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Two women and a man in traditional clothing are sitting on zabuton (cushions) on tatami mats in a large room divided by fusuma (sliding doors) at what appears to be an inn. The man is warming his hands at a beautiful wooden hibachi used for keeping the water warm. The woman in the front appears to be preparing tea.
Fusuma are a beautiful and efficient way to quickly change a large area into several smaller ones and back. But what makes them really special is that they allow an occupant of a room to be aware of the presence of a person in another room. Even though you are in your own space, you are not alone, you are still connected with the other person. In families who grow up in homes with rooms only divided by fusuma, each member undoubtedly feels much closer and connected to the others than members of families with each person having a room that is separated from other rooms by solid walls and doors.
Another advantage was that during Japan’s hot Summers, fusuma could all be opened to let the wind blow through the whole house. The boundary between the house and the outside was a delicate and transformative one.
An obvious drawback is of course the lack of privacy. The doors can be easily opened by whoever so wishes. The English traveller and writer Isabella Bird (1831-1904) who in 1878 travelled through the backcountry of Japan wrote to her sister about the fear that this lack of privacy induced in her when she stayed at a Japanese inn:
I tried to write to you, but fleas and mosquitoes prevented it, and besides, the fusuma were frequently noiselessly drawn apart, and several pairs of dark, elongated eyes surveyed me through the cracks; for there were two Japanese families in the room to the right, and five men in that to the left. I closed the sliding windows, with translucent paper for window panes, called shoji, and went to bed, but the lack of privacy was fearful, and I have not yet sufficient trust in my fellow-creatures to be comfortable without locks, walls, or doors! Eyes were constantly applied to the sides of the room, a girl twice drew aside the shoji between it and the corridor; a man, who I afterwards found was a blind man, offering his services as a shampooer1, came in and said some (of course) unintelligible words, and the new noises were perfectly bewildering. On one side a man recited Buddhist prayers in a high key; on the other a girl was twanging a samisen, a species of guitar; the house was full of talking and splashing, drums and tom-toms were beaten outside; there were street cries innumerable, and the whistling of the blind shampooers, and the resonant clap of the fire-watchman who perambulates all Japanese villages, and beats two pieces of wood together in token of his vigilance, were intolerable. It was a life of which I knew nothing, and the mystery was more alarming than attractive; my money was lying about, and nothing seemed easier than to slide a hand through the fusuma and appropriate it. Ito told me that the well was badly contaminated, the odours were fearful; illness was to be feared as well as robbery! So unreasonably I reasoned!2
This glass slide is one of a series of slides of Japan that was used by the New York State Education Department to teach students about Japan.
2 Bird, Isabella L. (1880). Unbeaten Tracks in Japan; An Account of Travels on Horseback in the Interior including Visits to the Aborigines of Yezo and the Shrines of Nikko and Ise. Putnam’s Sons.