Architectural History of Japan (日本建築史)

This section describes the history of architecture in Japan.

See the section on "Japanese Housing" for details about the architectural history of Japanese houses, and the section on "Shrine Architecture" for details about shrines.

Origins of 'Architectural History of Japan.'

The study of architecture has been conducted since the Edo period as part of greater studies on the practices of ancient court and samurai families, but it was only in the Meiji period that architectural study emerged as an independent branch of learning (the term 'kenchiku' [建築], meaning 'architecture', was itself coined in the Meiji period). It is said that Kingo TATSUNO, an early Japanese architect, was once asked about Japanese architectural history whilst studying abroad in London, and, having completely failed to answer the question, he felt a compelling need for a study on the subject. The first step in the study of Japanese architectural history occurred when one of Tatsuno's students, Chuta ITO, academically proved that Horyu-ji Temple was Japan's oldest structure. The manuscript "A Shortened History of Japan's Fine Arts," published in 1900 to coincide with Japan's participation in the world's fair in Paris, was compiled chiefly by Tenshin OKAKURA with Chuta ITO in charge of the architecture section; it was strongly influenced by Tenshin's method of classifying the history of fine arts and his established framework of architectural history. A key issue in those days was the protection of temple architecture, as many temples had been badly affected by haibutsu-kishaku (the anti-Buddhist movement in the Meiji era that resulted in the destruction of many Buddhist temples), and so Tadashi SEKINO conducted field research to record the year of construction of the major buildings located in Nara and Kyoto. Historians and scholars of architectural history were in dispute about the year of construction of Horyu-ji Temple (and whether or not the temple had been rebuilt), which led to a more in-depth study of Japan's architectural history using methods such as archaeological excavation and surveying remnants of ancient structures, examining the styles of existing buildings and studying literature such as Rikkokushi (Japan's six national histories).

Scope of Japan's architectural history

Until World War II, studies focused on ancient and medieval shrine and temple architecture, but since the War, the scope of research widened to include shrines and temples of the Edo period and modern structures from and since the Meiji period (studies during and after the Meiji period included the study of structures left behind by ex-colonies that were constructed by Japanese architects). There is growing interest in old buildings with no particular significance; a small roadside shrine, for instance, is a valuable symbol of local history.

Positioning and characteristics of Japan's architecture

Japanese architecture has developed with influences from the Korean Peninsula and China. Since the modern era, western culture has also had an influence, but at the same time, a unique Japanese style of architecture has developed that is integrated with the natural environment and culture of Japan.

Japanese architecture, which mainly uses posts and beams, differs from Western architecture of bricks and stones, and traditional Japanese architecture gained attention in 20th century architectural modernism since it was ahead of its time in the use of modern architectural concepts.

Primitive period

Sannai-Maruyama site
Toro site
Yoshinogari site

The number of sites that are restored based on the results of excavation are increasing. The Sannai-Maruyama site of the Jomon period has revealed the fact that the architectural technology of the time was surprisingly high.

Architecture of ancient times

The Asuka style
Shitenno-ji Temple, Horyu-ji Temple, Hokki-ji Temple, Horin-ji Temple (Ikaruga-cho)
The Hakuho style
Yakushi-ji Temple Toto (East Pagoda)
The Nara period
Todai-ji Temple (Hokke-do Hall, Tegai-mon Gate, etc.), Shoso (warehouse) of Shoso-in Treasure Repository, Toshodai-ji Temple (Kon-do Hall [main hall of the temple], Ko-do Hall [hall used for ritual, instruction and reading sutras], etc.), Horyu-ji Temple (Yumedono [the Hall of Visions], etc.).
The early Heian period
Muro-ji Temple (Kon-do Hall), Daigo-ji Temple Five Story Pagoda, etc.
The late Heian period
Amida-do Hall
Byodo-in Temple Hoodo (Phoenix Hall), Chuson-ji Temple Konjikido (Golden Hall), Shiramizu Amidado Hall, Fuki-ji Temple Odo Hall
Shinden-zukuri style (architectural style of court nobles' houses in the Heian period)
During the Asuka and Nara periods, Japan adopted architectural techniques from China and the Korean Peninsula. The construction of temples also began after the official introduction of Buddhism to Japan in 538. Records show that temple carpenters and makers of Buddhist images and artifacts were invited from Paekche in 577. Also known as Hoko-ji Temple or Gango-ji Temple, Asuka-dera Temple (Asuka-mura Village, Takaichi-gun, Nara Prefecture), which was built by the Asuka clan in the period from 588 to 609, and Shitenno-ji Temple (Tennoji, Tennoji-ku, Osaka City, Osaka Prefecture), which is said to have been founded by Prince Shotoku, are believed to be the oldest Japanese Buddhist temples (the original building not existing in either case). The oldest temples that exist in their original structure are Saiin Garan (Western Precinct Complex consisting of Naka-mon Gate, Five-Story Pagoda, Kon-do Hall, Dai-Ko-do Hall, etc.) of Horyu-ji Temple and the Three-Story Pagoda of Hokki-ji Temple (both located in Ikaruga-cho, Ikoma-gun, Nara Prefecture). Saiin Garan of Horyu-ji Temple was once believed to have been built in the age of Prince Shotoku, but it is now considered, thanks to the development of research in the modern times, that the complex was destroyed by fire in 670 and rebuilt sometime between the late seventh and early eighth century. The Three-Story Pagoda of Hokki-ji Temple was built in the early eighth century. It should be noted that the building techniques and positioning of Buddhist temples at that time reflect the style of temples in Paekche. The influence of Chinese architectural style grew during the Sui and Tong Dynasties when Japanese envoys were sent to China.

During the aristocratic era of the Heian period, architectural style came to possess typically Japanese features, where rooms creating a serene atmosphere with thinner pillars and lower ceilings were preferred. During and after the Heian period, a unique Japanese style of architecture developed called Wayo Kenchiku (Japanese-style architecture).

Architecture of the medieval period

The Kamakura period
Restoration of Todai-ji Temple and construction of Jodo-ji Temple (Ono City) (Daibutsu-yo [Buddhist architectural style] which is also known as Tenjiku-yo [India style], Chogen SHUNJOBO)
Zenshu-yo (Zen style Buddhist architecture which is also known as Kara-yo [Chinese style]) (Zen Buddha hall)
Buddha Hall at Kozan-ji Temple, Syakamuni Hall of Zenpuku-in Temple
Buke-zukuri (Common term for the style of samurai houses in the Kamakura period)
The Muromachi period
Kinkaku (golden pavilion) of Rokuon-ji Temple (Shinden-zukuri style + Zen sect), Ginkaku (silver pavilion) of Jisho-ji Temple (Shoin-zukuri style [a traditional residential style of Japanese architecture that includes a display alcove known as tokonoma] + Zen Buddha hall)
Shuden-zukuri style (Shuden: the main residential building within a walled compound)

As trading with China increased in the Kamakura period, Chinese architectural styles were re-introduced into Japan. The style brought to Japan first was one which was utilized in the restoration of Todai-ji Temple (Daibutsu-yo or Tenjiku-yo).

Todai-ji Temple and the statue of Birushana Buddha, both built in the Tenpyo era, were destroyed by fire during the Jisho-Juei War which took place at the end of the Heian period. Chogen SHUNJOBO consecrated the newly made Great Buddha image in 1185 after overcaming numerous obstacles in its construction. The Great Buddha Hall was rebuilt in 1195. A grand memorial service was held in 1203 (see the section on "Todai-ji Temple Birushana Buddha Statue").

The architectural style of the Great Buddha Hall and other similar reconstructions by Chogen was quite unique and is said to have commonalities with the architectural style of Fujian Province and the surrounding area of China in those days (the Sung dynasty).

Although the architectural style, incorporating rational structure and a bold design, was suitable for the Great Buddha Hall, it was incompatible with the Japanese preference for a serene space, and so Daibutsu-yo lost popularity after the death of Chogen. The craftsmen who were engaged in the restoration of the Great Buddha Hall moved to various places after that project and a new Japanese architectural style, known as Setchu-yo (cross style) was born with the influence of Daibutsu-yo.

Thereafter, Zen monks actively travelled between Japan and China, which led to the introduction of Chinese temple architecture to Japan. This is often used in the Buddha halls of Zen sect temples (Zenshu-yo or Kara-yo).

Architecture of early modern times

The Azuchi-Momoyama period
Completion of castle architecture and Shoin-zukuri style
- Himeji-jo Castle, Hikone-jo Castle, Matsumoto-jo Castle, Inuyama-jo Castle, etc.
Chashitsu (tea room)

In cultural history, the Momoyama period often refers to the time between 1573 when the Muromachi shogunate fell and 1615 when the Toyotomi family was overthrown. During this period, castle architecture was developed; castle towers were built as a symbolic representation of power and splendid paintings were drawn on partitions to represent the era of unification of the country. Tea ceremonies, which started in the Muromachi period, were developed to perfection by SEN no Rikyu and a new architectural style for chashitsu (tea room) was born.

Edo period
Sukiya-zukuri style (which incorporates a number of tea ceremony house features)
Mausoleum architecture
- Including Nikko Toshogu
Temple architecture
- Including Nigatsu-do Hall of Todai-ji Temple
Architecture of machiya (a traditional townhouse) observed in a place such as shukuba (post station)
Private houses

In the Edo period, when more popular culture flourished, a clear tendency towards secularism is also observed in the field of architecture. An example of this movement is the Sukiya-zukuri style, where chashitsu features were incorporated into residential structures as well as urban entertainment facilities such as theaters and brothels. Private houses also developed gradually, adopting the features of Shoin-zukuri style in part. In the sector of temple architecture, large hondos (main halls), such as that of Zenko-ji Temple and Senso-ji Temple, were built to accommodate a large number of worshippers.

Architecture of modern times

See the section on "Nihon Kindai Kenchikushi" (History of Japan's Modern Architecture) for the timeline.

Western-style buildings and former residences of early foreign settlers
- Yamamoto-dori Street of Kitano-cho, Kobe, Renga-gai Street of Ginza, Tokyo, etc.
Gi-yofu Kenchiku (Imitation of Western-style architecture)
- Kaichi-gakko School, Lecture Hall of Ryukoku University, Hakuun-kan School, etc.
Birth of architects
- Josiah CONDER, Kingo TATSUNO, etc.
Architectural historicism
Bunri-ha Kenchikukai (the Secession school of architects)
Architectural modernism

Residences, trading houses and churches for foreign residents were built in the foreign settlements which were established in the final days of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Glover Mansion, standing on a high point in Nagasaki, was built by Japanese people under instruction from Glover, but there were also some structures that were constructed by visiting foreign engineers. Inspired by these new structures in the foreign settlements, Japanese builders began to construct Western-style houses and buildings (Gi-yofu Kenchiku).

In the early Meiji period, the Japanese government was making desperate attempts to acquire Western architectural technologies in order to develop the cities required to modernize the country. Thomas WALTERS and Josiah CONDER were invited to Japan as foreign specialists in government service.
Conder put his efforts into training Japanese architects at the Imperial College of Engineering and was therefore referred to as 'Father of Japanese architectural studies.'
Kingo TATSUNO was one of the first graduates of the university.

With a plan to construct numerous government offices and realizing the need to develop specialists in the field of architecture, the Japanese government sought assistance from the German government, an advanced European nation that the Japanese admired. The architectural design firm of Hermann ENDE and Wilhelm BECKMANN (Baufirma Ende & Boeckmann) was selected to assist with the project, and the two men were sent to Japan. Based on Ende and Beckmann's suggestion that some delegates be sent to Germany to study and acquire the necessary techniques required for building a modern state, the Japanese government sent a learning mission to Germany consisting of 20 young Japanese people including Yorinaka TSUMAKI, Yuzuru WATANABE, Kozo KAWAI and 17 senior workmen who specialized in stonemasonry, carpentry, artificial stonemasonry, brick-laying, painting, roofing and plastering. A good deal of knowledge was gained from the three-year mission and, after returning to Japan, many of the delegates played an important part in architectural circles, some became artists, while others became the first graduates of what is now known as the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Kotaro SAKURAI deserved a special mention as the first Japanese person to obtain a licence as an authorized British architect in 1892 after studying abroad at London University.

Architecture was always considered a technology of modernization which was to be learned from the West and the concept of architecture as art has not developed in Japan
A great deal of damage was caused to brick buildings during the Nobi Earthquake and the Great Kanto Earthquake, which led to the development of quake-resistant technologies which are unique to Japan. As a result, there developed a tendency to view architecture solely as an engineering concept. This view still persists today.

Meanwhile, in 1920, the mid Taisho era, the first Japanese architectural design movement was beginning with a group of graduates from the Department of Architecture of Tokyo Imperial University including Sutemi HORIGUCHI, Mamoru YAMADA, Kikuji ISHIDA, Keiichi MORITA and Mayumi TAKIZAWA; it was called Bunri-ha Kenchikukai.

Contemporary architecture

See the section on "Nihon Kindai Kenchikushi" (History of Japan's Modern Architecture) for the time line.

Having taken a severe blow during the Second World War, the Japanese architectural movement found opportunities for development during the postwar restoration and periods of high economic growth. The use of ferroconcrete became common and public facilities everywhere were being built in the modern architectural style. Frequent earthquakes was a problem in Japan, but, as quake-resistant technologies improved, the height restriction of 100 shaku (31m) was eased and more high-rise buildings were constructed. Japan began to foster many internationally renowned architects such as Kenzo TANGE, Fumihiko MAKI and Tadao ANDO, and the standard of modern architecture in Japan improved.

Meanwhile, apart from some architects in the Taisho and early Showa periods, the concept of scenic beauty in cities was all but lost during wartime and the postwar restoration periods. Many of the traditional cityscapes and beautiful old buildings and structures were lost in the war or during the economic growth, and there was a growing number of cheap structures that emphasized economic rationality and repeated "scrap and build" constructions. People began to voice concerns that Japanese cities had became ugly, and so some measures were taken, such as the allocation of preservation districts for groups of historic buildings and the development of Landscape Law, which emphasizes the aesthetics of cities and land.

Researchers of Japanese architectural history

Shunichi AMANUMA
- Conducted exhaustive research on the details of shrine and temple architecture.

Chuta ITO
- Pioneered Japan's architectural history.

Eizo INAGAKI
- Conducted research on shrine architecture, and particularly advocated the style of 'Shin-no-mihashira' (the pillars of the main sanctuary [honden]) of the Grand Shrines of Ise and the Great Shrine at Izumo.

Hakutaro OTA
- Conducted a wide range of research on the architecture of the medieval period, including private houses, etc.

Tadashi SEKINO
- Conducted nationwide surveys on antique architecture that centered around Nara and Kyoto, and contributed to the preservation of cultural properties.

Teruo HASEGAWA
- Conducted restoration studies on the architecture of lost temples including Shitenno-ji Temple.

Huiyin LIN
- Conducted comparative studies on Japanese architecture of the Asuka period and Chinese architecture of the Sui Dynasty.

Terunobu FUJIMORI
- Introduced modern architecture to Japan, making the style commonly known to the Japanese public, and studied a wide range of subjects including Asian modern architecture and 'kanban kenchiku' (literally 'signboard architecture' - a decorative façade with no eave, finished with mortar, copper plate, tiles, bricks, etc. which was mainly seen among shops in the Kanto area after the Great Kanto Earthquake).

Sutemi HORIGUCHI
- Studied chashitsu (tea room), focusing on its ideological background.

Shigetaka MIYAKAMI
- Studied the reproduction of temple and castle architecture using historical techniques.

Sadajiro MURAMATSU
- Studied modern architecture in Japan from the perspective of technological development.