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Japanese Culture - Architecture and Furnishings

Updated on November 19, 2013

Japanese Culture - Architecture and Furnishings

Influenced by China and evolving largely in isolation, Japan is a 2,000 year old civilization that epitomizes the concepts of aesthetic beauty, simplicity, modularity, and attention to detail (Harwood, 2012). Within the confines of a strict society governed by hierarchy and tradition and ruled by emperors and warlords, the culture nourishes artists, designers, and scholars (Harwood, 2012).

Historical Background

From prehistoric times, Japanese cultural and building traditions evolve largely independent of outside influences (Harwood, 2012). However, in 552 C.E., with the introduction of Buddhism from China via Korea, a cultural transformation occurs (Harwood, 2012). During the 7th and 8th centuries, Chinese and Korean artists immigrate to Japan and bring with them Chinese concepts of art, city planning, and court protocol (Harwood, 2012). Through periods of isolation and contact, the Japanese acquire and assimilate outside characteristics that suit their own cultural preferences (Harwood, 2012). As in China, ideas of unity, harmony, and balance govern Japanese art and architecture (Harwood, 2012). Shibui, the highest aesthetic level of traditional Japanese design, is expressed through simplicity, implicitness or inner meaning, humility, silence, and the use of natural materials (Harwood, 2012).

Main Characteristics – Shibui and Harmony with Nature

These characteristics shape all visual arrangements and daily activities (Harwood, 2012). Because an individual’s relationship to nature is important, the Japanese view the physical division between nature and the man-made environment differently than Westerners (Harwood, 2012). Different conceptions of the relationship between humanity and nature produce distinctive frames of reference for human desires, attitudes, and behaviors (Samovar, 2013). In Japan and Thailand, there is a perception that nature is a part of life and not a hostile force waiting to be subdued (Samovar, 2013). This orientation affirms that people should, in every way possible, live in harmony with nature (Samovar, 2013). While the Chinese are known for decoration integrated into the structure, the Japanese are known for the beauty of their construction methods and joinery of their use of natural materials (Harwood, 2012).

During the course of the twentieth century, traditional Japanese design became merged with influences from Western European and American practice (Pile, 2009). When Japan was opened to the West in the nineteenth century, many Japanese became convinced of the superiority of foreign ideas and institutions and were especially interested in Western religion and culture (Duiker, 2010). Western literature, art, and music also had a major impact on Japanese society (Duiker, 2010). Japanese design has exerted an influence on Western practice through several lines of contact (Pile, Interior Design, 2007). In the nineteenth century, Japanese prints became known in England and were admired by the artistically inclined who made up the Aesthetic movement that linked fine art with the Arts and Crafts Movement (Pile, Interior Design, 2007). The mixture of work from the European Art Nouveau movement with actual Japanese works shows a clear intention to absorb Japanese aesthetic concepts into Western design (Pile, Interior Design, 2007).

Main Characteristics – Architecture and Furnishings

With the coming of Modernism in the twentieth century in Europe and America, traditional Japanese design came to be regarded as predictive of the directions appropriate to current thinking (Pile, Interior Design, 2007). Traditional Japanese practice, in fact, did not call for furniture to any significant degree (Pile, Interior Design, 2007). Japanese interiors feature little freestanding furniture and several carefully selected decorative accessories (Harwood, 2012). Furnishings are often built in, and individual pieces are usually parallel to the wall (Harwood, 2012). People sit on their knees on zabutons, and often the focus of a group seating arrangment will be the hibachi or charcoal heater (Harwood, 2012). Defined by exposed structure, Japanese interiors express beauty, harmony, flexibility, and serenity (Harwood, 2012). Interiors feature the same strong geometry, respect for materials, contrasts, and harmony as exteriors (Harwood, 2012). Exterior-interior relationships and harmony with the landscape create a total environment (Harwood, 2012).

Public and private buildings appear as works of art in beautiful, natural environments (Harwood, 2012). Like Chinese models, architecture is governed by ordering systems such as axiality and hierarchy (Harwood, 2012). Fixed proportional relationships define architecture, and contrasts dominate: simple versus ornate, traditional in realtion to new, logical as opposed to contradictory (Harwood, 2012). Construction, detailing, decoration, and color reflect the various religions and the importance of nature (Harwood, 2012). Gardens, which are intended for meditation and seclusion, combine natural and man-made elements and mix broad vistas with small views [and] zen gardens feature rectangular forms, raked gravel grounds, and a few asymetrically placed rocks representing natural features (Harwood, 2012). Unlike the Chinese, the Japanese place greater emphasis on asymmetry than on symmetry (Harwood, 2012).

Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Japan, 1399 on a man-made lake (Ashikaga Yoshimitsu Information).
Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Japan, 1399 on a man-made lake (Ashikaga Yoshimitsu Information). | Source

"Wabi-[sabi] is characterized by humility, restraint, simplicity, naturalism, profundity, imperfection, and asymmetry [emphasizing] simple, unadorned objects and architectural space, and [celebrating] the mellow beauty that time and care impart to materials"

"Introduction: Chanoyu, the Art of Tea", Urasenke Seattle Homepage (Chiappa, 2012).


Chiappa, J. (2012). Wabi, Sabi, and Shibui. Retrieved Apr 23, 2013, from J. Noel Chiappa:

Duiker, W. (2010). Contemporary World History, 5th Ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Harwood, B. M. (2012). Architecture and Interior Design - An Integrated History to the Present . Upper Saddle River, NJ; Columbus, OH: Pearson Education, Inc. & Prentice Hall.

Pile, J. (2007). Interior Design. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

Pile, J. (2009). A History of Interior Design - 3rd Ed. . New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons; Laurence King Publishing Ltd. .

Samovar, L. P. (2013). Communication Between Cultures - 8th ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.


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      Dil Vil 4 years ago from India

      So cool, unique. Interesting hub, thank you for sharing.