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A woman in kimono is reading seated on the floor behind a low table in a typical Japanese room. These kind of rooms, called zashiki (座敷), have become increasingly rare in modern Japan, but were extremely popular during the Meiji period. The zashiki was often seen as a formal room for guests, who were usually seated in the place of honor: in front of the tokonoma (the small raised alcove seen behind the woman). Guests were always seated with the back towards the tokonoma; it would have been immodest to have a guest see the room’s most important feature.
The tokonoma usually covered either half or the entire area of one tatami (uniform mats made of woven rush straw packed with rice straw used for flooring). The floor was raised and usually made of wood, although occasionally it contained a tatami. Often a window was created on the side to let in light. The tokonoma’s main features were the tokobashira (alcove pillar), the kakejiku (hanging scroll), a vase with flowers or a branch, and an okimono (decorative carving).
The tokobashira was placed at one of the front corners of the alcove. It was often a complete tree trunk of cypress or rarer woods. Pine, maple, mulberry, sandalwood and ebony were also used, especially in a chashitsu (tea ceremony room). The tokobashira carried no weight and was employed solely for its esthetic qualities. The kakejiku and the flower arrangement were adjusted to the season and were a well-established way to express refinement.
The tokonoma had it roots in the fourteenth century as a room where Buddhist priests kept their household altars. Only later was this religious space turned into a small recessed space with only a decorative function.
To the left of the tokonoma is a goban (碁盤), a floor board for playing Go, still a popular board game in Japan today. On top are two bowls (碁笥 goke) containing the game’s stones (碁石 goishi).
The shoji (sliding doors) have been opened and offer a view of the engawa (the veranda on the side of the house). The engawa played a very important role in the Japanese house. It was the threshold between the inside and the outside, at at a time when even the outside was considered part of the house. It softened the transition when the shoji were opened and allowed fresh air and sunlight in even when it rained or on hot days. It also functioned as an important social space where children played, where the people of the house could talk with visitors like the mailman and the neighbors, and as a comfortable refuge on warm summer nights.
When the outer wooden panels were closed for the night or when it rained, the engawa remained exposed to the wind and the rain, giving an impression of the house remaining open. It did not give the feeling of complete seclusion that modern houses do. During the Showa period, there was a transition period to the modern house when engawa became part of the ‘inside’ and the outer wooden panels were placed on the outside of the engawa.
Unfortunately, engawa have been completely removed from the modern Japanese house. Shoji have almost disappeared. This is truly sad. They were a brilliant solution to the age-old problem of changing needs when the family structure changes or when there are special functions. They were not only used between the inside and outside, but also between rooms, allowing the creation of an incredibly flexible space. Rooms could be made smaller and bigger with a whoosh.
Traditional Japanese architecture did not make use of the Western concept of a space with a determined function. Rooms could be used for different functions depending on the situation and the time of day. The same room could be used for eating, studying, talking with visitors, sleeping or even as a sick room or guest room. The shoji increased the flexibility of this concept.
The modern Japanese house does not have this flexibility anymore, forcing people to spend large amounts of money on “reforms” to create a new layout when the old one has ceased to function.
Unique in this room is the patterned rug used as floor covering. It was common in Japanese houses to not cover the tatami. During the Meiji period, people saw the use of floor-rugs, a Western influence, as modern.
This photo has been found in an album produced by Kozaburo Tamamura, but it is unknown who the photographer is.
1 For traditional Japanese architectural concepts, visit JAANUS, an excellent on-line dictionary of Japanese architectural and art historical terminology.
2 For more information about the traditional Japanese house, see The Traditional Japanese House.