Sumi-e, color, and the art of less
The art of control without controlling, doing without doing

Tokonoma and the art of the focal point

Tokonoma1 Every good design needs a focal point. This goes for the design of interior living spaces as well. In many Western homes, the mantel place in the living room is often a focal point from which other interior design elements are added in a more or less symmetrical fashion. In traditional Japanese homes or modern homes containing a washitsu (Japanese-style room) it is the Tokonoma (床の間) that serves as the subtle focal point for the interior. The tokonoma (lit: floor/bed + space) is a raised alcove in which Japanese art such as a hanging scroll (Kakemono) or a flower arrangement is displayed. A custom of having this built-in recessed space in a Japanese room goes back more than 500 years, and while the tokonoma has lost much of its early religious nature, it's still very much an honored part of the Japanese room. Standing inside the tokonoma is not allowed. When you gather in a traditional Japanese room, the most honored guest would be seated in front of the tokonoma. However, in another example of traditional Japanese refinement and humility, it's said that the guest should be seated facing away from the tokonoma so that you do not appear to be showing off the artistic content of the tokonoma. In the West, the mantel often has a large picture or other artifact hanging above it that remains for years or as long as the residents occupy the home. By contrast, the art work in the tokonoma changes throughout the year based on the season or the occasion.

Empty "small" can seem "big"
Washitsu2 Emptiness can create spaciousness and a feeling of openness even in relatively small areas. Regardless of the size of the washitsu, because Japanese did not use furniture but sat directly on the warm and comfortable tatami mats (historically at least), the rooms had a feeling of spaciousness. This is because there was virtually nothing else in the room to distract your attention. It is the emptiness or exclusion of nonessential decoration or other items that allows even the smallest rooms to feel more spacious and guide the eye to the focal point of the room. Because the room is not cluttered with myriad furnishings, souvenirs, and other possessions, the eye can more easily notice and then linger on the art contained in the tokonoma. A bare washitsu, built with natural elements, is a design with a close connection to nature. This harmonious balance with nature, and the garden just outside the walls of the room, is reflected in the seasonal contents of the Tokonoma itself. In a way, then, the spaciousness of the room extends beyond the room itself to the vastness of the outside world.

Above: Traditional-style tea rooms (chashitsu) can come in many sizes but are typically 4.5 tatami mats in size. The materials to build the tea room (or a tea house) are simple and rustic in the wabi style. The tokonoma in a Japanese tea room is especially situated so that it is the focal point of the room. Because you enter the tea room directly across from the Tokonoma in most cases, the artistic content is the first thing in the room you will notice. As Okakura Kakuzo notes in The Book of Tea, as guests enter quietly into the tea room, they first make "obeisance to the picture or flower arrangement on the tokonoma." The walls of a chashitsu, and traditional Japanese-style rooms in general, are kept bare and simple.

Screens, Scrolls, and Tokonoma
In this video clip below you can view a good explanation of the traditional Japanese interior and see how screens, scrolls, and the tokonoma fit with the Japanese aesthetic concerning space. For example, the folding screen served a clear function for dividing larger spaces, creating private areas, and even blocking out drafts in the winter, but the screens also became objects of art and beauty in themselves. In large Japanese rooms, the screens could also be used to form a beautiful focal point and form a beautiful backdrop for the occasion.

Lessons from the Tokonoma
A few general lessons you can apply to presentation design and other forms of design as well.
  • A powerful focal point need not be overbearing or fancy.
  • Emptiness creates spaciousness which assists the viewer in discovering the focal point.
  • Subtle contrast can more easily create interest when there are fewer elements rather than many.
  • Exclusion of the decorative and non-essential from other areas allows a focal point to be created in a composition using only simple elements (or a single element).
  • An intentionally created area of contrast brings the viewer in to the primary focal point and guides the eye to the secondary focal point, the third, and so on without confusion.
  • Eschew symmetry in favor of asymmetrical balance where possible.

Samples: focal point in graphics
Below are a few before/after slides. The "after" slides are the kind used in support of live talks
where all of the words are coming from the speaker. The slides on the left show a rather arbitrary placement of elements and have poor hierarchy and dominance. There is contrast in the slides on the left but it is not clear why some things stick out and others do not. What are we suppose to look at first, second, third? The eye will tend to wander. The slides on the right have better design priority or focal point. First removing extraneous information from the slides on the left helped in the creation of better clarity for the slides on the right. The samples here are very simple, but the general idea can be applied to more complex slides as well. Just have it clear in your mind where you want people to go first (second, third, etc.) when the visual is shown.

Focalpoint.001  Focalpoint.002

Focalpoint.003  Focalpoint.004

Focalpoint.005  Focalpoint.006

Personal note: Mixing traditional with modern
Early this year, with the help of a great architect, my wife and I designed our new house in the Nara countryside. We'll soon leave the big city for a slower-paced and I hope more reflective life in the country. Although the house would be considered a more modern design, it is a design that includes lots of open space and natural light and includes a washitsu with a tokonoma. Below left you can see the floor plan for the washitsu; the highlighted part is the tokonoma. The picture below right shows the location of the washitsu and tokonoma (arrow) in the house which is still under construction. The elevated room is open to the rest of the house, but the screens can slide shut for privacy when the room is used to house a guest. Though it is a multi-purpose washitsu, we will indeed invite over local Tea Masters from time to time to experience chado or "the way of tea" (tea ceremony). Except for a work of art or two in the tokonoma, the room will remain always empty and free from clutter.

Washitsu  House


Presentations Training

I very much enjoy the perspective and curious notions that I glean from this site. Thanks for putting together such great insights on design and Japanese forms. Subarashi desu, ne!


i have a question iam asking myself for a longer time now.. how do you do the barcharts on your example slides?
thanks for a answer and your great book

Stephen Lead

I think you're a bit harsh there, G Blanston. Most of us enjoy Garr's perspectives on life in Japan, and can learn some valuable presentation lessons from his analogies.

If you hate it so much, go watch a cluttered PowerPoint slide.


Good lord "G. Blanston"! *Of course* most houses and apartments in Japan today are too crowded and too full of clutter! I get that just fine -- I live here and see it daily. It is a blog post -- blog post must be short. I'm sorry that I can not go into the details of the negatives of over consumption, etc. Clutter is all too common. But what is common is not only of interest to me and others. What is of interest is what is good and there is a lot of good to be learned from historical Japanese architecture, design, and general sensibilities. If you are not interested in hearing another stupid gaijin babbling on and on I guess there is nothing here for you. No worries. Cheers! :-)


Excellent post - linking design and culture together.... As I look around me I realise I am suffering from too much clutter. Time to apply some of these principles! Thanks, Garr!

Michael Eury

Love this post Garr and am really looking forward to your new book, Hopefully it is crammed full, in a very designful way, with even more great stuff!

Lynn Jericho

I am so grateful for your posts - they are a focal point for my creative space. I build structures for the design of the inner life. In each of the many rooms of the soul there is a need for an evolving focus. I work with the image of the Inner Year - the seasons of the soul - so your posts always bring an insight or a perspective on design that I bring into my teleseminars. Wisdom must ring true in both our inner and outer designs and spaces.

Now for a little neuroscience. In each hemisphere of the brain there is a tiny, tiny spot called the locus cereleus (latin for the blue spot). The LC activates the capacity to gaze! and signals the release of norepinehrine in the adrenals which supports the ability to focus and the feeling of a centered and capable self. With low levels of norepinephrine we struggle with ADD and ADHD and we will tend to clutter our lives with unsuccessful substitutes for a sense of self.
Wise work, Garr. Thanks.

a happy uni student

Thank you Garr, you have totally changed the way I think about presentation and now I actually enjoy designing the slides to make them less boring and more attractive :)

I just finished a presentation today and I got some very good feedbacks from my peers. So thanks again!

PS.I really want to get your book but I couldn't find it in the kinokuniya bookshop here in Australia :( I'll look harder.

Brian Rice

Garr. I am one more fan and benefactor of your ideas. And this post had a graciousness and warmth about it that was delightful. Thank-you and much joy to you in your new home.


Hi Garr, I'm completely surprised as there is a person came from oversea who has great perception and can convey essence of culture and thought of our country in English.
Moreover, you've lived in Japan for a long time!
Actually, your writing is a little too hard for me to read as I'm not good at English, but I'll check it out for my training :) because of your weblog is really interesting for me.
Thanks your great work!

Ronald Curtis

Hi Garr,

I just wanted to say that I love your blog and that you have been a great source of inspiration in my life. Ever since I read your book 'presentation zen' about a year ago, I have slowly but surely shifted my way of thinking towards the right side of my brain. And with great results!

For instance, last semester I did the whole presentation for my group and we came first. All thanks to your book and your teachings. Also, just last week our group got selected to redo our presentation in front of a panel of employers and the chance to win $1000. We're doing the presentation this Thursday. Win, lose, or draw, I am happy to have come this far and will continue to spread the word on your wonderful teachings.

Thank you Garr!

I wanted to say I am a diehard reader of your blog. Thanks for contributing to the public speaking community


Here is a Tokonoma which appeared as part of a slide set on Fast Company

Can't wait for the new book


Thanks, Mike. That is a very unusual tokonoma to say the least :-)

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