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What Is a Fusuma?

By Karize Uy
Updated May 16, 2024
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Fusuma refers to panels used as room dividers, as typically seen in Japanese rooms. The panels are usually inserted in embedded tracks on the floor and the ceiling to allow them to slide from left to right. A panel usually consists of thin wooden borders called the “mashibuchi” that hold the thick sheets of paper acting as a wall. Fusuma can also have a handle on one side called the “hikite,” sometimes decorated with tassels called the “fusahikite.”

The usage of fusuma can be traced as far back as the 12th century, during the Japanese Muromachi period, and it was initially used exclusively for the houses of the rich. Silk sheets were used for the panels and sometimes became landscape canvases, ink drawings, and calligraphy by famous painters during that time. Soon after, the idea of sliding panels was passed down to the lower classes and became widespread all over Japan. Replacing the silk sheets with paper was probably a way to make the panels more available to the public, not to mention more affordable.

Fusuma usually come in pairs, with the two panels considered as a single canvas for the paintings so that when they are slid apart, the painting is also divided, but becomes whole again when the panels are closed together. A typical, minimally-designed Japanese house would have two to three rows of fusuma to divide the bare space into several rooms of different functions. The panels provide flexibility because homeowners can just slide them back into the wall to unite the rooms into bigger spaces.

The thick sheets of paper or fabric give the fusuma a translucent character, allowing natural sunlight to permeate into the room and, consequently, conserving energy during daytime. The panels may be translucent, but they still effectively provide the rooms with some privacy, although sounds can still penetrate through the paper. In a way, the panels also become a decorative tool when the sunlight gives the scenery painted on the paper a warm, golden hue and forms silhouettes and shadows on the paper.

The simplistic characteristic of the Japanese culture is reflected on the fusuma as well, with the panels’ muted tones and the use of natural materials. Woods that are commonly used to make the mashibuchi include bamboo and cedar, both of which can be stained to a lighter or darker shade according to the homeowner’s preference. Fusuma is also very convenient to clean and repair, since the panels can be easily removed from their tracks and installed again once the paper is cleaned or replaced.

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