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History of Japanese Architecture

The earliest Japanese architecture was seen in prehistoric times in simple pit-houses and stores
adapted to the needs of a hunter-gatherer population. Influence from Han Dynasty China via Korea saw
the introduction of more complex grain stores and ceremonial burial chambers.

The introduction of Buddhism in Japan during the sixth century was a catalyst for large-scale
temple building using complicated techniques in wood. Influence from the Chinese Tang and Sui
Dynasties led to the foundation of the first permanent capital in Nara. Its checkerboard street layout
used the Chinese capital of Chang'an as a template for its design. A gradual increase in the size of
buildings led to standard units of measurement as well as refinements in layout and garden design. The
introduction of the tea ceremony emphasised simplicity and modest design as a counterpoint to the
excesses of the aristocracy.

During the Meiji Restoration of 1868 the history of Japanese architecture was radically changed
by two important events. The first was the Kami and Buddhas Separation Act of 1868, which formally
separated Buddhism from Shinto and Buddhist temples from Shinto shrines, breaking an association
between the two which had lasted well over a thousand years.

Second, it was then that Japan underwent a period of intense Westernization in order to
compete with other developed countries. Initially architects and styles from abroad were imported to
Japan but gradually the country taught its own architects and began to express its own style. Architects
returning from study with western architects introduced the International Style of modernism into
Japan. However, it was not until after the Second World War that Japanese architects made an
impression on the international scene, firstly with the work of architects like Kenzo Tange and then with
theoretical movements like Metabolism.


The prehistoric period includes the Jōmon, Yayoi and Kofun periods stretching from
approximately 5000 BCE to the beginning of the eighth century CE.

During the three phases of the Jōmon period
the population was primarily hunter-gatherer with
some primitive agriculture skills and their behaviour
was predominantly determined by changes in climatic
conditions and other natural stimulants. Early
dwellings were pit houses consisting of shallow pits
with tamped earth floors and grass roofs designed to
collect rainwater with the aid of storage jars. Later in
the period, a colder climate with greater rainfall led to
a decline in population, which contributed to an


interest in ritual. Concentric stone circles first appeared during this time.

During the Yayoi period the Japanese people began to
interact with the Chinese Han Dynasty, whose knowledge and
technical skills began to influence them. The Japanese began
to build raised-floor storehouses as granaries which were
constructed using metal tools like saws and chisels that began
to appear at this time. A reconstruction in Toro, Shizuoka is a
wooden box made of thick boards joined in the corners in a
log cabin style and supported on eight pillars. The roof is
thatched but, unlike the typically hipped roof of the pit
dwellings, it is a simple V-shaped gable.

The Kofun period marked the appearance of many-
chambered burial mounds or tumuli (kofun literally means
"old mounds"). similar mounds in Korean Peninsula are
thought to have been influenced by Japan.Early in the period
the tombs, known as "keyhole kofun" or zenpō-kōen fun
(ja:前方後円墳, lit. square in front, circular in back tomb-
mound), often made use of the existing topography, shaping
it and adding man-made moats to form a distinctive keyhole
shape, i.e. that of a circle interconnected with a triangle.
Access was via a vertical shaft that was sealed off once the
burial was completed. There was room inside the chamber for a coffin and grave goods. The mounds
were often decorated with terracotta figures called haniwa. Later in the period mounds began to be
located on flat ground and their scale greatly increased. Among many examples in Nara and Osaka, the
most notable is the Daisen-kofun, designated as the tomb of Emperor Nintoku. The tomb covers 32
hectares (79 acres) and it is thought to have been decorated with 20,000 haniwa figures.

Towards the end of the Kofun period, tomb burials faded out as Buddhist cremation ceremonies
gained popularity.


Although the network of Buddhist temples across the country acted as a catalyst for an
exploration of architecture and culture, this also led to the clergy gaining increased power and influence.
Emperor Kanmu decided to escape this influence by moving his capital first to Nagaoka-kyō and then to
Heian-kyō, known today as Kyōto. Although the layout of the city was similar to Nara's and inspired by
Chinese precedents, the palaces, temples and dwellings began to show examples of local Japanese taste.

Heavy materials like stone, mortar and clay were abandoned as building elements, with simple
wooden walls, floors and partitions becoming prevalent. Native species like cedar (sugi) were popular as


an interior finish because of its prominent grain, while pine (matsu) and larch (aka matsu) were common
for structural uses. Brick roofing tiles and a type of cypress called hinoki were used for roofs. It was
sometime during this period that the hidden roof, a uniquely Japanese solution to roof drainage
problems, was adopted.

The increasing size of buildings in the capital led to an architecture reliant on columns regularly
spaced in accordance with the ken, a traditional measure of both size and proportion. The Imperial
Palace Shishinden demonstrated a style that was a precursor to the later aristocratic-style of building
known as shinden-zukuri. The style was characterised by symmetrical buildings placed as arms that
defined an inner garden. This garden then used borrowed scenery to seemingly blend with the wider

The chief surviving example of shinden-zukuri architecture is the Hō-ō-dō (鳳凰堂, Phoenix Hall,
completed 1053) of Byōdō-in, a temple in Uji to the southeast of Kyōto. It consists of a main rectangular
structure flanked by two L-shaped wing corridors and a tail corridor, set at the edge of a large artificial
pond. Inside, a single golden image of Amida (circa 1053) is installed on a high platform. Raigo (Descent
of the Amida Buddha) paintings on the wooden doors of the Hō-ō-dō are often considered an early
example of Yamato-e, Japanese-style painting, because they contain representations of the scenery
around Kyōto.

The priest Kūkai (best known by the posthumous title Kōbō Daishi, 774–835) journeyed to China
to study Shingon, a form of Vajrayana Buddhism, which he introduced into Japan in 806. At the core of
Shingon worship are the various mandalas, diagrams of the spiritual universe that influenced temple
design.[3] The temples erected for this new sect were built in the mountains, far away from the court
and the laity in the capital. The irregular topography of these sites forced their designers to rethink the
problems of temple construction, and in so doing to choose more indigenous elements of design.

At this time the architectural style of Buddhist temples began to influence that of the Shintō
shrines. For example, like their Buddhist counterparts the Shintō shrines began to paint the normally
unfinished timbers with the characteristic red cinnabar colour.

During the later part of the Heian Period there were the first documented appearances of vernacular
houses in the minka style/form. These were characterized by the use local materials and labor, being
primarily constructed of wood, having packed earth floors and thatched roofs.



During the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and the following
Muromachi period (1336–1573), Japanese architecture made
technological advances that made it somewhat diverge from its Chinese
counterpart. In response to native requirements such as earthquake
resistance and shelter against heavy rainfall and the summer heat and
sun, the master carpenters of this time responded with a unique type of
architecture,[16] creating the Daibutsuyō and Zenshūyō styles.

The Kamakura period began with the transfer of power in Japan
from the imperial court to the Kamakura shogunate. During the Genpei
War (1180–1185), many traditional buildings in Nara and Kyoto were
damaged. For example, Kōfuku-ji and Tōdai-ji were burned down by Taira
no Shigehira of the Taira clan in 1180. Many of these temples and shrines
were later rebuilt by the Kamakura shogunate to consolidate the shogun's

Although less elaborate than during the Heian period, architecture in the Kamakura period was
informed by a simplicity due to its association with the military order. New residences used a buke-
zukuri style that was associated with buildings surrounded by narrow moats or stockades. Defense
became a priority, with buildings grouped under a single roof rather than around a garden. The gardens
of the Heian period houses often became training grounds.

After the fall of the Kamakura shogunate in 1333, the Ashikaga shogunate was formed, having
later its seat in the Kyoto district of Muromachi. The proximity of the shogunate to the imperial court led
to a rivalry in the upper levels of society which caused tendencies toward luxurious goods and lifestyles.
Aristocratic houses were adapted from the simple buke-zukuri style to resemble the earlier shinden-
zukuri style. A good example of this ostentatious architecture is the Kinkaku-ji in Kyōto, which is
decorated with lacquer and gold leaf, in contrast to its otherwise simple structure and plain bark roofs.

In an attempt to rein in the excess of the upper classes, the Zen masters introduced the tea
ceremony. In architecture this promoted the design of chashitsu (tea houses) to a modest size with
simple detailing and materials. The style informed residential architecture with lighter, more intimate
buildings relying on slender rafters and pillars with sliding inner partitions fusuma and outer sliding walls
shōji .[20] Although woven grass and straw tatami mats first began to appear in the Kamakura period,
they were often thrown all over the floor. In the Muromachi period they began to have a regular size
and be closely fitted together. A typically sized Chashitsu is 4 1/2 mats in size.

In the garden, Zen principles replaced water with sand or gravel to produce the dry garden



During the Azuchi–Momoyama period (1568–1600) Japan
underwent a process of unification after a long period of civil war. It
was marked by the rule of Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi,
men who built castles as symbols of their power; Nobunaga in
Azuchi, the seat of his government, and Hideyoshi in Momoyama.
The Ōnin War during the Muromachi period had led to rise of castle
architecture in Japan. By the time of the Azuchi-Momoyama period
each domain was allowed to have one castle of its own. Typically it
consisted of a central tower or tenshu (天守, lit. heaven defense)
surrounded by gardens and fortified buildings. All of this was set
within massive stone walls and surrounded by deep moats. The dark
interiors of castles were often decorated by artists, the spaces were separated up using sliding fusuma
panels and byōbu folding screens.

The shoin style that had its origins with the chashitsu of the Muromachi period continued to be
refined. Verandas linked the interiors of residential buildings with highly cultivated exterior gardens.
Fusuma and byōbu became highly decorated with paintings and often an interior room with shelving
and alcove (tokonoma) were used to display art work (typically a hanging scroll).

Matsumoto, Kumamoto and Himeji (popularly known as the White Heron castle) are excellent
examples of the castles of the period, while Nijo Castle in Kyōto is an example of castle architecture
blended with that of an imperial palace, to produce a style that is more in keeping with the Chinese
influence of previous centuries


The Tokugawa shogunate took the city of Edo (later to become part of modern-day Tōkyō) as
their capital. They built an imposing fortress around which buildings of the state administration and
residences for the provincial daimyōs were constructed. The city grew around these buildings connected
by a network of roads and canals. By 1700 the population had swollen to one million inhabitants. The
scarcity of space for residential architecture resulted in houses being built over two stories, often
constructed on raised stone plinths.

Although machiya (townhouses) had been around since the Heian period they began to be
refined during the Edo period. Machiya typically occupied deep, narrow plots abutting the street (the
width of the plot was usually indicative of the wealth of the owner), often with a workshop or shop on
the ground floor. Tiles rather than thatch were used on the roof and exposed timbers were often
plastered in an effort to protect the building against fire.Ostentatious buildings that demonstrated the
wealth and power of the feudal lords were constructed, such as the Kamiyashiki of Matsudaira
Tadamasa or the Ōzone Shimoyashiki.


Edo suffered badly from devastating fires and the 1657 Great Fire of Meireki was a turning point
in urban design. Initially, as a method of reducing fire spread, the government built stone embankments
in at least two locations along rivers in the city. Over time these were torn down and replaced with dōzō
storehouses that were used both as fire breaks and to store goods unloaded from the canals. The dōzō
were built with a structural frame made of timber coated with a number of layers of earthen plaster on
the walls, door and roof. Above the earthen roofs was a timber framework supporting a tiled
roof.Although Japanese who had studied with the Dutch at their settlement in Dejima advocated
building with stone and brick this was not undertaken because of their vulnerability to earthquakes.
Machiya and storehouses from the later part of the period are characterised by having a black coloration
to the external plaster walls. This colour was made by adding India ink to burnt lime and crushed oyster

The clean lines of the civil architecture in Edo influenced the sukiya style of residential
architecture. Katsura Detached Palace and Shugaku-in Imperial Villa on the outskirts of Kyōto are good
examples of this style. Their architecture has simple lines and decor and uses wood in its natural state.

In the very late part of the period sankin-kōtai, the law requiring the daimyōs to maintain
dwellings in the capital was repealed which resulted in a decrease in population in Edo and a
commensurate reduction in income for the shogunate