The Japanese Craftsman, The Science of Traditional Craftsmanship

Based on an interview with Toshiaki Tokuda, Chairman of Kyoto-style joinery maker Tokuda Corporation

When one talks about those things that represent the Kyoto townscape, one item that appears so often as to be almost an absolute element is the lattice. It represents the crystallization of a certain kind of wisdom that, naturally, has been built into the elegant townhouses (machiya) that are architectural symbols of the old capital and also finds its way into newer buildings. What are the meanings and roles tucked away into the simple adornment that is a lattice? Those mysteries are untangled for us by Toshiaki Tokuda of Tokuda Corporation, who has supplied his indubitable craftsmanship to numerous buildings such as the Kyoto State Guest House that symbolize Japanese culture.

Lattices Evolved with the March of Kyoto History, with an Initial Purpose of Crime Prevention

The birth of the lattice is intimately connected to Kyoto history and the rise of the townhouse. Lattices first appeared during the Heian Period, when people were buying for commercial use the spaces fronting streets and avenues of all sizes that had been the dwellings of the nobility. At that time, they spoke of machiya but wrote them with characters that meant “shop house.” As we see in Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s famous story “Rashōmon,” the closing years of the Heian Period saw the onset of famines and natural disasters and led to a period in which Kyoto became rather run down. Depredations and disorder were rife, and the people running shops in particular needed to protect themselves. It was against that backdrop, says Mr. Tokuda, that “lattices that would separate the outside and the inside emerged with the objective of crime prevention.” Lattices originally were boarded constructs laid out crisscross like a go board and used to partition the rooms of Heian-era “palace style” (shinden-zukuri) dwellings. However, because of the need for something to front on streets, what developed were lattices that had openings to allow for ventilation and lighting but also retained crime prevention functions. Looking at the famed “Screens of Scenes in and Around Kyoto” (Rakuchū rakugai zu byōbu) dating to the Muromachi Period, we see that by around that time lattices were starting to be used on townhouses to separate the inside from the outside. Paintings from the Momoyama Period show that their use on townhouses had become commonplace. The latticework up to this point features such design elements as thick crosspieces (yokoita) and wide gaps between the boards, indicating that their principal function was crime prevention. The daintiness aspect that we now think of as typical of Kyoto latticework was developed and became widespread during the Edo and Meiji Periods.

Evolution Owing to a Denser Population in Kyoto and the Development of New Tools

Kyoto’s townhouses took on a more standardized form as the city entered an era of relative stability after the end of Warring States Period. “Behind that development was a unique wisdom for dealing with authority and taxation based on size of a house’s frontage.” The townhouses used what is referred to as an “eel bed” (unagi no nedoko) layout — typified by narrow frontages and deep lots — that was a device for reducing taxes and presenting the outward appearance of modesty and frugality. This was also an age in which there was a large population influx from surrounding regions. For townhouses — which fronted streets and stood only marginally separated from the houses that neighbored or stood across the road from them — the blinder and peephole functions that lattices provided came to be a necessity. That’s because the shopkeeper residents would fear for their livelihoods and lives if they could not quickly deal with some issue in that event that someone was kicking up a ruckus and suspicious parties were present. Furthermore, in order to engage in the communications with people that are indispensable to commerce, they needed lattices that would prevent people just passing by from seeing inside but allow those who stopped to do so. Thus, latticework had many roles to play that were based on a variety of conditions and restrictions unique to Kyoto.

An essential element that we also should not forget is advances in the tools available. The development of a specialized kind of jointer plane called daikanna — sometimes called “a tool for serving beauty” — added to the technologies usable for meticulously finishing the surface of wood. This plane also played a role in encouraging the development of precise manual skills, such as the techniques for making it hard to see the inside from the outside but easy to see the outside from inside, accomplished by finishing the horizontal strips in the lattice not into a quadrangular prism shape but rather a delicate trapezoid whose surface on the side of the street is thicker than that facing the inside of the shop.

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