Life in an old Japanese house Vol.5: Shifts in Lifestyle and Home Layouts

Old homes come in many types, and are composed of various elements that depend on their location and date of construction. Homes built before the Edo era (1603-1868) vary greatly based on the class of people living in them.

During that period classes were largely divided into three groups, the aristocracy was composed of samurai, commoners included merchants, artisans, and farmers, and finally people in the lowest class were considered outsiders and discriminated against.

There were further differences within the three distinct classes, such as tenant farmers who were unable to possess the land they farmed and scraped by living in shacks provided by the landowner or land brokers. Though the rustic backwater homes of farmers and artisans that remain to this day are referred to as farmhouses, these farmhouses were largely owned by affluent families.

Historic townhouses lived in by merchants and artisans

are all called ‘machiya’ but they vary from plain bungalows and terrace homes to elaborate three story estates. You can still find plenty of long, narrow houses called eel bed homes in the urban center of Kyoto since there was a ‘frontage tax’ that was based on the width of a property resulting in narrow homes that stretch back far on the property.

The old beautiful samurai residences you often see throughout Japan, are now registered cultural properties that are well preserved estates representing how samurai once lived. That said, there was great disparity in the samurai class during the Edo era since wars had ended by early Edo meaning the demand for samurai to act as soldiers decreased and many took up work as government officials. By the mid Edo era, wealthy merchants became more powerful than common samurai and as the prosperity of many of the lower ranked samurai declined, many of them lived lives almost like the commoners did.


he layout of a farmhouse including a guest room that  was owned by someone relatively affluent. You  often see this style of old farmhouse, called a rice paddy house, in the countryside since the square structure looks like a rice paddy ‘’.


The layout of an urban townhouse known as an  ‘eel bed home’


A layout of a residence owned by a middle-ranking samurai. It includes a ‘shikidai’, a special entranceway for receiving distinguished guests. Also a fancier than the average home’s ‘toko no ma’, a formal space provided to display the owner’s status. Residents here used the private entrance and kitchen back door to enter and exit since the ‘shikidai’ was strictly only for special guests. Roof tiles, tatami mats, and the ’toko no ma’ were traditionally only seen in aristocrat and samurai residences but from the middle of the Edo period they became widespread in the commoners' homes as well.

Modern plumbing wasn’t seen in homes until after WWII when water and sewage services were common in town. Old Japanese homes lacked baths or pipes, especially for wooden homes built densely together in towns, having people use the public bath was a way of decreasing house fires from accidents. Water was drawn from wells and stored in bottles. Cooking was done on a cooking stove or hearth built on the earthen floor. An outhouse was commonly built in place of a toilet inside the house in order to reduce moisture and odor. In some rural parts of Japan life continued much as it had in the Edo era, as it wasn’t until just a few decades ago that modern conveniences were built into rural farmhouses.

One unique element of a Japanese house is the ‘doma’, earthen flooring that at first glance appears to be only dirt but is a cement like compound formed from the mixture of red clay, lime, and magnesium chloride. It is far less dusty and quite strong against water than you might imagine. The ‘doma’ was a place not just for cooking but also as a workshop to do agricultural work and other work. ‘Doma’ are hardly seen nowadays as most have been redone with modern flooring.


Pictured here on the earthen floor is a sink on the left, a cooking stove in the center and the kitchen backdoor to the right.


People traditionally gathered around a hearth like this and cooked or warmed themselves.

After the end of WWII, soldiers returned home and the baby boom began. Due to improvements in food and health care, the population rapidly grew, family size and income grew as well, which resulted in many homes having extensions added. Beyond adding in modern plumbing to homes and building additional rooms, it was a trend for wealthy homeowners to put in a Western style study plus drawing room. 

Although immediately after WWII ended, many simple structures were cobbled together with scrap wood, thanks to the Japanese Economic Miracle and changes to the building codes, it became increasingly common for homes to have a bath and toilet inside, and for public housing structures to be built with reinforced concrete. From the time of the economic miracle to present times developments in building materials and construction methods plus standardization in housing design has resulted in various modern homes being constructed but parents and their children have ended up living apart in two-family houses or their unmarried children live alone in apartments. Observing the changes in modern living arrangements reflects the shift away from the nuclear family toward people living separately and independently.


Many homes added modern plumbing with a bath while many others added Western style flooring to rooms, and in addition a drawing room.

In examining the differences between the layouts of old and modern housing, sometimes striving to build a comfortable environment to live in modern times in an old home may have its share of inconveniences, but through this we can understand how people in the past once lived and compare this to how we wish to live ourselves. The freedom we possess to consider what to leave behind or change in a house is the pleasure of home improvement.