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70621-0008 - Traditional Japanese Interior

Woman in Room

Artist Unknown
Publisher Unknown
Medium Albumen Print
Period Meiji
Location Inside
Image No. 70621-0008
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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).

In the center of the room is a hibachi (charcoal brazier), used both for boiling tea water and heating the room, and two zabuton (cushions for sitting on the floor).

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.


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. This site can now only be accessed through the Internet Archive, but remains a valuable source for looking at the different aspects of traditional Japanese architecture.

3 This photo has been found in an album produced by Kozaburo Tamamura, but it is unknown who the photographer is.


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Reference for Citations

Duits, Kjeld (). 1890s: Woman in Room, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on December 3, 2022 (GMT) from

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This is a beautiful photo, but using the past tense to describe the tokonoma is a vast exaggeration, and I would say mostly incorrect. I have lived in Japan for 13 years and have seen tokonoma in most homes any larger than 1 room studio apartments, EVEN in modern apartment buildings where usually, one room is dedicated to tradition, complete with zashiki and tokonoma. It is true, however, that due to lack of living space, the tokonoma is sometimes used for more practical purposes, such as a bookshelf, or even the TV.
I also totally disagree with the statement “ shoji have almost disappeared”. As with the tokonoma most modern housing have shoji. In fact all but the most modern design-minded apartments, (even the tiniest 1 room ones too small to have a tokonoma) will mostly still have shoji to separate the kitchen area from the bedroom.
And having lived in a variety of Japanese housing for 13 years I can also assure you that the modern Japanese home does not give any “feeling of complete seclusion”. The modern Japanese home is designed to last only 20 years, 30 at the most, and has no insulation to speak of: in winter we freeze, in summer we cook, quite literally. The temperatures are far more extreme than on the outside due to poor building standards and zero effort to seclude the inside/save energy. I have spent a considerable amount of time in old Japanese homes, and I can tell you from experience that they feel far more secluded than modern ones. Perhaps a little more practice would benefit the theory?



Dear twitchit,

Thank you very much for your comment.

I base my comments on 30 years of residence in Japan combined with actual research, and in comparison with the situation in Japan when the above photo was taken.

Last year I surveyed some 200 apartments in Tokyo. Not a single one had a tokonoma or shoji. In the countryside there are still relatively old structures left (in Japan “old” being anything over 30 years) with tokonoma or shoji, but in the city there are few. Especially compared to the pre-war situation.

Also, in the old days, complete walls consisted of shoji, especially along the engawa. This is pretty much non-existent in modern structures in urban areas. Some older apartments may have a washitsu with shoji, but a modern structure where every wall consists of shoji is exceedingly rare. The situation is slightly different in the countryside, but the majority of Japanese now live in cities. Actually, 20% of the Japanese population lives in the Tokyo metro area, the majority of them in small apartments.

But I guess everything is relative. If you compare it to the situation in the West, you could say that there still is much. However, I compare it to the situation in Japan during the Meiji Period. Based on that comparison, only a small fraction is left.

It is similar with kimono. Most Japanese will tell you that kimono are not much worn anymore, comparing it to pre-war Japan when just about everybody wore them all the time. But many people from outside Japan feel that kimono can still be seen quite frequently.