Three Well-Known Japanese Home Features – From A Conceptual Perspective

If you have ever visited a traditional Japanese home, it is hard to ignore many of the exterior and interior facets that are so distinct from anything seen in America or European homes. Let us look at some of these features and understand the reasons behind their incorporation as well their significance.

The Concept of Ma

Traditional houses in Japan have little or no raised furniture for seating and/or sleeping, such as beds, chairs or benches. Instead, people prefer to use the floor for these activities. In essence, it is the concept of ‘ma’.

In fact, ground-hugging Japanese beds you see nowadays in furniture stores have simply taken that idea of ‘ intentional sparsity’ and incorporated it to meet the modern customer’s demands. 

Ma, a Japanese word roughly translates to ‘negative space’ in English. It is a spatial concept characterized by progressive intervals of space. Apart from being a home interior feature, Japanese calligraphy too sees an abundant utilization of this concept.


This word refers to screens that serve as a divider between rooms or spaces in a Japanese home. An alternative to traditional doors and windows, ‘shoji’ allows the ‘outside’ to interact with the ‘inside’ even when the screens are closed.

Yes, the concept may seem challenging to some of our preconceived notions with regards to privacy.  But then, our understanding of privacy is with respect to opacity or not allowing any form of light to enter from one room to the other.

Conversely, ‘shoji’ primarily serves as a screen between nature and interiors of a home.

Zen Rock Garden

A common outdoor aspect present in traditional Japanese homes is the Zen rock garden. This unique feature has sand, rocks of different sizes and shapes, and is outlined with miniature trees and shrubs.

The rocks generally placed in asymmetric patterns are meant to call our attention to the spaces between them. Similarly, the sand raked into patterns serves both an aesthetic as well as metacentric purpose. This is a place where you go to contemplate nature.