Japanese Art – Architecture

In few other countries will be found so many historical buildings as in Japan ; and almost every age is represented by extant buildings of different types. However, most of them are Shinto and Buddhist buildings. Besides them, some palace buildings, dwelling houses and castles remain. When Westerners come to see them they are struck by the strangeness of their appearance, color, structure, material and expression, because they are different in so many respects from those of Western architecture. The difference comes from the climatic influence, material sources, modes of living, religious ideas and tastes of the people.

The Japanese spirit has been nurtured under the roofs of such different buildings, religious and secular.

In Japan, wood is almost the sole material for buildings from the remote past to the present time. This owes much to the abundance of wood throughout the whole Empire, and it is preferable in Japan because it is proof against the intense humidity all the year round. Among the woods hinoki is perhaps the best for the high grade architecture. Also, against earthquakes wooden buildings were preferred to the stone or brick buildings. The Japanese building is fundamentally constructed in the vertical and horizontal directions, while the Western structural principle is of the arch system. On the whole, the architectural feeling differs much from that of the West, because the Japanese house is open in its nature and construction, while the Western building is private and self-contained.

The keen interest of tourists from the West will be attracted by the forms of the Japanese roofs, eaves, bracket systems and friezes. There are four fundamental forms of roofs : the gable roof (kirizuma-zukuri), the hipped roof (shichu zukuri), the pyramidal roof (hogyb-zukurz), and the hipped roof with gables (irimoya-zukuri). The more complicated shapes are produced by combination of these fundamental forms. The beauty and tastes of roofs are, however, more effectively carried out by materials used for such roofs of different styles. Straw, rush, tiles, shingles, and bark of the hinoki wood, are used according to the different kinds of buildings. Tiles are used more for the Buddhist temples and there are two kinds, flat and rounded tiles. The tiles used at the end of the eaves are decorated with designs, as will be seen in Fig. 55. The shingles (kokera) and bark of the hinoki wood (hiwada) are usually used for the roofs of Shinto shrines. Straw and rush are used for country houses of primitive styles (Fig. 56). The architectural beauty of the roof is most effectively achieved by its broad pitch and sky lines.

The interest of the tourist will next be attracted by the arrangement of rafters, bracket systems or masu-gumi and the carving of the ” frog-leg ” supports or kaeru-mata .

The pillars of Japanese architecture are very important structural members, taking the place of the Western walls which sustain the weight of roofs.

The special features of the interior of Japanese historical buildings will be seen in the construction of ceilings, bracket systems, perforated panels (ramma) above lintels over the sliding-screens which are at the partitions of rooms . In the construction of the ceiling there are two fundamental forms, flat and coved compartment ceilings. The coffers are usually decorated with painting in colors. Perforated panels are generally decorated with different carvings, and the sliding-screens which take the place of walls are usually decorated with pictures in several colors, or black and white.

Japanese historical buildings may be divided into two classes, the pre-Buddhist and post-Buddhist period. Although no building remains from the pre-Buddhist period, some clay models discovered from the proto-historic burial-mounds, and some primitive styles of Shinto architecture such as Taisha-zukuri and Shimmei-zukuri, illustrate the pre-Buddhist buildings.

After Buddhism was introduced into japan, in the middle of the 6th century, Japanese architecture was profoundly influenced by Chinese architecture in many ways. However, Japanese style of buildings developed since the later Heian Period (894-1185).

In the following pages we choose some representative historical buildings of Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, dwelling-houses and castles and give brief descriptions of them.