Translated by Takuya Erik Watanabe
Japanese Encyclopedia: Tokonoma
Today we will be explaining the meaning of the word "tokonoma". It's something you will most likely always find in a Japanese-style room.
Written by MATCHA
A tokonoma is a decoration space in a Japanese tatami room. It is located at the far end of the room, opposite to the entrance and it's the place where kakejiku (Japanese scroll displaying a painting or calligraphy), seasonal flowers and other ornaments are displayed.
Building rooms with a tokonoma is a tradition from the era when the warrior class ruled the country, starting from the 16th century. There was an architectural style influenced by Zen temples called shoin-zukuri, and the tokonoma alcove was included in this architecture. In a tatami room, one corner would be a shoin, with two shelf boards called chigaidana, a desk and and a sliding door. The other would be the tokonoma, made from beautiful wood. It has become a symbol of shoin-zukuri architecture.
From Seek Accommodation in a Traditional Japanese House in Nara, Gojo (Japanese)
The samurai used the tokonoma to the full extent by decorating it with expensive cups and paintings they obtained through trade with China (Song Dynasty). This corner of the room used to be proof of their authority. Also, there is a rule that the person with higher status sits with their back towards the tokonoma, facing the front of the room. This is a tradition that is still present today. Even in an office without a tokonoma, it is polite to have the guest sit at the far end of the room.
A Tokonoma Nowadays
Shoin-zukuri architecture became the base of Japanese-style rooms, and after the era of samurai ended, it became popular among the general public to have a tokonoma in their home. For the Japanese, it has long been a standard to have a tokonoma in a Japanese-style room. However, it is becoming something more rare recently, as Western-style rooms have become increasingly popular. Another reason would be that the housing conditions of present day Japan give us very little space to deal with.
But you can still often find tokonoma in Japanese ryokan guesthouses. Decorated with seasonal flowers, paintings and calligraphic works, the tokonoma is not a practical space for people to sit and sleep. To some extent, you could say it is a sacred space. It is usually about the size of one tatami mat. We recommend you try to notice the features of the tokonoma the next time you have the chance to enter a Japanese-style room.