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The Development of Japanese Architecture

Historically, architecture in Japan was influenced by Chinese architecture, although the differences between the two are many. Whereas the exposed wood in Chinese buildings is painted, in Japanese buildings it traditionally has not been. Also, Chinese architecture was based on a lifestyle that included the use of chairs, while in Japan people customarily sat on the floor (a custom that began to change in the Meiji period [18681912]).

Architecture in Japan has also been influenced by the climate. Summers in most of Japan are long, hot and humid, a fact that is clearly reflected in the way homes are built. The traditional house is raised somewhat so that the air can move around and beneath it. Wood was the material of choice because it is cool in summer, warm in winter and more flexible when subjected to earthquakes.

In the Asuka period (593710), Buddhism was introduced into Japan from China, and Buddhist temples were built in the continental manner. From this time on, Buddhist architecture had a profound influence on architecture in Japan.

In the Nara period (710794), a capital city called Heijokyo was laid out in Nara in a manner similar to the Chinese capital, whereby streets were arranged in a checkerboard pattern. Horyuji Temple, built under the increasing influence of Buddhism in 607, is the oldest wooden structure in the world. It was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage property in 1993.

In the Heian period (7941185), the homes of the nobility were built in the shinden-zukuri style, in which the main buildings and sleeping quarters stood in the center and were connected to other surrounding apartments by corridors. Tosanjo Palace (1043) was an example of this style.

Tea cottages, built when the tea ceremony became popular in the Muromachi period (13331568), employed a style called sukiya-zukuri, characterized by a delicate sensibility, slender wood elements and unornamented simplicity. Kyoto's Katsura Rikyu is a prime example of this style. People liked the harmony formed by the cottage and the landscaped garden.

In the sixteenth century, when feudal lords dominated Japanese society, many castles were built. Though constructed for military defense, these castles were also used to enhance the lords' prestige. A few of them remain today, admired especially for their tenshukaku (watchtowers). The living rooms inside the castles were tastefully decorated, and rooms for reading and waiting were developed in a style known as shoin-zukuri. The Shiroshoin at Nishi-Hongenji in Kyoto, a National Treasure of Japan, is an example of this style.

After the Meiji Restoration, Western architecture was introduced in Japan. Stone and brick came to be used in construction. In more recent times, the trend is toward the construction of buildings that incorporate aspects of traditional Japanese architecture, using modern technology and new materials.

Interior Design Concept

interior of a traditional Japanese house

The interior of Japanese houses in the past was virtually open, without even screens to partition off individual spaces. Gradually, as more thought was given to particular areas and their functions, such as eating, sleeping or dressing, self-standing screens (byobu) came into use. Paper-covered sliding doors (shoji or fusuma), which we still find in traditional homes, came afterwards. Though they serve poorly as sound barriers, they do provide some privacy and can be removed to open up the entire space (except, of course, for the columns that support the house). Shoji also admit light.

The way in which Japanese view the interior and the exterior of the house is another key aspect of traditional design. Instead of seeing the inside and outside as two distinctly different environments, they are thought of as being continuous elements. This concept is embodied in the Japanese veranda (engawa) which acts as a kind of transition space from inside to outside the house. Nure-en, which is fixed to the side of the house and gets wet when it rains, is a variation of the engawa.

From an aesthetic standpoint, the traditional house is designed for people who are seated, not standing. Doors, windows and alcoves are placed so that both artwork in the house and the garden outside can be viewed appropriately from a sitting position.

Despite the changes that modernization has brought to the style of houses, the traditional Japanese style has not vanished. Even in the Westernized houses, it is still usual to find a room whose floor is covered over with tatami (the Japanese mat), and it is still the custom for people to remove their shoes before entering the house.

Shinto Architecture


Ise Shrine (Mie Pref.)
Its simple design is believed to derive from that of the granaries and storehouses of prehistoric Japan.


Followers of Shinto believe that a kami (deity) exists in virtually every natural object or phenomenon, from active volcanoes and beautiful mountains to trees, rocks and waterfalls. Shinto shrines are places where kami are enshrined and also where people can worship.

Rather than follow a set arrangement, shrine buildings are situated according to the environment. From a precinct's distinctive torii gate, a path or roadway leads to the main shrine building, with the route marked by stone lanterns. To preserve the purity of the shrine precinct, water basins are provided so that worshippers can wash their hands and mouths; and komainu, pairs of lionlike figures placed in front of the gates or main halls of many shrines, serve as shrine guardians.

Temporary main halls were constructed to house the kami on special occasions. This style of building is said to date from about 300 B.C. The main shrine building of the Sumiyoshi Shrine in Osaka is similar to this temporary building type and is thought to preserve the appearance of ancient religious buildings.

The other major style for the main hall draws its simple shape from the granaries and treasure storehouses of prehistoric Japan. The best example of this style is the Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture. Its inner shrine is consecrated to Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess. The outer shrine is dedicated to the grain goddess, Toyouke no Omikami.

Elements of residential architecture can be seen in the main building of the Izumo Shrine in Shimane Prefecture, as evidenced by columns set directly into the ground and elevated floors.

The nature of Shinto worship changed, following the introduction of Buddhism, and shrine buildings borrowed certain elements from Buddhist architecture. For example, many shrines were painted in the Chinese style: red columns and white walls.

It was a tradition to reconstruct shrine buildings regularly to purify the site and renew the materials (a practice still followed at the Ise Shrine). For this reason, also as a result of fire and other natural disasters, the oldest extant main shrine buildings date back only to the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Buddhist Architecture  
                        Sensoji Gojyu-no Toh

When Buddhism came to Japan in the sixth century, places dedicated to the worship of Buddha were constructed, their architectural forms originating in China and Korea. In each temple compound, a number of buildings were erected to serve the needs of the monks or nuns who lived there and, as importantly, to provide facilities where lay worshippers could gather.

In the eighth century, a group of buildings comprised seven basic structures: the pagoda, main hall, lecture hall, bell tower, repository for sutras, dormitory and dining hall. Enclosing the entire temple compound was an earthen wall with gates on each side. It was common for a gate to have two stories.

The main hall contained the most prominent object of worship. The lecture hall, which in early temples was most often the largest structure, was used by monks as a place for study, instruction or for performing rituals.

Two types of towers predominated: one with bells that announced the times of religious observance each day and another in which canonical texts were stored (the sutra repository). Behind or to the side of the inner precinct stood refectories and dormitories.

In the early days of Buddhism in Japan, pagodas were positioned in the center of the compound because they held sacred relics, which were the main objects of worship.



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