Japanese Architecture and Interior Design - Explained

Japanese Architecture and Interior Design - Explained

Architecture
Interior Design
By Dikran Seferian May 24, 2022

If architecture is a form of fine art, then Japanese architecture might as well be an impressionist painting. An omnipresent aspect of this elegantly simple style — and of other visual arts of Japan — is an appreciation of nature as a source of spiritual perception and a reflection of the human mind. The history of Japanese home architecture is broad and has continuously evolved throughout the centuries. It is a form of disciplined art that is deeply rooted in a form of spirituality drawn from nature and the realm of the ethereal. The millennia of traditions have manifested themselves in this modest style that centers itself around a clean, balanced, and uncluttered lifestyle.

Roots of Japanese Architecture

Before the 1st century BCE, Japanese homes resembled others across the globe. They mainly consisted of wood with earthen floors and thatched roofs. The traditional Japanese architecture that we know today didn’t appear until the 7th century AD. Largely influenced by the architectural forms of Korea and China, that is when Japan adopted its own distinct style. Wood prevailed as a choice of building material, mainly because of its resistance to earthquakes and the scarcity of stone (due to volcanic activity at the time).

Japanese architecture roots itself in nature and tradition.

Japanese architecture roots itself in nature and tradition.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the Edo period saw another era of Japanese Architecture. A form of townhouse known as machiya gained popularity around this period. Machiya homes typically featured tiles and exposed timbers. Towards the end of the 19th century, elements of Western architecture began appearing in more modern Japanese homes. A fusion of Western and Japanese styles took form in many interiors across the country. Traditional dwellings, however, were still common even until the early 20th century.

How to Recognize Japanese Architecture and Interior Design

The Japanese home design style is a discipline that deeply roots itself in tradition, nature, and culture. This is evident in many of the key elements that constitute Japanese living spaces.

Shoji and Fusuma

Movable screens and sliding doors, known as shoji and fusuma respectively, are common features in traditional Japanese architecture. These elements help to unify the interior space with the exterior. Since glass doesn’t usually constitute a Japanese living space, the screens are made from paper in order to allow natural light to pass through.

Appreciating the subtle beauty of Shoji and Fusuma.

Appreciating the subtle beauty of Shoji and Fusuma.

Genkan

A genkan is basically a Japanese version of an entryway mudroom. As a token of courtesy, that is where guests and residents alike would remove their shoes while entering the house. It essentially features a sunken space between the entrance and the rest of the interior. After removing the shoes, one would change into uwabaki (slippers meant for indoor wear) before proceeding into the home.

Common features of Japanese architecture include a mudroom called Genkan.

Common features of Japanese architecture include a mudroom called Genkan.

Engawa

Another feature that you may find in traditional Japanese houses is an engawa, a wooden veranda that runs around the exterior walls of the house. This structure creates a connection between the house and the natural environment. An engawa is typically supported by a row of posts similar to the ones along the outside and inside of the structure, with the shoji in between.

Japanese verandas bridge the gap with nature.

Japanese verandas bridge the gap with nature.

Tatami Floors

Many traditional Japanese interiors consist of tatami floors. These soft yet durable mats are fabricated from rice straw and play a central role in many Japanese customs. In the Edo period, tatami arrangements varied according to the occasion. The junctions of the mats would either form a T shape or a + shape. Moreover, the number of tatami mats is often used to measure the size of a room.

Japanese flooring is unique in every way.

Japanese flooring is unique in every way.

Natural Elements

A deep connection to nature is an integral part of Japanese architecture, which is influenced by Shinto and Buddhism. You can see this in the use of raw wood and the focus on natural light throughout the house. The wood is typically left unpainted in order to highlight its natural beauty. While cedar was chosen for its attractive grain, pine was a common option for structure. Cypress, on the other hand, can be found in roofing. Stone and cement were incorporated by the end of the 19th century. However, wood remains the dominant material as it creates a Zen atmosphere and grounds the house.

The definitive elements of Japanese interior design are inspired by nature.

The definitive elements of Japanese interior design are inspired by nature.

How to Achieve Japanese Interior Design in Your Home

Peace and harmony are two elements that we could all use in our homes. Since Japanese interior design has perfected the aesthetic of tranquility, you can bring Zen into your house by adopting a few aspects of this calming style. While doing so, however, it is important to appreciate the cultural and spiritual value of Japanese home architecture and interior design. 

Install Sliding doors and Screens

Consider going for sliding doors and movable screens to separate your living spaces. Although the screen is traditionally made of fine paper within a wooden frame, modern varieties may consist of glass panels. You could replace a large portion of a wall with screens in order to maximize the flow of natural light. Moreover, it can be a great way to adopt this peaceful style into your home.

Keep the Furniture Low

Japanese furniture is typically low to the ground, and in many cases, floor cushions are used instead. You can mimic this style by going for low furniture. A more authentic choice is to pair a low plant table with a set of floor cushions. This set-up can also make for a genuine atmosphere for dining and it doesn’t get any simpler to design and achieve the look. Tie it all together with an arrangement of tatami floor mats.

Adopting a Japanese design style with floor cushions and tatami mats.

Adopting a Japanese design style with floor cushions and tatami mats.

Make Use of Wooden Elements

What better way to create harmony with nature than by incorporating wooden elements into your house. Anything from doors to windows, frames and screen grids can be made of wood. While traditional Japanese architecture makes use of cedar and pinewood, you can also go for maple, hemlock, or cypress. The texture of natural wood is present throughout a typical Japanese house. You could adapt these elements into your living spaces by going for wooden screens and bamboo features.

Create a Zen Space 

You could convert a quiet area in your home into a Zen space for maximum relaxation. Consider adding a water feature such as a small fountain to cancel out any distracting noises. Make sure to incorporate a selection of plants including bamboo palms and small bonsai trees. You could also paint the room in calming shades of green or brown to emulate a natural feel.

How to bring zen into your living space.

How to bring zen into your living space.

Incorporate Natural Lighting

Natural light is an abundant element in Japanese-themed house design. It generously fills up the living spaces while offering delightful vistas of nature. An ideal way to brighten up your home is through large windows and ceiling openings (such as skylights). Avoid thick draperies as they tend to block the natural light. Alternatively, you could go for simple bamboo shades or gauzy panels. You can also maximize interior brightness by going for open space and minimalist design.

Create a Sunken Entryway

If possible, consider turning your entryway into a genkan. This sunken area essentially needs to be clean, minimal, and most importantly free of clutter. Make sure to introduce a generous amount of natural elements in your genkan. A wooden cabinet or shelve can serve as a getabako where you would store shoes, whereas a glass-paneled door can allow for natural light to brighten up the space.

Consider a Variation

A trending variation of Japanese interior design is Japandi. As the name may suggest, it is a fusion of the Japanese and Scandinavian, aka ‘Scandi’, styles. They both share common features such as the abundance of organic elements, minimalist aesthetics, and natural light. Adopting this style will essentially allow you to combine Zen with Hygge.

Interesting Facts About a Certain Japanese Architect

One Japanese architect you may have heard of is Kengo Kuma. Born in 1954, Kuma is famous for his innovative methods of using certain materials and technological advancements in his works. Besides being an architect, he is also a professor at the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Tokyo. His aim is to bring traditional Japanese architecture — in which his designs are rooted — into the 21st century. Many of Kuma’s designs cleverly employ natural elements such as light and wood; he also has an obsession with the latter. Moreover, he firmly believes that these elements provide mental and physical comfort.

Kengo Kuma’s obsession with wood is evident in many of his designs. He even used the material for the construction of the Tokyo Olympics Stadium in 2020. According to Kuma, stone and concrete are materials of the past and will soon be replaced by wood. Kuma is also passionate about nature, and his designs focus on improving and adding to the surrounding environment rather than dominating it.

Kuma’s biggest critic is no other than himself. One of his works that he deems “embarrassing” is the M2 building in Tokyo. It was after that that he realized the grandeur of traditional Japanese home architecture and decided to uphold it.

Kengo Kuma's designs tend to assimilate with the surrounding nature (AsAuSo/Wikimedia Commons)..

Kengo Kuma's designs tend to assimilate with the surrounding nature (AsAuSo/Wikimedia Commons)..

Written by
Dikran Seferian

Written by Dikran Seferian