Kids Web Japan

Living in a Japanese House

From Dividing Screens to Shoji Sliding Doors

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.

Shoji act as both doors and curtains

Tatami Mats and Zabuton Cushions

Nowadays tatami mats are used to cover the floor of entire rooms, but up until the Middle Ages, tatami was a luxury that was only used in the areas where people would actually sit. A thinner tatami mat covered in decorative fabric was spread on top of these tatami. This was eventually replaced with the enza, a round straw mat, which then developed into the zabuton cushion. The zabuton was originally a mat made from beautiful cloth, but it came to take its current form in around the middle of the Edo period (1603–1867), when cotton was added.

Zataku Tables and Chadansu Cabinets

In the past, when people had meals, each person ate their food from an individual box-like tray called a zen. The practice of people gathering around a dining table only began during the Meiji period (1868–1912), when Western and Chinese foods became common. In rooms with tatami, though, chairs are not used, so the table (called a zataku) has much shorter legs than those found in other countries.

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 they use. This cabinet, which is called a chadansu, was originally used to hold the implements used in the tea ceremony.

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

Kotatsu Tables and Tokonoma Alcoves

In the winter, Japanese use a heated table called a kotatsu when they sit on tatami mats 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.

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.

Kotatsu also serve as dining tables (The Japan Forum)

Worshipping Buddha and the Gods at Home

Buddhism is practiced in Japan, as it is in many other Asian countries. In some Japanese homes, though, ancient indigenous gods are worshipped alongside the Buddha. 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.

A typical tokonoma (Mushakouji Senke)