Shoji screens are a traditional Japanese architectural feature you’re definitely familiar with, even if you don’t realize it.
If you’ve ever visited Japan, or a Japanese-style building, or even seen a Japanese movie, you will have noticed the iconic sliding doors or paper walls. Used as doors, windows, and room dividers alike, shoji screens are one of the most recognizable forms of Japanese architecture, art, and design and captivate people all over the world to this day.
But although you’ve probably seen them, there are many questions about the shoji screen that need to be answered. Here we let you in on everything you didn’t know about Japanese shoji screens.
1. What is a Shoji Screen?
Consisting of thick, translucent paper stretched over a wooden frame holding together a lattice of wood or bamboo, shoji adorn the rooms and facades of Japanese homes, temples, and palaces. They have endured as an important fixture of the home since pre-modern Japan. Their function is both practical and artistic, which has allowed the shoji screen to live on even after the invention of more modern construction techniques.
What does shoji mean exactly? The word shoji (障子) originally indicated a tool to obstruct. In its modern usage, shoji is the term used to refer specifically to translucent paper coverings. The contemporary usage isn’t far from the original, as the paper coverings act as a screen, covering things like doors and windows — obstructions, in other words!
Shoji don’t obstruct entirely, however. They act like curtains, shielding and protecting dwellers from outside elements, yet letting in light and sound to a degree.
Shoji tend to feature more prominently in older and more traditional homes and structures, so you will certainly see them in Japanese temples and ryokan. Yet their enduring popularity means they often appear in modern homes, hotels, and even offices.
Shoji have come to have an aesthetic role as well as a practical one. Because of their paper construction, they can be painted on directly, or the lattice can be worked into intricate patterns. These possibilities have inspired creative expression over the years.
Common elements related to shoji, for both functional and artistic purposes, include:
Byobu (屏風) is a folding screen, literally translated to protection from the wind, and can be considered a kind of portable shoji. They are rarely plain, however; usually featuring elaborate and beautiful works of art.
Tsuitate (衝立) is a single panel entrance screen
Fusuma (襖) is a Japanese sliding door, which is sometimes refered to separately from shoji, but was originally considered a type of shoji.
Tobusuma (戸襖) is a wooden sliding screen
Yukimi-shoji (雪見障子), meaning snow viewing shoji, is a type of window made so the bottom half slides upwards, often to reveal a beautiful view
2. What are the Origins of Japanese Shoji Screens?
The first Japanese paper walls date back over a thousand years. They were adapted from Chinese folding screens, which were imported to Japan between the 7th and 8th centuries. It is unknown how old folding screen technology is, though art depicting Chinese screens exists from as far back as 200 BCE.
Chinese screens were heavy and bulky, used merely as partitions between rooms. The Japanese took these as the inspiration to make a version that was lightweight and portable.
This new variant was suited to a multitude of purposes. The Japanese began to use them as settings for tea ceremonies, backgrounds for stage performances, and enclosures during Buddhist rites.
Shoji became popularized in the Kamakura Period (1123-1333) with the introduction of the shonin-zukuri style. Characterized by modesty and asymmetry, this style led to the creation of more affordable and compact homes. Incorporating tatami floors and sliding screens, shonin-zukuri remains the basis of the traditional Japanese house.
As shoji moved into the homes of common people, the style and construction was tweaked and perfected. By the Edo Period (1603-1968), shoji appeared much as they do today.
3. How to Make a Shoji Screen?
The processes and materials involved in making shoji have evolved and simplified over time. These days they can either be painstaking handcrafted by expert artisans, or mass produced in industrialised factories.
The main component of shoji screens is, of course, the paper covering, which is composed of the Japanese-style washi paper (for more information see What is Japanese Washi Paper? All You Need to Know). Traditionally, washi is made of Japanese mulberry trees or shrubs.
The paper was once considered valuable and scarce because it was hand-made of natural materials. However, commercial manufacturing, which began in the late 1800s, as well as the introduction of synthetic fibers in the 1960s helped make the paper more affordable and easier to come by.
The paper covering is stretched taut over a wooden or bamboo frame. Usually this is a plain grid form, but sometimes include very elaborate carvings and lattices.
Shoji paper is thicker than writing paper, but as paper it is still a little fragile and difficult to repair. If you accidentally poke more than a small hole in it, the paper would usually need to be replaced. For this reason, modern shoji makers sometimes include a laminate covering, or even a paper-like acrylic to replace it entirely.
4. What are Shoji Screens Used For?
Shoji screens have two primary functions: utilitarian and creative. These often come together to form works of art that simultaneously protect from the elements. This results in structures beautiful and delicate as well as strong and sturdy.
Let’s delve deeper into how shoji can be used both practically and as art.
Because they are so thin and light, shoji screens acting as room dividers or paper walls create privacy without completely blocking out light and sound. They’re studier than curtains yet less obtrusive than wooden walls or solid doors. If a shoji screen is broken or torn, it isn’t difficult or expensive to replace.
The washi paper creates a unique effect by refracting and diffusing light. The rays that pour through the screen are soft and muted, bright enough to illuminate a room yet dim enough to keep a person from being blinded.
During the humid Japanese summer, the paper can be removed for better air circulation. In the winter, it can be replaced for extra warmth.
Sliding shoji doors and windows in Japanese houses can be taken off of their rails and stored in a closet. Removing the doors makes a room bigger, more open, and better integrated with surrounding spaces such as a garden. This is simple as Japanese sliding doors are typically so light you can open them with a finger!
The making of shoji paper and latticed screens can themselves be considered art forms due to the highly skilled level of craftsmanship involved. But, there’s more to shoji screens than that.
The latticework can be manipulated to weave intricate patterns as shown in the video above.
Another way shoji can become art is by presenting panoramic scenes. When opened, shoji windows can reveal a beautiful view, as you can see from the Hakone ryokan below. Called yukimi, these windows can open up to more than just snow-covered landscapes — gardens, brooks, waterfalls, mountains, or any other view will do. These are often found at temples, ryokan (traditional inns), and fancy estates.
Shoji of course present a large white canvas, and who can resist the impulse to art that this presents! Let’s take a look at some of the possibilites…
5. Painting on shoji screens
Traditionally, the artwork on Japanese shoji screens or fusama doors starts at the bottom as it is customary for people to sit on the floor. The artwork was concentrated where it would be seen at eye level. Artwork may cover the entire screen as well.
Painted shoji screens are often adorned with scenes from nature. Tall mountains, regal peacocks, and blooming flowers are common motifs.
Traditional Japanese buildings are the best places to find these. Painted shoji screens are especially common in ryokan and Buddhist temples.
Many temples in Kyoto are known for such works of art, including one in Higashiyama called Shoren-in. Shoren-in has a history of imperial patronage and was once even used as a temporary palace, so it’s grounds are stunning and immense.
Shoren-in attracts sightseers for these reasons as well as its particularly gorgeous screen paintings. Both traditional and modern, Shoren-in’s screens depict beautiful foliage and landscapes. The most unique of these were done by lauded muralist Hideki Kimura, who uses acrylics to paint brightly colored lotus flowers across the panels. Kimura’s screens convey a more modern and psychedelic style than typical shoji paintings
Another artist using shoji for artistic expression is Hiroshi Senju. Fusing architecture and design, Senju’s interiors include immersive images of natural scenes enveloping the entire screen. His most famous are a series of waterfall paintings which make it appear as though liquid is cascading down the screen. The acclaimed artist’s work has been featured worldwide and has a permanent home at his own museum located in Karuizawa, Japan. See more of his work in Hiroshi Senju: The Art of Waterfall Interiors.
Do you have any shoji screens or sliding doors in your home? Do you dream of owning one someday? Let us know in the comments section!