Japan is one of the ancient civilisations and the west has been fascinated by it, since arriving there in the 16th century. Japan promptly closed its doors again, leaving a sole port open for foreign trade. It was not until the mid-19th century that trade opened up and when the Victorians arrived there they were totally shocked at the bare rooms compared to their own.
The traditional Japanese home is based on Ma - the balance between space and objects. The tatami matting made of woven rice straw is fundamental to Japanese interiors. The dimensions of a room are measured in tatami mats. For example, a doorway should equal the height of two mats and be one mat wide. Each mat is about 180cm x 90cm wide. The mats are used for seating, flooring and sleeping. The space is divided by shoji screens, which slide on wooden tracks and can be removed to let the outside in.
Today, the interest in all things Japanese is as popular as ever with karaoke bars, the latest miniature gadgets, Zen Buddhism, and sales of sushi overtaking the common sandwich. For interiors, the current look tends to be drawn from all over with elements of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai creating a fusion of Oriental styles.
- simple, minimalist, Zen
- flexible boundaries - moveable screens, sliding panels
- outside coming inside
- low off the floor
- natural, organic materials - cane, bamboo, paper, wood
- indirect lighting
- muted colours with accents of red, black, gold
- the arts and crafts movement copied the pared-down quality of Japanese art
- in the 1920s designers like Eileen Gray and Charles Rennie Mackintosh studied traditional lacquer techniques
- Japanese style is the defining influence on 1990s minimalism
- Kuniyoshi - 19th century woodblock artist collected by the French Impressionists
- Shoji Hamada - ceramicist working in the 1920s and 1930s - co-founded the St Ives Pottery in Cornwall with British potter Bernard Leach
- Tadao Ando - contemporary architect
At the time
- 552 to 645 BC Asuka period
- 978 to 1031 The Tale of Genji, a novel, is written by Murasaki Shikibu
- 1053 Byodo-in-Temple is built
- 1338 to 1573 Muromachi (Ashikaga) Period
- 1560 music using bamboo pipes, zithers and three-stringed guitars becomes popular
Get the look
- Use screens to divide and conceal. There are lots around from the high street to catalogue companies to exclusive oriental shops. Alternatively, make your own from a simple wooden lattice construction. You shouldn't be able to see any nails. In traditional Japanese homes the screens are placed on sliding wooden tracks. Attach and staple gun translucent paper to your wooden frame. Tracing paper will do the trick but might not last that long. Paint the frame black or leave in plain pale wood. Screens can also be made from bamboo and cane. Garden suppliers often have suitable ones.
- Flooring - should be tatami mats. These are best described as half seating, half flooring. You can buy them but they are quite pricey. To imitate the look, buy cheap mats, the sort you get at seaside shops. You could have paper flooring as well. Remember to leave your shoes outside.
- Colour schemes - muted and neutral but with accent colours of red, black, occasionally yellow (this is more Chinese) and the green of sushi. You could paint a whole room in a vermillion red with a lacquered finish - apply lots and lots of varnish or use a specialist paint and work in a well ventilated room.
- All furniture - low-level and kept to a bare minimum. Go for a futon in the bedroom, or just a mattress on the floor. For tables, put low school-type benches either side of the table. Black ash furniture is just right. There is still a lot around thrown out from the 1980s. Also look for lacquered furniture. Real pieces will have beautiful intricate inlays of mother of pearl and gold and silver. Paint your own with a high-varnish spray paint.
- Lighting - very important in the Japanese home. Light is diffused through paper to give a warm glow. Place lights behind your screens to achieve this. You can't go wrong with a simple white paper lampshade. Chinese lanterns are more heavily patterned than Japanese with tassels and calligraphy but you could mix the two looks.
- Traditional Japanese baths are high-sided wooden boxes made from teak, marine ply or cedar wood. If you want one, check whether your floor would need reinforcing. Fake the look with a wooden surround.
- Japanese table settings are very organised. Use bowls rather than plates, with a long runner down the centre of the table. Craquelure ceramics are very Japanese in long slender shapes in greens and black.
- Hang a kimono on the wall as a piece of art. Traditional Japanese ones have a deep blue indigo dye or black and white.
- Display one single spray of orchids, miniature bonsai, pebbles, twigs, and tortured willow. Use fine grey gravel round the top of pots and plants and look for bamboo accessories.
What to invest in
Four main types of Japanese pottery:
- Arita - blue and white
- Imari - most common - dark blue, red, gilding, floral designs
- Kakiemon - geometric shapes, white backgrounds, enamelled scenes
- satsuma -cream coloured backgrounds with gold decoration - marking 'Dutch East India Company' will add thousands to the value
- Japanese furniture and objects from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries - red is much rarer than black
Where to see it
- The Hempel Hotel, London
- Restaurants such Wagamama and Yo!Sushi
- The Japanese House by Black and Murrat (Scriptum Editions)
- Asian Style Source Book by Jenny de Sex (Museum Quilts Publications)
- Contemporary Eastern by Alice Whateley (Carlton)
- Japanese Modern by Michiko Rico Nose (Mitchell Beazley)
© Image copyright:
Silk embroidery image courtesy of the Antiques Roadshow finds database.
Blue and white china image courtesy of the Antiques Roadshow finds database.