Traditional Japanese houses are far from the modern Western style. Japanese culture, a scarcity of building stone, a climate that ranges from subtropical to almost sub-arctic,note Japan's island environment and the fact that Japan itself is both earthquake and typhoon-prone have resulted in building traditions that are very different from those seen in the West. Traditional Japanese houses are light, airy and flexible structures that are relatively easy to build and thus quick to replace.
While specific details vary by region, common features include a steep shingled roof to shed rain, long eaves that provide protection from the rain and shade from the sun, a raised floor to get you up out of the mud, clear or translucent interior partitions and windows to allow for for "borrowed light", and exterior and interior walls and partitions composed largely of sliding doors and screens that allow the whole house to be opened up for ventilation, practices influenced by (and likely influencing) the relative lack of both privacy and physical modesty in pre-industrial Japan; people simply couldn't hide anything from their neighbors.
Traditional Japanese houses tend to be fairly spartan, with multipurpose rooms and relatively little furniture. Closets and cabinets are used to store bedding and clothing. At the most basic there may only be one main room, which functions as living, dining, or bedroom as the situation requires. As can be seen in anime, modern Japanese houses run the gamut from mostly traditional with some Western features (e.g. the Kusakawa house in My Neighbor Totoro or the Kawamoto household in 3-gatsu no Lion, which have many of the features below) to tiny apartments little different from anything you'd find in the West (e.g. Whisper of the Heart or Rei's apartment in 3-gatsu no Lion).
Some typical features of Japanese houses:
- Genkan: The traditional Japanese entryway. Typically a tiled well in the floor where one removes their outdoor shoes, the genkan can be found even in the smallest studio apartments, even though it may be no larger than a doormat. Larger houses (such as the Tendo residence in Ranma ½) will often have an entire entry hall, and schools even larger ones, where the shoe lockers can be found. In the countryside the farmhouses often have huge genkans with packed-earth or, at best, cobbled floors where much of the agricultural work may take place.
- Shōji and Fushama (or Fusuma): The traditional wooden-framed rice paper screens used as partition walls and doors. Translucent shōji are typically found on the inner wall, and opaque fushama on the outside. These can be quite fragile, and poking them full of holes is often used as a sign of pettiness and immaturity.
- Amado: Sliding rain doors used to enclose Japanese houses from the elements. Typically glazed and configured so they will slide into a stack on either or both sides of the engawa. In My Neighbor Totoro, Professor Kusakawa is shown opening the amado of his family's new house.
- Glazing them is a rather recent innovation, traditionally these also were papered over. However, the paper on them was much thicker and more resembled a cardstock. It was also commonly oiled or waxed to protect it from elements, yielding a sturdy, somewhat translucent material that is usually imitated by a milky glass now.
- Engawa: Often loosely translated as "porch" or "veranda", the engawa is actually the strip of floor between the inner screens and the outer rain doors, which also serves as a kind of a corridor connecting all the rooms together. The engawa functions as a porch when the amado are open and a hallway when they're closed. A popular spot for eavesdroppers, or just a good place to hang out. Unlike the rooms, which have a tatami flooring, engawa usually has a wooden floor. In Ranma ½, much if not most of the progress in Ranma and Akane's relationship takes place on the Tendo residences's engawa overlooking the koi pond.
- Furoba: The traditional Japanese bathroom, with a wash area and one or more heated soaking tubs. Not the toilet, however: that is almost always found in a separate alcove, either off the main bathroom or even in another part of the house. Is the default setting of a, well, Furo Scene.
- Tatami: Traditional rice-straw floor mats, made in uniform sizes that vary from region to region, generally with length/width ratio 2:1. Room and even house sizes are often expressed in numbers of mats, a system referred to as Ken. Once commonly found throughout Japan, but nowadays typically only found in formal rooms, such as tea rooms, receiving rooms, and dojo. The standard size room for the Japanese tea ceremony, as codified in the fifteen century, is four and a half mats.
- There are several different sizes of tatami, each characteristic to its region of origin. Largest of them are tatami from Kyoto, known as Kyoma and measuring 0.955×1.91 meters, and smallest are Kantoma, tatami from Tokyo, which are 0.88×1.76 m. Tatami from Nagoya are of intermediate size, 0.91×1,82 m, which is very close to the 3×6 feet.
- While very warm and pleasant to sit and walk on, tatami actually have several disadvantages that make them significantly less practical than modern Western-style flooring. First, they are still largely hand-made and thus rather expensive a single machine-made mat is about 20,000 yen (~$200-$250), and a hand-made one may set you back for 100,000 yen (~$1000), but 18-man ones are not unheard of. Second, they are made from rice and soft rush straw (cheap modern tatami may have a pressed wood chip or fiberboard core or even a synthetic core of polystyrene instead of traditional rice straw) and wear out pretty quickly, especially if one walks on them in hard-soled shoes. A single mat in a heavily-walked area may last for a couple of years and then need to be resurfaced (the core, on the other hand, is more or less eternal there were tales of 80-years tatami). Third, being a rather loose assembly of pressed straw, tatami are pretty absorbent, and while it can be a good thing, they require a constant laborious care to remain sanitary they need to be periodically aired and dried to rid them of the absorbed moisture and odors, and unless particular care is taken, a lot of dust (and, unfortunately, insects) tends to settle inside the tatami, so periodic dusting is also in order. A modern laminate floor is both less costly and much less fuss.
Many modern Japanese still include one washitsu or "Japanese" formal room featuring most of the traditional features listed above, even if the rest the house is yōshitsu (Western-style). Conversely, in the mid-twentieth century it was common to include or add one Western-style room to an otherwise Japanese style home.
Historically, city people of more modest means lived in wooden rowhouses (nagaya), essentially what apartment houses would look like if built without the benefit of stone, steel, or elevators. At most two stories high and one or two rooms wide, rowhouses combined multi-occupancy with Japanese preferences for natural light and ventilation. Nagaya were common features of Japanese cities from the Edo period until World War II, when they burned all too easily. The anime Oh! Edo Rocket is set in the nagaya where most of the main characters reside.
Since Japanese houses are traditionally built on posts instead of foundations, the area under the floor is often easily accessible and is the traditional lurking spot for spies, sneaks, and ninjas. These post foundations are a key part of the relatively flexible structure which allows Japanese houses to withstand mild earthquakes without shaking to pieces.
Traditional Japanese houses also lack any form of central heating or air conditioning. Whatever heat the occupants may require is provided by a heater traditionally mounted on the bottom of the dining table known as a kotatsu: a sure sign that a kotatsu is in use is the equally traditional quilted skirt hung around the table to retain the heat. As for air conditioning, long eaves, big overhangs, and of course the sliding screens and amado, which allow the whole house to be opened up for natural ventilation (at some expense of privacy) reduce the need for artificial cooling.
And, of course, the garden is where you will find The Thing That Goes "Doink!".
Real Life Western Examples:
- Tropers who live in or visit Florida who want to learn (or see) more may want to visit The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Del Ray Beach; a traditional Japanese home through which visitors may wander is one of the many features of the gardens.
- There is also a two-story silk merchant's home at the Children's Museum in Boston. It was shipped over from Boston's sister city of Kyoto back in 1979.
- The Philadelphia Museum of Art (yeah, the one whose stairs Rocky ran up and down) has a rebuilt model of a traditional Japanese-style home on the fourth floor (it's tucked away in the corner).