Roof Tilers

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Yasuhiro Ichinose

    Main guest

    Yasuhiro Ichinose is the president of a roof tiling company that was established in 1916. An experienced tiler himself, Ichinose also expands the realm of possibilities for roof tiles by using them to create works of art. In 2015, he participated in a Japanese architecture project at Yale University in the United States. Ichinose is working hard to promote the culture and philosophy surrounding traditional Japanese roof tiling around the world.

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January 8, 2019

Roof Tilers

*You will leave the NHK website.

If there's one thing that makes Japanese homes immediately identifiable, it's their roofs—or, to be more specific, the tiles that make up those roofs. These intricate tiles, which have been part of the Japanese landscape for well over a millennium, are the handiwork of roof tilers, who share the same passion for their craft as generations of tilers before them. On this edition of Japanology Plus, we take a look at the long history of Japan's roof tiles and meet the people dedicated to keeping the tradition alive.

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Host Peter Barakan visits a house roofed with traditional Japanese tiles.

Japanese tiles have an extremely long history, stretching back some 1,400 years. For about a millennium, however, they were used exclusively on the roofs of religious structures, or the homes of the elite. They began to be used on regular homes about 300 years ago, in the Edo period, thanks to a government decree promoting their adoption to help prevent fires. Before tiled roofs became widespread, citizens used other fire-resistant roofing materials such as mud and… oyster shells!

Japanese roof tiles are practical; they prevent fires, keep out rain and more. But they're also decorative, and on the program, we see many examples of the decorative tiles adorning roofs across Japan. Of all these decorations, some of the most ostentatious are oni-gawara—literally, demon or ogre tiles. These tiles can often be spotted topping Buddhist temples looking fearsome (you can spot a great example about 8 minutes in) and are said to ward off evil. Oni aren't the only mythical creatures seen on traditionally-tiled roofs, however. Another common fixture is the shachihoko, an animal with the head of a tiger and the body of a carp. The most famous shachihoko in Japan are the pair on the roof of Nagoya Castle—though these ones are covered in gold.

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A roof tiler at work, and a look at what lies beneath the tiles.

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An example of a decorative tile.

After learning about the hard work and dedication behind Japanese roof tiles, this may come as a bit of a shock, but there are people out there who make it their business to smash them! Kawara-wari, or tile-breaking, is a tradition in which martial artists show off their skill by punching stacks of tiles in half. Recently, shops have been popping up around Japan for tourists and everyday folks to try tile-breaking as a form of stress relief. One has to wonder what the roof tilers featured on the program think of this practice!

Actually, they may be happy that traditional roof tiles are being used at all. As we learn near the end of the program, traditional roof tilers face a difficult future. Today, many Japanese houses use prefabricated roofs, and sales of tiles have plunged. 2 billion tiles were sold in 1970, but the current number is a mere quarter of that.

However, several companies are trying out innovative ways to keep the tradition going. One firm, for example, uses tile materials and production methods to create coasters, bowls, trays, pencil stands and more. Another makes oni-gawara for indoor display. Even if your home doesn't use tiles in the traditional way, items like this give you a chance to appreciate tile craftsmanship.

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Breaking a stack of these can't be easy.

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Peter Barakan speaks to expert guest Shunichiro Kamai.

Another route is one taken by a major Japanese steel producer, which offers a version of the traditional roof tile made from titanium. Titanium tiles are lighter, stronger and less susceptible to corrosion than ceramic roof tiles, and are said to look just like the real thing—provided you don't get too close. The tiles have been used on famous Tokyo landmarks like Asakusa's Sensoji Temple. Next time you're in Tokyo, try to see if you can spot the difference!

Like many Japanese traditions, roof tiles and tilers face an uncertain future, but rather than simply disappear, it seems entirely possible they will instead adapt to suit the times ahead.

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Roof tilers have left an indelible mark on the Japanese landscape.

*You will leave the NHK website.