Classic Features of Japanese Houses

10 Classic Features Found in Japanese Houses

The traditional Japanese house is known for its highly unique architecture and features that you can find within and outside the home. These features are crucial aspects of Japanese history and culture.

It is common to find many of these classic features in newer Japanese homes because of their timeless characteristics and charm. You can even find some concepts of traditional Japanese homes in modern western regions, including America.

Historically, Japan’s family-style homes were temporary structures that you had to rebuild every twenty or so years. Because of this notion, houses were made mostly of wood and other less permanent materials, including clay, rice straw, and even paper.

Here is a list of 10 classic features found in Japanese houses.

1. Fusuma

Fusuma - Classic Features of Japanese Homes

Fusuma refers to vertical rectangular sliding panels in a Japanese house. These panels serve as room dividers or as doors and can completely change home or room layout. Fusuma is made from a lattice-styled wood structure covered with cardboard and a layer of either paper or cloth on both sides.

Typically, fusuma are around 3 ft. wide by nearly 5 ft. 11 in. tall and are only a couple of centimeters thick. Today the fusuma height has increased, as the population of Japan has increased over time. It is common to see a 6 ft. 2 in. height, when historically, the fusuma could be as short as 5 ft. 7 in.

Originally fusuma were hand-painted with beautiful scenic displays of mountains, forests, or sometimes animals. Today you will see plain fusuma or graphically printed designs.

2. Amado

Amado is the name given to storm shutters in traditional Japanese houses. Like fusuma, amado slide, but because they were built specifically for storms, they are meant to be removable. Typically, amado packs away into cupboards during the daytime, without storms, known as to-bukura.

The amado acts to seal off homes and is crucial protection from typhoons. They are made from more durable materials than fusuma, either wooden planks or metal sheets.

By day, a home looks inviting with fusuma’s natural light, and shoji might end up looking like a shack by night when surrounded by amado.

3. Engawa

Engawa - Classic Features of Japanese Homes

Engawa, also known as en, runs along the edge of flooring in traditional Japanese homes. Usually made of bamboo, they run around corridors of rooms or outside of structures.

Traditionally, engawa was built to separate the delicate shoji from the amado. When completely closed up, the engawa can feel like a secret passageway alongside the outer perimeter.

In some more modern homes, this engawa is a wider space that can serve as more of a sunroom when everything is opened up, weather permitting.

4. Shoji

Shoji - Classic Features of Japanese homes

Working very similarly to fusuma, shoji also acts as a door, room divider, or sometimes a window. Because traditional Japanese homes did not use glass, shoji usage allowed for natural lighting to enter homes. The primary difference between fusuma and shoji is translucency, whereas fusuma is known for its opaqueness.

Shoji has a similar lattice frame to fusuma, with transparent sheets to allow light to shine through. While most shoji slide, you might also find them hung or hinged. Shoji can be filled with several different materials between the latticing, including:

  • Open and semi-open
  • Cloth and paper
  • Plastic sheets and synthetic fibers
  • Glass

Like curtains, shoji may provide privacy from a visual standpoint, but they do not block sound. They are encouraging softer speech in homes.

5. Ranma

Similar to shoji and fusuma are ranma, which are generally found in Traditional Japanese homes above either. The purpose of ranma is to allow more natural light into homes and rooms and traditionally welcome visitors. They are small architectural details that can be simple, small shojis, or ornately detailed wood carvings.

6. Byobu

Byobu - Classic Features of Japanese Houses

Byobu are the Japanese folding screens that are common in households worldwide today. They are designed with multiple folding jointed panels and have artistic displays of painting or calligraphy. The primary purpose of byobu is to serve as a separator within the home.

The origins of byobu are linked backed to the Han Dynasty in China and thought to have come to Japan somewhere near the 7th or 8th century. Historically, byobu were considered essential pieces of furniture in Japanese homes due to the designs’ lack of privacy.

In the 19th century, the byobu became increasingly popular in Europe and America. Today they are more commonly collected as art pieces than used as pieces of furniture in homes.

7. Sudare

Sudare - Classic Features of Japanese Homes

Sudare also referred to as misu, are traditional screens or window coverings in Japanese houses. They are made up of thin slats of wood or bamboo and woven together with yarn or string. The structure of the sudare is light, allowing them to have breezes blow through to keep circulation in homes, especially during summers.

The purpose of sudare in Japanese homes is to shield them from sunlight, rain, or insects. They can be rolled up and put away when not in use, typically in spring.

Typically, sudare are inexpensive to make, but more elaborate forms use high-quality bamboo and silk or gold weaved.

8. Tatami

Tatami - Classic Features of Japanese Homes

Tatami is the name given to a mat that was used in traditional Japanese homes as flooring. You will also see tatami used in martial arts as the flooring for training and competition in a dojo.

The size of tatami varies by region but is made in a standard size twice as long as it is wide. Each area also has a name for its specific sizing:

Kyoma of Kyoto: 0.955 m. by 1.91 m.
Ainoma of Nagoya: 0.91 m. by 1.82 m.
Edoma of Tokyo: 0.88 m by 1.76 m.

Traditionally, the tatami core is made from compressed rice straw. In the modern-day, tatami can be made with varying materials, including wood chips or polystyrene foam.

Most interestingly about tatami are the rules regarding the number of tatami and layout within a room, with an auspicious and inauspicious arrangement. The latter is believed to bring bad fortune. Today, the tatami forms a “T” shape in the auspicious configuration versus the “+” shape of the inauspicious form.

9. Wagoya

The history of Japanese carpentry goes back over one millennium ago and has origins from Chinese architectural influences. Many aspects were introduced to Japanese carpentry, including Ancient Chinese wooden architecture and specific woodworking joints.

These influences are unique because the carpentry style involved building structures and furniture without using any glue, nails, screws, or electric tools.

Wagoya is the name given to the traditional Japanese home frame, built from this historical carpentry style. In wagoya, post-and-lintel style framing helped to support the structure of the buildings.

10. Genkan

Genkan - Classic features of Japanese Houses

The entryway area of a traditional Japanese house is known as a genkan. The genkan is the area directly in front of the door that allows for the removal of shoes before entering a home. The genkan is somewhat of a doormat mixed with a porch, serving the purpose of both.

In a more modern-day and age, genkan is used as a brief visitation area, more like a porch. For example, if you order food delivery, you would exchange words, food, and payment.

Usually, you will find genkan sunken into the ground. This design helps to contain any dirt and debris that gets tracked into the home from the outdoors. Once your shoes have been removed in the genkan, you must carefully avoid stepping in the area with your barefoot to eliminate the dirt’s transfer into the home.