Life in an old Japanese house Vol.7: Japanese homes’ “Tokonoma” pt. 2

Last time, we covered how the ‘tokonoma’ (elevated alcove) could be separated into two types; the ‘Shoin-zukuri’ style used to express the owner’s rank and the rustic ‘Souan’ style found in tea houses begun by tea master Sen no Rikyu used to create an ethereal connection between tea ceremony participants. To our modern eyes, we can say the rustic ‘Souan’ style started as a counter-cultural movement opposing the stuffy ‘shoin-zukuri’ tokonoma but then the simple country Souan style grew to great popularity permeating into all kinds of architecture beyond the tea house.

The tokonoma and architecture style that were influenced by the Souan style tea house are called Sukiya-fu Shoin-zukuri or Sukiya-zukuri for short. With what started as two completely opposing architectural styles developed into the Sukiya style which saw the Souan style’s ethereal characteristics fade and grow into being one of the more polished and luxurious architecture styles.

Though the Souan tea house influenced the style of Sukiya-zukuri it is not alone in what inspired it as the style has various other architectural elements that influenced it.

Nowadays, besides a few tea rooms that preserve the ethereal character of the ‘Souan’ style, most modern ‘tokonoma’ seen in Japanese homes are of the Sukiya-fu Shoin-zukuri style meaning just as the name suggests that it is a blending of both styles. That is why I believe the characteristics of modern tokonoma are so complex.


A tokonoma in a Souan tea house.


A Sukiya-fu Shoin-zukuri tokonoma
The alcove posts originally used in Shoin-zukuri were beveled rectangular columns, but just as this picture shows, sukiya-zukuri uses various alcove posts including short cut posts, round posts, and bamboo posts. Further, there is a mixture of other architectural elements such as the earthen walls and the board and batten ceiling.

Originally since the tokonoma was found only in homes of the privileged class including the samurai and the nobility and not in civilian homes, it was like a symbol of the privileged.

Following the Meiji Restoration, the samurai class disappeared and the Daimyo and nobility became a peerage, a kind of new aristocracy. Lower and middle ranking samurai became civilians and started working as soldier, merchants, officials, and ‘salaryman’. As Japan developed and prospered during the Meiji and Taisho eras (1868-1912 & 1912-1926 respectively), these former lower and middle ranking samurai’s homes became the basis for the modern middle class home with the tokonoma a middle class status symbol.

However during the democratization period of Japan Post-World War II, people including writer Roan Uchida advocated to do away with tokonoma, as well as the increase in popularity of western style architecture and flooring plus Japanese-style rooms losing popularity that tokonoma are more and more gradually disappearing from homes.

I personally receive many requests for home renovations that include changing the tokonoma along with a room’s flooring. I’m often requested to make the room wider by removing the tokonoma or to turn the tokonoma into a closet or storage space.

There once was a time when if one’s boss or acquaintances were to visit one’s house, they were shown to the parlor room which had a tokonoma. It was also on special occasions that this room was used as the event room. In the modern age where guests are almost always likely relatives and friends, there is little need for a formal parlor room. Further, the act of displaying flowers known as Ikebana was once directly connected with the tokonoma but now it’s customary to have them displayed in a vase on a table or shelf. Households are much less likely to have wall scrolls or decorations to display in the tokonoma. Most households nowadays aren’t making use of the tokonoma. At this point, you could say that there is no more place for a tokonoma in a Japanese household.

However to me, I feel the tokonoma can still be utilized as a worthy place to display art in the home.   

When I compare my experiences living in a Japanese traditional home and a traditional German Altbau home, Japanese homes have thinner walls with low ceilings and few places to drive a nail in so the places to hang a painting are very few. Posters, postcards, and figures sell quite well here, whereas large canvas paintings and sculptures hardly sell. Further, practical works of art like pottery sell far more easily than purely artistic sculptures. I think that art’s poor sales are directly related to the fact that Japanese homes have so few places to display art.

Now it is not unheard of for homes nowadays to add a picture rail in order to hang art without damaging the walls, hanging small paintings from narrow, low walls amongst the home furniture certainly already lining the walls will hardly compliment the interior.  Whereas if you let your imagination guide you, finding a place for your art in your unused tokonoma will let you express your aesthetics and values there plus putting it to good use.

Here is the Art gallery andatelier Hare to Kumo with the tokonoma serving as a place to display paintings and other works of art.