Life in an old Japanese house Vol.8: Fine art on sliding doors in Japanese homes

As I wrote in Japanese homes’ “Tokonoma” pt. 2, there are few places to display art in a traditional Japanese home, so the tokonoma was mostly commonly used. That said, the tokonoma was not the only place you could find art displayed.

In place of the limited wall space for hanging art, paintings and carvings were integrated into the home; the home’s partitions including the sliding doors and folding screens were often painted and the wooden panel above the sliding doors, called the ranma, was often intricately carved. The decorations and art found on these uniquely Japanese folding screens and sliding doors in homes makes up an essential category of Japanese architecture and fine art. The paintings on folding screens and sliding doors by such artists as Tawaraya Sotatsu (Wind God and Thunder God) and Kano Tanyu (Four Seasons of Flowers and Birds) are highly praised around the world.

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Tawaraya Sotatsu’s folding screen painting: Wind God and Thunder God:Wikipedia

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Kano Tanyu’s sliding door painting: Four Seasons of Flowers and Birds (Snowbound bird with plum and bamboo)Wikipedia

Since the folding screen originated in China it is also found in China and Korea, and as such, I can not say that the practice of painting on folding screens is exactly exclusive to Japan. That said,  since at least the Heian period (794-1185), folding screens and sliding doors have been arranged artistically based on the current holiday or special occasion to add elegance and beauty to spaces within the house.

The practice of arranging rooms to suit the occasion is a practice still around in modern Japanese architecture. One interesting example is that if you remove all the sliding doors and screens from the space separating adjoining rooms it is possible to create one large hall. Though this practice is hardly seen today, it was just a few decades ago that people in rural areas were still holding weddings and funerals at their own home and would invite many people to their home so at this time they would remove the screens to turn their house into a large hall.

The decorated sliding doors commonly seen in Japanese homes (known as fusuma) are constructed of a wooden framework with paper or cloth applied to them. The design seen on them varies from ones with solid colors to simple patterns to ones with elaborate paintings. The door handle designs also greatly vary such as the fancy tassels seen hanging on the sliding doors separating the bedrooms in Kyoto’s Nijo Castle.

Sliding doors (fusuma) are sometimes called fusuma shoji or chinese paper shoji (karakami shoji). People nowadays generally think of shoji (a type of room divider) as thin translucent paper applied to one side of latticework used for lighting rooms (called akari shoji) but shoji originally had the meaning of  protection and separation; akari shoji is only one type amongst the many types of shoji. Besides fusuma shoji and akari shoji, there are screen shoji (tsuitate shoji), board shoji (ita shoji), auxiliary shoji (huku shoji), and cedar shoji (sugi shoji).

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Assorted door handle designs

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Akari shoji with typical white shoji paper applied to one side

During the Heian period an interest in exotic culture, in particular Chinese mythology was popular amongst the aristocratic court nobles that flourished at the time.  Popular animal symbols of Chinese mythology are commonly represented on screen doors and folding screen drawings as well as Japanese paintings of seasonal birds and flowers representing good fortune and classical refinement.

Fusuma are often referred to as sliding doors nowadays, but during this period fusuma were considered the same as folding screens (byobu) since rather than acting as doors, fusuma were often used like a mobile wall to partition areas. Further, a square-lattice shutter (Shitomido) that could flip up was once often used as a door to separate the inside and the outside. Nowadays you can still see it in some temple or shrine buildings.

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This shitomido was photographed at Onomichi’s Jodoji temple. When open these shutters hook up onto the eaves.

As the fortunes of the nobles in the aristocracy declined from the end of the Heian period and throughout the Kamakura period (1185-1333) and Muromachi period (1336-1573); their decorative elements were replaced with more practical items as the samurai class began to have greater influence. Much simpler wooden doors became common and practices of having artists elaborately paint gold and silver leaf on screen doors and folding screens was incorporated into the shoin style of architecture.

During the austerity of the Edo period where the refined sukiya architecture style gained popularity and minimalism was encouraged, only a small set of wealthy samurai and merchants could have decorative screens and doors. It was not until the end of the 19th century during the Meiji period that decorative doors and screens became a part of the common household.

Next we move on to the ranma which is a decorative wooden panel found above sliding doors used for ventilation and to let more light into the room. The designs of ranma come in many types from openwork ranma (sukashibori ranma), carved ranma (choukoku ranma), latticework ranma (kumiko ranma), shoji ranma that has shoji paper attached to it, and open wall ranma (kabenuki ranma) made by making a hole in the wall and shaping it with plaster.

Design aside, ranma are found in three locations around the house, placed between adjoining Japanese rooms (magoshi ranma), at the veranda to bring in light to the nearby room (akari ranma), and by the tokonoma (shoin ranma).

Ranma come in many types but having large openings above doors means air and sound escapes freely which to modern eyes limits one’s privacy. Many people nowadays remove or cover up the ranma around their home. 

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A latticework akari shoji and a carved ranma placed near a tokonoma.

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open wall ranma

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Here is a modern take on screen door painting depicting the Seto inland sea and the islands near Onomichi. It was done by Kentaro Tsuru and was made for guests staying at the Onomichi hostel Anago no Nedoko to enjoy.

Just as we see traditional Japanese rooms and the tokonoma less In this modern age, these fixtures too are disappearing from homes. That said, in today’s mashup and remix culture, it is getting more and more common to see traditional screen door and folding screen paintings repurposed into today’s media. If you like Japanese interior design, then looking further into screen door paintings and the various ranma designs will certainly interest you.


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