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The digital age gives us unparalleled access to knowledge and cultures from across the globe. The whole world is open to us, seen through the window of the screen of our laptop or smartphone. International travel is cheaper and easier to arrange than ever. We have digital apps that can translate languages instantaneously. The world is our oyster. As such, it’s natural to expect huge permeations of culture across barriers of language, creed and nations. Yet, the influences of Eastern Cultures on Western interior design aesthetics is nothing new. In fact, Japanese cultural motifs have found their way into British art and design as far back as the mid 19th century. Yet, there’s something about the calming, minimalist and nature inspired design concepts that are emblematic of the Japanese aesthetic that’s especially timely today. In the fast-paced, ultra competitive 21st century, it’s no surprise that people all over the world look to a culture that values tranquility, meditation and mindfulness in an age that can be far from conducive to keeping your cool in the office or at home.    


Here, we’ll look at some of the elements behind the transcendental appeal behind Japanese design and how it can be incorporated into any aesthetic in either the home or the workplace…

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The art of Zen


The Eurocentric design aesthetic emphasizes beauty and seeks to marry beauty with utility. Perhaps British designer and poet William Morris said it best when he said “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. While this is certainly commendable, the Japanese school of design has a rather different approach. Japanese design emphasized minimalism, clean lines and elegant simplicity in contrast to the often ornate European approach.  


Japanese interiors are designed with attaining a Zen state of mind. The word Zen has worked its way into the popular lexicon in Western civilization but few of us are fully cognizant of its meaning. The word and principal of Zen is one that the Japanese adapted from Chinese influences which were in turn influenced by Indian culture. It is a buddhist term derived from the Chinese word “Chan” which in turn comes from the Sanskrit “Shyana”. If this lineage is confusing to you, it’s worth knowing that the kind of Buddhism prevalent in Japan (along with martial arts like kung fu and karate) come from Chinese Buddhist monks who were in turn were taught by the famous Indian monk Bodhidharma.


The principle of Zen is fairly straightforward and one that we could all use a little more of in our often stressed and introspective times. Zen emphasizes mindfulness, awareness and a sense of being in the moment. Thus, the beauty of Japanese design is its simple elegance. It does not distract nor does it call attention to itself. It does not clutter and it is not intrusive.  


Mindfulness through minimalism


If you’re the sort of person who can’t relax or concentrate in the presence of mess or clutter, you probably value Zen. Even if you take nothing else from Japanese design, you should recognize the importance of a minimalistic and clutter free environment. A visually busy, disparate or cluttered environment is rarely conducive to peace of mind. In some cases, clutter may even be a manifestation of unresolved mental health issues. Simply tidying away cable cords, making sure that everything is in its place and that shelf space is well maintained and spartan can work wonders.


Back to nature


Japan is a small nation yet its among the most densely populated in the world, whose cities are teeming with busy commuters. In this light, it’s easy to see why so many Japanese people almost exclusively incorporate natural fabrics into their interior design. It’s an established fact that proximity to nature encourages mindfulness, relaxation and improved concentration, and it is for this reason that people around the world are making natural materials like wood, bamboo, stone and marble intrinsic to their design concepts.


It starts in the entryway


The entryway or genkan is a hugely important part of Japanese interior design. It’s a place where guests are greeted and first impressions are made. It’s also a place where shoes are removed and replaced with indoor slippers. The entryway is a vistal entre for visitors. It gives them their proverbial first taste of what your home will look like… So it’s a shame that many of us use it as a space to store everything from coats and umbrellas to years’ worth of ignored junk mail. Inject a little minimalism into your entryway. Find somewhere discrete to store coats, shoes, umbrellas and the like and decorate the space with a few subtle hints to what visitors can expect when they come inside.


In the tub


Who doesn’t love letting the stress of the day soak away in a long, hot bath? It’s a universal pleasure that transcends cultural barriers. That said, nobody does baths like the Japanese. From Onsen (hot springs) to Sento (bath houses) a long soak is a huge part of Japanese culture. Interestingly, the Japanese tend to shower first before getting into the bath. The bath is not a place to get clean, rather it is a place to relax in serenity among the calming water.


If you’ve been thinking of remodelling your bathroom for some time, it may be a good idea to incorporate some Japanese concepts into your bathroom design. Minimalism, clean lines, wood panels and / or stone tiles, a subtle color palette and a small but deep tub can help you achieve the perfect balance of East and West.

Image by Pixabay




From trendy low coffee tables to the ubiquitous Japanese futon mattress, Western homes are no strangers to Japanese furniture. Japanese furniture is built to be functional, unobtrusive and beautiful and elegant in its simplicity. Most Japanese (especially city dwellers) live in smaller homes and so the importance of using the space effectively is paramount in Japanese homes. Thus, most Japanese furniture is low to the ground, moveable, light and unobtrusive.


While nobody’s suggesting you empty your home and replace all your furniture with Japanese style equivalents, there are some principles that you may wish to incorporate;


  • Kanso- Simplicity
  • Fukinsei- Asymmetry
  • Shizen- Naturalness
  • Yugen- Subtlety
  • Seijaku- Tranquility
  • Shibui- Austerity


Open space and natural light


The Japanese predilection for smaller homes is partly a matter of financial necessity and partly a matter of culture. Nonetheless, with rental prices increasing dramatically with each year, it’s no surprise that people (particularly millennials) find themselves with limited living space, despite paying astronomical rents. In order to get the most out of a small living area as well as instilling a sense of airiness and space, it’s important to make good use of open spaces and natural lighting. Heavy drapes have got to go as these will impede the access of natural light. Instead use blinds which can allow you privacy in the evenings while letting the light in during the day.


As well as keeping the space around the windows clear, you should ensure that walkways through the home are as clear and spacious as possible. You may even want to incorporate space saving solutions like storage furniture or doubling up on the use of space. For example, some people with limited space incorporate a small sofa under a bunk bed to combine sitting and sleeping space.


However you choose to do it, there are numerous simple, inexpensive and unobtrusive ways to inject a little bit of Japanese style (and a whole lot of Zen tranquility) into your life!

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