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Minka Japanese: 民家, lit "house of the people" are vernacular houses constructed in any one of several traditional Japanese building styles In the context of the four divisions of society, minka were the dwellings of farmers, artisans, and merchants ie, the three non-samurai castes This connotation no longer exists in the modern Japanese language, and any traditional Japanese-style residence of an appropriate age could be referred to as minka

Minka are characterised by their basic structure, their roof structure and their roof shape Minka developed through history with distinctive styles emerging in the Edo period


  • 1 Types of minka
  • 2 Design of the floor plan
  • 3 Overall construction
  • 4 Roofing
  • 5 Farmhouse interior
  • 6 Typical Edo period farmhouses
    • 61 Gasshou
    • 62 Honmune
  • 7 Preservation
  • 8 See also
  • 9 Footnotes
  • 10 References
  • 11 Further reading
  • 12 External links

Types of minkaedit

Gasshō-style roof Gasshō-zukuri under repair

The term minka literally means "houses of the people" It covers houses that accommodated a wide variety of people from farmers to village headmen, merchants and low level samurai1

Minka come in a wide range of styles and sizes, largely as a result of differing geographic and climatic conditions as well as the lifestyle of the inhabitants They generally fall into one of four classifications: farmhouses nōka 農家 town houses machiya 町屋, fishermen's dwellings gyoka 漁家 and mountain dwellings sanka 山家2

Unlike other forms of Japanese architecture such as those of the sukiya 数寄屋 style, it is the structure rather than the plan that is of primary importance to the minka3 Minka are divided up with primary posts that form the basic framework and bear the structural load of the building; secondary posts are arranged to suit the functional arrangements of the plan4

Despite the wide variety of minka, there are eight basic forms

  • The 'inverted U' consists of two vertical posts fixed at the top with a horizontal beam; these units can then be joined with side girders The beam can be fixed to the top of the post either by resting upon it or via a mortise and tenon joint This latter method is often found in minka on the island of Shikoku3
  • The 'ladder' has post and beam units connected with larger beams including beams that are closer to the foundation level This form of structure originated in townhouses of the Edo period The system allows the irregular placement of posts and, therefore, allows flexibility in the plan3
  • With the 'umbrella' style, four beams radiate out from a central post These posts sit at the centre of the square rather than the corners Minka of this type are often found in Shiga Prefecture5
  • The 'cross' has two beams at right angles to one another with the posts in the centre of the sides It is often used for very small minka that have no other posts erected in the space or for large minka in the earth-floored area The style is most often found in Shiga and Fukui prefectures
  • 'Parallel crosses' are found in Shizuoka Prefecture and cover an area 5 metres by 10 metres This system doubles up the 'cross' structure with two crosses and eight posts
  • The 'box' structure connects four or more post and beam units to create a box-like structure It was devised in the Edo period and can be found in Toyama and Ishikawa prefectures6
  • The 'interconnected box' can be found in Kyoto and Osaka
  • 'Rising beams' is a form that enables better use of the second storey It uses beams that rise from the posts to a secondary ridge that is below the one formed by the rafters7
    • Thatched roof farmhouses based upon the 'rising beam' structure can be further classified into four major types The yojiro-gumi and the wagoya 和小屋 are rare The latter of these, the wagoya, is popular for machiya houses Far more common are the sasu 扠首 also known as gasshou 合掌 and the odachi types89

The odachi style has rafters, crossbeams and short vertical posts to support the ridge Historically, these posts would have extended to the ground resulting in a row of posts extending down the centre of the house and dividing it Although these could be accommodated in the layout of the main house, they were impractical in the earth-floored entrance area — so they were omitted and a special beam structure used instead10 This style was in wide use until the Edo period when a shift was made to the sasu style although both types had been used since historic times11

The sasu style is a simpler triangular shape with a pair of rafters joined at the top to support the ridge pole The ends of these rafters were sharpened to fit into mortice holes at either end of crossbeam9 As this system does not rely on central posts it leaves a more unobstructed plan than the odachi style10

Design of the floor planedit

Decorative roof projections on the ridge of a thatched roof

There were two main methods for setting out the floor plan of the minka The kyoma 京間 method uses a standard size of tatami 畳 mat, whereas the inakama 田舎間 method is based upon column spacing12

The kyoma method works well for minka without central columns as the mats and the sliding partitions fusuma 襖 and shōji 障子 can be based on a standard size It was mainly used in minka in eastern Japan13 The method has its disadvantages if used with posts because variations in post width can make the prefabrication of the sliding partitions difficult12

The inakama method is based upon the distance between centre of one post and centre of the post adjacent to it and it was mainly used on the eastern side of Japan13

Overall constructionedit

Tiled udatsu projecting above the roof

The size, construction and decoration of a minka was dependent upon its location, climate, and social status of its owner14

Minka were influenced by local building techniques and were built with materials that were abundant in the immediate locality For example, minka in Shizuoka used abundant bamboo for roofs, eaves, doors and floors When miscanthus reeds were difficult to obtain for thatched roofs, shingles were used instead; in volcanic areas rushes or boards were used instead of clay for the walls15

Climate had a bearing on construction: In Kyoto in the late Heian and Muromachi periods, roofs were clad in thin wooden shingles so owners would put stones on top to prevent the shingles from flying away in the wind16

The social status of the minka owner was indicated by the size and complexity of the building For thatched roof minka the number of crossed wooden members umanori 馬乗り or bundles of miscanthus reeds along the ridge are a good indicator of the importance of the owner's status in the village17 For machiya, the presence and elaborateness of an udatsu 卯立 — a wall that projects above the roof line — has a similar status The udatsu inherited the function of a fire break, but initially it was a method of establishing the extent of ownership in long terraces of row houses18

During the evolution of minka, the machiya townhouses gradually changed its construction away from perishable and flammable materials to those of a more durable nature Thatched roofs were replaced with tiles and exposed timbers were covered up with layers of clay plastering19

Minka owned by people of a higher social status began to incorporate elements of the shoin style, particularly in living rooms The types of elements incorporated were limited by laws to preserve strict class distinctions1


Gasshō-zukuri minka homes in Gokayama surrounded by snow

There are four types of roof shape that can be differentiated for minka Most machiya have gabled kirizuma 切妻 roofs, covered in shingles or tiles, and slanting down on either side of the house The majority of nōka have either thatched yosemune 寄せ棟-style hipped roofs, which slant down on four sides, or the more elaborate irimoya 入母屋 roof with multiple gables and a combination of thatched sections and shingled sections Finally, the hogyo 方形 also slopes in four directions but is more pyramidal in shape20

The primary purpose of shaping minka roofs was to accommodate the extensive precipitation experienced in many parts of Japan A steeply peaked roof allows rain and snow to fall straight off, preventing water from getting through the roof into the home and, to a lesser extent, preventing the thatch from getting too wet and beginning to rot2021

At the peak and other places where roof sections came together decorations were added Thatched roofs would have trimmed or transverse layers of straw, bamboo poles or planks of wood20 Tiled roofs have a variety of decorative plates to the ends of the ridge, for example, shachi 鯱 fish22 They also had circular plates to the ends of the tiles at the eaves called gatou 瓦当 that helped to deflect rain23

Farmhouse interioredit

Irori 囲炉裏 A jizai kagi hearth hook with fish-shaped counterbalance

The deep eaves of the farmhouse roof helped to protect the interior from driving rain They stop the sun from entering the interior during the summer, and they allow the low rays of sun to warm the house during the winter Often there is a timber-floored veranda engawa 縁側 or 掾側 around the house under the eaves and protected on the outside by storm shutters In areas where there is heavy snow there may be a lowered earth-floored area outside the veranda further protected by shutters which helps to stop snow from blowing inside24

The interior of a minka was generally divided into two sections: a floor of compacted earth, called doma 土間 and a raised floor generally around 20 inches 50 cm above the level of the doma covered in tatami or mushiro mats25 Large farmhouses sometimes had a raised, timber floored internal veranda hiroshiki 広敷 that separated the doma and the tatami areas1 In older houses like the 17th century Yoshimura house this separating zone was up to 25 m wide and servants apparently slept there26

The raised floor often included a built-in hearth, called an irori 囲炉裏 Above the ash-filled hearth would hang a kettle suspended from the ceiling by an adjustable hearth hook made of wood, metal and bamboo This jizai kagi 自在鈎 could be raised or lowered depending on the amount of heat required and was often shaped into decorative fish or blade shapes27 There was no chimney in the farmhouse and the smoke from the irori would rise through the roof drying the reeds and deterring insects The irori was the centre of communication for the house where the family gathered to chat and eat, and it was a cozy place around which to sleep28

Though there were many possible arrangements of the rooms in a home, one of the most common, called yomadori 四間取り, comprised four rooms in the raised floor portion of the house, adjacent to the doma25 The arrangement and size of these rooms was made more flexible with the use of sliding fusuma and shōji partitions29

The social status of the owner of house governed the conventions of their social relationships in the house For example, the lowliest ranked people would sit on the earth floor whilst those above them would sit on the hiroshiki and those above them on the tatami floored inner rooms Honoured guests would sit next with their back to the tokonoma 床の間30 The requirements for social etiquette extended to the family and there were particular seating positions yokoza 横座 positioned around the hearth31

Typical Edo period farmhousesedit

Honmune-style house with birdlike decoration on the gable

A number of styles of farmhouses came to maturity during the Edo period; some typical examples follow


The gassho-zukuri 合掌造-style minka have vast roofs that are a large form of the sasu structural system Their name derives from the similarity of the roof shape to two hands in prayer They are frequently found in Gifu Prefecture32 The upper floors of the two and three storey houses are used for sericulture, with storage space for trays of silkworms and mulberry leaves33


Honmune-zukuri 本棟造 literally means "true ridge": The style has a nearly square plan with a gabled roof that is board covered The gable end of the house is particularly impressive with its composition of beams, eaves and braces The gable is topped by a birdlike ornament called a suzume-odori 雀踊り32 Houses of this type can be found in Gunma, Nara, Yamaguchi and Kouchi prefectures34


Gasshō-zukuri, Ogimachi village

Minka are generally treated as historic landmarks, and many have been designated for preservation by municipalities or the national government The tremendous regional variation of minka has also been preserved in open-air museums such as Nihon Minka-en in Kawasaki, where examples from around Japan are on display35

Of particular note is the gasshō-zukuri 合掌造り, literally "clasped-hands" style, which is preserved in two villages in central Japan — Shirakawa in Gifu Prefecture and Gokayama in Toyama Prefecture — that together have been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO36

In 1997, the Japan Minka Reuse and Recycle Association JMRA was established to promote the benefits and conservation of minka One minka that belonged to the Yonezu family was acquired by the JMRA and donated to Kew Gardens as part of the Japan 2001 Festival The wooden structure was dismantled, shipped and re-assembled in Kew with new walls and a thatched roof37

See alsoedit

  • Historic Villages of Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama
  • A-Frame house


  1. ^ a b c Nishi & Hozumi 1996, p82
  2. ^ "minka" JAANUS Retrieved 2013-11-09 
  3. ^ a b c Itoh 1979, p44
  4. ^ Itoh 1979, p43
  5. ^ Itoh 1979, p45
  6. ^ Itoh 1979, p46
  7. ^ Itoh 1979, p47
  8. ^ Itoh 1979, p81
  9. ^ a b "sasu" JAANUS Retrieved 2013-11-09 
  10. ^ a b Itoh 1979, p110
  11. ^ Itoh 1979, p84
  12. ^ a b Engel 1980, p78-81
  13. ^ a b Itoh 1979, p112
  14. ^ Itoh 1979, p70-72
  15. ^ Itoh 1979, p118
  16. ^ Itoh 1979, p124
  17. ^ Itoh 1979, p120
  18. ^ Itoh 1979, p122
  19. ^ "machiya" JAANUS Retrieved 2013-11-09 
  20. ^ a b c Fahr-Becker 2001, p196
  21. ^ "kayabuki" JAANUS Retrieved 2013-11-10 
  22. ^ "shachi" JAANUS Retrieved 2013-11-10 
  23. ^ "gatou" JAANUS Retrieved 2013-11-10 
  24. ^ Itoh 1979, p66-68
  25. ^ a b "minka" JAANUS Retrieved 2013-11-10 
  26. ^ "hiroshiki" JAANUS Retrieved 2013-11-10 
  27. ^ Fahr-Becker 2001, p191
  28. ^ Fahr-Becker 2001, p193
  29. ^ Itoh 1979, p27
  30. ^ Itoh 1979, p72
  31. ^ "yokoza" JAANUS Retrieved 2013-11-10 
  32. ^ a b Itoh 1979, p150
  33. ^ Fahr-Becker 2001, p194
  34. ^ "suzumeodori" JAANUS Retrieved 2013-11-10 
  35. ^ "Nihon Minkaen" Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum Retrieved 2013-11-09 
  36. ^ "Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama" Unesco Retrieved 2013-11-09 
  37. ^ "Japanese Minka" Kew Royal Botanic Gardens Retrieved 2013-11-09 


  • Fahr-Becker, Gabriele 2001 2000 Ryokan - A Japanese Tradition Cologne: Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft mbH ISBN 3-8290-4829-7 
  • Engel, Heinrich 1980 1964 The Japanese House - A Tradition for Contemporary Architecture Rutland/Tokyo: Charles E Tuttle ISBN 0-8048-0304-8 
  • Itoh, Teiji 1979 1972 Traditional Domestic Architecture of Japan New York/Tokyo: Weatherhill/Heibonsha ISBN 0-8348-1004-2 
  • Nishi, Kazuo; Kazuo Hozumi 1996 What is Japanese Architecture - A Survey of Traditional Japanese Architecture Tokyo: Kondansha International ISBN 978-4-7700-1992-9 

Further readingedit

  • Suzuki Mitsuru 1985 "Minka" Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan Tokyo: Kodansha Ltd
  • Taro Sakamoto, et al 1964 Fuzoku jiten A Dictionary of Popular Culture Tokyo: KK Tokyodō

External linksedit

  • The Herbert Offen Research Collection of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum
  • Definition of Minka at JAANUS

Coordinates: 36°24′N 136°53′E / 36400°N 136883°E / 36400; 136883

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