Japan is a country which is attracting more and more attention from the West for its Zen culture, its traditional arts such as ikebana , prints, the tea ceremony but also for its minimalist and very interior decoration. purified. Japanese houses are indeed very characteristic for their very airy style and their discreet furniture composed mainly of natural materials such as wood. They therefore generally inspire us for the calm and relaxing atmosphere that they manage to establish within them. Today we therefore invite you to discover one of the components of these traditional Japanese houses which date back several hundred years and which is none other than the tokonoma .
What is a tokonoma?
A tokonoma is, as you can see in the photo below, a tatami area of approximately one to two square meters which is clearly distinguished from the rest of the main room, called washitsu. It is separated from it in the vast majority of cases by being raised about fifteen centimeters but it sometimes happens that it is at the same level of the washitsu, it is then separated using a wooden beam in order to to mark the demarcation between it and the main room. Also, in even rarer cases we find suspended tokonoma which therefore do not require recess into the wall from an architectural point of view.
As mentioned in the introduction, Japanese decoration is something very minimalist which does not admit of mess or much figurative fantasies. The tokonoma therefore serves to compensate for this lack of freedom imposed by the interior design of Japanese houses because it is intended to accommodate all types of traditional decorations which we will see in the rest of this article.
Etymology of tokonoma
The word tokonoma is the fusion of three Japanese kanji: “toko”, “no” and “ma” respectively translating “bedroom floor/bed”. Although this is actually not very meaningful in French, it must be understood as a fully independent zone inserted in a living space, in this case washitsu.
History of tokonoma
As with many things in Japanese culture, tokonomas have more or less been preserved over the centuries and if you are lucky enough to go to Japan and stay in a traditional Japanese house, it is very likely that you will find one. Here is where these famous alcoves raised in relation to the tatami come from.
Origin of tokonoma
Tokonoma would be a derivative inspired by butsudan . During ancient times it was a small mound of sacred earth that was used as an altar for Buddhist religious purposes in India, the cradle of the Buddhist religion. Little by little this butsudan was then covered with a roof in order to be protected from bad weather such as rain. It was then introduced to China and it was then that it took the more luxurious form for which we know it with doors and a Buddha (Gohonzon) or scroll within it. During the reign of Emperor Tenmu (672-686) during the Yamato period (250-710) butsudan was then imported from China to the Land of the Rising Sun where it gradually developed with the expansion of the Buddhist religion on its territory.
However, we must advance to the end of the 16th century during the Muromachi period (1336-1573) in order to see the first traditional Japanese tokonomas appear. They were found in the palaces or castles of the shoguns at this time and nowhere else. They were arranged at the back of a room intended solely for the reception of guests by the shogun in his royal residence. When he was present there, he welcomed his guests in this room by standing in, probably in a seated position, the tokonoma which at the time was composed of a beige canvas in the background on which a poem or a poem could possibly rest. pray.
The tokonoma was then already raised relative to the height of the room so that the shogun could gain height over his guest and mark his hierarchical superiority over them. In the event of the shogun's absence, a kakemono was then hung in the tokonoma on which the reason for his absence was written. In this way, guests or visitors who came to convey a message or offer him a gift spoke to this kakemono in the presence of a guard who would then be responsible for transmitting this same message. The tokonoma thus served to act as a presence for the shogun when he was not in his royal residence.
Development of tokonoma on the Japanese archipelago
In the 18th century during the Edo period (1603-1868) the tokonoma began to become popular in the Japanese homes of rich owners, merchants and even samurai so that at the end of the century a majority of them in had one in their private home. Since these did not have a dedicated reception room, the tokonoma was generally set up in the washitsu, the main tatami room of a traditional Japanese house. It thus lost its function as a place of reception in favor of an exhibition place in which its owner showed objects which were intended to reflect his wealth.
What the tokonoma could accommodate thus began to diversify. First from kakemono to censers and candlesticks, the rich owners then exhibited many other objects of art such as bronzes, okimonos (Japanese sculptures), prints but also elements linked to nature like bonsai or ikebana flower arrangements. The tokonoma, in addition to its sacred and religious dimension, then took a real artistic turn in which its owner devoted himself to presenting objects directly linked to the Japanese artistic culture of the time, which itself was largely influenced by Chinese culture.
Tokonoma also became popular in shoin, the founding buildings of the Japanese architectural style dedicated to artistic practices, as well as in tea houses which themselves had already appeared before in the 15th century. It thus made it possible to add an artistic touch to a tea house through different types of decorations such as those mentioned above. In addition, tea masters made a habit of changing the decorations present, specifically kusamonos and kokedamas, in tokonomas according to the seasons of the year and this is something that remained in Japanese customs until extend into the private homes of Japanese citizens.
The tokonoma being then a symbol of wealth that only the nobles could afford to possess, it was necessary to wait several centuries before seeing them appear in the residences of the Japanese working class. This would not actually happen until the end of the 19th century. Due to its popularization and its trivialization in Japanese homes, it gradually lost its role as a symbol of wealth for its owner in favor of a more decorative function. However, it did not lose its sacred aspect and the respect accorded to it because even today it is forbidden to enter it except of course to change the decorations. Finally, nowadays it has become popular to the point that even some Japanese hotels or restaurants have them inside but unfortunately only partially respect its religious aspect by sometimes putting anything and everything in it like landline telephones for make a call there. Furthermore, although modern tokonomas are sometimes installed in new Japanese houses, we can only see that they are less and less present in today's residences.
The elements present in tokonomas
Although tokonomas have evolved slightly in terms of shape throughout history. Depending on the sources, they take the form of shelves or even sometimes removable supports, but their content generally remains more or less the same. Here are the different types of decorations and works of art that you will be able to find in traditional Japanese tokonomas. Naturally, they will never all be brought together at the same time and only two or three of all these elements will be brought to coexist together in the tokonoma.
The quality of Japanese Zen gardens is today recognized worldwide to such an extent that they are considered an art in their own right. However, they are not the only natural elements to have found a place in Japanese culture. Ikebana floral art is at least as popular in the Land of the Rising Sun and even these two successful arts would not be enough to represent all the types of Japanese floral decorations that exist. In reality, there are four types of floral and natural decorations that the Japanese display within their tokonoma. First, bonsai. Secondly, the ikebana floral arrangements and finally the kusamonos and kokedamas which serve as complements. So let's see what these correspond to.
Like many things, bonsai are a part of Japanese culture which was imported by China which was the first to prune these small trees for aesthetic purposes during the Han dynasty (-200 BC). After their arrival on Japanese territory in the 11th century, they were quickly appreciated for their aesthetic refinement in accordance with the Zen culture of the archipelago. However, just as with ikebana compositions, bonsai remained for a long time a practice reserved for the Japanese nobility and aristocracy.
It was therefore necessary to wait until the 18th century and the popularization of tokonomas in private residences to see bonsai truly assert itself as an art and spread abundantly throughout the territory. Since then it is certainly one of the most widespread elements in tokonomas for the calm and natural appearance it gives to washitsu. An annual bonsai exhibition is even held each year in Tokyo for those who would like to take a closer look at this natural art which has become a real means of expression and communication in its own right.
Ikebana flower arrangements
Although the first traces of floral art in Japan date back even further than bonsai since it was in the 8th century, it was necessary to wait several centuries before Ikebana really developed in Japan. The implementation of tokonomas in private residences is also something that has greatly promoted the popularization of ikebana, however this is not the only reason. Due to the great influence of Buddhism on Japanese culture, floral arrangements have always had a religious dimension by being considered as an offering to Buddha, which led a large number of Buddhist practitioners to take a closer interest in them. Finally, just like bonsai, ikebana developed to the point of being considered an art in its own right and is still found today in tokonomas for the zen atmosphere it gives off in the room.
Unlike bonsai and ikebana arrangements, kusamonos, also called kusabonsai or grass bonsai, as well as the kokedamas that we will see next are considered secondary elements in a tokonoma. They are used to accompany a larger and majestic element such as an ikebana composition or in most cases a bonsai. Kusamonos appeared in the 1870s and as you can see in the photo they have a much wilder and less refined look than bonsai or ikebana arrangements. However, that doesn't mean they don't deserve maintenance. They are in fact arranged in a pot, generally round or oval, and it is therefore necessary to change this pot regularly as well as to prune it when the need arises. Finally, the kusamonos as well as the kokedamas are the elements that we change in the tokonoma in order to indicate the season in which we find ourselves.
Kokedamas are the most recent elements found in tokonomas since they only appeared in the 1990s. Just like kusamonos, they therefore serve as an accompaniment and act as a complementary element in the tokonoma. But unlike the kusamonos, the kokedamas do not have a vase. They rest on their own mound of earth which is packed into a ball then covered with moss to hold everything together. It is nevertheless important to monitor the humidity level in the room so that the clod of earth called keto does not collapse or crack if, on the contrary, the air is too dry. The Japanese have almost twice as many types of foam as the rest of us in our European climate, which allows them to have more freedom in terms of which foam to apply on keto.
In a tokonoma it is very common to find a wall exhibition coupled with a floral arrangement, ikebana or bonsai. It is indeed a duo that goes well together due to their artistic and stylistic complementarity. Much like nature art, Japanese wall displays are also a broad artistic field that is at least as important from a cultural perspective. It is therefore not surprising to find them within the tokonomas.
As mentioned in the “history of tokonoma” section, kakemonos were the first elements to appear in tokonomas when they were still used to inscribe the reason for the shogun's absence. They are also the first to be adopted in the tokonomas of private residences as well as in tea houses where they are very important in providing a harmonious experience for the guest. However, kakemonos are actually a large family that includes several different styles. In fact, in most cases we find calligraphic writing, but tokonomas on which landscapes are represented are also very popular.
Among the different calligraphies inscribed on the kakemonos we mainly find:
- a kanji
- a poem
- a quote
- a prayer
Although the literary content of kakemono is very important, its form is at least as important. It is indeed no coincidence that Japanese calligraphy is also considered an art in its own right. This art is called shodo which literally means the way of writing and it is still imposed as a compulsory subject in Japanese primary schools today.
Calligraphy is actually one of the oldest arts in Japanese culture since it dates back to the 5th century when it was used to copy Buddhist texts or to keep a written record of war stories or even certain love stories. Geishas as well as samurai often indulged in this practice considered noble and graceful, so much so that certain calligraphic kakemonos are taken straight from the hand of the shogun. So it was no surprise that all this fascination with calligraphic art eventually found its way into the tokonomas intended to exhibit different Japanese artistic styles. Finally, just as with kokedamas and kusamonos, tradition dictates that kakemonos are changed regularly in the tokonoma depending on the occasions that arise, such as the type of guest or the seasons of the year.
Japanese prints are woodcuts which represent a famous artistic movement called ukiyo-e, for “image of the floating world”. Which can be understood as the capture through drawing of a precise moment in this constantly changing world. They experienced their golden age during the Edo period (1603-1868) where one of the greatest masters Katsushika Hokusai distinguished himself, who is the author of the famous series “36 views of Mount Fuji” in which we finds the painting “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”. Generally speaking, there are representations of bourgeois life of the time, with geishas, samurai but also landscapes or sumo wrestling matches.
Although the prints are less present than the kakemonos within the tokonomas, they cannot be omitted from Japanese wall exhibitions as they have become integrated into traditional Japanese culture. Their production cost being relatively low, this made it possible to produce a large number of them and therefore to quickly spread these wood engravings throughout the archipelago. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and the opening of Japan to the world of international trade, they were highly appreciated in the West.
Censers and candlesticks
Just like kakemonos, incense are very ancient objects which appeared on Japanese soil around the 6th century. They continue to be burned today in Buddhist temples as well as tokonomas for many spiritual, religious, olfactory and even therapeutic reasons.
Before being introduced into tokonomas, censers as well as candlesticks were frequently consumed in butsudan, the ancestor of tokonoma cited in the “origin of tokonoma” section. More than a simple object allowing the release of good smells, incense was intended to purify the ambient air in order to be able to say prayers during Buddhist rites and even to heal in certain situations. The arrival of tokonomas in private residences coupled with the fact that almost all of the Japanese people were Buddhists therefore left the field open to burn them at home in this sacred place. Especially since the art of appreciating perfumes, kodo, had already been recognized for several centuries and it was therefore legitimate to introduce it into the place intended to host the different Japanese arts: tokonoma.
It is still common today to burn incense when you receive someone in Japan and it is also a very common gift which if you ever lack inspiration, will allow you to thank your host with an object traditional. In addition, beyond its religious side, the smoke that incense gives off has molecules with relaxing properties which promote reflection and will be perfect for meditating.
Works of art
If we differentiate the works of art which will follow in a separate category, it is above all a practical choice, it is obvious that bonsai as well as prints are, for example, works of art in their own right. Objects of art therefore quickly arrived in the tokonomas because they made it possible to firstly illustrate the wealth of the host, whether merchant or samurai, but also to allow a certain refinement to be invited into the latter's home. for Zen culture. The richness of Japanese craftsmanship also made it possible to satisfy all tastes with the diversity of its works of art ranging from okimonos to bronzes including suisekis and ceramics.
Although okimonos are rather recent pieces (late 18th century) compared to their decorative colleagues, they still remain relatively little known in Japanese culture. As you can see in the photo below, these are statues comparable to netsukes, small statuettes that the Japanese hang on the kimono, but in a large format. They are most of the time made of ivory but we also find them in boxwood, coral, metal or even semi-precious stone. They mostly represent deities, folk monsters or professions.
Unlike certain other elements found in the tokonoma, the okimono only has a decorative function. This is not what we find most often, but a large artistic industry has nevertheless developed since the end of the Edo period and they were very appreciated, particularly during the Meiji era (1868-1912). After a decline of interest in Japan for these statues caused by multiple reasons such as the protection of elephants and their ivory tusks, they were subsequently appreciated in the West for their refinement and are still the delight of certain collectors today. .
Imported by China several centuries ago, the bronzes are objects that have arrived very often on the Japanese archipelago. Like the majority of works of art, they are elements that you can find within tokonomas in the form of a statue, often of Buddha, or a vase in the majority of cases. However, in Japan particularly, it is common to find bronzes in animal form where several masters excelled in this discipline during the Edo and Meiji eras. Finally, Japan gradually appropriated this art by developing its own production and refinement techniques such as the alliance between gold and copper alloys called shakudo.
Just like okimonos, suisekis, literally “water stones”, are not objects that are that well known internationally and yet they are an integral part of Japanese artistic culture. This art consists of recovering stones polished by the flow of water, generally in a river, and cleaning them then displaying them on a base called suiban. Just like many Japanese arts, it is also directly linked to nature but with the difference that it is not allowed to retouch the stone by hand after its harvest.
Like kokedamas and kusamonos, suisekis are also secondary elements due to their small size and generally serve as an accompaniment to a bonsai within tokonomas. Their main objective is to represent through shapes and colors concepts that we know such as human or animal shapes or landscapes. It is a very subtle art which involves letting your imagination speak but allows you to bring a real natural touch to a house. We owe its popularization within tokonoma in Japan, notably to the great tea master Sen no Rikyu.
If certain Japanese arts may seem ancient, it is nothing compared to Japanese ceramics which have been practiced since the Jomon period which extends from -15,000 to -300 BC. JC. Since this period, manufacturing methods have of course evolved, turning a utilitarian practice intended to make cups and plates into an artistic practice as some pieces are magnificent.
Furthermore, this same art gave birth to others such as kintsugi, which consists of repairing porcelain by leaving the repair process visible using a lacquer called urushi. The result thus obtained is sumptuous and therefore sometimes displayed in tokonomas where their role is to recall the essence of ephemeral and imperfect life but also to preserve the health of the family in which they are found.
The symbolism of the tokonoma
After this long detour retracing all the elements that appear in the tokonomas on Japanese territory, it is time to focus on a crucial point of the latter which is none other than its symbolic aspect for the Japanese people. As we have been able to see, it is not a simple place intended to put all kinds of decoration there, more than that it has a real imprint of a historical side and translates a keen artistic wisdom for its host. It also has a symbolic dimension on several levels as we will see without further ado.
The religious dimension
In Japan, religion is something very present and very anchored in morals, whether it is the Buddhist religion or the Shinto religion. Today there are no less than 89 million Buddhists and more than 90 million Shintoists (source: Wikipedia ) , which still represents more than 70% of the population for each religion. For comparison, in France there are no more than 50% Catholics with a minority of practitioners according to the latest study carried out by the secularism observatory in 2019. All this to say that the Japanese attach a lot of importance to religion in their society, in the feudal era as now, and therefore it is not so surprising to see that the tokonoma is often linked directly to the Buddhist or Shinto religion through its elements.
It does not in fact refer to it directly but on numerous occasions when its owner chooses to burn incense to purify the room or even to display okimonos representing Shinto deities. We can also mention the numerous kakemonos on which Buddhist writings or ikebana compositions are directly inscribed which are intended to be in their final form an offering to Buddha. Furthermore, we must not forget that the tokonoma descends from the butsudan which was an object with a purely religious purpose.
The artistic dimension
Despite the little space it leaves within it, the tokonoma undoubtedly remains the place where we find the most works of art on an individual scale. If we wanted to define it artistically it could be translated as the convergence of different types of traditional Japanese arts in their finished forms . There are in fact several arts that are so different in their form but so close in their philosophy and their refinement that this creates a real harmony in washitsu.
By admiring the tokonomas we can see behind its components several centuries or even millennia of crafts, spiritual and artistic practices in which many samurai before us were passionate and accomplished when they no longer needed to use their katana during the Edo period. Ultimately, it is above all the artistic richness of tokonomas that makes them so fascinating to study due to the diversity of works of art that they can accommodate.
The cultural dimension
If you have ever been to Japan in a traditional house, perhaps you have not paid attention but normally your host will have carefully seated you in front of the tokonoma. This is not a coincidence. This gesture aims to reflect the modesty of the resident who does not position himself in front of his works in order to admire them, he rather leaves this privilege to his guest(s).
However, the modesty highlighted with this polite process is not all white. As mentioned earlier in this article, when the bourgeoisie took over the tokonomas and began introducing them into their own residences, they transformed them into a sort of personal museum with the main purpose of showing off their riches. The tokonoma quickly became a sort of social elevator allowing easier access to groups of nobles and the old Japanese aristocratic caste. Although the fact of positioning one's guest in front is today purely or almost a symbol of modesty, this was not always the case in Japanese culture where it allowed in the feudal era to have one's riches admired by one's guests. guests.
However, this did-you-see side that we were able to experience with the tokonomas never stopped those who owned them from using them as a tool towards their personal fulfillment in the quest for zen. Indeed, although works of art can be purchased ready-made, it was once common to make your own works in order to then exhibit them in your tokonoma. This obviously had many advantages such as letting oneself indulge in a passion allowing one to express oneself, to free oneself and to reconnect with nature, for example with bonsai or ikebana floral arrangements. The imagination was also of course very much in demand, whether to design natural works or find shapes within the suisekis.
Finally, Japanese decoration being something quite standardized in which we find little fantasy, the tokonoma is seen as a sort of liberator in which we can display our personal tastes for one art more than another. Whatever the case, we frequently change what is displayed there depending on the occasion and at home as in tea rooms, for a Japanese who receives a foreigner it is a way of sharing their culture . Furthermore, there are different types of tokonomas and this is what we will see from now on.
Tokonoma architecture and style
Although tokonomas allow a certain freedom in terms of what can be exhibited there, their architecture is, however, quite standardized. There are in total three types of tokonoma architecture and three styles which will depend on the way they are arranged and the degree of formality of their materials.
Architecture of the tokonoma
Since not all Japanese houses have the same interior architecture, it was necessary to develop several different types of tokonomas in order to be able to fit them into each of them. As a result, we find three different types of architecture and it is actually very simple to differentiate them:
- hondoko: tokonoma with its window on the left facing south
- gyakudoko: tokonoma with its window on the right located towards the north
- ryakudoko: tokonoma having no window at all
It is therefore this reason which explains that until now you have been able to observe different tokonomas in a Japanese person or even in the photos in this article. However, although architecture quite clearly differentiates tokonomas, it is actually their style and degree of formality that classifies them further.
In order to know the style of the tokonoma you have in front of you, you just need to observe what we call tokobashira. This is the very bulky support beam found in all tokonomas. Although it has an important utilitarian role due to its function as a supporting beam, it is also a powerful symbol which determines the tokonoma family to which the entire structure belongs. As with the number of architectures, there are three styles of tokonomas which are defined by the degree of formality and prestige of the latter.
The tokonoma shin
Shin tokonomas are the noblest of the tokonomas. They are naturally the most expensive and this is explained by the quality of the materials with which they are designed as well as the meticulousness with which all of its parts have been worked. It stands out with its very noble square-shaped and always very straight tokobashira as well as the decorative bands which are embroidered on its tatami, called koraiberi. However, the luxury of a tokonoma is not measured solely by the beauty of its structure. The objects exhibited there must also be very prestigious.
The gyo style is the in-between style placed in the middle of the shin style and the so style. It has a certain degree of formality but still leaves a certain freedom in its design. Its tokobashira is round in shape but nevertheless retains the same straightness as the tokobashira of the tokonmas shin. This is also the style that is most often worn in reception tokonomas as well as in restaurants or hotels.
The tokonoma so
The so style is therefore the least “noble” style of tokonoma but also the one that gives you the most freedom in terms of the materials with which you can make it. His tokobashira is a sanded tree trunk but where we still observe certain natural defects specific to the tree you have chosen. It is also often used for tea houses.