Shoji (Paper Sliding Screen) (障子)

A shoji refers to a screen consisting of a wooden frame covered in paper allowing the passage of light, used as a sliding door or window in a Japanese house. It is also called an akari shoji (literally, a light shoji).

Originally, shoji (literally, a shield against something) also referred to fusuma (a sliding door/screen/partition of Japans paper inside a wooden frame) as it is called today, as well as the above. In the Heian period, akari shoji came to be discriminated from fusuma and was specifically called shoji. Having the capability of allowing the passage of outdoor light into an indoor space such as a room with the door remaining closed, shoji came to be used widely. Due to the spread of glass and curtains, the use of shoji became less popular; however, the creation of shoji used with glass and the like, precluded shoji from becoming extinct. Shoji consisting of glass and paper that can slide up and down so one can view the snow through the glass behind it is called a yukimi shoji.

Since ancient times, shoji has been in existence as a symbol of Japanese architectural culture while creating the beauty of light and shadow and a culture that respects the contrast, both of which are unique to a Japanese house. Today, the value of a shoji as an interior decoration is being reappreciated; moreover, other merits thereof, such as insulation effects provided by the use of a glass door and the effect of blocking ultraviolet rays to some extent, are being discovered.

History of an Akari Shoji

Birth of Akari Shoji

Akari shoji is presumed to have come into being around the late Heian period, that is, to have been devised approximately 100 years after the birth of fusuma. In structural terms, it resembles fusuma, which has a shielding function and serves as a partition, while being different in that it has two contradictory functions, that is, the function of shielding one space from another and that of allowing the passage of outdoor light into an indoor space although it is simpler than fusuma; thus, akari shoji was an epoch-making invention.

In the Heian period, a double sliding lattice door became widely used. The Picture Scroll of "the Tale of Genji" and "the Picture Scroll of Annual Events" refer to the use of a black lacquered double sliding lattice door and a partition built into a wall.

The openings on the four sides of the Byodoin, erected by FUJIWARA no Yorimichi in 1053, are provided with doors as well as latticed wooden doors inside. A sliding latticed door allows the indoor space to be naturally lit and ventilated with the shielding function that a door fulfilled. In functional terms, this can be said to be the origin of akari shoji.

Akari shoji that has a frame covered with thin paper, as seen today, came into being around the end of the Heian period. In Rokuhara, the houses of the Taira family stood close together. Among them, TAIRA no Kiyomori's izumidono (residence of the head of a clan/family with a fountain) in Rokuhara is said to have been a splendid mansion symbolizing his power. A reconstruction of the above shows that the mansion had, unlike a conventional house, built in the manner of Heian period palatial architecture, functional and rational devices using many partitions.

Among such devices, the use of akari shoji was an epoch-making, ingenious device.

Other than walls, it was conventional pratice to use latticed shutters or sliding doors as a partition between indoor and outdoor spaces; these were extremely inconvenient, however, in that they gave no protection from the weather when open. A bamboo blind lattice were used so that the function of allowing the passage of outdoor light and the function of shielding one space from another could be fulfilled; however, it was really difficult to keep out the cold in winter. Because Kyoto is located in a basin, people living there feel chilled to the bone particularly in winter. It is presumed that people who lived there in ancient times stayed close to a hibachi (charcoal brazier used for indoor heating) in a room where folding screens set up all around were encircled by curtained screens.

Against the backdrop, a new screen satisfactorily fulfilling the functions of separating one space from another and allowing the passage of outdoor light into an indoor space and giving protection against cold wind, the akari shoji came into being. However, it was impossible to keep out the wind and rain with only akari shoji; therefore, it was used in combination with mairado (a wooden sliding door constructed of a single wooden panel called 'wata-ita' and set into a timber frame called 'kamachi'), shitomi (latticed shutters), a lattice, etc. Akari shoji of approx. 5.4m in total length were provided along the perimeter of the area under the northern eaves of the main house of the izumidono in Rokuhara.

"Sankaiki" contains descriptions of the 'withdrawal of akari shoji' from the main house and area under the wide eaves mentioned above as well as the 'installation of akari shoji into the same, etc.

A graphical restoration of "Heike Nokyo" ('nokyo' refers to a copy of a sutra offered to a temple/shrine), which was offered to Itsukushima-jinja Shrine in 1164 by TAIRA no Kiyomori along with a written petition, contains a picture depicting akari shoji provided with a priest's hermitage.

It is said that, in those days, akari shoji was fabricated with a structure consisting of a frame, two thick vertical crosspieces and four horizontal crosspieces, and a sheet of silk fabric or thin paper pasted over one side of the structure.

An ancient writing describing shitsurai (putting decorations suitable to the season or a ritual onto an appropriate indoor place) in a house built in the manner of Heian period palatial architecture contains a statement that 'the lacquered structure of akari shoji was covered with cloth or paper after the erection of pillars and the construction of kamoi (a narrow piece of wood that passes over the sliding doors and around an entire Japanese room).'

"Kasuga Gongen Gen Enikki" also refers to an akari shoji with a black-lacquered framework. According to the above document, the akari shoji had a tassel hold like fusuma had. It is notable that akari shoji with lacquered framework was used in a house built in the manner of Heian period palatial architecture and in the historical development of akari shoji, it was considered to be a kind of shitsurai equivalent to fusuma.

Akari shoji having a structure consisting of a frame and thinner members traversing in between, namely, muntins, as seen today, came into being in the Kamakura period and is often found in picture scrolls made in that period. In other words, it took a little while for the original style akari shoji to be technically improved into the current style.

Because of their fragility, extremely few akari shoji made in ancient times are still in existence today. Akari shoji, assumed to have been made on the occasion of reconstruction of Daishido House in the western section of To-ji Temple during the period of the Northern and Southern Courts (Japan) (more specifically, in 1380), is said to be the oldest akari shoji in existence. This akari shoji is characterized by the following: the horizontal members of its frame as well as the crosspieces being the same in width; the vertical and horizontal crosspieces are entwined in each other to form a muntin grid called "jigoku-kumiko"; the front and side faces of the crosspieces are nearly the same in width.

Komochi shoji
Double sliding akari shoji set in a single track is referred to as komochi shoji. One example of komochi shoji is seen in the meditation chamber (built in the Kamakura period) of Gango-ji Temple. It seems that cutting a deep groove with a chisel took considerable time and trouble in those days. Cutting a single wide groove might have been slightly easier than cutting two grooves. However, it seems to be appropriate to deem a komochi shoji as a technically accomplished ornament rather than a necessity because it was created with an architectural technique of the Zen sect temple style.

Without any device, a single groove does not allow two shoji to pass by each other. Accordingly, the stile on the pillar side is configured to have a width nearly equal to that of the groove while the meeting stile is not modified. This allows the two akari shoji to pass each other.

Komochi shoji, which are the oldest remnants of architecture of the abbot's chamber in Zen sect temples, are seen in Ryogian hojo (abbot's chamber) in the Tofuku-ji Temple. In the above abbot's chamber, four akari shoji are set in a single groove. The two of the above four akari shoji are configured to pass each other, set in the middle groove, while the remaining two with smaller widths are fixed to the right and left of the two sliding akari shoji.

Architectures of the Zen sect temple style show, at every turn, elaborated designs and novel craftsmanship.

Birth of a sugi shoji (cedar paneled door)

Koshidaka shoji (tall skirted sliding screen)
Akari shoji was contrived from the need to naturally light indoor spaces. For this purpose, it is located on exterior walls. Exposed to the weather, however, the thin paper used will be easily torn. A picture scroll which shows how an akari shoji were in fact used. Accordingly, akari shoji were installed inside suspended hajitomi (latticed shutters the upper half of which is movable). Hajitomi refers, in other words, to shitomi (latticed shutters) the upper half of which are movable and the lower half of which is built-in.

Such actual usage of akari shoji led to the contrivance of koshidaka shoji (tall skirted sliding screen), that is an akari shoji with the lower half covered with a wooden panel to protect it from the rain. The height of the skirting of a koshidaka shoji was 80cm, naturally equal to the height of the lower half of hajitomi. "Boki-ekotoba," a picture scroll with an explanation depicting the biography of Kakunyo, a priest of Hongan-ji Temple of the Shinshu sect of Buddhism, which was made during the period of the Northern and Southern Courts (in 1351), and it contains a picture of a priest's body chamber with a double sliding shoji consisting of two koshidaka shoji and having a mairado (as defined above)-like structure in its lower half.

Shoji Paper

There are several requirements, as follows, for paper used for akari shoji, intended for naturally lighting indoor space; highly translucent, thin paper is suitable; tear-resistance and toughness are required; cheaper paper is preferable. To satisfy these requirements, paper for miscellaneous purposes (including drafting and wrapping), e.g., coarse paper and nakaori-gami (a kind of hanshi - standard size Japanese writing paper - folded in the middle) was used as shoji paper, instead of "danshi" (fine-quality creased Japanese paper), "hoshoshi" (fine-quality, thick, white Japanese paper), and "torinoko" paper (stout, smooth Japanese paper) unsuitable as shoji paper. Among several types of shoji paper, "Minogami," also known as Mino-zasshi ("zasshi" refers to coarse paper), was the most disseminated multi-purpose paper and therefore used commonly as shoji paper, which resulted in the Mino-zasshi becoming appreciated as typical paper for akari shoji.

Shoingami (alias for "Minogami")

Akari shoji spread along with the shoin style, namely, a residential architecture study-room style, and was said to be 'integral to shoin (a study or drawing room),' paper used was called "shoingami." Shoingami was made in most of the kamigo (areas that produce handmade paper) around Japan; however, most of this handmade paper was consumed in the vicinity of the production areas, and only a small volume was distributed on the market because dimensions of lattice crosspieces of shoji varied according to districts. An extremely small volume of such paper was distributed as shoingami.
"Wakan-sansai-zue" (an encyclopedia compiled in the Edo period) (compiled by Ryoan TERASHIMA, 1713) contains a statement that 'shoingami produced at Terao in Mino Province had the best quality, Suo Province had the second best quality, and Iwaki in Mutsu Province, in Shimotsuke and Nasu Provinces, and in Hiroshima in Aki Province had the third best quality.'
In addition to the above, shoingami produced in Inaba, Kai, Higo, Tosa, and Shinano Provinces, etc. was distributed on the market. Mino, Kai and Tosa Provinces are still producing shoji paper.

"Shinsen Kami-kagami" lists Mino Shoin-shi, watermarked Mino Shoinshi, Moroguchishi and Inaba Shoingami as shoingami; moreover, nakaorigami (as defined above), three-folded paper and large paper were used as shoingami.

"Shokoku Shimeiroku" (a directory of paper produced in areas all around Japan) compiled in the early Meiji period notes that paper produced in many areas were for use in shoji, which means that production of shoingami according to different, locally applied dimensions of shoji survived in those days around Japan.

Mino Shoinshi
"Wakan-sansai-zue" (as explained above) contains the following statement in the section concerning shoji: "Shoingami produced at Terao in Noshu has the best quality and therefore is called "Minogami". This is more suitable for handwriting text, sealing a letter, and covering shoji and garden lanterns more than any paper produced in a different place." Terao in Noshu refers to Terao, Mugekawa Town, Mugi County, in Gifu Prefecture as it is known today.

"Shinsen Kami-kagami" lists the following four craftsmen who made shoji paper, or shoingami, and were designated as purveyors to the bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun): Ichiemon, Goemon, Heihachi and Jubei. Moreover, shoingami produced at Makitani, Horado, Iwasa and Taniguchi (谷口) in Noshu is listed as quality articles. Mino Shoinshi was developed along with the shoin style (a residential architecture study-room style) and holds an established position as paper most suitable for akari shoji.

"Gifuken Shiko" (a historical document concerning Gifu Prefecture), which was written in the early Meiji period, states the existence of paper called two-folded Minogami and three-folded Minogami, and "Report on the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia" contains the following statement: 'Two-folded Minogami is useful for covering two coffers while three-folded Minogami is used for covering three coffers collectively.'

Shoingami was made and sized according to a coffer width, which varied by districts and was not standardized. In the case of Mino Shoinshi, for example, used in Owari/Mino, Mikawa and Ise was 1.81, 25.1 and 24.8cm, respectively, in vertical length. These traditional coffer width varying by districts have been handed down up to the present.

Watermarked shoji paper
Shoji paper includes watermarked shoji paper called "monshoinshi." The section addressing Mino Province of "Bankin-sugiwai-bukuro" (a document concerning industrial history), which was written by Yarai MIYAKE and published in 1732 contains the term 'monshoji' (shoji covered with watermarked paper); "Mino Meisaiki," which was written by Saneomi ITO (伊藤実臣) and published in 1738, refers to the production of watermarked paper in the vicinity of the Mugigawa River basin.

In addition, "Naniwa Marukomoku" (a document concerning topography of Naniwa), which was published in 1777, refers to watermarked Minogami; moreover, "Shinsen Kami-kagami," which was published in the same year, has a section concerning paper produced in Mino, which contains the term 'monshoji' (as defined above). The monshoinshi was produced at Yanagawa in Chikugo and in Higo besides Mino, and "Shokoku Shimeiroku" (as explained above) notes that monshoinshi produced in Higo had good-quality watermarks.

Mino Shoinshi was made while being decorated with beautiful watermark patterns such as a dappled pattern, key pattern, chrysanthemum arabesque pattern, oval-ring pattern, and hexagonal pattern, and used for paper-covered lamp stands, garden lanterns, and so forth, besides shoji. Rakusuishi (paper decorated with patterns by being sprayed with mist before becoming completely dry) (also known as bikoshi), which has been produced in Mino City recently, includes mon-shoin-shi-like type decorated with patterns.

In addition to monshoinshi, there is mulberry paper decorated with patterns that is called montengujo. Montengujo was originally made by block-printing mulberry paper, instead of watermarking the same, with whitewash, etc, but thereafter came to be made by stencil printing. Montengujo also allows the passage of light and thereby causes the beautiful patterns to appear, which delights the eye, and therefore has been used for garden lanterns, etc.