Art is born of craftsmen. Art is not born of those called artists.Tsunekazu Nishioka and Horin Matsuhisa “The Heart of Trees, the Heart of Buddha”
Having worked in architecture and construction in Japan for more than half of my life, your humble servant is fond of Japanese traditional wooden architecture. It has much to recommend it, not only for the visual beauty of the designs and the spacial experiences it often provides, but also the excellence of much of it’s execution, made possible through craftsmen’s skill with Japan’s excellent woodworking tools.
In this post we will examine a few details of Japanese traditional architecture, and the Japanese language phrase one structural member engendered, the origin of which even most Japanese are unaware. Perhaps Gentle Readers will find this obscure phrase as interesting as your humble servant does.
The linguistically-intriguing architectural detail that is the primary subject of this article is a wooden structural member called the “en no shita no chikara mochi.”（縁の下の力持ち）which translates to “Strongman under the veranda.”
Some background is called for. As you can see from the photo at the top of this page, traditional wooden Japanese buildings are raised above the surrounding ground by a step or three with an ventilated crawl space beneath the floor. This is a practical feature commonly found in many countries, especially those with high groundwater levels, where it serves to keep soil dampness from penetrating the interior spaces thereby forestalling mold and wood rot.
In Japan, where exterior spaces, such as gardens, landscapes and even celestial spaces (e.g. moon viewing platforms) have been incorporated into buildings, the step up into the building is an important division between interior and exterior spaces. One may wear shoes into the entryway “genkan” of a building, but they must be removed before stepping up and entering the building proper. The genkan, therefore, being behind doors, is both an interior and exterior space. The wooden elevated veranda walkway around the perimeter of the building, called the “engawa” 縁側 in traditional Japanese architecture even moreso.
The floor of the building is supported by a series of beams and purlins called “ Strongmen.” Those at the veranda are called “en no shita no chikaramochi” 縁の下の力持ち meaning “strongmen under the veranda.” In traditional Japanese architecture the veranda structure is designed so that these beams are both cantilevered and partially concealed creating a lightweight feeling, even giving the impression that the veranda floor is almost floating in air when viewed from some angles. The chikaramochi (chee/kah/rah/moh/chee) beams are seldom seen by the building’s residents, but without them, a building could not have a raised floor and would inevitably fail.
Most Japanese people know and use the idiom without realizing it refers to this structural support.
To refer to someone as being a “Strongman Under the Floor” is to imply they are an “unsung hero,” or a person who quietly, selflessly and competently serves society and others by performing important but unseen tasks as a member of a team. From the Japanese dictionary it means “someone who toils diligently to support others in unseen ways and without recognition.” I salute all the strongmen under the floor, especially in the crafts and construction industry.
In our times we see an increasing trend for people in the public eye, especially actors, artists, musicians, politicians and journalists to display pyrotechnic levels of psychotic narcissism, the less talent and fewer accomplishments possessed the greater their frenzy to attract attention. These foul-mouthed, low-intelligence, often wealthy sociopaths, devoted to self-aggrandizement and the debasement of anything truly admirable, demand not only our unreserved celebration of their psychosis, but compliance with their ever-changing immoral opinions. In situations where individuals with a similar psychosis have managed to grab unlimited power, the resulting loss of innocent life has been horrendous beyond imagining. A former leader of the Soviet Union, himself a remorseless dictator dedicated to the destruction of Western democracies, enslavement of entire nations, and with the blood of millions on his hands once called such narcissists “useful idiots,” and made a science of how to foster and effectively use them to destroy entire nations. His work continues even today.
But while narcissists, sociopaths and their sycophant useful idiots receive all the attention, and sadly, praise, it is the stable, moral, selfless, hard-working common people that build and defend and perpetuate decent societies. In your humble servant’s opinion it is these good people that are the “Strongmen under the floor” that deserve our true respect.
The photos above and below show a happy team of noble three-toed dragons serving as “en no shita no chikara mochi” supporting the first floor of the Taishakuten Buddhist temple in Tokyo. A thankless but important task these several-dozen hand-carved zelkova-wood dragons perform with energetic poise and a toothy grin. Bravo!
Many professional woodworkers and blacksmiths are much the same as these dragons: inconspicuous, honest, hard-working, competently supporting the world within their scope without complaint, often with understated style.
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