Fusuma Sliding Doors

Japanese House & Home: Interior Design

The Cutting Edge of an Ancient Way ふすま

Alan Wiren

The Stylish Pig wears lipstick-red high heels. She looks back at the solid, but dainty, black prints she's tracked across the panels of a fusuma (a Japanese sliding door). An image so whimsical, and at the same time elegant, is irresistible.

Making Fusuma, traditional sliding, paper doors in Osaka.
Making traditional fusuma sliding doors in Osaka, Japan

It is well established that the Japanese invented prefabricated architecture, but that notion sometimes obscures the fact that objects of Japanese interior design can still be customized and as finely crafted and innovative as any other work of art. In any style of home, a folding screen, or a picture scroll of fine design will accent daily life. In Japanese style accommodation, the interior doors can be portholes to other worlds, including that of imagination.

Making Fusuma, traditional sliding, paper doors in Osaka.
Making fusuma, traditional sliding, paper doors in Osaka
Making Fusuma, traditional sliding, paper doors in Osaka.
Fusuma design & handle

In choosing these elements, quality is an important factor. Their beauty is not merely paper deep and, in fact, the depth of the paper is, one of the determinants of quality. Another is what is at the core. In most apartments, and even houses in modern day Japan, the fusuma are mass produced, built around a sheet of Styrofoam or corrugated cardboard over which a sheet of more or less decorative paper has been bonded, and thin wooden or plastic moldings attached.

These will not last much more than 20 years and cannot be repaired should they be damaged or soiled. There are some places, though, where you can still find interior design elements crafted in the traditional Japanese manner that reaches back through millennia. One of them is Shitoya Nakano Hyogo-ten, a family run business in Osaka city that invited me to see how it is done.

Making Fusuma, traditional sliding, paper doors in Osaka.
Choosing a design

A custom designed fusuma will begin with an order to their designer, Chikako Nakano. She draws inspiration from things like kimono patterns and traditional graphic artworks, but her designs often incorporate modern elements as well. One goal of this firm is to use traditional skills to create elements that are appealing to contemporary tastes. Chikako will give specific measurements to her brother, Yasuhiro, who begins constructing the frame.

The frame of a good quality fusuma is made with a grid of wooden ribs that will support several layers of paper on both sides. This makes it possible for the paper to be replaced later on if need be. A well cared for fusuma of this kind, however, will last a hundred years according to the Nakanos. Meanwhile Chikako prepares the stencils of the patterns that will appear on both sides of the fusuma. The final dying is done by Sachiyo, Yasuhiro's wife.

To assemble the fusuma, first layers of old fashioned paper are glued to the frame. This paper is made from fibers much longer than those in modern paper, which make it stronger. The Nakanos must scavenge soon-to-be-demolished, older buildings and other such places to find it in the form of old ledgers and notebooks. One advantage to this is that the ink on the paper repels insects. They do fear, though, that someday their sources will run out. How much of this paper is added before the decorative cover sheet is applied, Chikako says, depends on the fusuma, but those used in ancient palaces and temples can have up to 24 layers.

Making Fusuma, traditional sliding, paper doors in Osaka.
Making the frame of a fusuma and attaching the paper
Making Fusuma, traditional sliding, paper doors in Osaka.
Measuring the final paper layer

Finally the outside covers are applied, lacquered moldings are fitted to the edges, and inserts for moving the fusuma back and forth by hand are inset. The moldings, of course, must be properly shaped to match the tracks in which the fusuma will run, and these vary between different parts of the archipelago.

It may take as long as a year to complete a single fusuma in the traditional way. The techniques for constructing byobu (Japanese single, or multi-paneled, screens), or shioji (sliding, translucent paper doors) are similar and just as meticulous.

Making Fusuma, traditional sliding, paper doors in Osaka.
Attaching the under layers of paper

A kakejiku (a cloth or paper mounting for graphics) is another art altogether, but it too requires the layering of materials. The techniques for using the tools to smooth and align the surfaces and apply natural adhesives require years to master.

In some cases shapes are cut from the materials to create what seems to be a seamless, flat surface built up from different layers. In the end, a painting, calligraphy, or other artwork is bordered by "pillars" on the sides, a section referred to as "heaven" above, and one called "earth" below. Rods of wood or other material with decorative ends are inserted at the top and bottom, making the kakejiku into a scroll that can be easily stored when it is exchanged for another.

Making Fusuma, traditional sliding, paper doors in Osaka.
Shitoya Nakano Hyogo-ten studio

All these features are chosen to complement the mounted work of art and accent its mood. Here again the Nakanos may depart from tradition, not in form, but in style to make the work an integral part of a modern setting.

Kakejiku became an important part of the Japanese tea ceremony as it developed during the 16th century and were essential to the tokonoma (an alcove built into traditional Japanese homes) because they are an ideal way to reflect the moods of changing seasons or special occasions. Along with all these traditional design elements the Nakanos will create custom designed, western-style picture frames.

Making Fusuma, traditional sliding, paper doors in Osaka.
Making fusuma, traditional sliding, paper doors in Osaka

Like others who preserve this kind of craft, their business began generations ago with Yasuhiro and Chikako's grandfather who began collecting and restoring antiques for sale. But they did not simply grow up following in their ancestors footsteps. Yasuhiro and Sachiyo both studied literature in college, where they met.

Yasuhiro spent several years in the printing industry and it wasn't until the age of 26 that he began to learn his present craft. Chikako studied and worked in the field of web design before joining the firm, and Sachiyo spent years exclusively as a homemaker before becoming part of the team.

Making Fusuma, traditional sliding, paper doors in Osaka.
Gold leaf used in the design

Since the end of World War II Japanese society has been changing. The tokonoma is no longer ubiquitous in Japanese dwellings. The notion of the ancestral home to which generation after generation will return to spend their sunset years is fading and the demand for carefully crafted interior design elements is diminishing.

In light of this, I asked the Nakanos if they might someday move on again to other employments. Each, in their own way, explained the fulfilling nature of their work and the importance of not allowing its special skills to disappear. "My salary is less than before," Chikako said, "but as long as we can eat, it will be alright."

You can find more information about Shitoya Nakano Hyogo-ten at their website, fusuma.jp.

Making Fusuma, traditional sliding, paper doors in Osaka.
Making fusuma in Osaka

Text + images Alan Wiren

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