some musings on doors and gates


Some of you may be aware that earlier this month I started a new Instagram project called @doorsofasia, where I upload a door photo everyday. While it initially began as a photography project to offload my growing collection of door photos – hey, doors are aesthetically pleasing! – it’s quickly evolved into much more, dare I say, somewhat academic musings on the idea of doors, gates and entranceways. After a week or two of making notes from across the internet, it’s gotten to the point where I need to organise my thoughts on this subject in a more coherent fashion…

It begins with language. In order of which I learned them, I speak English, Mandarin Chinese, and Japanese* – the last two are intertwined, which is pretty useful when you want to compare similarities and differences between vocabulary in the two. In Mandarin Chinese there are no special distinctions between ‘gate, door, entrance, opening;’ all are denoted by a single character 门 (men2). There is a different character 闸 (zha2 or zaap6 in Cantonese) that seems to be specifically ‘gate’ or ‘door gate,’ but in common parlance in Mandarin Chinese I’ve rarely heard this on its own to refer to a gate. (G tells me that one hears zaap6 more in Cantonese, though.) Different types of door or gate are then differentiated by some kind of prefix, e.g. for the kind of material used, city gate, moon gate, etc.


In English, ‘door’ and ‘gate’ feel more distinct – one thinks of a door here as having hinges, perhaps providing passage to and from a building of some kind; the gate is the thing that demarcates the boundary between a plot of land and the outside, and is also often a physical structure, say with a latch, a handle, more often than not paired with a fence and acting as a deterrent to entry. Gates are more often than not exposed to the elements, whereas doors are not, necessarily.

Perhaps due to the Mandarin Chinese background, though, I think of doors and gates as fundamentally similar things – for instance, to me a hole in a wall is a kind of door is a gate is a 門. If one looks at the definition of 门 (which is, of course, not the be all and end all…) here, “gates are constructions indicating the entrance and exit to an area, through which people can pass.”

So perhaps then it is helpful to think of 门/門 in more symbolic terms. Incidentally, the etymology for the English word ‘gate’ comes from the Old Norse ‘gata,’ meaning a road or path and originally referring to the gap in the wall or fence rather than a barrier which closed it. Which is excellent since this basically adds some legitimacy to the way I think about this subject…

Now for Japanese. Somewhere to begin with: the nebulous and often arbitrary categories of 和 (wa, or ‘Japanese’) and non-wa (generally 洋 you, and to a lesser extent 唐・漢 when China was the overarching Other) – in other words, ‘us’ vs. ‘them.’ There are three broad categories of words: 和語 (wago), native Japanese words; 漢語 (kango), derived from old Chinese; 外来語 (gairaigo), words derived from non-Chinese languages, largely Western and very often English.


These days, ドア (doa) is the umbrella term for all doors, regardless of whether it’s a sliding door (引き戸 hikido) or Western-style hinged door (開き戸の戸 hirakido no to) or folding door (折戸 orido). One rarely says 戸 unless it’s to say what kind of door it is, i.e. not hinged – the term is clearly one that came in post-Edo, probably Meiji and onwards, though I don’t know when it first came into common usage. (Which begs the question: what did people say in daily parlance before ‘doa’ to refer to them?)


Another kind of door is 扉 (tobira), which has a few other connotations. One image that springs to mind with this word is double doors; the specific term for this is 観音開き (kannon-biraki) which derives from those miniature shrines in temples which have similar double doors opening from the centre. (Incidentally, kannon-biraki is also a knife technique where you butterfly both sides of a chicken or fish fillet! And the above picture is obviously not a tobira.)

Another image is that of heaviness, i.e. tobira feel heavier, grander than ‘doors.’ There’s also a metaphorical weight to phrases such as 心の扉 (kokoro no tobira, the doors of the heart) or 夢の扉 (yume no tobira, the doors to your dreams) or 幸運の扉 (kouun no tobira, the doors to luck). When talking about metaphorical doors being opened – i.e. different pathways that become possible in your life – the word is ‘扉 tobira‘, rather than ‘ドア door’ or ‘戸 to…’

(Fun fact: the kind of bus doors you see in Japan, such as those on the Kyoto city buses, are called グライドスライドドアglide-slide doors, which is self-explanatory and JUST SO CUTE.)

My feeling after reading most things on the internet was that Japanese diverges from Mandarin Chinese in that 門 (mon, or kado) seems specifically refers to ‘gate,’ which is different from ゲート (geeto), which is katakana and derives from the Western understanding of ‘gate.’ A quick look at the Japanese entry on Wikipedia for 門 (mon, kado) sort of confirms and doesn’t confirm this: it tells you that 門 mon refers to gates with latches and padlocks that demarcate an external area and (internal?) grounds or site, allowing or denying access between these areas BUT can also refer to gateposts or arches that suggest or mark out an entrance or division between areas. Structurally these can be like the Chinese structures with just a roof and gateposts. There are quite a few of these, actually, in the Kyoto suburbs…

So, in common usage, mon, as far as I understand it, is more often used to refer the gates/architectural structures that denote entry to Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and traditional-style buildings and castles – this is also clear when you look at the shape of those gates and compare them to the character 門. Wikipedia has a nice list of the various types – the more well-known ones being 三門 sanmon (Nanzen-ji comes to mind) and 二重門 nijūmon.


The key thing to take away from 門 mon in the Japanese usage, I think, is that there’s often a symbolic weight to the the kinds of entranceways that are associated with this word. For instance, 鳥居門 Shinto torii gates, which are a kind of mon, are “symbolic elements of liminality” “[marking] transition between the mundane and sacred.” 鬼門 kimon is the northeastern (unlucky) direction, the boundary between the secular world and realm of the dead, a person or thing to be avoided. And of course, 門 can also refer to entrance to the 家 ie which is another big concept. We haven’t even gotten started on the various objects associated with doors and gates across cultures in Asia, e.g. 門神 monshin or door gods to ward off disasters or bring luck to the household (門松 kadomatsu in Japan around the New Year, 鍾馗 shōki or zhōng kuí), dishes of salt around doorways, 暖簾 noren, types of door knockers, etc… or indeed, anywhere outside my so-far East Asia-heavy view of the subject.


All of this is a long-winded way of saying that @doorsofasia will be an umbrella repository for the numerous kinds of entranceways and objects associated with them that you’ll see in Asia – mainly Kyoto for now, but also everywhere else I’ll go. There’s much more to the subject than I thought, so there may have to be more writing about this as time goes by…

Please note: I also welcome photo submissions for @doorsofasia, accompanied by whatever personal story or observations you have, or if there’s something of cultural note about this. I would also absolutely love to hear your thoughts on doors, especially if it is something I don’t know.

* Okay I also kind of know Malay but my command of this language is so poor that I really hesitate to add this to the list.
** This translation is necessarily a loose one of the points in the 概要 section – please feel free to correct it as necessary.

This entry was published on January 31, 2016 at 11:04 am. It’s filed under Doors of Asia, Japan, Kyoto and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “some musings on doors and gates

  1. Alex Hurst on said:

    Those are some awesome doors! I love the character of the the restaurants in Kyoto. I made a whole day trip of photographing the various shops in Ichijoji a couple months ago. 🙂

  2. Pingback: doorways of asia | the adventures of furochan

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