"Japanese houses have nothing inside!" said Westerners
visiting Japan in the mid-1800s. "Nothing" was a bit of an exaggeration,
but it does seem, at first glance, that traditionally laid-out rooms have
What were Japanese homes like in the past? To answer that
question, let's turn back the clock to the 1960s, when older customs still
influenced lifestyles in the home. Those customs show us the Japanese genius
for placing things out of sight.
In those days, the typical house had two main rooms
a cha-no-ma and a zashiki plus a small kitchen
and a toilet. (Most houses had no bath, and people used to go to a neighborhood
public bath.) The cha-no-ma would have four-and-a-half tatami
mats (about 7.4 m² ), and the zashiki, six mats (about 10
m²). The cha-no-ma was the center of family life, and it was
used for sleeping, eating, receiving guests, and the like.
To be comfortable in these two tiny rooms, families had
to use space efficiently. Let's look at a typical day in the cha-no-ma.
In the morning, one or more members of the family would wake up, then fold
up their futons and bedding and put them in the closet. Next, a low table
called a chabu-dai would be set on the tatami floor, after
the legs were unfolded. The family sat around the table for breakfast, and
then the table legs were folded in and the table was placed on its side,
out of the way. If guests came, zabuton cushions were taken out
of the closet, one for each person to sit on. When the guests left, the
cushions went back in the closet, one on top of the other. At bedtime, the
futon and bedding came out of the closet again.
So each room did have furniture. It was just
put away out of sight when not in use.
Thus, a Japanese-style room serves different purposes
furniture is used only when it is needed. This contrasts with a Western-style
home, with its beds in the bedrooms, table and chairs in the dining room,
and sofa in the living room, each room having furniture and space for a
The Japanese room is multi-functional because of the tatami
mats, which are made for sitting and lying on. Today, they cover the entire
floor of a Japanese-style room, but in ancient times, until around the 15th
century, they were laid just in part of a room, and only when needed. Otherwise,
they were stacked on top of each other out of the way. They were, in the
typically Japanese fashion, movable pieces of furniture.