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Japanese Houses

Living in a Japanese House

One common feature of Japanese houses is that they have many sliding doors. In ancient times, they sometimes had dividing screens to partition large rooms. These partitions came to be fitted into the walls, but that caused inconvenience, so grooves were made allowing the partitions to slide. This is the style seen in modern Japanese houses today. The word shoji was originally the generic term for partitions between rooms, but today it has come to refer mostly to sliding doors made of paper squares glued on a wood lattice that allows soft light to pass through.

Nowadays tatami mats are used to cover the floor of entire rooms, but long ago, tatami was a luxury and was only used in the areas where people would actually sit. The type of square cushion known as zabuton developed from this practice of sitting on tatami and from the circular cushion known as enza that was used at Buddhist temples. The zabuton was originally a mat made from beautiful cloth, but it came to take its current form in the latter half of the Edo period (1603-1868), when cotton was added.

In the past, when people had meals, each person ate from a separate box-like tray. The practice of people gathering around a dining table only began during the Meiji era, when Western and Chinese foods became common. In rooms with tatami, though, chairs are not used, so the table has much shorter legs than those found in other countries.


A room from the 1920s or 1930s, with the chadansu at center (Edo-Tokyo Museum)

As the living room, where the family dines together, grew to be the center of their lives at home, it came to contain a cabinet that holds the plates and bowls that people use. This cabinet, which is called a chadansu, was originally used to hold the implements used in the tea ceremony.


Kotatsu also serve as dining tables (The Japan Forum)

In the winter, Japanese use a heated table called a kotatsu when they sit on tatami in the living room. The kotatsu is said to have developed at Zen Buddhist temples during the middle ages. While it originally used coal for its heat, these days kotatsu rely on an electric heating element. The top and sides of the kotatsu are covered with a futon to keep the heat in, and a board is placed on top of the futon so that the kotatsu can be used as a table.


An example of a tokonoma (Mushakouji Senke)

Around the end of the middle ages, the tokonoma, a kind of small alcove, appeared in the homes of the samurai. The alcove, located in the guest room, usually has a vertical scroll of calligraphy or art for visitors to enjoy, along with traditional ikebana flowers.

Buddhism is practiced in Japan, as it is in many other Asian countries. In Japan, though, indigenous gods have been worshipped alongside the Buddha in homes since long ago. Buddhist altars, known as butsudan, are shaped like a cabinet with doors at the front that swing open. The altar for Japanese gods, known as kamidana, is shaped like a small shrine and is kept on a shelf near the ceiling. It contains a fuda, which is a paper or wooden tablet with writing on it.

Now, let's go and play inside a Japanese house!