Work and Rest: Living Spaces of Feudal Japan

Work and Rest: Living Spaces of Feudal Japan – Campbell Coughlin


Looking at the place where a person lives can tell us a lot about the person who lives there. By considering the structural design, materiality, and function of an architectural work, we can understand what kinds of lives these people lead and what was important to them, whether it is their diplomatic image, defense from invaders, or their work/livelihood. This exhibit investigates the lives of people who lived in feudal Japan, with a focus on the Edo period, in various social classes by analyzing the spaces in which they worked, rested, and most importantly, lived.

This exhibition will start by looking at the Farmhouse of the Yoshino Family. It is one example of minka, or Japanese-style farmhouses. There are various types of minka with a myriad of architectural features, from steep thatched roofs to shallow tiled roofs, with one floor or multiple floors made of earth or wood. There are an endless variety of minka styles, but I chose the Yoshina Farmhouse specifically because it has architectural features that are reflected both in buildings later in this exhibition, but also in minka in general; thatched roofing is commonly used in minka, but the low and wide design, occasional use of tile roofing, and wood and tatami floors are commonly seen in buildings owned by people of higher status.

Next, we will move on to the Shimada Storehouse/Residence. This building was built at the beginning of the Meiji restoration, but misegura, or combined storehouse/residencies, are much more reminiscent of the Edo period. There are many types of storehouses, or kura, but the misegura was commonly found in urban areas where merchants could both sell their products and live in the same building so they could keep a close eye on their products.

After that, we will continue to Edo Castle, the residence of the Shogun in the 1450s. The wide moats, sturdy stone structures, and imposing towers emphasize the Shogun’s military and political prowess during the Edo period.

Finally, we will look at the Kyoto Imperial Palace, where the Emperor lived and worked in the 12th century. During this time, the Emperor started to lose political control to the Shogun, but still held a position of diplomatic power and was revered as a descendent of gods. The lavish intricacy and sprawling natural splendor of the Kyoto Imperial Palace speak to the status of the Emperor and his critical role in diplomatic relations.

Although this exhibition only displays a fraction of the myriad of feudal Japanese living spaces, it covers living spaces from sturdy, modest farmhouses to grand, decorative castles and palaces. By looking at these living spaces in order of social status, we can see the shifting importance from functionality to decorative flourishes, while maintaining a common thread that these places are just as much a place for work as they are a place for rest.

Title:  Farmhouse of the Yoshino Family

Period: Late Edo

Date: 1603 – 1867

Culture: Japan

Materials: Wood, straw, tile, paper, earth plaster, and other materials

Location: Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, Tokyo, Japan

Photo(s) By: Kestrel (Right) and Ymblanter (Left)

Description: The Farmhouse of the Yoshino Family is one historical example of a diverse genre of Japanese Architecture called Minka. Minka are designed to simultaneously be durable and versatile, serving the families that live there for several generations. The sturdy wooden beams support the house and influence the house’s design, and the steep, thick roofs serve as protection from the elements and indicate the status of the residents. The roofs of Minka are usually thatched, with tile being used in only some designs, due to thatched roofs being more resilient and less expensive than tile. The Yoshino Farmhouse roof follows this trend, using thatched roofing on the main part of the roof with tile only appearing on the veranda and a small gable on top of the roof. The interior of the Yoshida Farmhouse has tatami flooring, with one raised wooden area containing a hearth for cooking. The veranda acts as a transitional space between the outdoors and the indoors where people might take off their shoes so they don’t track dirt into the house, and the elevated hearth indicates a desire to protect the tatami floors, showing that this building was meant to be respected while also being a place where daily activities like cooking can take place.

Title:  Former Shiyama Family Residence/Storefront

Period: Early Meiji

Date: 1886

Culture: Japan

Materials: Wood, tile, and other materials

Location: Kyodo no Mori Open Air Museum, Tokyo, Japan

Photo(s) By: 掬茶

Description: The Former Shiyama Family residence is a type of storehouse known as Misegura where the Shiyama family lived and sold medicine. It was built during the Meiji period, but the architectural style is much more reminiscent of the late Edo period. Misegura blend the concepts of work and home by having a store in the front and a living space in the back, two concepts that are usually completely separate in the West. We will see this theme appear more and more frequently as we look at the homes of the Shogun and the Emperor. Misegura are typically found in urban areas, are two/three stories tall, designed to be fire-resistant in order to protect a merchant’s products, and are much more expensive and difficult to build than Minka. These are reflected in the design of the Shiyama Residence, with intricate designs on the top of the roof and small windows/doors with shutters to prevent fire from spreading.

Title:  Edo Castle

Period: Mid-Edo

Date: 1457

Culture: Japan

Materials: Stone, wood, tile, earth plaster, and other materials

Location: Tokyo, Japan

Photo(s) By: Daderot (Both)

Description: The Edo Castle was built during the mid-Edo period for the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, as a place for him to live and display his wealth, status, and military prowess. The moat around the castle and the stone walls are designed to keep invaders out, and the towers on the periphery of the complex serve as both a defensive measure and a status symbol. The center of the castle, or honmaru, most notably contained the main keep (the tallest tower in the castle) and the residence of the Shogun. This was both elevated above and walled off from the rest of the castle, signaling that for the Shogun, the home was a place where he was protected and praised, but he had to constantly be wary of invaders and was unable to relax in a way that we would typically associate with home. This part of the castle did burn down during one of several fires that ravaged the castle, but fortunately, its original image can still be seen today in the form of scale models.

Title:  Kyoto Imperial Palace

Period: Nara and Heian

Date: 12th century

Culture: Japan

Materials: Wood, tile, gold, earth plaster, and other materials

Location: Kyoto, Japan

Photo(s) By: Zairon (Right) and Ryuch (Left)

Description: The Kyoto Imperial Palace served as a living space and diplomatic hub for the Emperor and his family during the early Edo period. The Palace is walled off from the public, with only a few gates to enter through, but there are no towers to act as lookout posts as we saw in the Edo Castle, indicating that for the Emperor, military defensibility was less important than a general separation and distinction from the common people. Instead, the Imperial Palace displays wealth with intricate detailing, like gold leaf on the roof of Otsune hall (the Emperor’s main living space) and elaborate gardens and landscaping. This shows that the emperor’s power at the time was more diplomatic soft-power than the militaristic hard-power of the Shogun. The lush gardens and serene lakes serve to make the Emperor and visiting diplomats feel at ease, but it can also be read as signaling the Emperor’s divinity, since nature in Japan has almost spiritual connotations.




  • “Edo Castle.”, last modified Aug. 31,
  • “Former Shimada Family Residence.” Fuchu City Local Forest Museum., last modified March 31,
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Author: Campbell Coughlin

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