Japanese Furniture: History & Style

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

The traditional Japanese household had furniture and features that were directly related to the Japanese culture: simplicity, functionality, and the attention to nature and space.

Japanese Furniture: History and Style

Imagine that every single thing you owned had a purpose and place, and you're coming pretty close to imagining a traditional Japanese household. Great thought and care were given to the culture when designing Japanese furniture. Every piece, while simple, had a function and elegance that helped enhance the living area of the family it belonged to. This lesson will focus on the history and style of Japanese furniture.

Traditional Japanese Homes

A traditional Japanese home
A traditional Japanese home

If you were to look at the interior of a Japanese household, the first word that comes to mind might be 'sparse'. This is because in traditional Japanese houses, from ancient times to the present, there was very little furniture to sit or sleep on. Without chairs or bedding, the Japanese generally used the floor to sit and sleep on. This is because the Japanese believe in the concept of ma, or negative space and a desire for simplicity. Objects would be placed very far apart, as the traditional Japanese believed that this space encouraged creativity.

Another common feature of households in Japan was the concept of inside and outside space. Screens, called shoji were used to close off or open up rooms to each other and to the outside. This linked nature to the inside of their living spaces.

A traditional Zen Garden
A traditional Zen Garden

The Zen rock garden was another feature of many traditional households. Rocks of all shapes and sizes would be placed asymmetrically, calling attention to the spaces between them. These gardens often featured shrubs and miniature trees, and sand that was raked into patterns. The Zen garden was a place to contemplate nature.

Types of Furniture

Even though their spaces often appeared to be mostly empty, that was not the case. There were several main kinds of furniture that could be found in traditional Japanese homes. Most of the furniture was made of wood, and much of it had handles on the sides so it could be picked up and moved if needed for aesthetic reasons or in response to a fire. Since the homes were made mainly of wood and rice paper, fires were a common occurrence.

Furniture in Japan had three main purposes: sleeping and sitting, prayer, and storage.

To replace seating and sleeping furniture, a mat called a tatami was used. Tatami mats were made of woven straw and could be arranged in multiple ways.

There were also Buddhist prayer tables and altars found in most households. They were made of wood and were usually simple in design, though wealthier households sometimes had altars that were gilded (covered with gold) and ornately carved.

A chest, or tansu, was first used in the 700s in Japan. This armoire had doors that opened and drawers. The tansu was used for clothing storage and was generally very utilitarian, though sometimes these chests had iron banding or decorations. A tansu used in the kitchen was called a mizuya, and it differed from clothes storage in that it had sliding doors to hide utensils and dishes.

A special kind of tansu was called the kaidan tansu. This was a storage chest that was in the shape of a staircase and also often functioned as one. In place of doors, this chest had drawers that were equipped with iron handles.

A kaidan tansu
A kaidan tansu

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