Japanese Traditional Interior Design

Many people will be familiar with the basics of traditional Japanese interior design: tatami mats which greet your stockinged feet, wall panels which gently filter light from outside, and an arrangement of delicate fresh flowers or traditional scroll for decoration.

The beginning of a Japanese interior, however, is its exterior. This is due to the structure of traditional Japanese buildings, which use a post and beam construction to bear the load weight of the roof and outside walls. This architectural style, which removes the need for supporting interior walls, defined what would be featured within.

The architectural style that best represents a traditional Japanese interior is the sukiya-zukuri style, which places importance on simplicity and economy of space. Space is measured in tatami mats, which come in a standard size (which varies slightly from region to region, but are around 6ft by 3ft). Interior walls are mobile and light.

Fusuma doors or opaque sliding doors, which provide access to the rooms in a traditional Japanese house, also provide a canvas for some interior decoration. Another form of door is the shoji door, which is another form of sliding door made in a lattice frame and covered with ‘rice’ paper (actually mulberry bark). Shoji doors provide a barrier between the interior and exterior of the house, and a place to remove shoes and slippers before walking on the tatami mats within.

A traditional Japanese interior will feature a tokonoma, which is an alcove used to display art. This is a vital part of the main room. Hanging scrolls are typically displayed in this area, above a table which carries incense, flowers and candles. Tokonomas are bordered by an interior pillar (or occasionally pillars, depending on its position in the room) and contain a raised dais for the table to rest on. The tokonoma is purely decorative, but essential to a traditional Japanese building. Guests are seated next to the tokonoma, which gives them a view of the garden and their host opposite.

A typical traditional Japanese home will have low ceilings, of varying heights throughout the building. Some of the interior walls will not reach the roof, and ramma panels, which are carved three-dimensional scenes, slats or sliding panels, are used to decorate these spaces.

The elements of traditional Japanese interior design are at odds with western style, and this has led to a decline in Japanese interiors. Traditional western style, which places an importance on sweeping rooms and high ceilings, has been incorporated in modern Japanese buildings with native styles but with varied success. The change in lifestyle, as more people find they want to live ‘off the floor’, has meant an increasing move away from traditional Japanese design. How the two sides of modern Japanese culture – an acceptance of the West and the simple lines of tradition – finally come together is something time will eventually tell.


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