Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Birth of the Japanese Style

Up until about the early 14th century, aristocrats and high ranking warriors copied Chinese style. Tea ceremonies were held in rooms decorated in the Chinese style with chairs, cabinets, and other furniture imported from China.  There were neither mats nor an alcove. Sometimes there were a few screens painted by Chinese masters. Porcelain vases held flowers, the Japanese art of flower arranging, ikebana, had not yet been invented.

In the 14th century, the art of meeting, such as the tea ceremony and other gatherings, was still being developed, and the Chinese style decor played an important part. Japanese artists emulated the Chinese style. However, over time, the Japanese artists began to acquire techniques and skills that set the stage for a new and original style in the 15th and 16th centuries, a Japanese style. This new style arose during the Muromachi period of the 15th century.

This new style differed from previous forms of interior design by its use of mats and a new form of internal space in the house. 

In the early 15th century, the aristocracy began to use tatami throughout their rooms and not just for seating. The mats originally were used as a seat or bed but now their use became widespread in the house of wealthy samurai warriors. Bamboo blinds and hangings were gradually replaced by movable partitions covered with white paper, or shoji, which let the light filter through.

The new Japanese style won over the Kyoto aristocracy, nobles and especially the samurai, as well as the upper middle class. It was not until the late 16th century, however, that the new interior style reached the wealthier classes in the provinces.

In the samurai aristocracy's residences, the increased use of tatami was accompanied by the introduction of a new architectural form, the shoin zakuri, a space used as a reading or meeting room with chests of drawers and shelves for storing scrolls. An alcove (tokonoma) was built into one corner. This interior style, which evolved into the "Japanese house," became popular during the time of the Ashikaga Shogun Yoshimasa.

The new interior style led to more interest in local art production such as pottery for use in the tea ceremony. It also led to the size of objects being reduced in order to fit into the shoin zukuri, and small rooms, 4.5 tatami in area.

Although the Muromachi period was a time of civil wars (Onin War), peasant uprisings, and the assassination of the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshinori, it was also a time of great cultural growth. The Japanese Tea Ceremony, Japanese flower arranging, The Noh Japanese drama, and ink painting all appeared during this time.

The World Turned Upside Down: Medieval Japanese Society


  1. Many thanks for this thought-provoking posting. It's interesting to reflect that before the Muromachi, Japan lacked almost everything that is thought of as "particularly Japanese" - no tea ceremony, no kimono, no Zen gardens etc etc. So, if one could time-travel back to, say, Heian Japan, what I wonder would strike one as "Japanese" about the culture....? Maybe fodder for another posting there....

  2. China long had a strong influence on Japan from the earliest Japanese history.

  3. Interesting post. Good insight.