Shoin-zukuri (書院造)

Shoin-zukuri is one of the Japanese residential architectural styles which were established after the middle of the Muromachi Period. Shoin-zukuri has had a strong influence on Japanese residential houses since then.


A shoin (a study built in the shoin style) is furnished with zashikikazari (a set of decorative features), such as tokonoma (alcoves for the display of art objects) (or oshi-ita), chigai-dana (shelves built into the wall), and tsukeshoin (a built-in table). Even at banquets today, seats are often designated as 'kamiza' or 'shimoza' according to their position relative to the tokonoma, which implies that distances from tokonoma once helped members to verify each other's rank and status.

Establishment of shoin-zukuri

A shoin was originally for Zen monks to read books, with an elevated floor board as a desk extending out into the room and with akari-shoji in front to let light in. Oshi-ita (a shallow decorative alcove, a predecessor of the tokonoma) and chigai-dana were installed to display works of calligraphy, paintings and other ornaments.

A famous historical example of an architectural structure that integrates these features is Dojinsai, a study that Yoshimasa ASHIKAGA had built in the Togudo (a building that houses an image of Amida Buddha) of Ginkaku-ji Temple (Jisho-ji Temple). This is a small room of four-and-a-half tatami mats with tsukeshoin and tana, and is considered the origin of typical Japanese houses whose style survives today.

By the end of the Muromachi Period, temples with shoin, and samurai residences with oshi-ita, tana and shoin were being built, and the style of shoin-zukuri was gradually formed.

Shoin-zukuri was established as a device to show hierarchical ranks and orders, and its pinnacle was in the architecture of castles in the Azuchi-Momoyama Period. Mural paintings by Kanoha in Azuchi-jo Castle built by Nobunaga and in Osaka-jo Castle and a luxurious mansion, Jurakudai, built by Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI once represented the majestic force of those in power. However, neither of these remain today.

Ninomaru Shoin in Nijo-jo Castle, which was built by the third Shogun Iemitsu TOKUGAWA, is famous as an example of shoin-zukuri that still exists today. It was a place where the Shogun met other feudal lords, who sat there in a strictly defined order. The Kamiza where the Shogun was seated is decorated with oshi-ita, tana, shoin and chodaigamae (a decorative door) or mushakakushi (a secret door for bodyguards), and it is on the highest of the several stages of floors arranged in ascending order from shimoza, with a high-ranked structure called oriage gotenjo.

Popularization of shoin-zukuri

Although tokonoma were restricted as they were considered too lavish for ordinary people in the Edo Period, some influential people were allowed to build tokonoma when inviting local governors to their homes for example. This kind of Zashikikazari must have enhanced their authority in the community.

As these building restrictions based on social standing were abolished in the Meiji Period, installing tokonoma in ordinary houses became common. Yet, a zashiki with a tokonoma was a special room, so even family members were forbidden to enter the room in many families.

Examples of shoin-zukuri:
Shoin-zukuri in its early phase:
Togudo of Jishoji-Temple
Established shoin-zukuri:
Hakushoin of Nishihongan-ji Temple
Ninomaru Shoin in Nijo-jo Castle