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Article - 'Culture of Japan – Cities and Villages' by KaosTenshi

An item about Plots/Characters posted on Aug 8, 2003


The fifth in a series of articles about Japan’s most bloody time, delving into the average cities and villages, and the people that lived in them.


Welcome to Culture of Japan – Cities and Villages, the fifth in a series of articles about Japan’s most bloody time, delving into the average cities and villages, and the people that lived in them. This may be the last article for a few days... Article 6 is taking a lot of time and research, more than I expected (I wrote the first four in a single day). But dun worry, I plan to keep writing as much as I can think of to write.


A village in Japan was quite an easy thing to get lost in, with its many winding roads and its oddly placed buildings. This may seem like an unplanned, chaotic layout, but in truth this was carefully and strategically designed. Particularly larger cities surrounding castles would be under the threat of attack, so the streets were designed to be unnecessarily long, winding, and difficult to maneuver. The streets were also fairly narrow for this reason; houses and buildings didn’t have front yards, or really any space between them and the street.

In cities, the village itself was a defense for the castle if for no other reason than to simply slow down attackers and give the defenders a chance to mobilize. A castle’s second defense was its moat. Ideal locations were on steep riverbanks and mountainous regions where steep, sharp, or loose and slick rocks formed a difficult terrain for enemies to move through to reach the castle. When a castle could not be there, the constructors and planners were forced to create their own. When moats were dug, the dirt from them would be piled up to create hills that an enemy would have to climb over, making it difficult to even get to the moat, which would slow them down further before they could get to the wall. Moving over this kind of terrain was incredibly difficult and tiring, and slick rocks in the bottom of the moat made it easy to fall.

A castle’s outer wall was made of careful pilings of rocks. The shapes of rocks had to be very carefully chosen by the builders to make sure everything fit together properly, and if there were any space, they would have to be filled with pebbles to make sure no one could find a handhold or foothold to use to climb up. These walls were incredibly strong, especially at the corners where stones were wedged together in interlocking patterns for extra strength. These walls had to be naturally strong, because they weren’t joined together with mortar. Much in the same way a katana is designed to flex slightly instead of breaking when struck, these walls were designed so each rock could shift a tiny bit in the event of an earthquake without ripping the entire building apart. Earthquakes were also the reason that walls were built curving upwards… that, and the samurai thought it looked good. The greater the walls curved, the wealthier and powerful you were thought to be for having such a nice looking castle.

Inside the castle walls, more walls of stone would be built, but unlike the outer walls, these would be the foundation for the building. The first floor would be built completely surrounded by the stonewalls, with a frame made of strong timber wood carved in the city by a carpenter before being moved to the building site for the construction. Walls were made of wood; they didn’t have to be comfortable, because they would later be covered with ‘tatami’ mats.

The main building inside the outer walls was called the keep, and was usually several stories high. There were carefully planned courtyards, reception halls, gateways, tearooms, and clusters of towers built into the castles, topped by steeply soaring roofs that were carefully carved and painted. Walls were made of wood, and then strips of hemp would be hung on them. The hemp was there for the plaster to stick to, so it wouldn’t easily come off.

The inner walls of a castle’s living space were not made of wood, hemp, and plaster. Instead, they were made of wood and rice paper that could be moved whenever needed to divide rooms into eating or sleeping areas, or just to make more room to move in. By law, only Samurai families could by luxury goods, so the interiors of their castles were proof of their heritage, and their good taste, from the walls right down to the floors (literally, I might add). Floors were covered with tatami mats made of rice husks between two layers of tightly woven reeds. Since people walked, sat, and slept on these mats, they had to be soft, and the richer you were, the thicker the layers of rice husks in the mats. The tatami mats of peasants were only two thirds the thickness of mats found in castles. Elegantly carved wooden tables were made low to the floor because everyone sat (or depending on how you look at it, knelt) on these tatami mats.

However, things were not so elegant in other areas of the castle aside from the living space. Food storage, and particularly wells were carefully guarded. Their well defended doors would have locks, bolts, and sometimes even iron plating, as well as a samurai on guard at all times. A castle usually had many wells, which were essential as drinking water. These always had to be protected by samurai, because if an intruder managed to get in, nearly everyone in the castle could be poisoned before anyone even knew anything was wrong.


Only the homes of samurai could be built near a castle’s walls. The homes of peasants were built around this area that had been ‘zoned’ for the upper class. Most houses and buildings were made of the same wood, hemp, and plaster wall style as castles, but not nearly the same kind of high quality. Houses were usually built slightly raised on stone foundations similar to the construction of castle foundations, and would have wood roofs. Shops and poorer houses on the other hand wouldn’t have these kinds of foundations, and would only be plaster walls with wooden support beams and usually straw houses. Shops, particularly inns, restaurants, and teahouses, would remove their wooden doors during the daytime and hang cloth curtains over them to allow people to come in and out as they please, but still blocking out much of the dust from the outside.

A common sight in shops is the Maneki Neko, which means ‘beckoning cat’. It is a statue of a cat sitting on its rump, holding up one of its paws. A statue with the left paw up is said to be good luck to invite in customers, while one with its right paw up invites in wealth and good fortune. Even the color of the cat statue has meaning; the ‘tri-colored cat’ of white, gold, and black, is meant to considered a rare color in male cats, so the tri-colored Maneki Neko is considered very lucky. A white lucky cat is a symbol of purity, a black one is considered a talisman against evil, red exorcises sickness and evil, gold invites money, and pink invites love. They all traditionally have a red collar with a gold bell.

Around cities are usually large rice fields. Since rice is grown in water, rice fields look like large square and rectangular man-made ponds. Rice is the most important part of the Japanese diet, along with vegetables and fish. Fishermen also keep seaweed and shellfish to sell and eat as well, since seaweed can be baked into sheets and used for wrapping many dishes, such as sushi.


Even though they were of low status, peasants made up 90% of Japan’s population and were very important to the samurai way of living. Aside from providing food, peasants built castles, made tatami mats, weaved baskets and straw sandals, worked as blacksmiths, leatherworkers, porters, potters, screen painters, grooms, stable hands, saddle makers, arrow makers, doctors, servants, and builders.

Peasants were not allowed to have surnames as samurai could. Instead, they were called by their trade names; ‘Amabe’ for fishermen, ‘Tabe’ for farmers, ‘Oribe’ for weavers, and so on. For more information about Japanese naming conventions for samurai and peasants, go here.


Aside from work, there were some forms of entertainment for both samurai and peasants to take part in. They visited the same bathhouses, went to the same shrines, and even attended theatre. However, the peasants were under constant reminder that they were below the samurai, and to always show them respect.

Next Article: Art of the Sengoku Period; a look at the theatrical, musical, literary, and visual arts of the Sengoku Period.