Lessons From Traditional Japanese Architecture You Need To Learn

Japanese architecture is the epitome of minimalism and grace in design. Their love for simplicity and nature reflects in the clean lines and light, airy aura of the traditional Japanese home. There is invaluable insight to be gained from the techniques and concepts at play here.

In today’s consumer driven society, we all tend to accumulate an abundance of unnecessary possessions; some hold emotional value, others we see as representatives of our status in society, while truly, most are devoid of genuine significance in our daily lives. Hold on only to what truly matters, what you can’t envision yourself without years down the road, and what is significant to your being. Decluttering is the most basic and crucial step to achieving minimalism in design. The Japanese refrained from furnishing their homes with luxuries and preferred the basics — a low table, a few kneeling cushions, and futons to name the majority. They didn’t need the shimmer of gold ornamentation to heighten spatial quality, their homes were adorned with plentiful natural light, soothing natural materials and an undeniable connection to its natural surroundings.

Vernacular Japanese structures evolved from necessity. A shortage of buildable land due to mountainous terrain resulted in the birth of practical and efficient designs devoid of external influences as a consequence of the country’s two-century long isolation period from the 1600s to the late 1800s also known as the Edo period in history.

Japanese culture celebrates a deep and meaningful connection to nature which is evident from their garden designs. These meticulously choreographed ensembles are miniature representations of the grand landscape surrounding them. Boulders suggest mountains, ponds or gravel represent lakes, and bonsai depict large trees. Despite the curated nature of these garden designs, they are a harmonious representation of untamed nature achieved only through the use of natural materials, clear of artificiality and ornamentation. The open plan and flexibility of large openings allows the outdoors to trickle in and establish a balanced spatial experience.

Natural and practical materials such as reed blinds (sudare), sliding doors — translucent and transparent (shoji and fusuma respectively) — made of bamboo and rice paper, latticed wood shutters (shitomi), and tatami mats made of grass and rice straw, create a neutral palette and soothing aesthetic. Not only does this palette pay homage to nature, but it is also a sustainable choice featuring reusability and recyclability. Today we are fortunate to have access to an expanded palette of natural materials comprised of various stones, woods, as well as materials like rattan and bamboo. We should make the conscious decision to avoid toxic fume-emitting materials at the very least, and embrace what nature has bestowed upon us.

Another sustainable highlight of Japanese practices is the use of passive climate control techniques such as evaporative cooling, cross ventilation through narrow and long passageways, central and rear courtyards allowing flow of air and providing natural light, use of deciduous trees and vines for filtering direct sunlight, as well as shadow providing deep eaves — they all contributed to achieving indoor comfort at a time when our abilities to cope with the elements was far more limited.

Modulating light and heat isn’t all that the sliding walls are capable of, they also play a role in modulating space in a traditional Japanese home. Japanese living highlights the flexibility of an open plan and large living space which can be broken down into smaller living spaces such as bedrooms, dining room, living room, etc. interchangeably as need arises. The minimal furnishings are stored away in a large closet until required. Tatami mats and sliding doors are also components of a modular construction system which standardizes dimensions and proportions of a space — a technique that expedites construction and eases replacements.

Traditional Japanese methodologies have important lessons to offer to us even today, that we should understand and appreciate. We ought to take inspiration from the culture that establishes a powerful connection to nature, the techniques that improve spatial and indoor climate quality, and the concepts that foster simple and minimalist living practices.


Rushika H.P. is a licensed architect and principal of Hólos Architecture + Design in Florida. She focuses on pure, functional, and beautiful architectural & interior design solutions for the modern home and is passionate about furniture design, graphic design, photography and travel. For more design tips and trends, subscribe here!