Japanese design is known for its simplicity and its serenity. And unsurprisingly, these design principles lead to interiors that just feel good to be in. “Japanese design is thoughtful and functional without excessive ornamentation,” Alessandra Wood, design historian, says. “It creates a welcoming atmosphere that makes the dweller feel safe and comfortable without the stress of excess.” And few spaces exemplify this cozy warmth as thoroughly as the traditional Japanese dining room.
Traditional Japanese dining rooms are designed to exude hospitality and warmth. Large tables and cozy seats give loved ones plenty of space to gather. Hand-picked centerpieces greet houseguests, welcoming them to the meal, and multifunctional spaces offer plenty of flexibility, allowing people to move freely between sharing a meal together and simply enjoying each other’s company.
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Alessandra Wood, Ph.D., is a design historian and author. She is also the Vice President of Style at Modsy.
- Konni Tanaka is an interior designer and the founder of Konni Tanaka Design Group, a California-based design firm. Also an award-winning artist, Tanaka studied Japanese aesthetic history in Tokyo and has showed some of her work at the Tokyo Municipal Museum.
- Josh Blackburn is the Director of Design and Construction at Evolving Home. He is also the founder and co-owner of Blackburn Construction, where he has worked on several Japanese home design projects.
Over time, Japanese dining rooms have evolved to look and feel more contemporary. But the principles behind them still remain, largely, the same. Given this, many Japanese dining rooms—both traditional and contemporary—are packed with lessons about how to craft more beautiful spaces and become a better host.
So whether you’re trying to craft a Japanese-inspired dining room in aesthetic or in spirit, there are plenty of Japanese dining room ideas worth taking cues from.
Design a Multifunctional Dining Room
In traditional Japanese homes, dining rooms often double as living rooms. “Because there are no sofas, armchairs, and dining chairs, it is easy for rooms to be multifunctional,” Konni Tanaka, founder and interior designer at Konni Tanaka Design Group, says. This makes Japanese dining rooms great for formal meals, tea service, or simply spending time with friends and family.
If you've been blessed with an open floor plan, you might already have a dining room that doubles as a living room. But if you don't, you can achieve a similar feel by making your space feel cozier, more casual, and more welcoming.
Stock Up on Flexible Seating
In traditional Japanese dining room design, you’ll often see zabutons—floor cushions that double as seating. “Zabutons are light, easy to move, and easily stored,” Tanaka says. Since zabutons are so flexible, you can scale your seating selection up or down to accommodate whoever shows up.
If you’re not ready to ditch your chairs for floor cushions just yet, consider similarly flexible options—like stacking or folding chairs, which can be moved out of the way at a moment’s notice.
Spring for an Extra-Large Table
Traditional Japanese dining room tables tend to be incredibly long, giving houseguests plenty of room to sit and share meals together. Consider taking a similar approach by snagging an extra-large table for your own dining room. Just make sure to back up your purchase with enough seating to surround the table—unless you’re taking the traditional Japanese approach of embracing floor seating.
Set the Scene With a Neutral Palette
Japanese design often draws inspiration from the harmony of nature, and to create that feel of serenity, Wood suggests sticking to a neutral palette.
“Be very thoughtful and curated with the pieces of furniture and décor that you introduce,” she says. Keep the focus on natural wood tones, and add contrast with pops of black and white.
Maximize Natural Light
Natural light plays a huge role in traditional Japanese design, Tanaka says. So try to capture as much of it as you can. Sure, you may not be able to install new windows in your dining room. But you can keep your windows curtain-free to let in plenty of light.
Keep Your Furniture Sleek and Simple
When choosing furniture for a Japanese-inspired space, be sure to focus on serene, simple shapes. “Pick a wooden table with simple, straight lines,” Josh Blackburn, founder and Director of Design and Construction at Evolving Home, says. And once you've scored a sleek dining room table, Blackburn recommends pairing it with some equally sleek and simple chairs.
Ground the Room With a Tatami Mat
In many traditional Japanese dining rooms, you’ll find a tatami mat—a textured mat that’s comfortable enough to sit or sleep on, according to Tanaka.
“Tatami mats are thin, natural-fiber woven mats that provide a layer of comfort,” Wood says. And while you may see them paired with floor cushions, you’ll never see them paired with chairs.
If you’re not ready to forgo dining room chairs just yet, consider merely nodding to the tatami mat by snagging a jute or bamboo area rug.
Let Your Space Speak for Itself
Japanese interiors tend to be fairly sleek and minimal—drawing the focus away from furniture and décor, and toward the rest of the room. “In America, furniture is a major focal point in a room,” Tanaka says. “In Japan, it is primarily the architectural details that beautify a space.”
Take a moment to appreciate the architectural elements lining your ceilings and walls, and consider whether you could make them even more striking than they already are.
Welcome Guests With a Tokonoma Display
We can all take cues from the level of respect and warmth traditionally offered to guests of a Japanese home. Step foot in a traditional Japanese dining room, and you’ll be greeted by a recessed alcove, or tokonoma, positioned at the center of the table. “The tokonoma signifies the importance of hospitality in Japanese culture,” Tanaka says.
This tokonoma may contain a scroll painting, a calligraphic poem, or a floral arrangement that's been specifically selected to please the visitor. So the next time you have guests over, consider welcoming them with something similar—like a bouquet of fresh flowers or a striking sculpture.
Draw Inspiration from Nature
Many design styles draw inspiration from nature. And in Japanese design, in particular, you’ll find an appreciation for both nature’s beauty and its inherent randomness.
So when you go to stock up on natural pieces—like wooden furniture and woven accents—consider snagging some items that are asymmetrical or otherwise “imperfect.” These “messier” items can make your space feel more dynamic. As Tanaka says, “Asymmetry is a way to bring energy into a calm space.”
Add Ambiance With Paper Screens
Though natural light is a key element in many Japanese interiors, this light often passes through a rice-paper-covered panel called a shoji screen. These screens, which typically line windows and doors, diffuse the natural light, making the room’s atmosphere feel softer and cozier. “The quality of light transmitted through the white paper is highly admired for its softness and warmth,” Tanaka says.
Foldable shoji screens offer an easy way to add privacy and ambiance to your space in equal measure. But you could achieve a similarly cozy lighting set-up by dimming your lights or hanging a set of sheer drapes.
Invest in Handcrafted Pieces
One of the core principles of Japanese design? “Appreciation of materials and craftsmanship,” Tanaka says. She notes that items often “bring in the natural qualities of the materials from which they are made, and showcase superb craftsmanship.”
So skip the mass-market stuff, and invest in a few handcrafted pieces. You don't need to spring for all-handmade-everything. But you can certainly invest in an artisan table—or a few hand-carved chairs.
Put Your Prettiest Dinnerware on Display
Dinnerware is an integral part of any meal. And in traditional Japanese design, it takes on added importance.
“What starts out as a very simple room becomes transformed when the meal is served,” Tanaka says. “Japanese meals are served with each dish on its own plate, so tableware and food arrangements are a wonder to behold. Since there is always a minimum of five items served, there are many plates and bowls to enjoy viewing!”
If you’ve been looking for an excuse to stock up on new dinnerware, we think you just found it.
Play With Different Levels and Grades
In traditional Japanese homes, tatami mats often sit atop raised platforms. These platforms elevate the dining and living space, distinguishing it from the rest of the home. Though you may not be able to install a platform under your dining room, you can take other steps to visually define your space. A bold area rug, for instance, can mark the boundaries of your dining room—signaling exactly where it ends, and where the rest of your space begins.
Incorporate a Few Wooden Elements
Many older Japanese structures are held together by skillful wooden joinery, rather than by nails, glue, and brackets, Tanaka says. And in many Japanese interiors, these striking structural elements will be left exposed. Of course, you can always gut your ceilings to reveal the structural elements undergirding your home. Or you can simply reference the look by stocking up on unstained wood furniture.
Fill Your Space With Art
There’s a long tradition of painting the sliding door panels that separate rooms in Japanese homes. These sliding doors are called fusuma panels. And unlike shoji screens, fusuma panels are often opaque. “Fusuma panels can be painted with beautiful paintings,” Tanaka says. “Some of the most famous works of Japanese painting from the middle ages are work on fusuma panels.”
If your dining room is sectioned off by sliding doors, you can easily get a similar look in your space. And even if it isn’t, you can consider painting a mural on your wall—or simply hanging a little art.
Let the Outdoors In
Many Japanese interiors are flanked by sliding doors and folding screens. And unlike walls, these partitions are flexible. So they can separate spaces one moment, and let them flow together the next. This flexibility blurs the boundaries between indoors and outside, allowing the spaces to more dynamically interact.
Of course, you may not want to go through the trouble of swapping your dining room doors with sliding options. But there are other ways to bring the outdoors into your space. Consider drawing attention to the view outside your dining room window, or add a few lush plants to your space.
Hang Paper Lanterns and Pendants
While you might not be able to replace your walls with shoji screens or paint your doors in full fusuma style, there are still ways to incorporate classic Japanese elements in your space. One simple option? Snag some rice paper lanterns and pendant lights.
Wood notes that “paper lighting” is a hallmark of many Japanese interiors. So trade your pendant lights for paper options, or add a few paper table lanterns to your space.
Keep Your Space Clutter-Free
Traditional Japanese spaces tend to feel sleek and serene. And getting that harmonious look requires some restraint. “Japanese interior aesthetics prioritize peaceful simplicity and a serene, uncluttered way of life,” Blackburn says. So resist the temptation to fill your space with unnecessary furniture and decor.
Choose Materials That Work Together
Crafting a harmonious interior means pairing elements that play well together. And since Japanese design is so full of natural materials, this is actually incredibly easy to do. “Particularly beautiful is the blend of organic patterns, such as wood grains, woven grass mats, and motifs of botanicals and animals,” Tanaka says. By simply layering natural pieces that make sense in the space, you can craft a dining room that feels both texture and dynamic.
Embrace Both Function and Form
In Japanese design, functional elements and decorative elements are one and the same, Tanaka says. Shoji paper screens beautifully diffuse light streaming in through windows and doors. Sliding fusuma panels offer opportunities to showcase art. And wood carvings, called ranma, decorate the spaces above doorways. So stock up on striking versions of the things you need, and let those necessities double as decor.
Don’t Be Afraid to Riff on Tradition
Contemporary Japanese design often references traditional design elements, while incorporating Western-style furniture and traditions. “It’s common to see full-height dining tables and chairs,” Wood says. You may also see more separating between dining and living spaces, Tanaka says. And you’re unlikely to see tatami mats or tokonoma displays.
So instead of outright mimicking the Japanese dining rooms you’ve seen, draw inspiration from them—and honor the principles behind the traditions. Natural wood elements, clean lines, and simple shapes can evoke some of the harmony that Japanese design is famous for. And thoughtful furniture choices can keep your space feeling cozy and welcoming.