Japan is known for its contrasting architecture. Traditional Japanese architecture is renowned throughout the world for being breathtakingly beautiful; whilst modern day Japan exemplifies innovative contemporary design and living. Japan has had many architectural influences throughout its history, which has led to there being many different types of buildings. Over the years, the more traditional buildings such as Temples, Shrines and Palaces have had efforts made to preserve them, leading to them becoming popular tourist sites for those wanting to find out more about Japanese architecture history.
This guide will reveal the history of Japanese architecture, looking at how Japanese house designs have progressed from pit-style dwellings to spacious and sophisticated structures that you see today. This guide will identify the key features of traditional Japanese architecture.
The History of Japanese Architecture
Early Japanese architecture from the Jomon Period (13000 BC to 300 BC) has been characterised by the beginning of widespread rice farming. This resulted in the appearance of permanent settlements with bigger populations. During this period, houses were called ‘pit dwellings’. These Japanese houses had a wood foundation and thatched straw roof. As these communities began to grow into villages, houses, especially granaries, were built on stilts to keep mice away. Yoshinogari Historical Park is a popular tourist destination to view these historic dwellings.
Religion is a common feature of architecture and Japan is no different. Shinto, a set of beliefs that emphasise nature, was very popular in ancient Japan and influenced early Japanese architectural style. A prime example of the influence of Shinto can be seen in the earliest shrine architecture. The earliest shrine architecture styles are: Shinmei style which resemble ancient store houses, Taisha style resembling ancient residencies, and the Sumiyoshi style represented by the Sumiyoshi Shrine in Osaka.
Buddhism arrived to mainland Japan from China in the 6th century, and this heavily influenced Japanese architecture. As well as influencing shrine architecture, Buddhism influenced the building of temples. At first the temples built closely resembled Chinese temples, with features such as symmetrical layouts and wide courtyards. However, over time, temples were increasingly built to suit locals’ tastes, such as focusing less on symmetry and incorporating large gardens to the temple compounds which reflected the calmness of Buddhism. Sadly, many of Japan’s first temples and shrines were lost over time. The ones around today are mostly only a few centuries old.
Palaces are an important part of Japanese architectural history. In 710 the first permanent palace was built in Nara, the Heijo Palace, this site is open to tourists to visit today. Following the civil war (14th-16th century) the Edo Period was symbolised as a period of peace. In this time, Lords began to build palaces for themselves. During the civil war, castles had been built as fortresses but during the Edo period they became the centre of government and status symbols for Lords. When initially constructed, the castles were made out of wood, but most were rebuilt using Ferro concrete causing an authentic look from the outside but not within.
Japanese house designs throughout history depend on social status. Residents were lucky if they were high enough in society to be part of the Samurai, who resided in castle towns. The grandeur of the samurai’s house was determined by his rank in the hierarchy. The higher ranking samurai lived closest to the castle with spacious rooms and gardens, whilst also having the largest gates and pillars to show their social status. Lower ranking samurai resided further from the castle and lived in more humble houses. Former samurai residencies are best seen in cities such as Kanazawa or Hagi, which have preserved their samurai districts.
Townhouses in Japan were inhibited by craftsmen and merchants further down in the social hierarchy. Due to taxation being based on road access, townhouses often had narrow facades and were wider at the back. Fire-insulated storehouses were located in the back of the townhouses to protect valuable goods. Several merchant districts are still preserved today in Takayama and Kurashiki.
During the Meji Period (1868-1912), farmers made up the majority of the population. The designs of these houses varied according to the weather patterns. There are architectural similarities between these Japanese house designs and the dwellings before them, both had: wooden facades, thatched roofs and an earth floor with living spaces on elevated wooden floors. Open air museums are good places to see regional styles of farmhouses.
Japanese architecture was radically changed during the Meiji Restoration of 1868. In this period Japan underwent an influx of Western culture in almost all aspects of life, from clothes to architecture. This is when brick buildings were introduced to Japan, leaving a legacy that would path the way for modern day Japan.
It is not since the Second World War that Japanese architecture made an impression on the international scene with the development of skyscrapers and buildings that display artistic brilliance.
Key Features of Traditional Japanese Architecture.
Wood is a dominant feature of traditional Japanese architecture due to the ever-present risk of earthquakes. As a sign of respect, the wood would not be concealed in paint or covered in other ways. Similarly, nails were not used as craftsman developed alternative ways of connecting the house.
Screens and Sliding Doors
Traditional Japanese houses used sliding doors as a way of separating different parts of the house. Due to the light weight of the sliding doors, Japanese families could customize their homes and change the internal configuration of the house for different occasions. Heavier shutters were used to sometimes close off the outside of the house. Sliding doors and screens are still popular in houses today.
Japanese houses are designed to have a sunken space between the front door and the rest of the house. As the area between is viewed as a dirty area, the genkan is where shoes are stored in Japanese Houses to keep the house clean.
Older Japanese houses tend to have a raised veranda around the outside of the house. Similar to an outside corridor, the engawa is sometimes reinforced with heavy storm shutters.
And that is our whistle-stop tour through the history of Japanese architecture! If you are visiting Japan and interested in learning more about this beautiful country, be sure to read our other blog posts.