The typical Japanese interior would have been considered very austere by the standards of Westerners arriving in Japan at the end of the nineteenth century. Rooms were simply decorated, usually with little furniture or decorative objects. Personal belongings were kept on shelves and in chests. The floors were covered with tatami, the matted flooring made in sections measuring six feet by three feet. These mats were laid on the wooden floor, which was usually raised about a foot from the ground to allow the dust of the dry summers to settle below, and to prevent the dampness of the rainy season from rising up. Walls were usually kept free of prints or paintings, with the possible exception of a hanging screen. Rooms were separated by sliding screen doors, of which there are two kinds, the shoji, a sliding door made of translucent rice paper, and the fusama, a wooden framed door heavily covered with opaque paper.
The typical Japanese interior would have been considered very austere by the standards of Westerners arriving in Japan at the end of the nineteenth century. Rooms were simply decorated, usually with little furniture or decorative objects. Personal belongings were kept on shelves and in chests. The floors were covered with tatami, the matted flooring made in sections measuring six feet by three feet. These mats were laid on the wooden floor, which was usually raised about a foot from the ground to allow the dust of the dry summers to settle below, and to prevent the dampness of the rainy season from rising up. Walls were usually kept free of prints or paintings, with the possible exception of a hanging screen. Rooms were separated by sliding screen doors, of which there are two kinds, the shoji, a sliding door made of translucent rice paper, and the fusama, a wooden framed door heavily covered with opaque paper.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

With the introduction of Western consumer goods in the Meiji period, several foreign objects made their way into the traditional Japanese interior. These frequently included a clock, lamps, and umbrella stands. Other western methods that crept into Japanese housing were the use of tiled roofs, replacing the thatched roofing in rural areas, the introduction of glass windows as a means of brightening the frequently dark interiors.
With the introduction of Western consumer goods in the Meiji period, several foreign objects made their way into the traditional Japanese interior. These frequently included a clock, lamps, and umbrella stands. Other western methods that crept into Japanese housing were the use of tiled roofs, replacing the thatched roofing in rural areas, the introduction of glass windows as a means of brightening the frequently dark interiors.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

While the Japanese were eager to build Western-style public buildings, they were less interested in living in Western-style houses. For the most part, it was only in the homes of well-to-do families that one would find the influences of the West, usually consisting of a Western parlour built onto a traditional Japanese house. Only a select few chose to live in Western-style mansions built entirely of brick and stone.

But, because so many Western-style buildings were being built for commercial or governmental use, most Japanese eventually became accustomed to existing in both styles, and elements of Western architecture crept into more residential buildings.

Bureaucrats, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals were more likely to adopt Western living arrangements in support of their government's new enthusiasm for the West. Often re-modelling the houses left vacant by departing samurai Tokugawa supporters, they added European-style second stories or additions, installed glass windows, and decorated the interiors with chairs, desks, and other decorative objects. By the end of the 1880s, an increasing number of brick and stone houses were built by members of Read More
While the Japanese were eager to build Western-style public buildings, they were less interested in living in Western-style houses. For the most part, it was only in the homes of well-to-do families that one would find the influences of the West, usually consisting of a Western parlour built onto a traditional Japanese house. Only a select few chose to live in Western-style mansions built entirely of brick and stone.

But, because so many Western-style buildings were being built for commercial or governmental use, most Japanese eventually became accustomed to existing in both styles, and elements of Western architecture crept into more residential buildings.

Bureaucrats, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals were more likely to adopt Western living arrangements in support of their government's new enthusiasm for the West. Often re-modelling the houses left vacant by departing samurai Tokugawa supporters, they added European-style second stories or additions, installed glass windows, and decorated the interiors with chairs, desks, and other decorative objects. By the end of the 1880s, an increasing number of brick and stone houses were built by members of the wealthy classes.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Typically, a Western room in a Japanese home hardly resembled the lavishly decorated interiors of late-nineteenth century Western residences, where tastes ran to the over accessorized and festooned interior. In Japan, they were more restrained in appearance, furnished with Western chairs and tables, lamps, and often a fireplace. The rooms that were most likely to be decorated in the Western style included a parlour (in addition to a traditional Japanese receiving room); a library or a gentleman’s study, which were considered suitable choices for Western styles. Just as one saw Western influences creeping into traditional Japanese interiors, one also found typical Japanese furnishings in Western interiors. These might include tatami mats, standing screens and hanging scroll paintings.
Typically, a Western room in a Japanese home hardly resembled the lavishly decorated interiors of late-nineteenth century Western residences, where tastes ran to the over accessorized and festooned interior. In Japan, they were more restrained in appearance, furnished with Western chairs and tables, lamps, and often a fireplace. The rooms that were most likely to be decorated in the Western style included a parlour (in addition to a traditional Japanese receiving room); a library or a gentleman’s study, which were considered suitable choices for Western styles. Just as one saw Western influences creeping into traditional Japanese interiors, one also found typical Japanese furnishings in Western interiors. These might include tatami mats, standing screens and hanging scroll paintings.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

The use of chairs in the home was a new phenomenon in late 19th- century Japan that was introduced by Westerners. Traditionally, the Japanese sat on low stools or tatami mats.
The use of chairs in the home was a new phenomenon in late 19th- century Japan that was introduced by Westerners. Traditionally, the Japanese sat on low stools or tatami mats.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

This high-backed chair, believed to be made for the export market or for a wealthy patron, is modelled using a mixture of Western forms and Japanese aesthetics. While the chair back features a phoenix framed by a Shinto shrine gate, and the decorative motifs remain Japanese, the classic form of the chair is more similar to Victorian chairs in the Egyptian style. The clawed feet are also a Western influence.

Vancouver Museum, Gift of Mrs Jonathan Rogers

Various woods, stain, lacquer
h.: 129.5 cm; l.: 62 cm; w.: 61.5 cm
DA 936
© Vancouver Museum


Desks were not part of traditional Japanese furniture manufacture, as the Japanese sat on the floor at low tables (bundai) for writing. Decorated with idealized Japanese landscape panels, this type of furniture was most probably intended for a Western customer.
Desks were not part of traditional Japanese furniture manufacture, as the Japanese sat on the floor at low tables (bundai) for writing. Decorated with idealized Japanese landscape panels, this type of furniture was most probably intended for a Western customer.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

The shape of this roll-top desk is an interesting marriage of Japanese and Western designs. The top section consists of a decorative roof similar to those found on domestic shrines. However the bottom roll-top, pedestal desk is typical of European and American desk designs of the nineteenth century. Decorated with idealized Japanese landscape panels, this type of furniture was most probably intended for a Western customer.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Vivian and David Campbell

Maki-e lacquer on wood, mounts of silver-copper alloy (Shibuichi)
171 x 105.7 x 69.5 cm
971.Df.1
© The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Describe a traditional Japanese interior
  • Describe the Western influences present during the Meiji period on homes, interiors, and furniture
  • Appreciate that cultural shifts in style are often an amalgamation of styles rather than a replacement of styles
  • Appreciate the aesthetic qualities of Japanese artistry
  • Relate traditional Japanese interiors and furniture to the interiors and furniture of their own culture

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