The Japanese Nationality Room

The Japanese Nationality Room celebrates traditional Japanese carpentry and woodcraft, evoking the mid-eighteenth century minka, houses of the non-ruling classes of Japan. The circumstances of those ranging from poor farmers to mercha nts and village heads were reflected in their houses, with differences expressed in form, design and degree of skill with which the houses were constructed. Many minka compared favorably with the houses of the ruling samurai (warrior) class, an indication of the high level of architecture and carpentry generally available. While the oldest existing minka date from the fifteenth century, most are from the first half of the 17th century (during the Edo Period), 1603-1867).

Functionally, the minka served jointly as a place of work as well as domicile. This is in contrast to samurai dwellings which were strictly residences. From the beginning of the Edo Period, many minka houses reflected an exceedingl y high level of technical and perfection, and aesthetics of wood construction, drawing on castle construction, the architecture of samurai dwellings, Buddhist temples and the aesthetics associated with chanoyu or the "tea ceremony."

Traditional Japanese architecture is essentially architecture of wood, probably because timber was the most abundant natural building material in Japan. In addition, the skeleton wood frame proved remarkably resistant to earthquakes and, when damage wa s incurred, made quick reconstruction possible. This style of construction also provided sufficient ventilation and protection from frequent rains and humidity.

Building the minka was typically entrusted to a master carpenter capable of designing and building an entire structure according to the wishes of the family. Trade crafts, including joinery techniques, were closely guarded and passed down throug h the family. It was not unusual, therefore, to find different styles of traditional architecture in the neighboring valley or beyond the next hill.

The Japanese Room is representative of minka that might be the residence of an important village leader in a farm village on the outskirts of Kyoto. The Roomās design reflects refinements in aesthetics and construction technique associated with Japanās ancient capital. The Osaka-Kyoto area, also known as the Kinki region, is considered to be the prime area of quality minka. The design of the Japanese Nationality Room itself represents the core rooms of the house: a plank-floored ima or (household) sitting room and the adjacent doma, an area with a compacted earthen floor used as an entry-way, for cooking and as a work space. The doma was also a space for household life, where farm, business and craft activities could be carried out under a roof. In the past it also provided a place for drying grain during rainy weather.

Typically, the floor of the ima is raised 40-50 centimeters (15-19 inches) higher than the earthen doma floor. Footwear could be worn while working in the doma, but was to be removed before stepping up onto the wood floor and enter ing the ima. (It should be noted that in keeping with the requirements of classroom use, this height difference has been eliminated.)


Major Design Elements

Tied Beam and Pillars

A central feature of the room is the massive, rough-hewn beam, the ushibari of Japanese pine, supported by posts at the boundary of the ima and doma elements of the room. By the middle of the 18th century, in wealthier < U>minka, massive pieces of wood were used to make the core posts, as the transverse beams to be supported by them became larger. The main beam in this room had been carefully preserved by the carpenters in Japan for many years until a project could be found to appropriately utilize its unique curvature. To accommodate the weight concentrated on the primary post, the daikokubashira, the layout of the room has been designed so that this main post sits directly above the buildingās existing supers tructure. The major posts are made of zelkova, (keyaki), a hardwood with a distinctive grain pattern. The other beams are made of American pine. The posts and beams are connected without nails, using traditional joinery techniques.


As with other elements of minka design, ceilings varied according to location, occupation and economic status of the household. In some cases there was no ceiling as such, with open space reaching the underside of the roof. This was particularly true above the doma. In households where silkworms were raised on the second floor, it was not uncommon to have bamboo ceilings with joined beams. This allowed for the circulation of warm air from fireplaces below. Smoke rising through the ceiling is said to have helped to preserve the thatched roof. The ceiling of the Nationality Room adopts this style.


Wall surfaces varied according to region and available materials. Generally, the surface was mud plaster applied over a bamboo lattice. In some circumstances, walls were made of wooden boards, thatch or a combination of wood and mud plaster. The Nation ality Room mimics mud plaster walls through the use of textured wallpaper and uses wooden wainscoting for greater durability.

The bay window is a structure not in keeping with traditional Japanese design. It has been masked with panels that suggest shôji, sliding doors of lattice frames, covered with translucent paper.


The ima is suggested with a plank wood floor covering the largest portion of the room. In many cases, tatami mats, widely used in modern homes, were used in addition to plank flooring. The floor toward the front of the room is made of a s imulated earthen material to represent a portion of the doma where it meets the imaās wooden floor. Again, it should be noted that a traditional design would call for the wooden floor to be much higher than the dirt floor, but this has been eliminated in the classroom.


Located on the rear wall, is the tokonoma, a raised alcove for the display of treasured objects, flower arrangements and seasonal decorations. The tokonoma has been built in shoin-style, with shoji along its exterior side. T he corner post, tokobashira is made of ebony and the floor of the tokonoma is tatami.

Display Case

The display cases at the rear of the room and along the interior wall contain artifacts in keeping with the period. Featured is a chagama and furo, an iron kettle with metal charcoal hearth/brazier combination, used in the "tea ceremony."

Room Furniture/Accessories

While typical minka would have no chairs at all, in keeping with its function as a classroom, the Japanese Nationality Room has wooden chairs designed and crafted specifically for students and are consistent in design with the rest of the room. Sliding wooden panels cover the blackboard at the front of the room. The interior surface of the entry door has been modified with a wooden treatment that suggests the sliding door that was the typical entrance to a house of this period.



· Kozawa Tadahiro, "History of Housing," in Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, 1983, Vol. 3, p 243.

· Nagese, Hirokazu, Nagase Architect and Associates. 1998

· Oshima, Akeo Minzokutanbojiten, (Folk Reference Dictionary) Yamagawa Shuppansha, 1984, p 68-69.


ARCHITECT: Hirokazu Nagase, Kyoto

ARCHITECT OF RECORD: Norman Harai, Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH-KYOTO LIAISON: Tadao Arimoto, Pittsburgh


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Page created by Marie Mazzocco

Edited 5/26/99 by Jonathan Wolff and Teresa Poloka