In attempting to fully understand the Japanese style of architecture and design, it is important to get a sense of the culture and its geography. Japan is a densely populated space in many locations, where space is at a premium. What some people in Western countries consider to be smallish or even cramped living spaces, the Japanese consider to be quite comfortable. When it comes to the living room, the space most commonly occupied, there are still other cultural aspects that play a significant role in its design.
A distinction that needs to be made concerning the Japanese living room is that in many homes and apartments rooms are considered to be multipurpose. Again, space is at a premium in many Japanese cities, so living areas must be flexible enough to convert into spaces for living, eating, and sleeping. It is required to think outside of the box when thinking about the key characteristics of a Japanese “living room.” As you read on, you will need to leave any Western-style cultural concepts temporarily behind and embrace the more compact world of the Japanese lifestyle.
One of the basic cultural impressions on the Japanese people is their concept of access to light being a natural human right. This means that the living room will be situated facing the south to ensure the maximum amount of sunlight during the day. If the living room was facing the east or west, the mornings would be bright during the day but face a significant loss of light during the evening time.
Another cultural component of the Japanese living room design is the connection to nature. Homes and apartments that have an open view of mountains and waterways are considered to be among the best properties. Many times Westerners see the Japanese taking special care and tending to outside gardens. This is because a garden is the next best thing to a natural view of the outside. When it comes to the living room, the windows will almost always have a view of the garden or natural terrain.
While the outdoors are considered to be the ideal view from a living room window, the connection with the outside stops once you enter the home. Seeing a step-up entranceway is found in most Japanese homes and apartments, whether leading into the living room or not. This transitional space is known as the genkan, and is used to leave the shoes worn outside behind for inside house slippers. From a house cleaning perspective, this is great time saver and is likely to keep carpets/rugs and floors serviceable for a very long time.
Another way to transition from one room to another is the sliding doorway. You are likely to use at least one to enter the living room, and are generally louvered. Keeping with the Japanese concept of the right to natural light, they will always allow some degree of light to shine through. They are framed with natural wood, making the color choices for the living room quite flexible. However, white is the most common choice as it is representative of purity. The Japanese have a special respect for wood, and in the living room and the home as a whole, you will not find wood that is painted. Staining wood is allowed, used for accentuating the grain of the wood as opposed to covering the grain.
Earlier it was mentioned that shoes worn on the outside are not allowed inside the home. As a result, you will find interior spaces such as the living room floors covered with tatami flooring. This is a type of straw mat that is both very expensive yet very long lasting. This is possible because the only thing that will touch this type of flooring will be inside slippers.) You may also find cultural connections with the idea of “dirty feet.”) But the mats are not simply an issue of culture; they are very practical as well, keeping the floor warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Oftentimes you will see a Japanese living room devoid of clutter and having a large amount of empty space. Westerners may consider this to be a waste of space, but these large empty spaces are considered to be a way for people to think and be creative. The idea is that the space is a void, waiting to be filled by the person or people sitting in the room.
In Japan the living room may be called an ima or a chanoma. The modern living room will have the more Western-style characteristics of a sofa and other living room furniture, but up until the 1980’s you were more likely to find a small round table known as the shabudai as the centerpiece of the room. This is a very minimalist style and is a common cultural dimension of the Japanese lifestyle.
When you consider the design of the Japanese living room, it is especially connected to the long history of Japanese culture. Many of the materials are actually very lightweight to provide the flexibility necessary to transform rooms into a variety of living spaces. The more modern approach allows for a greater materialism, but even with this relaxation of cultural norms, The Japanese living room still has a relatively large amount of open space. It is likely you will find additional “clutter” away from windows to allow for the maximum exposure to light and a view of the nature beyond the windows.
Bringing a true Japanese design into a Western culture may be more challenging than first imagined, since the concepts of “less is more” and “privacy is a right” are likely to clash with traditional Western values. It is hard to imagine the average Japanese denizen creating a home that resembles more of an English castle than an American cabin. So be prepared to think out of the box and be ready to rearrange your living room to quickly accommodate friends, family, and guests.