Japanese decorating comes from the part of the world known as the "Land of the Rising Sun," an island-country in the Pacific Ocean just off the east coast of Asia. With over 3,000 islands that make up its land mass, Japan's climate is largely warm and humid. Natural resources from the region are used in home building to welcome in the external environment while at the same time protecting its inhabitants.
The washitsu, a traditional-styled Japanese room, places focus on the spatial, with clutter minimized, so as to accentuate the architecture and key pieces within the room.
The objective of today's Japanese decorating style is to bring about a modern and thoroughly clean sense of balance to the home. Seeming almost empty as compared to other themes on this site, this design brings with it neutral and natural colors, a strong emphasis towards minimalism (for walls, furniture and accessories), and an atmospheric harmony for its inhabitants.
You will find in many Japanese rooms sliding doors called shoji, which provide multiple purposes in and around the home. Furnishings and accessories are generally kept sparse with only the absolutely necessary put on display. Attention is instead given to space, with decorating accents highlighted against simple backgrounds.
As you can see in the illustrations, Japanese decorating places heavy emphasis on Shoji paper screens, tatami grass mat flooring and the tokonoma decorative alcove, all of which are traditional elements found within the Japanese home.
Colors and Textures
The Japanese color palette leans heavily towards subdued earth tones, with brown, black, green, gray and tan dominating. Walls are generally reserved with a white, cream or light beige color. Stone fixtures such as statues or water falls introduce gray tones.
Furniture, architecture and trim work bring in varied shades or brown and a lacquered black for definition. Red, green and other colorful accents are cast in the room through plants, ceramics, lighting, silk fabrics, wall fans and umbrellas.
Color cues in Japanese decorating.
For assistance selecting your theme colors, try these free online tools, the color wheel calculator (from Sessions School of Design) and thecolor visualizer (from Sherwin Williams).
You can see from the photographs on this page that Japanese decorating employs the use of sliding shoji screens for room dividers, doors and window coverings. These screens are made of wood or bamboo with a translucent rice paper, which is porous and easily allows light into the room, while at the same time providing good ventilation. Shoji are designed to slide back and forth, or up and down, as the situation may require, and are even used as stand alone room dividers to be placed wherever desired.
A Japanese dining room displaying low furniture,shoji screens and tatami flooring.
Lacquered wood furniture and trim work, paper screens, bamboo accessories, stone fountains and tatami mats are the primary ingredients used in Japanese decorating to bring about an organic and tranquil ambiance.
Japanese home decorating consists of furniture which is made of a dark brown or black lacquered wood, with simple lines and curves. Wood types are usually of the darker variety, such as rosewood, elm, walnut or cedar, and typically includes brass accents or iron hardware.
A prime example of this is the kotasu, a rectangular table situated very low to the ground, and has a heater underneath the center for keeping those around the table warm. This traditional fixture is used in the main gathering room for dining, writing or relaxing with guests, with seating on large floor cushions.
For an authentic flair, consider some of these pieces as well while planning the Japanese decor in your home: a medicine chest (with as many as 96 drawers to hold the many roots and herbs used in healing), a Tansu chest (which has a stair step type configuration), a character chest (which has carved or inlaid Asian characters), or an altar bench (a bench resembling an altar).
Other pieces which are more familiar, but with the same high quality craftsmanship, include such things as end tables, coffee tables and cabinets.
The futon is traditionally what the Japanese have slept on, although in today's culture the western style bed has become the norm. Futons are still kept in the home, however, although stored away for use as guest bedding.
Tatami mats, while primarily used for flooring, can also be stacked 2 to 3 thick for conversion into a bench, a table, a bed, or use in the alcove.
As you can see in each of the illustrations on this page, the use of tatami flooring is a fundamental element in Japanese decorating. Made for sleeping, sitting, flooring and furniture, tatami mats are constructed from tightly woven straw and measure approximately 3 feet x 6 feet x 2-1/4 inches deep, and are filled with a straw core (or in some cases foam) and have a colored brocade border.
A Japanese dining table, called a kotasu, with tatami mat flooring, and a raised alcove in the background.
Depending on how many tatami can fit into a room side by side, there are general guidelines to follow when setting up the layout. For example, grid patterns are avoided as they are said to bring about bad luck, while formations such as those pictured on this page are commonplace.
In order to extend the life of tatami, the Japanese always remove shoes and slippers upon entering a home, which takes place in the genkan, which is the foyer or entranceway into the home.
Tokonoma - The Alcove
Essential in Japanese decorating is the tokonoma, which is a recessed alcove where decorative scrolls, artwork and plants are displayed to generate an organic, harmonious and disciplined environment. Tokonoma are most commonly small raised alcoves (about 4 - 6 inches high), with an enclosed wooden base that holds stacked tatami.
A Japanese interior displaying tatami mat flooring and shoji screens; through the doorway lies the dining area and an illuminated alcove.
The alcoves are not required to be raised above the floor, although this is the most common practice. If the alcove is to remain at floor level, then the base should be constructed from a different material than the surrounding surface in order to draw distinction.
Simply hanging the alcove from the ceiling is another option, which makes practical sense if the living space is small, such as in an apartment.
Tokonoma is an ever evolving display where scrolls, fixtures, artwork and plants are rotated in and out with a certain degree of frequency, depending on holidays, special guests, or seasons of the year. Decorating the alcove should never be overdone, with simplicity and understatement being the look to achieve. A simple nondescript background should be maintained with overhead recessed lighting to illuminate the objects on display.
Alcoves can be located in various places throughout the home, including the entranceway, a staircase wall, the tea room, or the dining room.
Japanese Decorating Accessories and Motifs
Keeping in mind the all important rule in Japanese decorating that "less is more," fixtures are sparsely placed, with larger pieces left to stand on their own, while smaller assortments are grouped together. With room objects and architecture being simple and without heavy ornamentation, these objects are selected to contrast with - and provide balance to - the rest of the interior.
Below are some more ideas to help accessorize your Japanese interior.
- Shoji screens as room dividers and window covering
- Three and four-paneled room dividers of lacquered dark wood with colorful hand etched scenery
- Carved granite lanterns and sculptures
- Textured silk used for cushions, wall hangings, window dressing and lampshades
- Tatami floor mats
- Bamboo water fountains, wind chimes, vases, baskets, candleholders, blinds and kitchenware
- Metal wind chimes and ceremonial hanging gongs
- Decorative scrolls with Japanese calligraphy and characters
- Colorful embroidered silk kimonos hung on the wall
- Simple floral and plant arrangements
- Asian wall fans and umbrellas
- Lacquered black or red boxes, dishes, pots and vases
- Glazed porcelain pottery,artwork, flower vases and dishes
- Sand and stone Zen garden
- Porcelain tea and sake sets (with handle-less cups)
- Ninja and Samurai swords and other warrior memorabilia
- Artwork and pottery depicting dragons, fish, birds, horses, cats, butterflies, Buddha, monkeys and elephants
- Detailed cork carvings of city or landscape encased in dark wood and glass
- Figurines and statues made of jade, terra cotta, brass and ivory
- White pebbles on polished black granite
- Shoji lamps and chouchin lanterns
- Incense burners depicting dragons, Buddha, or ancient temples
- Indoor Zen water fountains
- Oriental scents, lotions and gels for the bathroom
- Sushi dish sets with matching chop sticks
- A bonsai tree or bamboo plant
During evening hours, Japanese decorating requires soft and soothing light in recessed fixtures, lamps or lanterns. Low light placed in shoji lamps, wall sconces or chouchin lanterns are commonly used. Simply white, or colorful and emblematic, this lighting is typically constructed of bamboo that is tightly wrapped with paper or silk, and can be shaped in spheres, beehives or cubes.
Japanese decorating as shown in this dining room, displaying low furniture, orb-shaped chouchin lanterns and shoji screen window covering.
In use by the Japanese for over 1200 years, these lanterns and lamps are a great way to introduce greens, reds and splashes of other color into the room's palette.
Shoji screens, as described above, are well suited for providing ample natural sunlight into the home during the day, while also providing an airy and open atmosphere.
See Also ...
Japanese Decorating and Shoji Decor Artistic Shapes and Colors of Paper Lanterns, Party Lanterns, Battery Powered Lanterns, Shoji paper & Japanese lamps
Haiku Designs Japanese Furniture, Platform Beds, Oriental Furniture, Shoji Screens
Japanese Gifts and Accessories - Lanterns, Bamboo, Tea Sets, Incense, Tatami Mats and Shoji Screens