Life in an old Japanese house Vol.7: Japanese homes’ "Tokonoma" pt. 1

The ‘tokonoma’ (床の間) is a common feature of traditional Japanese homes, it is an elevated alcove for displaying art and flowers. There are many theories as to where it originated. The architect Seiroku Oota (1911-2009) believed that during the Muromachi period (1336-1573), Chinese flooring used in bedrooms, written as 牀 a character meaning pedestal, was imported into Japan and written as 床 (toko). Some architects believe that a knee-high pedestal was added below the wall as 押板(oshi-ita) that displayed imported Chinese Buddhist paintings and various works of art. Others believe those in a higher status had parts of the floor elevated and that evolved into the tokonoma. Sadatake Ise (1718-1784), a scholar of ancient practices believed that it’s origin is tied to that of the ‘Butsudan’ the family Buddhist altar. There is as of yet no rosetta stone that can definitively prove any of these theories, but at any rate, the ‘tokonoma’ is a unique architectural feature that developed in Japan. Whereas thatched and tiled roofs come in various kinds in places around the world, and wooden structures featuring wooden pillars and earthen walls are in China and Korea as well, so while none of these are unique to Japan; it can easily be said that tatami flooring and the ‘tokonoma’ are seen only in Japan.


The ‘tokonoma’ (elevated alcove) located in Kawaratei soba restaurant in Okayama Prefecture.


Besides the ‘tokonoma’ having an unclear origin, the function this special space occupies in a home is hard to explain in just a few words. Though it is generally thought of a place to place flowers and put up a hanging scroll for visitors to see, it is common to place the most important guest directly in front of the ‘tokonoma’ so strangely they often end up having their back to it and being the one unable to view what’s displayed there. This position is called the ‘kamiza’.


Architectural Historian Hirotarou Oota wrote that the tokonoma shifted away from simply being a place for decorating and evolved into a tool for elevating the status of those in power in Samurai society.

The ‘oshi-ita’, a pedestal which is thought by some to be the origin of the tokonoma, is recorded to have first appeared amongst the aristocracy in the prosperous Heian period (794-1185). In ‘shinden-zukuri’ palatial architecture style buildings of the time, court nobles and buddhist monks, displayed various precious goods from China and other countries abroad upon this pedestal. This practice continued during future periods as the warrior class gained power during what is known as the warring states period (1467-1615) as well as during the Kamakura period (1185-1333), Muromachi period (1336-1573), and Azuchi-momoyama period (1568-1600). During this time, the Shinden-zukuri architecture style which was popular amongst the aristocrats was replaced by Shoin-zukuri, a style intended to display one’s rank in society. It is believed that this was when the ‘tokonoma’ became a typical feature in buildings of the Shoin-zukuri style. If we suppose that the warrior class would accumulate artwork as a method of exhibiting their strength and proudly show it off on the walls and placing it in the tokonoma then we have a clear progression of how the tokonoma came to be what it is.


Selected Picture Scroll from Boki-ekotoba Vol.10 taken from the National Diet Library Digital Collection.(
The pedestal located in the upper left corner placed before a Buddhist artwork is the origin of an ‘oshi-ita’.


Selected Picture Scroll from Boki-ekotoba Vol.1 taken from the National Diet Library Digital Collection.(
The pedestal located in the left corner placed under an artwork is an ‘oshi-ita’.


Conceptual Diagram of a typical ‘Shinden-zukuri’ structure found in the text ‘Kaoku-zakkou’ by Edo era scholar Natari Sawada (Image taken from Wikipedia)

Nowadays it is considered rude to sit upon the ‘tokonoma’, but it is recorded in the diary ‘Soutan-nikki’ by tea master Kamiya Soutan that the feudal lord and great unifier of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi did this. Therefore we can suppose that it was not forbidden to sit there but rather it was a place to be sat on by someone of higher status which is what has led some to conclude that this is how the ‘tokonoma’ has become considered a place to sit with their back to for those of elevated status.

That covers why guests sit with their back to the ‘tokonoma’ in a guest room, but when a tea ceremony is held this hardly happens. The Kamiza position remains by the ‘tokonoma’ but as you can see in the diagram, guests are facing the host with them often seated with the ‘tokonoma’ beside them. This allows them to see what is displayed there.


It is during the tea ceremony that the ‘tokonoma’ changes from being a place for representing power and becomes chiefly a place where the theme or concept of the day’s ceremony is communicated by what the host decides to display there.  It may in fact be better to think of the ‘tokonoma’ in Shoin-zukuri residences that was intended to display the owner’s rank as a different thing entirely from the tea ceremony’s ‘tokonoma’ built to create an ethereal connection between its participants. It’s worth mentioning that tea rooms can be roughly divided into 2 different types. There is the Shoin style that was derived from the Shoin-zukuri style and the Souan style based on rustic countryside homes that was created by the great tea master Sen no Rikyu. Sen no Rikyu’s Souan style is what most imagine when talking about a tea house. The widely touted Japanese aesthetic sense called Wabi-Sabi originated alongside the Souan style. Up to then only luxurious things that represented one’s wealth were considered to be beautiful but the Souan style took the misery and pitiful nature of countryside peasants’ poverty and found beauty in it. This new style of teahouse lead to people building them in their own residences which leads us to talking about ‘Sukiyahu-shoinzukuri’ architecture but we will stop here and leave that for next time.