Japanese Carpentry and Housing was developed more than a millennia ago and at that time was influenced by Chinese wooden architecture. But the thing that makes this really different from all others is the use of unique woodlocking techniques instead of using adhesives or nails, and the ability to allow internal configuration of a space to be customized for different occasions easily! This is just one point of many others so let’s see what things there are!
Disciplines in Woodwork
After designing the building, the carpenter’s job is to craft the work in complete accordance with the laws of nature, mark the lumber with care, and build the structure. With that sense of honest humility toward nature, the carpenter represents a lifeline to traditional construction methods and the singular source from which exquisite, captivating wooden buildings can emerge.
Japanese carpenters identify with one of three disciplines according to the work they perform and items they craft. The 3 disciplines are as follows:
- Miyadaiku – Shrine and temple carpenters; The buildings they construct are frequently among the world’s longest surviving wooden structures, an example being Horyuji Temple in Nara, constructed by the most venerated ‘miyadaiku‘ of all time, the late Tsunekazu Nishioka.
- Sukiya-Daiku – Teahouse and residential carpenters; Famed for aesthetic construction projects that involve delicacy and historic detail, whilst using rustic materials.
- Tateguya – Interior finishing carpenters; People who build ‘shouji‘ (Japanese sliding doors). They also create small, carved wall decorations that are known as ‘ranma‘.
In Japanese carpentry, the technique for assembling furniture and other wooden items without nails or adhesive using both simple and highly complex wood joints is called “Sashimono”. Mortises or grooves called ‘hozo’ are carved into the wood in order to join two boards in a blind joint that’s not visible from the surface. This gives it the ability to be assembled easily while still maintaining structural stability.
There are also special tools present which are used for this some are as follows:
- Nokogiri – A saw which cuts on the pull stroke, rather than the otherwise globally prevalent push stroke. This allows the blades to be quite thin in comparison to the Western saw. What also makes this different is that it isn’t mass manufacture but instead hand forged and very laborious to make.
- Kanna – Most commonly a wooden block containing a laminated blade, sub-blade, and securing pin called a plane, which is used to shape and smooth wood. Just like Nokogiri, Japanese planes are generally operated by pulling rather than pushing.
- Nomi – A chisel that has shorter blades than their western counterparts. They take various forms for specific uses. A key difference is the quality of the steel and how they’re forged. For example the edge can be hardened more therefore giving it shock absorption capacity. Due to this, it can be struck harder without the fear of cracking.
Tansu is a traditional mobile storage cabinetry indigenous to Japan. It is consistent with Japan’s minimalist aesthetic, and as such, traditional homes appeared rather empty. Tansu were not visible in the home except at certain times for specific situations. Mobility was obtained through the use of attached wheels, iron handles for carrying, or protruding structural upper rails for lifting.
A subtype of Sashimono is “Edo Sashimono” which was wood joinery that evolved during the Edo period [1600 – 1870]. The technique was introduced in cabinetwork for Samurai families and wealthy merchants. The joints of Edo Sashimono are made so they’re barely seen from the outside so that the cabinets look more polished and aesthetically pleasing. Although delicate in appearance, the joinery is strong and lasts generations! It has been designated by the Japanese Government as a Traditional Craft of Japan.
Marquetry is the art of inlaying smaller pieces of wood to decorate a larger piece. “Yosegi” is the term used for the traditional Japanese marquetry technique which originated during Japan’s Edo period. It’s made using different grains, colors and textures of wood, and mosaic designs to give it an intricately patterned nature. Rods of various size and shape are glued together in a pattern to form the sections of geometrical patterns, often called a seed plate. The seed plate is then sliced into thin layers (called the Zuku technique), which are then glued onto items. Another way is to sculpt the entire plate (called the Muku technique) to create a single piece. It’s estimated that there are approximately 60 basic patterns, and the way they are combined results in an infinite array of designs! Yosegi can be seen on the outside of Japanese puzzle “trick boxes”, but may also be used to create or decorate many other items, such as trays, chests, jewelry boxes, vases and photo frames.
Housing – Washitsu
Many homes include a minimum of one traditional Japanese styled room, or washitsu, which is especially common outside of Tokyo. In it, the floor has tatami mats made of thick straw base and a soft, finely woven rush cover with cloth borders. The rooms are divided using a divider consisting of translucent sheets on a lattice frame called shouji which can be used for window coverings as well. Vertical rectangular panels which can slide from side to side called fusuma can also be used as doors and dividers. The primary difference between fusuma and shoji is that fusuma are completely opaque. Washitsu have an oshiire (closet) with two levels (for storing futons), and a wooden ceiling. A washitsu can also be unfurnished, and function as a family room during the day and a bedroom at night. In older times they also used to have an Irori heater which is a large hearth or fire pit not only used for heating, but also for cooking as well, but modern washitsu have a kotatsu instead of this.
These all techniques used in Japanese housing and woodwork, and are especially useful for earthquake-prone areas as even if the structure collapses, it won’t cause much damage and can be restored very quickly. This can also be considered one of the reasons for the development of such unique art, Japan being a country with frequent earthquakes. While all types of traditional construction takes time, the process itself is crucial to the vitality of the architecture. The technical concepts focus on keeping the human-nature relationship a nourishing, fulfilling connection, and one that brings people and wood into joyous harmony!