Ancient Architecture

While Japanese wooden puzzles are still considered to be relatively new, the complex connections that make the puzzles are ancient woodworking techniques to create joints like the one in the picture below. Used to make temples, these joints were fashioned to be made without glue or nails and yet to be strong enough to stand up against earthquakes and tsunamis.

Shinto ceiling joint

The first rendition of the Japanese wooden puzzles were tools used by master woodworkers to teach their apprentices how to create the complex joints needed for structures.


Japanese puzzles emerged during the mid-Edo period. The Japanese interlocking wooden puzzles were called Kumiki. Modeled after the tools used to teach woodworkers’ apprentices. The author of “Japanese Games and Toys” Ann Grinham verifies this. But those simple models turned puzzles started became more and more elaborate with increasing interests.

< L, M. (2023, December 5). Japanese roof joinery. Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mickl/2557029317: This picture is an image of Shinto temple ceiling joint. It is made up of interlocking wooden joints without nails or glue. This is an ancient technique to make strong buildings with interlocking wood which can be found in Japanese wooden puzzles.

Increasing interests lead the ways to many types of puzzles. Puzzle boxes were a key highlight as they were advertised as a way of hiding your valuables in plain sight without anyone being able to access them. But, as Japanese puzzles became more and more elaborate, using them to teach woodworkers how to create joints was almost out of fashion.

File:Wood Puzzle - Solved.jpg
Wikimedia. (n.d.). Wikimedia. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wood_Puzzle_-_Solved.jpg: This is an example of an interlocking Japanese wooden puzzle that has a distinct appearance akin to metabolism architecture.

Japanese or Not?

More and more variations were created and as Kumiki gained popularity with more foreigners, there started to be a debate on whether or not the puzzles themselves were “Japanese.” But with all the new variations and ideas sprung up from the Japanese puzzles and puzzle boxes, they were not being made in Japan. The puzzles, transforming furniture, shelves, and other items inspired by them suddenly made elsewhere. Instead of the Japanese Puzzle box remaining Japanese and keeping its “Japan-ness” it became more of a concept to draw inspiration from. With more and more variations being created, the original is lost among them.

Hakone Yosegi Japanese puzzle box, Wooden Puzzle Box, brain-teaser box … (n.d.). https://www.amazon.com/Japanese-Decorative-Brain-Teaser-compartments-Children/dp/B08HRS7WHB: An assortment of Japanese wooden puzzle boxes each with a specific way or key on how to open them secretly.

While the wide variations and the additional competition from makers elsewhere make Japanese puzzles not “authentically” Japanese, the increased variations and ideas derived from Japanese puzzles had have a great influence on the rest of the world as space has become more and more limited.

Modern Architecture

The complex connections that created strong wooden joints, leading to complex puzzles, led to complex design in furniture and modern architecture elements. The need for multifunctional furniture and spaces grew as major hubs of people in Japan became more and more compact.

The interlocking and moving and connecting joints all created within the Japanese puzzles started to be translated into other concepts. From organizing a library with complex shelves that transform and shift to make up for a lack of space, to transformable furniture.

EBH 659 tiny house Ecobox Home Ltd. living room
Mok, K. (2021, March 19). Flat-pack furniture quickly transforms this loft-free tiny home. Treehugger. https://www.treehugger.com/tiny-homes-and-transformer-furniture-by-ecobox-home-5115784: An example image of tiny house set up with all customized furniture that is able to be multifunctional. An example of multifunctional is the stairs that are also used as storage.

File:Library, University of Toronto, Mississauga.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Google. (n.d.). Google image result for https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d9/Library%2C_University_of_Toronto%2C_Mississauga.jpg. https://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=https%3A%2F%2Fupload.wikimedia.org%2Fwikipedia%2Fcommons%2Fd%2Fd9%2FLibrary%252C_University_of_Toronto%252C_Mississauga.jpg&tbnid=Enh6yklSAwgj6M&vet=12ahUKEwih7MvEv4iDAxWSMVkFHSdYCaUQMygAegQIARA0..i&imgrefurl=https%3A%2F%2Fcommons.wikimedia.org%2Fwiki%2FFile%3ALibrary%2C_University_of_Toronto%2C_Mississauga.jpg&docid=2m1xLVEDVnqtOM&w=5184&h=3456&q=image+of+library+built+at+the+university+of+toronto+mississauga&hl=en&ved=2ahUKEwih7MvEv4iDAxWSMVkFHSdYCaUQMygAegQIARA0

Transformable furniture, or multipurpose furniture also became more popular with the western world as space started to become more and more sparse.

This transformable and adaptable architecture has become movements in the architecture world as less space is available. One such movement that has particularly for customizable furniture that is made to be multi-functional is the Tiny House Movement. Another is the Metabolism Movement in Japan that led to the Capsule Hotel.

An additional example of just architecture is the library built at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM). The architects wanted to create the building to be interconnected with others building into a modern style of a Japanese puzzle box.


Japanese puzzles bridge the gap between what is Japan and what is the West. Its roots are deeply tied in with Japanese religion and the construction of temples. And yet they are also heavily geared towards the West as products made to be sold abroad. Even products that are stated to be Japanese puzzles are not made within Japan.

The influences of puzzles has also help to make an impact in architecture and how the modern world approaches modern problems of space and storage needed.


Chodikoff, I. (2007). THE PUZZLE BOX. The Canadian Architect, 52(10), 31-.

Hakone Yosegi Japanese puzzle box, Wooden Puzzle Box, brain-teaser box … (n.d.). https://www.amazon.com/Japanese-Decorative-Brain-Teaser-compartments-Children/dp/B08HRS7WHB

L, M. (2023, December 5). Japanese roof joinery. Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mickl/2557029317

Mok, K. (2021, March 19). Flat-pack furniture quickly transforms this loft-free tiny home. Treehugger. https://www.treehugger.com/tiny-homes-and-transformer-furniture-by-ecobox-home-5115784

Wikimedia. (n.d.). Wikimedia. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wood_Puzzle_-_Solved.jpg

Author: chummer@conncoll.edu

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