Traditional Japanese House Construction

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Traditional Japanese House Construction
Traditional Japanese houses focus on harmony. (Ryan McVay/Lifesize/Getty Images)

Although Japan excels at many modern pursuits such as car manufacturing and digital technology, it also preserves many very ancient traditional crafts. The techniques of Japanese joinery and woodworking that are used in traditional Japanese house construction are more than 1,000 years old, and have been maintained through a system of masters and apprentices.

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Timber Framing

The art of timber framing was brought to unusually refined heights in Japan. Traditional Japanese woodworking features hundreds of different joints, each of which has evolved to be ideal for a certain architectural situation. Japanese timber-framed houses use mortise-and-tenon joints extensively to attach posts to beams securely. There are also joints that connect successive horizontal elements to create long spans, and joints that are designed to account for swelling and shrinkage in wood without breaking. There is a strong emphasis on the use of hand tools to achieve very high precision in this timber-framing tradition.

Use of Space

The characteristic that Japanese houses are most famous for, and that appears most exotic to Westerners and others who are unfamiliar with them, is their unique use of space. Because people traditionally sat on cushions or on the floor in Japan, traditional houses lack the furniture that Westerners are used to, and feature broad expanses of walls and floors that appear empty to people who are accustomed to more materialistic traditions. Traditional Japanese house design emphasises the psychological effect that room composition, landscaping and transition between spaces have on residents and visitors.

Shoji Screens

Shoji screens are emblematic of the look of a traditional Japanese house. A shoji screen is made of a grid of hardwood that holds rice paper panes, which allow light through but hide what is behind them. Shoji screens can be used as interior walls or as sliding doors. Making interior walls out of movable shoji screens allows residents to modify the interior of the house to accommodate different functions. The featureless, diffuse light that comes through a shoji screen creates a calm interior atmosphere.


The cumulative effect of clean-lined timber, open rooms and stark shoji screens is a minimalism that shuns clutter and busyness in favour of geometry and order. A traditional Japanese room can be used as a dramatic backdrop for one or two works of craftsmanship or art such as paintings or vases. The creation of a minimalist room with a single focus reflects the emphasis in traditional Japanese philosophy on focusing and calming the mind, and moving away from distractions and evanescent phenomena.

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