Shoji Screens

The Japanese folding screen, known as a Shoji screen, probably derived from China, where it was used since the eighth century AD and maybe much earlier. While the Chinese used folding screens merely as partitions, the Japanese made many uses of their Shoji screens. Unlike Chinese screens, which are heavy and not intended to be moved much, Japanese folding screens, due to their lighter weight, could be moved around and were often used for Buddhist ceremonies, tea ceremonies, background props for dances and concerts and simply as a room divider. The way Shoji screens fold is really a matter of their function.

For example, a large Shoji screen with up to eight folds could serve as a backdrop at dances, while a smaller two-fold screen could be used for tea ceremonies. In order for a Japanese Shoji screen to be portable, it needs to be lightweight and flexible. The Japanese achieved this with their screens by producing a strong and stable core of wood covered with more than numerous layers of paper in a particular sequence. Shoji screens were also flexible because the Japanese employed a clever system of using strong paper hinges. With the advent of paper hinges, the panels of Shoji screens could be constructed closer together, eliminating the requirement for intrusive frames. This allowed for the screen to bend into reversible folding patterns.

Japanese folding screens were first recognized by the Western world during the 1500s when European traders began trading with the Orient. The Western traders began to show a strong interest in the Japanese Shoji, especially those of the folding variety. Europeans then adapted the Shoji screen to their own needs, using it for such things as an instrument on which to teach. But the Shoji screen would fail to make a big impact upon Europe as a ban was imposed on trading in the mid 1600s.

Then in 1853, trade increased between the East and West, and the Shoji screen was introduced once more to Europeans. Japanese and Chinese folding screens were imported in vast number to European cities, where they were exhibited and sold. In 1867, at the International Exhibition for Industry and Art in Paris, the response of Europeans to the Shoji screens confirmed their success. Many European art collectors bought the screens and some were inspired to copy the designs with slight modifications. Eventually, folding screens became a recognizable feature in most well-appointed homes. Today, Japanese Shoji screens are still used and appreciated world-wide for their beauty and simplicity of design.