one of the most fascinating periods in world history, so I trust that the topics will "connect" for readers of the first ten "Asian Miscellany" posts (almost all of the topics—children, family, urban/rural—are the same). They work well for people interested in a brief introduction to Heian Japan or for people interested in comparative issues. Although an introduction to the Heian period in Japan would require its own introduction, I trust that a reading of these "Heian Japan posts (11-20 in Asian Miscellany) will encourage a few of you to read a bit of the literature of the period.

Click here for other posts in the Heian Japan mini-series:
City-Country    Children         Food-Drink      Entertainment               Sports-Games
Education        Family Life     Work-Labor     Language-Literature     Housing-Shelter
Housing in Heian Japan was dominated by a common theme and a stark variation. The divide can be seen between urban and rural locales, where in each case the structures were made to fit the demands of ritual and commercial life, on the one hand, and agricultural productivity, on the other. Housing in Japan’s tenth century began with functionality and moved outward toward more and more refined definitions of space and place. What they all had in common is just as important as the differences, and that is wood. This is also one of the reasons that the oldest housing in Japan having exact origins dates back only to the beginning of the seventeenth century. Various reasons—from climate to disaster and simple desire to rebuild—have been given for the fact that structures in Japan rarely approach the age of those in China or Europe. As we will see, there are many reasons for Japan’s distinctiveness, and its housing combines to this day a balance of materials dominated by wood. 
[b] Wooden RF

Wood Architecture 
Wood has dominated Japanese architecture in a way that is paralleled by only a few world civilizations, and none as complex as Japan’s. Long after other materials were abundantly available, many builders preferred the elegant simplicity of wooden structures, as well as the powerful linkages created by traditional “joinery” of wooden beams, which created a formidable stability that was rivaled by few other materials. To be sure, the elaborate castles of later ages were made of many materials, including wood, stone, and mortar, and the most elaborate palace structures in Heian Japan used multiple materials. Still, wooden beams provided the vast majority of housing materials during this period, and the very connotations of wood have cultural powers rivaled only by a few other items in Japan.  

Rural Housing 
It is difficult to speak with authority about rural housing in Heian Japan, since few documents mention structural details beyond the configuration of housing and fields. Several authors mention the advantage of a village-field structure that mimicked the classical Chinese model of the “well-field” system, in which agricultural fields bordered a central village, whose workers would move out in the various directions to tend to the work of the allied families farming the area. 

The Chinese character used to represent the “well-field” system (井) gives a clear representation of this ideal. Each of the outer fields would be equipped with a boarding house for adolescent boys and working-age men, who would spend significant amounts of time in the late-spring, summer, and autumn working the fields. Whole communities, dominated traditionally by women planting the rice seedlings, would begin the year in the joint effort to create a crop that would culminate in a robust harvest in the autumn.

Architectural designs emerge from social and productive activities. The very facts of agricultural life demanded structures that could store grain, dry it, and allow for processing. It is not difficult to see that these structures needed to be centrally located within the village, and the grains were transported from the outer fields to these buildings in the village center. Residential housing in rural areas was built around these key economic sites. With a combination of “centered” housing and outer “field” housing, the villages were able to integrate a fairly large territory under the labor of a rural community. Above this, however, lay one more integral element: the growing manorial (shōen) system that increasingly linked rural areas to the capital, and eventually would lead to a complete political and economic transformation of Japan.
[c] Beaming RF

Urban Housing
The manorial system (shōen) is the key linkage between urban and rural life, including housing. The revenues that would build elaborate structures in the Heian capital came from the provinces, the rural areas. Even though almost none of the literature of Heian Japan speaks to these matters, a few records show the burgeoning economic life beyond the capital. Many of these revenues were sent to the related and powerful families in the capital, not the least being the imperial family itself and the most dominant family in all of Heian life, the Fujiwara.[1]

The metropolis of Heian Kyō exhibited these tensions between rural and urban revenues. The money came from afar, but the life of the capital was directed toward the inner realm of the palace buildings. Not unlike the schema seen in rural life, the capital formed the center of a conceptual grid, and wealthy or well-connected families encircled the palace grounds. Having a well-placed location near the palace was a sign of wealth and connections, and such things were highly prized. 

Beyond the palace grounds—where disastrous fires led to temporary accommodations every decade or so during the worst conflagrations of the tenth and eleventh centuries—lay the most venerable temple structures. Of these, few can match the Tōdaiji temple, one of the greatest Buddhist structures in all of Japan, and a center for artistic enterprise and Buddhist worship for centuries. Centered in Nara (the capital before Heian times), the Tōdaiji temple’s wooden structure houses a mammoth fifty-three foot “Great Buddha” that has cast a distinctive architectural gaze over the islands of Japan since its “eye-opening” ceremony in 752, which is still known as one of the greatest public ceremonies in all of Japanese history. 
[d] Meticulous RF

Nearby is the completely wooden Shōshōin, which has been described as a kind of elegant and religious cabin of wooden beams that has been raised almost three meters over the ground on wooden pillars. Maintained and meticulously rebuilt over the centuries, the building houses some of the rarest collections in all of Japan, including the personal items of Emperor Shōmu from the eighth century. It also houses items that break with the common view of Japanese diplomatic history—materials from the Silk Road trade that include objects from central Asia, Europe, China, as well as south, south-east, and northern Asia. The wooden architecture of this simple building speaks to its ability to preserve among the rarest items in the entire country in a housing of wooden logs.
  ***  *** 
The materials came from afar—farthest of all when considering the capital. In each case, housing was built according to a grid that fit the economic, social, and commercial needs of the community. These differed greatly between the outer provinces and the inner capital, but wooden structures dominated and the burgeoning agricultural income from the provinces should never be forgotten when studying the life of Heian Japan. 

Click here for other posts in the Heian Japan mini-series:
City-Country    Children         Food-Drink      Entertainment               Sports-Games
Education        Family Life     Work-Labor     Language-Literature     Housing-Shelter

[e] Tree-lined RF
[1] Although even experienced authors vary in their styles, East Asian surnames generally do not take an “s” in their plural forms when rendered into Romanized letters. For this reason, these essays refer to the Fujiwara (not “Fujiwaras”) in plural form.

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