The Japanese Machiya Style Of Architecture History Essay

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1st Jan 1970 History Reference this


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The Japanese machiya style of architecture will be examined through its distinctive characteristic of forms, which identifying its styles over time and connection over distance. The significant controls and inspiration of its formal development and ordinary characteristics will also be explored. Machiya, a Japanese term, means townhouse in English. It is generally a city house which included a shop space or a meeting place for business that connects to the street frontage, the traditional type of housing for the urban merchant class in Japan. The long history of its development in styles and its various transformation in forms will be discussed. The term Machiya is not used described a style of architecture, and in fact it is not even a explanation of structural form; but somewhat it is a feature and method which is discriminated. This is a essential part of being able to recognize and identify the term machiya.

From the beginning of the Jomon era in Japan we are shown that the first type of Japanese houses were commonly constructed as pit-like shelters, which were roofed by a simple structural system of posts and thatch work. It is hard to determine the real nature of the structures which sheltered the pit; however the existence of hollow post holes, suggest that four posts located at the corners of a dug out area, held up a set of four beams which created a square structure. Roof poles would then be leaned against the beams and would form a pitched roof structure, often covered by thatch for weather protection.

Figure – Reconstruction of prehistoric pit dwelling and raised storehouse

The earlier Yayoi period show that structures with ‘takayuka’ or raised floors were used during this time, but it is hard to determine whether these structures were used for dwellings or used as storehouses. However, recent findings inform us that the structures with elevated floors may have existed in the northern part of Kyushu Island and along the Western part of Japan approximately at this time. A record of these types of structures were found inscribed on some early bronze artifacts and pottery, suggesting that the raised floor was one of the first significant structural elements that separated the social classes, which were incorporated in to Japanese architecture. The raised floor turned out to be a sacred space, or a space that was reserved for particular purposes and predominantly the housing of important items, such as food and valuables and even became domestic location for storage. The construction of the raised floor system remains as an important part of the Japanese residence even today. By looking at the process of development undertaken with regards to the material, size and function of the raised floor in a sense will allow us to gain an understanding of the history of Japanese residential architecture as well as the development of the social class system.

The spatial arrangement of this structure includes spaces for sleeping, and eating, which were usually enclosed into one space of the pit dwelling. It was the introduction of the raised floor, which led to the next important development, the clarity of specific and non-specific functioning space. The elements deployed were of course beams, floors, walls, and the roof, etc. This became the norm in Japanese architecture. It was combined together with the development of the roof as one component, elevated off the ground, and separated from the wall. At this point, the largely incorporated various architectural elements were defined and became the most common fragments of a typical structure. These elements were of course beams, floors, walls, and the roof, etc. This became the norm in Japanese architecture. However, it is declared that only a small amount of information has been uncovered concerning the development of the first dwelling style known as shinden, during the Heian period. A fairly simple analysis is that a core space ‘moya’ with a raised floor, perhaps used as the sleeping space, which turned out to be engulfed by a space of open bays ‘hisashi’. The hisashi area has determined the origin of the verandah ‘engawa’ and the separating of both the interior and exterior. Such a characteristic has also been found to be common for the Japanese, but this feature of the architecture has not remained as strong as the distinction between floor levels. The influence it has had on all Japanese architecture has resulted in a very complex and dominant pattern of rules, standards and cultural satisfaction.


Typically the historic analysis of Japanese housing development involves exploring the alteration from the ‘pit type’ of dwelling to shinden to shoin to sukiya (lifestyles). Yet, these styles are only one scope, but they are the major extension of the traditional Japanese architecture type. The actual series of forms and methods would involve using a lot bigger of an area if compared to most studies. Yet, the simple pit dwelling, or even the basic ground level structure design continued to be developed further until even the later Muromachi era. Such dwelling types did not disappear easily just because of the new development.

Figure – Japanese folkhouses around Wachi west of Kyoto

Figure – Japanese townhouse in Kurashiki, Okayama

The folkhouse, or ‘minka,’ is another type, which developed in conjunction with the upper classes and warrior classes. The distinctive usage of the thatch roof and the large area of compressed earth floor had often been used as a kitchen in order for others to more easily tell apart the house from other dwelling types. The ‘minka’ has its own characteristics and unique form that was commonly applied to the various Japanese building traditions. It was not a dwelling that should be associated with lower classes. This is often confused, as it was a dwelling type in the rural society. Also with the common townhouse ‘machiya’ it shares more than just formal and shapely similarities with the minka, as they were both dwelling types which represent a transformation in social relations and influence gained by the middle class over their homes and impact on the overall layout of the village or town.


Diversity over space and unity over time is probably the best explanation for a large portion of the world’s different architectures. The ‘machiya’ style is one clear example of this type of statement. The fact that the guidelines given by the Tokugawa Shogunate authority were abided by with only slight varying degrees of approval suggests that there were many local variations with a wide range of the machiya style. But also there is one more possible reason for the range of these forms, it could be the drift toward regularity of construction techniques and the use of different architectural components.

Over time, from when the first takayuka (raised floor) constructions were built, the groups of Japanese craftsmen found the practical way of making a regular size and therefore could establish the placement of main wooden structural members based on components and the reproduction of column sections. The development and achievement of the forms are not as clear-cut and completely obtainable, but Japan did find a basic order of measurement and a method at the very beginning. Such a prototype of construction was well recognized during the 16th and 17th centuries in which the machiya style has developed uniquely with an important characteristic personal to the built landscape.

Along with the difficulties from the political members of society for rules and regulations, the spread of building methods in the Tokugawa era were certified to both the exchange of new methods over space and time. Although, the fact that the minimalism of the structural arrangement could have developed to a further range of forms, Japan’s distinctive way of development of prefabricated building parts was deployed to place variety and unity into such a specifically prosperous balance and dialogue. More so, the publication of contractor guidelines in the mid 18th century was established, which advertised standard building components, such as screens and shutters, these provided an additional sense of harmony to the machiya forms.

The Japanese dialect was exposed to a complex world of influences based on changes in experience and the desire to have the styles of the wealthy, similarly to the development of housing styles in the West. The ‘tokonoma,’ (or decorative room), with the verandah to the designed garden. These are certainly a set of features which, like the overall strictness of the design, can be accredited to the influences of the ‘Chanoyu’ or tea ceremony, which was appreciated and attended mostly by the upper classes of the early Muromachi era. This cultural movement interpreted into the ideal known as ‘wabi’. Wabi ideals turned out to be a way of design and a use of materials, not only applied with the tea ceremony itself but also with the structures and materials within the Tea-room ‘chasitsu.’ These were essential in the enhancement of features such as the tokonoma and the use of natural materials. The way of the ceremony may have initially been limited to the high classes, but the many influences it had on the domestic architectures of the lower classes has also been very significant to history.

Materials, Construction and Forms

The common process and construction method, which was developed for the early machiya style was that the main structural columns ‘hashira’ were placed in standard alignment along the groundsill beams ‘dodai’. Then placed a system of floor beams ‘ashigatame’ and eave beams, along with horizontal tie members ‘nuki’ in order to complete the simple box structure. Followed with the heavy wooden beamed roof structure with a system of rafters and purlins, and finally topped with wooden slats set into a mud-thatch mixture. Within these simply constructed frames and underneath a large protective roof structure, the complex structure, joinery and the large structural members in this structural assembly allowed some freedom with regards to the overall layout of building plans.

Figure – Kitchen within the hallway of the town house

Figure – Main hallway of the traditional Japanese town house

The idea of the description of machiya as it is discussed here is intended to show a process as much, or more than an actual form. The machiya is very similar to the rural minka style in the way that it usually has incorporated into it a compressed floor space, which creates further open living spaces. This dry, main entry and hall ‘doma’ or ‘torinawa’ generally runs the full length of the house from front to back, street side to garden side. With the earliest of floor plan arrangements, the main kitchen ‘daidokoro’ is placed within this long hallway. This kind of hallway is not only used as a circulation space for the residents but also used as a main channel for natural ventilation for the house. As a result, any separation of this hallway, generally achieved with the use of traditional Japanese dividers ‘noren’ or short hanging curtains, that could be placed to achieved only visually separate spaces but still allowed the wind breezes and sounds to pass through. The use of noren is used to provide some kind of soft partition, it is still commonly used in many circumstances within the Japanese society today.

The front room of the house was generally used as the shop space ‘misenoma’. The shop might be an actual place to make things such as the tatami mats, small ceramic wares and foods, also often used as a meeting place for business. Also the misenoma is in fact one of the most important features of the machiya type of housing, not only for the reason of its function giving credibility to the title, but because this space has the positive impact of creating an overall urban structure. The first point, certainly, the misenoma, with a shop beneath the roof of a residence help to enhance what Kevin Lynch might describe as “fine grain,” the patterns of mixed use within the urban structure. The second point is because this shop space is usually positioned right at the front of the house and performed as an extension of the house to the street frontage. Therefore it created the feeling that the street frontage was a place for public. The streets with the early machiya often turned out to be places for community gatherings. The middle room, or ‘nakanoma’ usually situated behind the misenoma, often linked with any room within the typical Japanese house. It is more like a multipurpose space for the whole family to use, from the fact that the most furniture within the room could be removed and putted away, allowed the room to be used for many purposes, such as dinning, studying and sleeping, etc. The back room, is the room that placed furthest away from the front entrance. In many documentations is described as the guest room, or ‘okunoma’. It may seem extraordinary to placed the guest room far away from the entrance, nevertheless, this room often found to be closest to the back garden ‘niwa’ and therefore achieved the most pleasurable views for the guests.

The alteration from one story ‘hiraya’ to two story ‘machiya’ houses is a result of adjustments in political control. As there were strict regulations from the Tokugawa era, restricted the height of building roof and the uses of second floor. As a result, the machiya style developed from just a one story, to one and a half, and to what is now commonly known as a two storey machiya. As the building height has increased, the second floor also changed from just a storage space to have more family living spaces, the shop spaces below are now became larger and still maintained as a spaces for business or even to house a bigger family,


The machiya style is in fact has its own unique dialect of building forms and embodies the way of living within the urban area of Japan. It uses local materials with development of local technology and traditional way of construction methods. Therefore, its architecture has a positive responses to the local climate and expressions of local belief; all of these aspects are found to be embodied in the machiya styles and forms.

The notion of a development in vernacular architecture through the machiya style, in this manner, it points out the value of a local design method as well as the need for further study of vernacular patterns in Japan. The old Japanese city today, described the fact that there has been a big development since the period in which the machiya style has dominated the urban form and impacted the way of living. As time passes, economies, technologies and social patterns will always transformed to a new way of living. The machiya style will required to have some significant element for the future city, while preserved the valuable styles and forms which has embodied until now.

Glossary of Japanese terms

Minka- literally (“house(s) of the people”) are private residences constructed in any one of several traditional Japanese building styles.

Dodai- the ground sill beam.

Hashira- wooden type of structural column.

Machiya- buildings with both dwelling and places of work or trade (“machi”- town block; “ya”- house).

Taka-yuka- earliest building structures with raised floor construction system.

Tatami- originally meaning “folded and piled” mats, traditional type of Japanese flooring.

Chanoyu- the Japanese tea ceremony also called “the Way of Tea”.

Noren- traditional Japanese dividers, hung between rooms, on walls, in doorways, or in windows.

Image References

Figure 1 – table prepared by author

Figure 2 – from Japanese Folkhouses, p.10, by Carver, Norman F. Jr.

Figure 3 – from Japanese Folkhouses, p.71, by Carver, Norman F. Jr.

Figure 4 – from Japanese Folkhouses, p.123, by Carver, Norman F. Jr.

Figure 5 – from Japanese Folkhouses, p.59, by Carver, Norman F. Jr.

Figure 6 – from Japanese Folkhouses, p.60, by Carver, Norman F. Jr.

Book References

Kiyosi, H. (1998). The Japanese House: Then and now. Tokyo: Ichigaya Publication.

Yoshida, Y. (1980). Machiya (Japanese ed). Tokyo: Gakushukenkyusha Publication.

Lynch, K. (1981). Good City Form. London: Cambridge.

Ueda, A. (1990). The inner harmony of the Japanese house. Tokyo; New York: Kodansha International,

Carver, Norman F. Jr. (1993). Form & Space in Japanese Architecture. Kalamazoo: Documan Press, Ltd.

Carver, Norman F. Jr. (1987). Japanese Folkhouses. Kalamazoo: Documan Press, Ltd.

Kazuo, N., & Kazuo H. (1983) What is Japanese Architecture?. Tokyo: Kondansha International.

Oliver, P. (1997). Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yamasaki, M. (1994). Kyoto: Its Cityscape and Heritage. V.116: Process Architecture.

Murata, N., & Black, A. (2000). The Japanese House: Architecture and Interiors. London: Scriptum Editions.

Blaser, W. (1988). The Temple and Teahouse in Japan. Boston: Birkhauser.

Futagawa, Y. (1967). The essential Japanese house: craftsmanship, function, and style in town and country. Tokyo: Weatherhill.

Ito, T. (1922). Minka: Traditional domestic architecture of Japan. New York: Weatherhill.

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