Basic Architectural Principles
Over the course of Japans history, many architectural styles have been adopted as well
as created that have all lead to the current state of Japanese architecture. Like almost
all other cultures, Japanese architects adhered to certain cultural beliefs, ideas and
principles that helped to define a notorious style of architecture. These 6 principles are
the principles that Japanese architects adhered to while designing and building the
elegant structures that are scattered throughout Japan.
Preference for Natural Materials and Settings
Restraint and Exuberance
Attention to Detail
Indigenous and Foreign Influences
Preserving the Past
Status and Function
Japanese Architectural Periods
When it comes to documenting history, many cultures choose to break up their history
into periods based on significant events and Japan is no different. Japans history as a
nation has been broken into several periods of time, each opening or closing with an
imperative event that would eventually shape the Japanese culture. Japans history has
been broken into these periods:
2. Asuka Period
3. Hakuho Period
4. Nara Period
5. Heian Period
6. Kamakura Period
7. Muromachi Period
8. Azuchi-Momoyama period
9. Tokugawa or Edo Period
10. Modern Period
Throughout the rest of this presentation I am going to focus on the Nara and Heian
periods of architecture. I chose these two periods because they essentially show the
transformation of Japanese architecture and the influence the Buddhist religion had on
Influences from Korea and China
Buddhism was first introduced to Japan in the 6th century from the Korean state of
Paekche. This refined religion was welcomed by the Yamato Court as they thought it
would help them to advocate a more centralized government. Once the people of
Japan acknowledged Buddhism as a mainstream religion in the 7th century, the
architecture that followed led to beautiful palaces and temples filled with extravagant
art that told the story of Buddha.
This is the Shitennoji
Temple, one of the
earliest temples built
after Buddhism was
introduced to the state
of Japan. This temple
consists of a gate,
Pagoda, main hall and
Asuka Period (538-645 AD)
In 538, Buddhism was introduced to Japan. The period of time between the
introduction to Buddhism and the Taika Reform of 645 is known as the Asuka Period.
During the Asuka Period, Japan was thoroughly transformed as it came under the
influence of continental civilization.
When Buddhism was introduced, a difference erupted between the
Mononbe and Soga clans pertaining to which religion would be chosen as the official
religion of Japan. This debate occurred around the time Japan was experiencing a
rapid evolution of influential clans to a centralized nation known as the Yamato State.
The Soga clan favored Buddhism and eventually prevailed over the Mononobe clan.
The Yamato Court used Buddhism as a political tool to help consolidate its own power.
Prince Shotku was appointed Regent by the Empress Suiko in 593. His interest
in the Buddhist religion and philosophical aspects trumped the need of political power.
Shotku actively promoted the new religion by bringing in craftsman from Korea and
China to build Buddhist Temples and furnish them with murals and sculptures. The two
main compounds constructed by Shotoku were Horyuji Temple near Nara and the
Shitennoji Temple in Osaka which was shown briefly on the previous page.
Although the Hakuho Period followed the Asuka Period, I felt that the Asuka
Period was the main factor in the rise of Buddhist architecture and art.
Japanese Roof Types
The most common roof types used in Japanese architecture are displayed below. PreBuddhist shrines used the gable roof while the hipped-and-gable roof became the
popular roof after the introduction of Buddhism.
Nara Period (710-794 AD)
Despite several moves back and forth between Heijokyo and other
locations, Heijokyo remained the capital of Japan for 74 years. The capital was moved
to Nagaokakyo in 784. The Nara Period was the apex in which Japanese efforts to mimic
Chinese cultural and political models were in full swing. The new capital city was
modeled after the Tang Capital at Chang’an and a complex legal system established
the ideal order of social relationships and obligations amongst the state. Because of this
mimicked model, a society of heirarchy was established.
The first several decades of the 8th century were accompanied by political
complication, power struggles, attempts to over throw the government and disease
epidemics. This antagonistic atmosphere led emperor Shomu to strengthen the spiritual
collective that he perceived to be offered by the Buddhist religion. In 741 he established
the Kokubunji system. The Kokubunji System would help to build a monastery in each of
the Japanese provinces that would all fall under a central authority in Nara. In 743 he
began the planning of the Todai Temple, the central authority in his Kokubunji System.
The central image of this temple would be a giant bronze statue of the Birushana
Buddha. Shomu envisioned religion as a supportive and integrated power of the state.
His plan to combine the church and state eventually back fired in which temples were
able to acquire wealth and power in return allowing the governing Buddha priests to
interfere with state affairs.
Todai-ji Temple (Nara, Japan)
The Todai-ji Temple
was built by Emperor
Shomu from 724-749
when Nara was the
capital of Japan.
The Todai-ji Temple
architecture at its
The Daibutsu Buddha weighs
250 tons and stands just over
30 meters tall. The hair of the
Buddha is constructed of 966
bronze balls. During the
construction of the Buddha,
Japan almost went bankrupt
due to amount of bronze
being used to build the
Todai-ji Gate Statues
These statues rest just inside the main gate of the Todai-ji Temple. These are said to be the
Heavenly Kings. Both statues are around 8 meters tall and where carved in 1203.
These pillars are known as
the healing pillars. The
popular belief among
people at the time was
that if you could fit through
the small cut out in the
pillars you would be
guaranteed a place in
heaven. More than just a
popular belief, these pillars
are the inner foundation of
the temple, supporting a
majority of the structure.
The belfry was built in
752 for the ceremony of
the Diabutsu Buddha. It
is a single room
The bell itself is 4 meters
tall, 2.7 meters across
and weighs a
whopping 26 tons. It is
the second largest bell
in Japan. The bell is
usually rang when
saying goodbye to the
old year and
welcoming the New
Many people see these
buildings and wonder
what they are. These
beams are what’s
known as Eaves
Bracketing. This was a
the way that the
were able to build such
large and over hanging
roofs. These complex
systems of beams
would allow the
building to suspend
much more weight
then the simple postand-lintel system I
talked about earlier.
Young, David. Introduction to Japanese Architecture.
Singapore: Periplus Editions. 2004
Sadler, A.L. Japanese Architecture: A Short History.
Vermont: Tuttle Publishing. 2009