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AskHistorians discusses an aspect of Seven Samurai

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    Vili Maunula

    This AskHistorians post over at Reddit begins with a question about one of the houses in Seven Samurai, but also includes some thoughts about the historical accuracy of Kurosawa’s films. Quite interesting information!

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    Ugetsu

    I love discussions on this topic, but I think some of those answers seemed to just repeat a lot of misconceptions about warfare and Japanese architecture. One answer questions the accuracy of the use of archery in heavy rain – its one of those myths that get tossed around a lot that you can’t use old style bows in the rain – it is more difficult, but all the evidence I’m aware of is that it was possible and it was done – in fact medieval European archers made good use of beeswax and fat and other substances to waterproof their kit. I assume Japanese archers were similarly resourceful.

    The other issue is of the ability of farmers to protect themselves. I’d always taken it as assumed in the movies storyline that the farmers were capable of fighting and mounting a defence (after all, they had a good stock of stolen weapons). The role of the samurai was to provide the tactics and leadership needed to fend off trained and experienced ronin, especially when they had guns.

    Another a-historical matter mentioned is white rice. So far as I know Japanese peasants did eat white rice, but not very commonly, it was considered a delicacy so was generally sold to the better off. The early Imperial Japanese Navy specifically used white rice as a selling point to young men to join the navy (this ended up causing Vitamin B1 deficiencies, but thats another story). The story probably does exaggerate the horror of having to eat millet – millet and barley I think would have been the standard daily gruel of peasants around that period. Its actually a much healthier mix than white rice, one reason why historically Japanese peasants were often a lot healthier than the upper or urban classes.

    Also, if the house referred to is the one I’m thinking of, isn’t it a mill? Its kind of hard to have a mill without water flowing through it. It would of course have been cold, but many traditional houses never tried to reduce cold – it was assumed that if you wanted to be warm, you stayed by the fire or went under layers of wool. I’ve stayed in Tibetan houses and Mongolian yurts and you could put your hand in the gap under the doorways, even when it was -10C with a bitter wind blowing in. The focus is on the person being warm, not the house. In Europe there was always more of a focus on warming the house, but this was often at the expense of things like eyesight – peasants suffered eye problems from being exposed to such smoky atmosphere all winter (this is something medieval English writers often noted in their writings about Irish peasantry – the English had the benefit of the use of modern chimneys).

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for this, Ugetsu! Very interesting counterpoints. And yes, I think it’s the mill that they are talking about.

    That’s a good point about the different approaches to staying warm, as well. Wearing jackets indoors felt really weird to me when I moved to Japan. In the school where I studied, when winter came there was even a bit of bribery going on to get seats in front of the class, where the heat furnace was. Everyone assumed that as someone coming from Northern Europe, I would be accustomed to cold, which I of course was, but not indoors! In a way, I think Japanese houses are built to be comfortable in the summer heat of +40˚C, and a little uncomfortable in the winter, whereas in Finland it is very much the other way around, with the main target to be comfortable even if it’s -40˚C outside.

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    Ugetsu

    Yes, I think because of very high humidity the entire focus in many regions of Asia, including Japan, is on making houses cool, and just accepting that you can’t have that and be nice and toasty in winter. I remember the first time I was in Taiwan (in January), I cycled up to a national park about 3,000 metres above sea level. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would be so damned cold there so I hadn’t brought anything beyond light layers. I went straight for what was the only hotel up there, expecting it to be nice and warm, but I was greeted by reception staff dressed in layers of fleece. I thought at least the room would be warm but no, it was icy cold, with the air con still on to keep humidity low. I had to run the shower to try to warm up, and dive straight from there to the bed in an attempt to keep warm. I asked later and I was told that as it was only cold for a few weeks of the year, and hardly anyone lived above 1,000 metres, they didn’t put in heaters, and there probably wasn’t anyone in the country who knew how to build and operate a hotel for sub zero temperatures.

    For that matter, my experience of Japanese houses is a lot less than yours, Vili, but I’ve always been struck by how cold they are in early winter when I’ve been there, and how impossible it would be to heat most of them, given how flimsy the outside walls and windows are. And I’m the sort of person who wears t-shirts long after when everyone else has gone to winter clothes.

    So while I am no expert on the architecture of the period, I would guess that peasants simply lived in multiple layers of warm clothes all winter, with little distinction between indoors and outdoors, and only got warm by sitting directly around a fire or, as I’ve seen in Tibet and Bhutan, washing by hand using carefully warmed up water.

    I did try to get to the Iya Valley last year, where there are traditional old houses restored and still in use, sadly I didn’t make it, but I’ve always wanted to stay in one. But from the photos and other layouts I’ve seen, they are certainly not made for warmth, despite it being a very cold part of Japan in winter.

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