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.
Dividing Inside and Outside, and yet Connecting Them Lattices, the Starting Point for Joinery Nurtured by a Culture of Anxiety.
The Functions Desired and Worldliness of Kyoto Gave a Further Push to Lattice Development
The uniqueness of Kyoto latticework does not come into view when generalizing the lattice as a combination of the squared wooden strips running up, down, and across. Latticework designs and patterns are formed based on the type of business and the functionality that such a business requires, as the expression “you know what kind of business is conducted if you see the lattice” suggests. For example, rice and sake vendors used a kind of rough-hewn latticework (aragōshi) that is thick, solid, and wide, a type known generally as daikōshi (lit. “bench lattice” or “platform lattice”). Because the shopkeepers needed something that would not be damaged even if it were hit by bags of rice or barrels of sake, these lattices used thick strips that were 90 to 105 mm square to make them solid constructs that were not removable. The lattices for sake vendors would be painted in red ochre, while maintaining the white image of rice was important for rice salesmen and so the planed and hewn base of the wood would be left white. The itoya gōshi — known as “the kings of Kyoto latticework” — were used by shops that sold yarn or thread. The pattern of these was known as the oyako gōshi (lit. “parent-child lattice”), using a regularity that combined longer “parent” (oya) strips with short-cut “child” (ko) elements. The reason why the upper parts featured cut patterns was because this could allow even more light to come into a shop. A shop whose latticework with two of every three strips cut short sold clothing; those with three of every four cut sold thread or cords; while those with four of every five cut sold woven goods. These patterns were contrived to guarantee the shops got the amount of light they respectively needed, but before long those patterns came to speak by proxy for the respective businesses. “When they saw a lattice, Kyoto people would know what kind of business the shop offered,” Mr. Tokuda explains. “Lattices had a part to play in how business was done in Kyoto-style. Commerce was conducted in a less-obtrusive fashion. Shopkeepers did not put out any signs but instead just hung a shop curtain (noren) to indicate they were open for business.”
Don’t Flaunt Your Skills, Use Them in the Places That Don’t Show
Mr. Tokuda believes that this is the starting point for Kyoto-style monozukuri (a concept that suggests particular ways of making things). Tokuda Corporation is an artisanal enterprise that continues to make lattices and other Kyoto-style joinery by hand. When he is asked what Kyoto-style joinery is, Mr. Tokuda routinely says, “It’s nothing. If I had to say something, I would say it is commonplace joinery.” The reason he says this is because it looks commonplace to the eye. The true value of the joinery is only revealed when it has been incorporated into a building. Great care goes into the little details that are determined by the place where the creations are to be installed, the size of the space, and how they will be used. In Kyoto, it is customary to remove the lattices that front the streets only during the gala Gion Festival; however, one normally simply cannot tell where the joints for removing them are. On a surface that has been resquared into pieces, the areas that are to be inserted using sophisticated joiner techniques are made to be slightly bigger than the holes into which they will be inserted. They stay firmly in place just by being hammered in, can be removed for the one time a year they need to be, and will continue to be used in that fashion for decades. That feature brings together a quite sophisticated technique.
What gets through, what gets blocked? Lattices are formed solely from a series of vertical and horizontal elements. They have been developed with order-made techniques that maximize the functions required of them while doing away with any fanciness. The opportunities to create latticework that requires such sophisticated skills are declining these days. However, the underlying designs with their ability to control lines of sight in modern high-density urban living are regarded highly not only in Japan but around the world.
A Typical Kyoto Latticework Contrivance
The Gion Festival is one of Japan’s three largest festivals. There is a custom on the eve of the festival of removing the lattices from houses fronting on the streets. Doing so opens them in such a way that people can see through from the street to a townhouse’s inner garden, which will be decorated with treasured folding screens — the reason why the evening is sometimes called “the Folding Screen Festival.” Kyoto’s joiners build into their joinery an elegant technique that allows the lattice to be taken apart for this single annual occasion. Kyoto-style joinery techniques have been applied to create something that uses joints and assembly methods known only to the maker and the resident and appears to others as nothing more than a single piece of lattice.
The Spirit of Monozukuri is Handed Down
Tools become perfectly fit to the hands of craftsman through their continued use for many years. This photo shows a jig that serves as a ruler for making marks along a straight line, and a cutting knife called a shirakaki that is used to draw delicate lines. Owing to the fact that lines drawn with pencils or ink can be uneven due to their thickness and precision reduced accordingly, the craftsmen at Tokuda Corporation, set great store by these knives and sharpen them daily. The sensibility here is like that of how a chef of Japanese cuisine will carefully handle his kitchen knives. “The defining characteristic of Kyoto joinery culture is the lack of decorativeness,” says Mr. Tokuda. That reflects a cultural dimension of living lives in a reserved fashion, but the result of this was the nurturing of a refined spirituality that developed more detailed techniques. One can sense the pride in skills that have been constantly being added to when Mr. Tokuda quietly says, “You can imitate the outer appearance of something, but that (spirit) which is inside is not something that can copied so easily.”
Types of Latticework and Their Characteristics (selection)
Meita Kōshi (“Fishplate Lattice”)
Actual width of each section of lattice ranges from 7 bu (1 bu = 0.303 cm) to 1 sun (1 sun = 3.03 cm). This latticework creates a dainty impression. It uses fishplate about 2 bu thick for the tatego (vertical strips), and the delicate strip are arranged with only small openings between them. Its blinder performance is excellent. Older ones were pounded from the front with drum studs, giving a unique appearance to the lattices with their serial regularity.
Itoya Gōshi (“Thread Shop Lattice”)
Latticework of this type has tatego that are cut and do not run all the way through the upper part. Because the pattern comprises what are called “parent” strips that run to the top and “child” strips that do not, it is also known as the oyako gōshi (“parent-and-child lattice”). Lines of sight are controlled with this delicately pitched latticework, which has been contrived so that the light and ventilation can pass through from eyelines that do not match the lines of sight of passersby. One can figure out what kind of business a shop is in based on the number of “child” strips to each parent strip, the numbers being adjusted from one to three to regulate light.
Daikōshi (“Bench Lattice”)
This type of latticing uses quite broad strips. They are frequently found on townhouses that had greater requirements in the areas of crime prevention and sturdiness than in blocking views. They are attached directly to top rails and thresholds on the front of the house. They retain their unflinching strength even if they get bumped around from people coming and going. Particular noted types are the komeya gōshi for rice sellers and sakaya gōshi for sake shops.