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A Japanese tokonoma with a hanging scroll and Ikebana
Drawing of a tokonoma (shown centre-right) by Edward S. Morse

Tokonoma (床の間 toko-no-ma[1]?), or simply toko (床),[2][3] is a built-in recessed space in a Japanese style reception room, in which items for artistic appreciation are displayed. In English, tokonoma is usually called alcove. The items usually displayed in a tokonoma are calligraphic or pictorial scrolls and an arrangement of flowers. Bonsai and okimono are also sometimes displayed there, although traditionally, bonsai were considered to be too dirty for such a highly respected place. The tokonoma and its contents are essential elements of traditional Japanese interior decoration. The word 'toko' literally means "floor" or "bed"; 'ma' means "space" or "room."

When seating guests in a Japanese-style room, the correct etiquette is to seat the most important guest with his or her back facing the tokonoma. This is because of modesty; the host should not be seen to show off the contents of the tokonoma to the guest, and thus it is necessary not to point the guest towards the tokonoma.

Stepping within it is strictly forbidden, except to change the display, when a strict etiquette must be followed.

The pillar on one side of the tokonoma is usually made of wood, specially prepared for the purpose. It can range from a seemingly raw trunk with bark still attached, to a square piece of heart wood with very straight grain. The choice of toko-bashira determines the level of formality for the tokonoma.

American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was influenced by Japanese architecture. He translated the meaning of the tokonoma into its western counterpart: the fireplace.[4] This gesture became more of a ceremonial core in his architecture.


Tokonoma first appeared in the late Muromachi period (14th–16th century). In the shoin style architecture of this period, it was called oshiita (押板)and basically was a wall space where scrolls would be hung and a raised dais in front of this would be for setting an incense burner, vase for flowers, and candle holder.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary, Kenkyusha Limited, ISBN 4-7674-2015-6
  2. ^ Kōjien Japanese dictionary, entry for tokonoma.
  3. ^ Genshoku Chadō Daijiten Japanese encyclopedia of Chanoyu. Iguchi Kaisen, et. al., supv. eds. (Kyoto: Tankosha, 1986 10th ed.) entry for Toko.
  4. ^ Nute, Kevin (1993). Frank Lloyd Wright and Japan. London: Chapman & Hall. p. 61
  5. ^ Genshoku Chadō Daijiten Japanese encyclopedia of Chanoyu, entry for Toko

Further reading[edit]

  • "Theorizing about the Origins of the Tokonoma," in Chanoyu Quarterly no. 86 (1997).