The History and Evolution of Shoji in Japanese Architecture

Shoji image

Japanese architecture is known for its unique and elegant designs, and one of the most iconic elements of traditional Japanese buildings is the shoji.

Shoji refers to the sliding doors and partitions made of wooden frames and paper, typically washi or Japanese paper.

In this article, we will explore the history and evolution of shoji in Japanese architecture, from its early origins to its modern usage.

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Origins of Shoji

The term "shoji" originally referred to any object that obstructed or blocked something.

In ancient times, it was used to describe various barriers, such as doors, curtains, blinds, folding screens, and room dividers like the byobu and tsuitate.

These barriers were made to block the view, wind, light, and cold.

For example, the Japanese term for folding screens is "byobu," while the Chinese term is "pingfeng."

As time passed, the usage of these terms evolved and changed.

During the Nara period (710-794), there were only a few remaining shoji examples, such as those found in the Shosoin Treasure House.

Unfortunately, very few records of the interior of upper-class dwellings from this period have survived.

In the late Heian period (794-1185), the construction style known as "shinden-zukuri" emerged.

This style featured fewer walls and partitions inside the buildings, with pillars and curtains, known as "katabira" or "misu," used to create separate spaces for different activities.

These curtains, similar to modern blinds, were often made of bamboo or reeds.

The Development of Shoji

With the advancement of construction techniques, shoji gradually evolved into its modern form.

During the Kamakura period (1185-1333), depictions of shoji-like panels can be seen in scrolls and paintings.

However, it wasn't until the Muromachi period (1336-1573) that the prototype of the modern shoji appeared.

The design, known as "akarishoji" or "illuminated shoji," is first mentioned in the architectural plans for the Rokuhara-Mitsui Residence commissioned by Taira no Kiyomori, a powerful samurai lord.

It is unclear whether this early form of shoji resembles the shoji we know today.

In the Kamakura period, there were significant limitations in lumber production and tool technology.

As a result, the early prototypes of modern shoji and fusuma (sliding doors) were relatively sturdy and required intricate craftsmanship.

The installation of thresholds, frames, and grooves for sliding doors posed significant challenges.

As time went on and techniques improved, the traditional shoji and fusuma became lighter, more delicate, and easier to install.

The refined craftsmanship of shoji reached its peak during the Edo period (1603-1868), characterized by minimalist aesthetics and attention to detail.

Types of Shoji

Shoji, a quintessential element of traditional Japanese architecture, encompasses various forms and styles that serve both functional and aesthetic purposes.

These distinctive partitions and screens play a pivotal role in defining spaces while allowing the play of light and shadow.

Let's explore the diverse types of Shoji, each with its unique characteristics and applications in Japanese design and culture.

Curtain-like Shoji

One type of shoji is the "misu," a curtain-like partition made of bamboo or reeds.

It is commonly used in traditional Japanese architecture to separate spaces.

The "misu" provides privacy while allowing light to filter through.

A notable example of "misu" can be seen in the Seirei-in Temple at Horyu-ji, where it is used to create separate spaces inside the temple.

The "misu" is opaque from the outside but allows those inside to see outside, creating a sense of openness.

Folding Shoji

Another type of shoji is the "kicho," a folding screen-like curtain made of fabric.

The "kicho" is constructed by sewing together multiple panels of fabric.

It can be easily transported and set up, making it ideal for creating temporary partitions.

During the summer, a lightweight silk fabric called "suzushi" is used, while a heavier silk fabric called "neriginu" is used in winter.

Wall Panels

Wall panels, known as "kabeshiro," are a type of shoji that consists of wooden frames with paper or fabric attached.

They are used to divide spaces and create privacy.

The frames are attached to the inner side of the "uchinori-nage-shi," which are wall-mounted horizontal beams.

The "kabeshiro" panels are made of silk fabric and are often decorated with traditional patterns, such as the "kuchiki" pattern.

Soft Shoji and Curtains

A "zejō" is a type of shoji that is similar to a folding screen.

It consists of a wooden frame with a fabric curtain attached.

The fabric used is typically silk or cotton, and it can be decorated with various patterns.

The "man" is used as a room divider or to block off certain areas.

It is often seen in traditional Japanese tea houses and formal rooms.

Panel-style Shoji

While "misu," "kicho," and "kabeshiro" are all considered types of shoji, the term "shoji" is commonly used to refer to wooden-framed panels with paper or fabric coverings, which are used as interior partition panels.

The wooden frames can be made of various types of wood, such as cedar or cypress, and the coverings are typically made of washi or Japanese paper.

The paper or fabric allows diffused light to pass through, creating a warm and gentle atmosphere.

The Evolution of Shoji in Modern Architecture

In modern Japanese architecture, shoji has evolved to suit contemporary design preferences and functional requirements.

While the traditional form of shoji is still widely used, modern variations have emerged.

These variations often feature frames made of aluminum or other lightweight materials, and the coverings can be made of synthetic materials that mimic the appearance of traditional washi paper.

Additionally, modern shoji often incorporates various design elements, such as decorative patterns or frosted glass inserts.

These adaptations allow for greater flexibility in interior design and cater to different aesthetic preferences.

Shoji is no longer limited to traditional Japanese-style buildings and can be found in modern homes, offices, and public spaces.


Shoji is a quintessential element of Japanese architecture, known for its beauty, functionality, and ability to create a serene and harmonious living space.

From its early origins as a simple barrier to its modern variations, shoji has evolved to meet the changing needs and preferences of Japanese society.

Whether it's the traditional sliding doors and partitions or the contemporary adaptations, shoji continues to play a significant role in Japanese architecture, preserving the essence of traditional design while embracing innovation.

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