Minka (folk dwellings) (民家)

Minka are residences where ordinary people lived. This word is used in contrast to the large residences where people of ruling classes or higher classes lived. This section describes the details of minka in Japan.

Noka (farm houses) and machiya (town houses) in the Edo Period are called minka in the architectural history of Japan and in ethnology. The residential houses that have been built since the Meiji Period using traditional designs and construction methods are also included in this type of dwelling. Houses for middle or lower ranked samurai are also minka if they were built in the same manner as noka.
(This is described in this section in detail.)

In the modern Japanese language, relatively small sized detached houses are called 'minka' to distinguish them from collective housing such as housing complexes and condominiums.
Especially news reporters often use this word, as in 'a landslide carried minka away.'

Minka are houses lived in by ordinary people, but in architectural history or in ethnology, minka means noka or machiya that are built with traditional designs (old ones are also called kominka) in particular. In the way they were built minka reflected aspects of lifestyle, being closely linked to work (farming or commerce) and traditional events. Studying minka from the perspective of work and lifestyle, one is struck by what these reveal about the wisdom of ancient people. Minka vary from region to region, showing particular characteristics in each area. In recent years, the research and study of minka has extended to include the houses of the Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa Eras.

Minka are closely connected to everyday life, so many minka that have survived to today have been extended or reconstructed as was required at the time. If a minka has cultural value and is to be preserved, generally it will be restored to its original state when it was built.
(In contrast, some people say minka are alive and change, and those changes themselves show their history.)

Development of minka in Japan

The oldest minka in Japan are the houses of the HAKOGI family and the FURUI family, both in Hyogo Prefecture, and they were already being called 'Sennenya' (a thousand year old house) in the Edo Period. In fact they are not a thousand years old, but they are considered old enough to have been built in the Muromachi Period. They are both designated as National Important Cultural Properties.

House of the HAKOGI family (HAKOGI Sennenya, Yamada Cho, Kita Ward, Kobe City, Hyogo Prefecture)
House of the FURUI family (FURUI Sennenya, Yasutomi Cho, Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture)

Many minka from the early Edo Period have survived, mainly in the Kinki region.
The following two houses are known to have been designated as (former) National Treasures as minka before the Second World War:
(They are both now Important Cultural Properties following the enactment of the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties in 1950.)

House of the YOSHIMURA family (Habikino City, Osaka Prefecture): being designated as an Important Cultural Property (former National Treasure) in 1937. House of the OGAWA family (Nijo-jinya) (Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture): being designated as an Important Cultural Property (former National Treasure) in 1944.

Since the Kinki region historically used to be more economically developed than other areas of Japan, there are many minka that were technologically advanced with excellent designs.
In the Kanto region, the following minka, residence of Tarozaemon EGAWA, Daikan (local governor) of Nirayama, is famous:

House of the EGAWA family, Nirayama yakusho (government office) (Izunokuni City); part of its construction materials are said to be from medieval times.

Some very old minka had wooden columns roughly whittled with chona (a hooked wooden tool with a metal blade used to shape wood), and were not finished with a plane. The older they are, the lower the eaves, and the more walls and columns they have, giving an impression of isolation. Relatively new houses are equipped with elaborately worked wooden parts such as tokonoma and shoji doors, whereas old minka are simple and rustic.

Typical minka in Japan

Noka (farm houses)
There is a dirt floor called a doma inside, and four squarely arranged rooms is the most common arrangement. The doma is equipped with a clay oven called a kamado for cooking, and often has a stable attached. Family members gather around an irori or hearth to have meals, with the family head seated on one side. In more recent years, a room was added to serve guests, and fusuma doors and other partitions were removed to make a large single room for many people at events such as weddings, festivals, funerals, and other ceremonies. Minka and work were closely connected: doma were used also to make ropes; the engawa or veranda for weaving; and silkworms were raised in the attic. Materials for roofing, such as thatch, cedar bark, and tiles, were different region to region.

Machiya (town houses)
Machiya are small in width at the entrance and long in depth, often with a passage running through from the front of the house to the back. A reason for its small width is said to have come from the days when tax was imposed in accordance with the width of the entrance, and strip-shaped premises with the short side on the street are commonly seen in many regions. The room on the street was used as a shop, and the residence area and a storehouse were at the back. The tsuboniwa (a tiny garden) as seen in machiya in Kyoto facilitated ventilation and lighting.

Parks of minka

The lifestyles of Japanese people have greatly changed since the Second World War, especially as a result of the ensuing period of rapid economic growth. Minka parks where minka were transferred to and restored were constructed in many places in order to pass traditional Japanese culture down the generations. Old minka are preserved and open to the public as materials to study history. In many facilities today, they not only show the houses, but try to let visitors experience the lifestyle of the old days, such as by displaying contemporary articles of everyday use, lighting real irori, and reenacting traditional events.

List of types of minka:

Eastern Japan
Kusa-wo-uetamune (Aomori Prefecture)
Magariya (Iwate Prefecture)
Chumon-zukuri (Akita Prefecture)
Chumon-zukuri (Niigata Prefecture)
Honmune-zukuri (Nagano Prefecture)
Tsukiageyane (Yamanashi Prefecture)
Akagimune (Gunma Prefecture)
Irimoya-zukuri (Saitama Prefecture)
Yosemune (Tokyo Metropolis)
Betto-zukuri (Chiba Prefecture)
Kabuto-zukuri (Shizuoka Prefecture)

Western Japan
Gassho-zukuri (Gifu Prefecture)
Kohoku-type (Shiga Prefecture)
Yamatomune (Nara Prefecture)
Shibobuta-zukuri (Kagawa Prefecture)
Sori-mune (Shimane Prefecture)
Hakomune (Yamaguchi Prefecture)
Kudo-zukuri (Saga Prefecture)
Futamune-zukuri (Kagoshima Prefecture)

Others
Chise (Hokkaido Ainu)
Betto-type (Okinawa Prefecture)

Museums and minka parks
Shikokumura (Shikoku village houses Museum) (Takamatsu City, Kagawa Prefecture)
Open-Air Museum of Old Japanese Farm Houses (Toyonaka City, Osaka Prefecture)
Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum (Kawasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture)
Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum (Koganei City, Tokyo Metropolis)
Hyakumangoku Bunkaen Edo Village (Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture)