Japanese Interior Design: Influenced by Japanese philosophies: Ma, Wabi-Sabi, and Shakkei

Japanese interior design is a style that has always resonated with me, and I wanted to use this project to explore this design concept further. As someone studying architecture and interested in interior design, I want to learn more about it and apply it to my knowledge and inspiration while designing architectural interiors. I want to know what is explicitly Japanese about its interior design, as it is renowned worldwide for its simplicity and minimalism. After some research, I found that traditional Japanese philosophies and how Japanese people prioritize their way of living greatly impact how they design their houses. My research question is: “How do traditional Japanese philosophies impact Japanese interior design?”. I also want to see what I can do to implement some “Japan-ness” qualities in my home or room to achieve a more Zen and peaceful living situation.  

  In Japan, people prioritize clean living, balance, tradition, beauty in imperfection, minimalism, culture, nature, and voids in their lives and homes. They are also influenced by the three philosophies, Ma, Wabi-Sabi, and Shakkei, which are specifically Japanese and are essential principles for the home and life in general. Ma emphasizes the importance of minimalism and having negative space and voids in design to create peace, clarity, and an indoor sanctuary in the home. Wabi-Sabi is the philosophy of not dwelling on imperfections to avoid stress. I was curious how this would work with interior design but was very inspired by how flaws in natural materials can add to the home. The Wabi-Sabi philosophy celebrates imperfections in objects as it showcases their history and character, for example, old wooden beams or an old furniture piece that has significance to the person living there. Implementing these pieces around a house makes one not stressed over imperfections and can add inner peace to one’s life. Shakkei is a philosophy of having “borrowed scenery” to incorporate greenery in the house, whether it be windows looking out to a garden or bonsai trees. Adding greenery in and out of your home is common in Japanese homes as it creates a peaceful environment. Zen is an essential quality in Japan that values peace and relaxation – where design elements are done to make the home and indoor sanctuary. If added to one’s home, all three philosophies, Ma, Wabi-Sabi, and Shakkei, make their house feel like a Zen sanctuary.

I used photographs from the 21st century to represent more modern examples that still showcase their underlying philosophical roots and make the concept more relatable by depicting examples that still incorporate these timeless philosophies. The images showcase rooms of homes located in Japan with minimal decorations, large windows viewing scenery, and plants or significant decorations placed tastefully around the room. I also wanted to keep the photos similar to each other regarding the year and more modern examples. I used four photos: between one and two for each philosophy: Ma, Wabi-Sabi, and Shakkei. I then pointed out different features of how the specific philosophy affected the design and how it was shown. There are many overlaps, however, since each photo technically shows all four philosophies – which is why the images are so successful regarding Japanese interior design. Then, I added two photos that encapsulated all three philosophies in one room that had the essence of Zen.

I included different textual sources, like interior design magazines, articles, and scholarly texts about Japanese interior design and philosophies. Specifically, I used two academic texts from JSTOR about Japanese philosophy: Ma, Wabi-Sabi, and Shakkei. I chose these two texts as they gave a good definition and information about these philosophies. In the journal article “Wabi Sabi and the Pedagogical Countenance of Names.” Jackie Seidel and David Jardine talk about how Wabi-Sabi is a way to perceive the world and the heart of Japanese culture. It finds beauty and harmony in simple, imperfect, natural, modest, and mysterious things. The second JSTOR article, “Intervals in Space and Time: Foundations for a Religio-Aesthetic Paradigm in Japan,” by Richard B. Pilgrim, talks about the philosophy Ma and the uses and beliefs it conveys. The author’s main argument in each source talked about each Japanese philosophy and its origins and importance to Japan. I found their arguments helpful in my research question: “How do traditional Japanese philosophies impact Japanese interior design?”

From a historical and cultural background, the ancient Japanese philosophies of Ma, Wabi-Sabi, and Shakkei were influenced by Shintoism and Buddhism that promoted Zen and feelings of inner peace like high value in harmony within relationships and connections tying people together and ideas of emptiness and selflessness. It is very successful in incorporating these philosophies as the design style is timeless and famous around the world. Having the philosophies of Ma, Wabi-Sabi, and Shakkei influence interior design can make a room more Zen and even reduce anxiety and stress. 

Figure 1: “Stairway House, Tokyo, nendo, 2020. Photo Shigeo Ogawa” Baker, Lindsay, and Mihoko Iida. 2022. “Inside Japan’s most minimalist homes.” BBC. 

Image URL: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20221206-japans-most-zen-like-minimalist-interiors 

The first image is of a room in Japan’s “Stairway” house. The picture represents the Japanese philosophy Ma, which can be used as a design style to embrace the negative space of a room. This home has a staircase through the middle of the house, connecting three floors leading up to a skylight entrance to the roof. The house is furnished very minimally yet thoughtfully. Like the philosophy Ma, voids are present and represent a pause between objects, in this case, furniture that is placed to mediate between the two. The void enables nothingness to provide imagination to exist in people’s reality and a sense to pause and reflect. Ma can also be represented in the furniture. For example, the chairs and bed have simple designs and solid colors without patterns or ornamentation. The colors of everything in the room have minimal qualities, like the brown wooden floors and the dark gray staircase contrast the white wall, and pops of black and green are present due to the furniture and plants. Keeping a color palette of five or fewer neutral colors depicts MAa since it is simple, clean, and minimalistic. Clutter is absent in the photo as it is common in Japanese houses to have storage cabinets to keep belongings out of sight. 

Figure 2 and  3: House S (Credit: Ben Richards) Baker, Lindsay, and Mihoko Iida. 2022. “Inside Japan’s most minimalist homes.” BBC. 

Image URL: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20221206-japans-most-zen-like-minimalist-interiors 

These two images are of the “S house” and “Garden House” in Japan. They demonstrate the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi, which means embracing imperfection and that beauty comes with age by visible scratches or other damage to celebrate the object’s history. Through design, Wabi-Sabi is shown by incorporating elements that are not perfect. This could be older rustic reclaimed wood or a piece of furniture that has significant value to the people living there. These items are not supposed to be bright, shiny, new, and perfect; instead, they are older to show their character. These pictures show wooden floors or beams that are old and not flawless. There is also an older-looking pot in the left image with some stains and a rustic wardrobe in the right photo that is not new and probably has some imperfections. Living with Wabi-Sabi influence is where you see the beauty in imperfection and not dwell or stress over perfection. 

Figure 4: Peninsula House (Credit: Kenichi Suzuki) Baker, Lindsay. “Inside Japan’s most minimalist homes.” BBC, 7 December 2022, 

Image URL: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20221206-japans-most-zen-like-minimalist-interiors 

This image is of the living room in the “Peninsula House” in Japan. The image perfectly represents the Japanese philosophy of Shakkei, which means to “borrow scenery from nature.” In design, Shakkei is present so nature can be expressed in a room. This can be done by incorporating plants around the room, having a bonsai tree, or, in this case, having huge windows that look onto a view of nature. The view is typical of a garden so that greenery can enter the house. In this case, the beautiful waterfront view is incorporated within the house with the prominent windows – as it becomes the most defining feature of the room. 

Figure 5: BS Residence By Vincent Van Duysen – Photograph © Vincent Van Duysen “Modern Japanese Interior Design, A Guide and Decor Ideas.” n.d. Gessato. 

Image URL: https://www.gessato.com/modern-japanese-interior-design-guide-ideas/

This image is of a room in the Netherlands but designed with Japanese interior design in mind. This living room is an excellent example of Zen – creating an indoor sanctuary, exhibiting the Japanese philosophies of Ma, Wabi-Sabi, and Shakkei. Ma is implemented as the room is furnished minimally, the vast space, the use of cabinets to make clutter out of sight, the simple furniture, the neutral color palette, and natural elements like wood and stone. Wabi-Sabi is shown as an imperfection in the wood grain and the component of stone brick in the ceiling. Shakkei is shown with floor-to-ceiling windows viewing a garden. The room is peaceful, minimalistic, and an excellent example of a room that has a Japanese interior design style. 

Figure 6: Lotus House (Credit: Daica Ano/ Kengo Kuma & Associates) Baker, Lindsay. “Inside Japan’s most minimalist homes.” BBC, 7 December 2022, 

Image URL: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20221206-japans-most-zen-like-minimalist-interiors 

This image is an excellent example of all the Japanese philosophies mentioned in one room. It also encapsulates a Zen-like feel since it looks like an indoor sanctuary – an area of peace and relaxation. The room is minimalistic and contains a void, which is Ma. The natural materials and simple color palette give the room a minimalist feel. Additionally, big windows look out onto trees, which shows the Shakkei philosophy. The old map and piano are older objects with character and meaning, which is the Wabi-Sabi principle. Overall, the room feels like an indoor sanctuary and has Zen attributes.


Baker, Lindsay, and Mihoko Iida. 2022. “Inside Japan’s most minimalist homes.” BBC. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20221206-japans-most-zen-like-minimalist-interiors.

“Five Principles of Japanese Interior Design – Village Blog.” 2022. ビレッジブログ:日本のアパートメント生活https://blog.villagehouse.jp/en/interior-design/five-principles-of-japanese-interior-design/

“Japanese Influence on the Western World – Haiku Designs.” 2020. Haiku Designs. https://www.haikudesigns.com/blog/japanese-influence-on-the-western-world/.

“Japanese Interior Design: Minimalist Sophistication | Foyr.” n.d. Foyr Neo. Accessed December 4, 2023. https://foyr.com/learn/japanese-interior-design/.

“Kintsugi Kit for Beginners.” n.d. The Wabi Sabi Shop. Accessed December 4, 2023. https://wabisabi-jp.com/products/kintsugi-kit.

Matsumoto, Kiyoshi. 2020. “MA — The Japanese Concept of Space and Time.” Medium. https://medium.com/@kiyoshimatsumoto/ma-the-japanese-concept-of-space-and-time-3330c83ded4c.

“Modern Japanese Interior Design, A Guide and Decor Ideas.” n.d. Gessato. Accessed December 4, 2023. https://www.gessato.com/modern-japanese-interior-design-guide-ideas/.

Moor, Lisandra. 2020. “Japanese Words We Can’t Translate: Shakkei – the Essence of Japanese Garden Design.” Tokyo Weekender. https://www.tokyoweekender.com/art_and_culture/japanese-culture/japanese-words-cant-translate-shakkei/.

Oder, Tom. n.d. “The Art of Shakkei or ‘Borrowed Scenery’ – Garden.” Treehugger. Accessed November 30, 2023. https://www.treehugger.com/art-shakkei-or-borrowed-scenery-4863268.

Pilgrim, Richard B. “Intervals (‘Ma’) in Space and Time: Foundations for a Religio-Aesthetic Paradigm in Japan.” History of Religions 25, no. 3 (1986): 255–77. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1062515.

Sasaki, Ruth F., Thomas Y. Kirchner, and Shigenori Nagatomo. 2006. “Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/japanese-zen/.

Seidel, Jackie, and David W. Jardine. “‘Wabi Sabi’ and the Pedagogical Countenance of Names.” Counterpoints 452 (2014): 15–25. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42982352.

Snayd, Joel. 2020. “What is Wabi-Sabi? The History Behind This Japanese Philosophy — Rethink Studio.” Rethink Design Studio. https://www.rethinkdesignstudio.com/blog/2020/4/21/what-is-wabi-sabi-the-history-behind-this-japanese-philosophy.

“Wabi-Sabi – HYPER JAPAN.” 2021. Hyper Japan. https://hyperjapan.co.uk/traditional-culture/wabi-sabi/.

Author: czidik@conncoll.edu

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