With the lowest infant mortality rate and the highest life expectancy, Japanese citizens are some of the healthiest in the world. An estimated 127.3 million people live in a mere 144,689 sq. miles – just a bit smaller than the State of California. High population density has resulted in limited living space, leading to the clean, uncluttered interiors of Japanese homes.
Rooms are designed for multiple uses to make the most of every square foot. Shoji screens, made of shoji paper and wood carved in intricate latticework patterns, can be folded during the day and used as room dividers by night, changing the layout of the living space according to need.
Furniture, too, is structured for flexibility, so that it doesn’t take up a permanent place. For example, the traditional Japanese beds – futons – are essentially a mattress and a quilt (called kake-buton) that can be put away in the morning to allow the sleeping area to be used for other purposes during waking hours.
Japanese furnishings are kept to a minimum, and the few selections are carefully chosen for functionality. Beauty is found in the carefully detailed crafting of each piece, typically made of natural materials. Popular foundations for furniture include high quality woods, rice straw, bamboo, and silk. Tansu refers to Japanese style bureaus, which are a favorite of antique collectors worldwide. These are generally made of exceptional woods, including the Japanese cypress (Hinoki), elm (Keyaki), chestnut (Kuri), and cedar (Sugi). Low wooden tables, kotatsu, are often the center of Japanese family life, as a built-in heating element makes them wonderful for sharing a meal or staying warm on a cool evening.
Interiors are subtly colored with neutrals, in subdued shades of brown, black, creams, and grays. Occasionally bright accents in blues and reds bring attention to details of particular note. Light is highly valued, and directed into homes through diffusers such as paper and silk screens.
Clean, uncluttered lines are a hallmark of Japanese décor, with a very few exquisite items displayed for maximum impact. Typically art pieces and seasonal decorations are displayed alone, so that there are no distractions to interrupt a visitor’s admiration. Some examples might include traditional ikebana, beautifully arranged flowers and leaves in treasured vases, hanging calligraphy scrolls, or bonsai. Small alcoves, known as tokonoma, provide perfect places for the exhibition of individual items.
Carpets are rarely seen in Japanese homes, which rely instead on tatami mats. These are made of rice straw and come in standard sizes, making it possible to describe rooms as 6 or 8 tatami areas.
Japanese design and tradition enjoy popularity in the United States. The combination of beauty and functionality, not to mention the minimalism, bring a sense of order to the confusion of daily life.