The Japanese approach to the home is a metaphor for a wider attitude towards nature and the outside world. Traditional architecture is bound by spiritual principles.
A traditional room with screens, straw matting and minimal furniture, about 1895. Credit: NMPFT
Structures are flexible, allowing homes to bend before the wind or shake during mild earthquakes. Likewise, the Japanese mindset can be bent – but not broken – under western influence.
Traditional Japanese homes are designed with simplicity, flexibility and harmony in mind. Unlike western homes, wher
By the mid-1970s over half of Japanese homes boasted western-style dining suites
e rooms serve specific purposes, Japanese rooms are multifunctional. Interior spaces are defined not by solid walls but by translucent sliding panels, curtains and ‘shoji’ screens – made from rice paper or wooden latticework, these diffuse natural light. Flexible furnishings occupy these spaces. They are simple, portable and functional. To the Japanese, homes and garden co-exist as symbolic spaces, revealing hidden harmonies. The spiritual approach is apparent in the increased popularity of feng shui. Although Chinese in origin, feng shui is widespread in Japan and stresses harmony and balance. Western celebrities including Bill Clinton and Madonna are rumoured to have adopted feng shui. British Airways, BUPA and other companies have used it to try to enhance their businesses
Biwajima Bridge after the earthquake, Japan, 1891. Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
Japanese architecture first became westernised in the late nineteenth century when public buildings were built of stone and brick. However, homes remained traditional. Domestic architecture only westernised after the Second World War as traditional houses became symbols of poverty. Cities expanded and high-rise apartment blocks were built. By the mid-1970s over half of Japanese homes boasted western-style dining suites. Meanwhile, traditional Japanese dining furniture – low tables with tatami mats for sitting on – declined in popularity. Recently there has been a shift back to a more tra
Embroidered screen with bronze and porcelain items, Japanese, 1876. Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
ditional domestic architecture. These buildings represent a fusion of cultures, retaining underfloor heating and western-style bathrooms.
Once, traditional Japanese crafts such as ceramics, prints and silks decorated British homes. Now, Japanese electronic goods are commonplace and Japanese companies are global. Their products have a reputation for quality, reliability, innovation and design. Yet appearances can be deceptive. ‘Matsui’ sounds Japanese, but is a brand name for Currys, demonstrating a lack of confidence in British technology.
The Japanese approach to life is spiritual, yet robust. Could it be the case that these qualities have helped Japan to resist western domination?
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