Guide to Classical and Historical Design Styles in Japan

Japanese tend to follow the Zen philosophy when it comes to designing their homes and apartments, particularly the interior. Although Zen originated in China but its principles have spanned across almost the entire Asia. It is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that emphasizes the value and importance of intuition and meditation. With that being said, the Japanese follow minimalism. Their inspiration is mother nature and it is highlighted in their color and pattern selection as well.

Since Zen is one of the oldest and historical schools of thought, its relevance to the Japanese is as fresh as it was hundreds of years ago. Therefore, when we discuss the classical and historical design styles in Japan, the only term that comes to mind is ‘Zen’. Let us discuss the crucial aspects of the philosophy and how the Japanese cultivate them in their design styles.

Wa-fu elements

‘Wa’ in Japanese means incongruity and dissonance. In simple words, it relates to comfort and steadiness.

Remove the Chairs

Historically and traditionally, the Japanese do not sit on chairs. Instead, they sit on what is called a ‘Tatami floor’ with cushions. The dining room only consists of a low wooden table and during the winters, the Japanese stay warm by using a Japanese heater called ‘Kotatsu’. The low seating tradition of Japan dates quite a few centuries back. Back in the day, people used to sit around a fire stove to chat, eat, and engage in different social activities.

However, slowly and gradually, this tradition followed the next generations until it reached the dining table. People may call it old-fashion but the Japanese still prefer to sit and eat on a low table with cushions for comfort. Therefore, if you intend to cultivate classical and historical design styles in your home, this is the first one you should be implementing.

 Paper Partition

While modern homes use wooden doors to separate different areas of the house, a traditional Japanese house uses a special type of paper partition known as ‘Shou-Ji’. These are basically sliding doors with a very thin sheet of paper built-in to allow the light to come through. Furthermore, Shou-Ji can be a window, door, or a simple room divider.

In addition to that, the doors are made from bamboo, and during the day time, the paper softens, allowing the light to enter just as a normal window with curtains would. Whereas during nighttime, the paper restricts the entrance of light from the outside. Additionally, the paper used for Shou-Ji doors and windows is called ‘Washi’.

With the passage of time, Washi was also being used for lamps. However, today plastic lamps and objects tend to be more popular since paper is not resistant to water and is fragile as well. Therefore, another key factor of classical and historical Japanese design style is natural inspiration. You try to connect with nature as much as you can without the use of artificial decorative materials. In the case of Shou-Ji doors and windows, they serve both purposes i.e. minimalism and functionality.

Naguri-Kakou Woodwork

The old traditional historical Japanese houses consisted of very special woodwork made using a technique called ‘Naguri-Kakou’. This technique involved a process in which sculpting ridges were used on wooden surfaces individually to create a checkered or delicate curved veneer.

Carved transom

Ran-ma is a traditional sculpted transom that is used to separate the ceiling and sliding doors. Although the main purpose of Ran-ma is decoration it offers practicality as well. It allows ventilation and light to enter. This is one of the most historical and traditional items in Japanese homes, which allows artists to showcase their skills and vision.

Flexible Space Planning

A key feature of classical and historical Japanese design style is that almost everything is standardized. From the width of the tatami mats to the sizes of furniture, the idea is to provide convenience for installation as well as moving around. For instance, if you wish to move from one room to another, sliding doors are installed and used. To create a bit more space, the doors can be opened and will hide to prevent becoming an obstruction otherwise.

Rustic Materials

In the old times, the Japanese would use anything they got their hands around to make furniture and tools. This is the same reason the Japanese tea uses a lot of herbs and flowers. The reason being that the Japanese back in the day would use any herb or flower to make tea. Today, almost every herb and flower is a part of their tradition.

When it comes to furniture, rattan, solid wood and stone, etc. are the most favorite of the Japanese. The Japanese used to believe and still believe that the usage of natural raw materials will help reduce stress and heal the spirit. It needs to be mentioned that these classical and historical principles are not forgotten.

They are followed even to this day and continue to expand across different countries as well. So, if you were to use natural materials such as the ones mentioned earlier, your house is bound to give a natural vibe. Strong connection with nature is a central point of the classical and historical design styles of Japan. Every Japanese home, may it be in the United States or Europe for that matter, follows the same design style.

Wa-fu Colors

Believe it or not, the four Japanese seasons have their own set of palettes. Japan is known for its monthly as well as annual traditional and cultural festivals. These rituals display splendid color combinations that are nowhere else to be seen. Therefore, in wa-fu designs, different colors represent different seasons along with natural objects such as plants and animals.


As mentioned earlier, a classical and historical design Japanese house is focused on building a strong connection with nature. Apart from using natural raw materials, plants are used as well and the Japanese are very conscious and selective about it. Each and every object in a Japanese house is a representation of something. In that respect, the art of plants is a matter that needs to be studied and then practiced. Since plum, iris, and sakura are the most commonly used plants, their usage dates back to centuries as well.

Final Word

As this article reaches its conclusion, it needs to be mentioned that all classical and historical design styles in Japan follow the same principles. While simplicity and minimalism is one aim, functionality and nature bonding is another. The ability to draw inspiration from nature is exactly what is keeping these styles alive and relevant. Therefore, if you wish to incorporate both classical and historical Japanese design styles into your house, you know what to do.