The 5 must-know concepts of Japanese interior design

23 July, 2021

Japanese interior design are among the most historically impactful and significant design concepts and theories ever. It is difficult to underestimate the contribution that the Japanese have had on design. Intrinsically complex, multi-layered, and timeless, Japanese design still shapes and inspires us today. This is not only limited to traditional design concepts but also contemporary ones, Japan being an ever-flowing cultural and creative hub of the world.

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Whether we speak of Zen, the quiet and serene design philosophy, or something more profound like kintsugi, the idea of accepting and emphasising imperfections, or even in the more pragmatic notions, such as the Genkan, the customary place where you remove shoes before proceeding indoors, Japanese interiors revolves around its deep roots in tradition, living clean, minimalism, balance, family, culture, and nature. Blending the home with nature, it's a great point for anyone who wishes to elevate their design thinking and find unique concepts.

1. Traditional Japanese interior concepts

Notions such as Ma, Wabi-Sabi and Shakkei, are unique concepts to Japanese interior designs, with strong cultural ties to their context. These are unique to Japanese interiors and are both philosophical approaches and practical concepts.

Ma, which means the void, refers to negative space in the room. On a philosophical level, this is the silence in between words or the space that exists in between. It is more about the “nothingness” and less about the clutter and structure. Ma serves a dual purpose: making a seamless transition between functional and transitionary. This is a design style where designers create the natural form of all the items and furniture in a room while maintaining and creating negative space. In the hectic, loud, and stressful era of modernity and technology, incorporating “Ma” into the interior design can give you some much-needed quiet and peace, and create a haven, something a home should be.

Wabi-Sabi essentially refers to finding beauty in imperfection. The main idea is that one must learn to accept the world as it is, and not dwell on perfection to avoid stress and disappointment. A traditional Japanese concept, it has become widely accepted in the West when it started being adopted by celebrities. Knowing that one’s home could not be perfect like a showroom will help one appreciate its functionality more, and with that, contentment and happiness will be achieved.

Shakkei means ‘’borrowed scenery’’. Japanese interior design places a strong accent on combining and implementing nature and natural materials. As such, this refers to seamlessly blending the scenery from outside with the interior of the home inside.

Case in point: Integrating the Japanese concept of Ma within the house

While many of the concepts discussed can be quite complex, there are ways of integrating them in contemporary interior design, with a little bit of creativity.

A good way of looking at integrating Ma in the design is by creating moments of pause and reflection within the residence, irrespective of its final purpose (private residence or traveling resort). Our lives are quite busy and chaotic, with many things happening at once, so it becomes imperative to create opportunities for clarity from the noise. Implementing Ma is all about creating a moment of quiet and self-reflection in the home. Free spaces of potential clutter to create clarity. You can even go as far as creating technology-free zones. Using Ma does not mean creating a completely empty space, but rather a pause in between movements. Ma should be both functional and transitory.

Wabi-Sabi seeks to create uncomplicated beauty. In order to accomplish this, be mindful about selecting what goes in your home, as those choices will eventually define the space. Don’t be afraid to weave in personal touches bringing in pieces that bring you joy or towards which you have a personal connection. These will age gracefully and bring some more depth to the interior design. Coziness and a sense of home are essential in Wabi-Sabi.

Traditional shakkei is usually achieved by strategically placed windows that frame the outside, creating a powerful connection between the inner space of the home and the natural landscape. This can be difficult to do, as it’s not always possible to have a beautiful landscape, or an interior garden, outside to frame. Shakkei is the most particular of the three concepts previously mentioned, as it requires a specific set of conditions to be done. The idea of the interior garden can be achieved in multiple ways, such as creating a smaller, mini garden in an outside patio, or bringing in plants strategically.

2. Flexible and multi-use space for a Japanese-inspired interior

Space and rooms are highly versatile in traditional Japanese interior design, with highly reconfigurable rooms that take full advantage of limited space. This is embedded in almost every level of the design, from the floor plan to the shape of the rooms. This design methodology is highly relevant in the contemporary world.

The advent of the work from home, along with the ever-growing prices per square foot or meter in modern cities, has brought this line of thinking to the forefront, with architects and designers finding new and more creative ways to make highly versatile spaces in a small area.

While this was a prevalent trend, COVID has made it move even faster, with the work from home paradigm requiring our homes to become even more versatile and as usable as possible.  Because of all these, the Japanese interior design knowledge of flexible spaces is even more relevant today.

Case in point: Bring multifunctionality to the house

Converting rooms into multifunctional spaces can be accomplished in a few ways from furnishings to finishes. There are two approaches to this idea: to design a room with multiple determined zones or create a design for a room that can be used in different ways. 

They are both very different approaches. Designing a room with predetermined zones works by looking at the plan, as well as your requirements, and then placing the various functions in the room. So, you could have, for example, a bedroom with a study and a sleeping area, or a living room with a seating and dining area. These zones can be simply sided by side, or visually differentiated with different materials or textures, or use decor to create a difference. This approach, however, still requires that the space be large enough to accommodate the functions.

The second approach involves using multi-functional furniture to convert the room based on needs, with the space being adapted to the user.  This works very well for smaller spaces, but it is limited in terms of the layouts that can be accommodated. An example of this would be to use a bed that can be converted into a sofa, so a bedroom can become a living room as well. Or a TV or wall console that can be converted into a study area. This way, the space changes based on your needs.

Finally, you can implement traditional shoji screens to create partitions in rooms to add privacy, or bedrooms could have fold-away beds that will allow the sleeping area to be used for a different purpose during the day. Traditionally, Shoji screens are used because of their flexibility and portability, and it is mainly used to give privacy while still letting the light in.

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3. Japanese minimalism

Japanese design thinking dictates that everything should have a clear purpose and place in the home, creating a careful balance. The mantra of ‘’less is more’’, first stated by architect Mies van der Rohe, stems from this, which is the foundation of contemporary minimalist architecture and interior design. The core idea is that bare and essential furnishings help keep the living spaces from feeling confined and cluttered.

This permeates into every facet of the design, including the furniture and color palette. Japanese interiors have a neutral color palette, emphasising calmness. An example of this is the lower height of traditional Japanese furniture. This tradition goes back since ancient times and has been affected by several factors such as the smaller sizes of houses in Japan, the need for flexibility in space, and also following the essence of Ma and Wabi-Sabi, which we have discussed previously.

Case in point: How to implement Japanese minimalism in interior design

Implementing minimalism in interior design can be done in several ways. The color palette, materiality, and furniture are some of the most approachable ways in which an interior can become minimalist.

Neutral tones like light beige, cream, browns, and off-white colors are recommended to help spread natural light. Natural materials like wood, bamboo, and straw are among the preferred for furniture. Having a neutral-toned interior expresses a sense of elegance and can induce a feeling of calm, as well as keeping the home clutter-free and organized.

Going with low to the ground style of furniture is one way to bring Japanese influence into one's home. Not only they are simple and are easily achievable, but they can also save more space, and possibly can also have different health benefits. Studies have proved that sitting on the ground can do a lot of good for the muscles in one's body by affecting the structure of your lumbar region. It is also said that the Japanese way of eating on the floor can help with digestion and general health.

4. The importance of the entryway in the Japanese Interiors

The Genkan is a very particular space inside a Japanese home. It is the welcome put located just at the entrance at the front door and acts as a place to change from the outdoor shoes into indoor slippers. From the point of view of design philosophy, it acts as a barrier.

The Genkan is far more prevalent in houses, having been continuously downsized in apartments, due to increasingly smaller spaces. The Genkan acts as a transitory space and intermediary, between the outside and the home. This importance placed on the act of entering and transitioning towards the inside is something that has been slowly disappearing in western interior design culture. A strong aspect of contemporary architectural design has been the increased connection between the inside and outside, which led to the concept of the inside-outside space. The difference between the Japanese and western approaches has been that in Japanese culture, this acts as a barrier, while in the west, it acts as a unifier.

Case in point: Introduce the Japanese concept of the Genkan into your home

Implementing this feature in a contemporary western home is not entirely straightforward, so the best way is to take the spirit of the genkan and to create a moment in your home, just when you enter.

At its most fundamental level, the genkan is the act of removing and storing the shoes we use outdoor, as a way of transitioning to the home. So, you can do two things to create something similar in your home.

Firstly, mark out visually an area that will be used to change. You can leave it free, or use a rug, or other decorative pieces. This creates a spot that can act as a genkan. Secondly, find a way to store the shoes. You can either find a spot where to place the shoes in an orderly manner or opt for shoe storage. Shoe storage can work better as it can keep the area clean and tidy.

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5. Zen concept in Japanese Interior Design

Zen is by far the most popular concept that has come from Japanese design philosophy, taking over the world. Zenfocuses on creating an environment of peace and relaxation, by turning the home into an inner sanctuary.

Unlike concepts like Ma or Wabi-Sabi, which are intrinsically unique to Japanese design philosophy, Zen also exists in other forms in different cultures. An example would be the Danish concept of Hygge, which is similar to Zen, but from a European perspective, rather than an Asian one. This is a simplification, but parallels exist.

Zen embodies various aspects of traditional Japanese culture regarding design bringing it together. Fundamentally, it combines an approach to the color palette, textures, and furniture, to create an approach for a calm and simple interior design, that prioritises mental wellbeing over anything else.

Case in point: Ma, The Japanese Concept of Space and Time

Zen is more friendly towards being put in practice, as it has a clear scope and definition. Unlike more complex design concepts, it is easier to approach and get right.

Start by focusing on a natural and neutral palette. Think of colors you can find in nature, such as sky blue, rock green, or sandy beige. These are the best blend of Zen shades. You can take it a step further and add complimentary colors that run through your home. This is also relevant to natural products, such as stone ar wood, that can bring in warmth in a subtle way.

The beauty of custom neon signs is that they can be designed to complement the Zen elements in your space. When done right, they won't clash with the Zen aesthetic, but rather, they'll become a standout visual feature that enhances your overall interior design. So, they're not just decorative, but also a valuable tool in creating a harmonious and visually appealing space.

You can use fabric to keep things soft and inviting, such as rugs or cushions. Wool, silk, or satin are a great choice for a cozy atmosphere. Avoid heavy patterns, instead opting to use simple textures that do not tire the eye. While some simple geometric patterns can be integrated, think of using simple and neutral materials. 

Avoid overcrowding the room with too much furniture and small decorative pieces, not every wall or corner needs to be filled or occupied. Leaving a moment of contemplation between items is highly recommended. Use furniture with simple and straight lines, ideally with curved edges. Don't use anything too elaborate, as it can clutter the space.

How to use Japanese concept in interior design; Conclusion

Japanese design culture is infinitely rich, with what we have listed here being only a very small part of the whole. Embrace minimalism, mind the void and the empty spaces, find beauty in the imperfection. One’s home does not need to be perfect, but it does need to be always kept clean and tidy. Learning about, diving deep, and practicing the ancient traditions of Ma, Zen and Wabi-Sabi take more than a few décor and aesthetic changes – but once learned, it will change your perspective in life, self, and home.


Yaiza Martinez

Founder and Lead Designer

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