In 17th-Century Japan, Creaking Floors Functioned as Security Systems That Warned Palaces & Temples of Approaching Intruders and Assassins

Offer a cut­ting-edge secu­ri­ty sys­tem, and you’ll suf­fer no short­age of cus­tomers who want it installed. But before our age of con­cealed cam­eras, motion sen­sors, reti­nal scan­ners, and all the oth­er advanced and often unset­tling tech­nolo­gies known only to indus­try insid­ers, how did own­ers of large, expen­sive, and even roy­al­ty-hous­ing prop­er­ties buy peace of mind? We find one par­tic­u­lar­ly inge­nious answer by look­ing back about 400 years ago, to the wood­en cas­tles and tem­ples of 17th-cen­tu­ry Japan.

“For cen­turies, Japan has tak­en pride in the tal­ents of its crafts­men, car­pen­ters and wood­work­ers includ­ed,” writes Sora News 24’s Casey Baseel. “Because of that, you might be sur­prised to find that some Japan­ese cas­tles have extreme­ly creaky wood­en floors that screech and groan with each step. How could such slip­shod con­struc­tion have been con­sid­ered accept­able for some of the most pow­er­ful fig­ures in Japan­ese his­to­ry? The answer is that the sounds weren’t just tol­er­at­ed, but desired, as the noise-pro­duc­ing floors func­tioned as Japan’s ear­li­est auto­mat­ed intrud­er alarm.”

In these spe­cial­ly engi­neered floors, “planks of wood are placed atop a frame­work of sup­port­ing beams, secure­ly enough that they won’t dis­lodge, but still loose­ly enough that there’s a lit­tle bit of play when they’re stepped on.” And when they are stepped on, “their clamps rub against nails attached to the beams, cre­at­ing a shrill chirp­ing noise,” ren­der­ing stealthy move­ment near­ly impos­si­ble and thus mak­ing for an effec­tive “coun­ter­mea­sure against spies, thieves, and assas­sins.”

Accord­ing to, you can still find — and walk on — four such uguisub­ari, or “nightin­gale floors,” in Kyoto: at Daikaku-ji tem­ple, Chio-in tem­ple, Toji-in tem­ple, and Nino­mu­ra Palace.

If you can’t make it out to Kyoto any time soon, you can have a look and a lis­ten to a cou­ple of those nightin­gale floors in the short clips above. Then you’ll under­stand just how dif­fi­cult it would have been to cross one with­out alert­ing any­one to your pres­ence. This sort of thing sends our imag­i­na­tions straight to visions of high­ly trained nin­jas skill­ful­ly out­wit­ting palace guards, but in their day these delib­er­ate­ly squeaky floors floors also car­ried more pleas­ant asso­ci­a­tions than that of immi­nent assas­si­na­tion. As this poem on’s uguisub­ari page says says:






A wel­come sound

To hear the birds sing

across the nightin­gale floor

via @12pt9/Sora News

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hōshi: A Short Doc­u­men­tary on the 1300-Year-Old Hotel Run by the Same Japan­ese Fam­i­ly for 46 Gen­er­a­tions

Watch Japan­ese Wood­work­ing Mas­ters Cre­ate Ele­gant & Elab­o­rate Geo­met­ric Pat­terns with Wood

Mes­mer­iz­ing GIFs Illus­trate the Art of Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Wood Join­ery — All Done With­out Screws, Nails, or Glue

Omoshi­roi Blocks: Japan­ese Memo Pads Reveal Intri­cate Build­ings As The Pages Get Used

A Vir­tu­al Tour of Japan’s Inflat­able Con­cert Hall

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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