Japanese Sliding Door Handles: Artworks in the Home

Old Japanese houses were laced with lots of arts and crafts. The rooms were partitioned by byobu screens. Shoji paper screens and kumiko woodwork had geometrical designs. And then there is the fusuma, or sliding door, which often had elaborate artwork on them. Go to a museum to see old Japanese artworks and what do you notice? Rather than paintings in frames, there are far more Japanese “artworks” that are integrated into these kinds of furnishings. Of course, only the very elite who live in lavish homes are able to enjoy them. What is interesting, though, is how art was so much closer to everyday life than it is today.

Today homes are made in very different ways to the past and we no longer have such furnishings garnished with art, though there is one thing that can still be enjoyed even in a modern house: fusuma handles. Far more than just being a grip for opening and shutting the sliding door, their design is central to the character of the fusuma.

To learn more, we went to the Fusuma Handle Resource Center in Negishi.

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This museum of sorts is run by the Horiguchi manufacturing firm and during our visit we were shown around by the company president (and handle craftsman!) Hiroshi Horiguchi.

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There are lots of kinds of handles, from the simple to the complex and decorative. The metal ones are made from brass or gold, while there are also wooden and even plastic handles. Expensive ones are still handmade one-by-one by artisans.

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There are also panels telling you how they are made. For custom-made items, though, the design is more elaborate and the process more complex. Horiguchi is currently the second-generation of craftsmen in his family. His father created decorations for the Japanese swords used in the army, rather like how we previously featured on PingMag there is a close relationship between sword decorators and Japanese accessories.

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The display boxes crammed with sliding door handles even look like cases of fashion accessories. The exhibits at the center are almost entirely ones that Horiguchi’s factory produces.

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This handle is the shape of a Japanese bellflower, famed as the crest of the Akechi family. It is normal to make furnishings that used your clan’s emblem in the design.

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A handle from the banquet hall of a long-established French restaurant and the bar of choice for officers during the American occupation. The story goes that the handle grip was taken home by someone who thought it would also make a very good ashtray. You might not be able to tell from the photo but this is a particularly large handle and certainly could very well pass for an ashtray.

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Here a beautiful butterfly has become a handle. A handle is usually just a decorative flourish to the main fusuma sliding door picture, though here the handle itself would surely have been the main attraction.

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An intricately engraved handle.

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Here the design is in the style of Naoe Kanetsugu, who famously had the same Kanji character (ai, love) on his helmet.

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Cloisonné handles featuring delicate art. Compared to the regular metalwork handles, these are another world entirely.

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This type of handle is used at VIP rooms for the recently re-opened Kabukiza theatre.

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Now this is cool — an arrow-shaped sliding door handle!

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These are the same kind of handles used at Kyoto’s exclusive Katsura Imperial Villa. Recognize the shape? It’s the Kanji for tsuki (moon or month).

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These handles are cranes. When making handles the artisans consider how it would fit into the sliding door which may have a picture painted onto it, and how the handle looks against the edges of the fusuma. The sliding door itself was one artwork.

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And if you just want to have fun at home, this set of handles based on Hanafuda playing cards is for you.

Horiguchi’s actual studio is also attached to the museum. We love the desk that is so worn with age and the tools — a very different beauty to the decadent door handles.

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Hiroshi Horiguchi, thank you for showing us around the collection.

  • nubero

    In 2010, I had the chance of photographing some rare door handles with the Emperor’s crest on it at the Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa. I’ve been interested in the subject since but haven’t done much research. This article helped a lot! See my pictures here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nubero/sets/72157626293825657/