When you hear the word 'shoji' (pronounced 'show-jee'), probably many people here in the U.S. imagine a . In modern Japan, shoji means . These doors slide on wood tracks very smoothly and quietly, work as a room divider or window coverings.
The original concept of shoji was born in China, and was imported into Japan sometime between 7th to 8th centuries. The word 'shoji' indicates 'something to obstruct' in both Chinese and Japanese. At that time, it meant everything used as a room partition, including freestanding screen and fixed panel with paper or fabric on. So those freestanding shoji screens in the U.S. aren't too far off from the origin of 'shoji'. By the 12th century, shoji had evolved into something unique to Japan, the sliding doors lined with paper.
The Magic of Shoji Paper
The paper is translucent and is called 'shoji paper'. Sometimes people call it 'rice paper' (since it sounds 'oriental'?), but shoji paper really has nothing to do with rice.
Traditionally shoji paper (washi) was made of Japanese mulberry tree called 'Kozo', or shrubs called 'Mitsumata' and 'Ganpi'. The paper was scarce and valuable because it was all natural and hand-made, until manufacturing of shoji paper began in late 1800s. The use of synthetic and chemical fiber started around 1960s, making the paper very affordable.
What made shoji so great and popular, has a lot to do with what the shoji paper does. Because of its rough texture, this paper refracts and diffuses lights. The paper throw a nice soft glow even on the hottest summer day. When privacy is needed, you can close doors without making the room too dark. Sound can be still heard, but all you can see from the other side is just a silhouette....
Elements of Shoji
How does the sliding system work? run between corner posts that support beams. lies on the floor, sticking about a half inch. There are deep grooves in the top rail and shallow grooves in the bottom. Grooves are slightly narrower than the door stile thickness. The top and bottom of the doors are cut with a matching L-shape tenon, and they slide along the groove smoothly. The doors are so light you can open it with one finger. The doors can stay opened or closed, depending on the privacy level you want. If you need a one big room for a gathering, doors can be taken off the rails and put away. This sliding shoji door and track system worked so well in traditional Japanese house, because a house used to have only one large room with no permanent walls, in the old times. Talking about an open concept floor plan!
Another important element of shoji is the lattice work, or 'kumiko' (translates 'woven'). The clever structure of shoji only need minimal amount of material (wood and paper) and yet pull out each material's possible strength to a maximum. Since wood pieces are inter-woven, they become a lot stronger and sturdier. Simple geometric pattern actually stabilize outer wood frame and also keep the paper tension. It is something that seems to have only aesthetic value but it is actually the core of strength and functionality. Because of kumiko, shoji is delicate, beautiful, light, and strong.
So in conclusion, besides its aesthetic role, shoji is a temporary room divider, a privacy screen and a light diffuser.