An Essay on Japanese Architecture

Traditional Sensibilities in Japanese Architecture and Their Transitions into Modern Forms


In memory of Professor Susan J. Zitterbart, without whose aid and passionate support I would not have been able to write this paper.

The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation Book | First Place Prize 2017



This paper will examine the different aspects of traditional Japanese architecture that certain local architects have maintained in their works despite trends to transition completely over to the bland corporate or international building style. After an introduction to the topic, the article will dive into the different elements of traditional Japanese architecture that have been adapted into modern day use. The first section, titled Time and Space, will look at design approaches unique to Japan as an island country with limited land area. The second section will briefly introduce the reader to the belief system indigenous to Japan known as Shinto and its influences on Japanese architecture in terms of materiality and form. As a religion closely related to nature, Shinto ties into the next section on Japanese Gardens as Architecture, followed by a section on architectural influences from historical styles of Japanese residential building. Each of these sections will first talk about the characteristics, origins and functions of these traditional elements of architecture and their original forms and uses in authentic historical examples. Then the same elements as seen in modern Japanese architecture will be pulled out as examples for comparison, with a short analysis of their successes and shortcomings to conclude each section. The examples mentioned for comparison are from both personal interpretation and speculation, as well as others backed up by original sources. This paper aims to point out the successes of this approach to design, and promote its use in the future.


Over the years, terms like urbanization, modernization and globalization have become more and more synonymous, at least from an architectural standpoint. Architects from around the world are leaning towards adapting an “international style” and abandoning their local architectural heritage which has been refined over the course of centuries, if not millennia, to better function in each region’s extreme climate and to better represent the people’s unique sense of community as well as religious beliefs. It is a shame that the ingenuity in regional architecture developed by the ancients is being eclipsed by architecture of the west that is being blindly placed around the world without regard to or respect for the surrounding culture, climate, and people. This article focuses specifically on the case of architecture in Japan by concentrating mainly on the successes of architects who have continued to use elements from traditional buildings in the region or adapted them for use in their modern creations in order to advocate learning from regional architecture.

Japan is known for their abundant architectural legacy spread over an impressively long and rich history. Like several aspects of life, religion, and culture, the architecture of the islands of Japan also saw a large influx of influences from mainland Chinese and Korean cultures. The timeless Chinese techniques like tile and bracketing for example, were fused with sensibilities indigenous to Japan and resulted in a series of styles that are unique and quintessentially Japanese. These styles come with several different design elements that are much more profound than their basic form and material that meets the eye. They reflect the Japanese sensibilities and attitude towards the built environment and are still relevant in today’s architectural world and will be explored in the following sections.

I. Time & Space

In his book From Shinto to Ando, Dr. Gunter Nitschke clearly remarks that Japan, as an island country, has historically always had “too little space” for its ever-growing population. In response, the Japanese have always had a tendency to use space very intensely. Because of this scarcity of space, life in Japan as Nitschke describes it, becomes a “space-structured experience of time.” People take their time to create, contemplate, experience and appreciate what little space there is. The religion of Japan also supports this mentality. Buddhism is a religion intertwined with the ethnic Shinto belief, and is what is called an “eternity [philosophy]” where each individual has many lives and what is not achieved in the current life is postponed to the next incarnation (Nitschke). So time is limitless, but what is limited is space and the present moment, both highly valued by the Japanese.

The United States on the other hand is a “large country with relatively [fewer] people”, life here, therefore, becomes a “time-structured experience of space.” Time is the currency, and free, leisure time is a luxury earned from time worked. When everything runs on time, a new, different, culture is generated, which is why concepts like fast food, express lanes, and time-sharing vacation programs often spring from countries like the US. Japan is more or less the polar opposite according to Nitschke’s point of view. Space is the more important component of an experience, and there are a series of techniques used in traditional architecture to warp our perception of space and time, for the optimal experience of limited space.

The first technique is the manipulation of the visitor’s posture at arrival. This is most commonly seen in the form of what is called a Nijiri-guchi, a small door of a chashitsu tearoom that is made to intentionally make visitors bend low (in effect, bow) to enter the building. This has two functions: one, to make an environment where everyone is equal regardless of status (having all bowed upon entrance), and second, to make the claustrophobic room feel slightly larger than it is. To view the surroundings as larger than reality, one must reduce and humble oneself. Gates that are lower than the average person’s height can also have the same effect. The most extreme example is probably the gate folly called naka-kuguri at the Fushinan tea garden (Fig. 1, Nitschke), literally the “middle crawl-through gate.” This forces the visitors to crouch down and at the same time, see the garden from that specific elevation, an experience choreographed by the garden designer. This same technique is used in Japanese Architect, Tadao Ando’s modern townhouse, the Azuma House (Fig. 2, Jodidio). The house itself is jammed between two existing buildings, making it a very small and narrow property. But the deliberately small entrance creates a contrast in experience, making the passing of that small threshold seem to open up to a much larger space than the house actually is. The size of the door in comparison to the rest of the facade (as well as the fact that it is the only opening) further enhances this contrast and plays with the visitor’s spatial perception and experience within limited space.

Another technique used is described by Nitschke as a “space tunnel.” Space tunnels are corridors that are not too long, but long enough, and unadorned to intentionally instill a sense of boredom in the visitor. His example was the corridor at Shisendo (B, Fig 3, Nitschke). The corridor, which takes up a third of the complex, is lined with a bamboo grove that seems to repeat itself perpetually. This is boring, but this boredom is put into good use. For when people are bored, time seems to be perceived as slower than clock time, and the “tunnel” therefore, seems longer, because the visitor feels like he strolled through it over a longer period of time than he actually had. This technique combined with the small door technique is used again, by Ando, in his Honpuku Temple (Fig. 4-5, Jodidio). The temple’s most striking exterior feature is indisputably the immense bowl that is the lotus pond. But one can only look at it from afar, because as you try to get closer to the center, you have no choice but to descend downwards, missing the view of the lotuses. This is the space tunnel. The contrast of the beauty of the lotuses and the liveliness of the humming bees against the stark blandness of the concrete creates the same if not more intense feeling of boredom as felt at Shisendo, and elongates the visitor’s journey downwards towards the entrance. At the end of the “tunnel” the visitor arrives at a humble door, again reduced in size by the immense wall that rises up to the surface of the pond above, creating an illusion of a larger space after passing through the threshold of that small door.

Lastly, meandering paths, and unexpected surprises are also used in response to limited space. The Japanese have a tendency to form zigzag paths or surprising elements that contrast the previous space tunnel idea to make for a more interesting journey where a new object or scene is admired at every turn. “A straight passage is the shortest, but not necessarily the most pleasurable” says Nitschke. He mentions a story of Sen no Rikkyu, the father of the Japanese tea ceremony, and his last tea house in the mountains overlooking a bay. After a laborious

climb, and meandering through a meticulously crafted garden, his visitors were disappointed as the elderly Rikkyu had completely covered the view of the inland sea. Upon entrance of the tearoom, however, each guest was made to rinse their hands and mouths. But before bending down and just above the basin a slit in the hedge gave a full view of the sea. The same level of mastery is done at Ando’s modern church on the Rokko mountains overlooking the Osaka Bay (Fig.6, Jodidio). The entrance sequence is the iconic monotonous space-tunnel corridor completely enclosed, but at the very last moment before turning right into the chapel, a narrow vertical slit between the corridor and the concrete chapel allows a glimpse of the sea through a filter of shrubs. Just when the visitor is becoming disoriented in the enclosed corridor before entering the chapel, he/she is reminded of the beautiful landscape that lies beyond the complex. Through these examples from Tadao Ando’s work alone, we can see how modern architecture successfully incorporates aspects of traditional design and planning into modern buildings for modern use by revisiting age-old tricks that make Japanese architecture unique.

II. Shinto Sensibilities

Shinto is an ethnic religion indigenous to Japan with a strong connection to the natural world and involving a myriad of rituals that are meticulously carried out to connect modern day Japan with its past. Shinto is a compound of two characters 神道. Shin, (pronounced kami when used alone) means “spirit or god”, and to means “the way of.” In essence, it is the way of the spirits and gods of the natural world. Kami, the spirits of this religion, reside in all things, but especially in natural places considered to house sacred spirits. These often are unusual rock formations, mountains, trees, rivers, waterfalls and other natural features that become objects of worship. With this Shinto sensibility, it goes without saying, that all natural objects and materials (especially those their most natural condition) are treated with the utmost respect by the Japanese as a form of saying thanks for all the provisions of mother nature. This same sensibility is, of course, found in the construction of all Shinto shrines, the most famous and sacred of which, is Ise Jingu.

Ise Jingu is a group of two shrine complexes, the Naiku (Inner shrine) and the Geku (Outer shrine), comprised of nearing 120 separate shrines and small sanctuaries offered to benign deities of lower status in the forms of rocks, streams and springs. The main shrine of the Naiku, considered the supreme Palladium for all of Japan, houses the tutelary sun deity Amaterasu Omikami in the form of a mirror (Coaldrake, Ise ) The architecture of the main shrine is in a prehistoric style dating from before the Heian period (794-1185) and modeled on granary architecture of the Yayoi period (300 BCE-300 CE). It was logical for the agrarian Japanese to choose a granary building type used for the storage of invaluable grains. The building type is functional and rustic in style. It is bare, without paint, finishing, or intricate adornments, and is elevated on sunken stilts, creating a piano nobile of sorts, removed from the impurities of the raw earth and from rats and other pests that would damage the harvest. This vernacular style was used as the basis of the building that enshrines the sacred mirror of Amaterasu and the spirit of Toyouke It is an appropriate application for a shrine of the Shinto religion which focuses on the importance and sacredness of nature in its untampered form. As a reenactment of the natural cycles of rebirth and renewal, the main shrines are reconstructed every 20 years (Coaldrake, Ise).

(Fig. 7, Ise) The main shrine of Amaterasu at Ise is without paint, coating, or cladding on the wood. Everything is exposed in its most natural form. From a glance, this might be the image of a poor, rustic hut, but its opulence lies in the valuable material of Japanese cypress, the site’s cleanliness and absolute geometrical perfection of the construction. These are the hallmarks of the original, traditional Shinto architecture indigenous to Japan. In later Shinto shrines, it is common to see wood painted in vermillion lacquer. The color red is associated with certain deities in both Shintoism and Buddhism and is believed to ward off “demons and illness” (Schumacher). But bare wood and simple, perfect geometry continues to be used in both palatial and residential architecture, and is adapted and reinterpreted in modern day architecture.

In all of Tadao Ando’s architecture, this comes in the form of exposed wood used in his Japan Pavilion at the ‘92 Expo, the furniture at his Church of Light, and exposed concrete structures that traditionally would be masked with a  gentle finish (Fig. 8-13, Jodidio). Ando uses his own personal recipe for perfect concrete finish that he developed through tireless experimentation (Ando). Other practices like Kengo Kuma and certain projects from Atelier Bow Wow also pay tribute to this tradition of exposing the material of wood, as seen in the Crane House by Atelier Bow Wow below (Fig. 14, Tsukamoto). Although this may seem to be a common practice, the profuse use of exposed material, and the high level of dedication and impeccable perfection and finish shows the height of respect that the Japanese have for materials.

III. Garden as Architecture

Garden and architecture in Japan are one. A common technique adopted from China is called Shakkei, or borrowed scenery. The ideal Japanese house always borrows scenery when they can and this allows for the enlargement of one’s experience of space. An example is Jiko-in temple in Nara prefecture (Fig. 15, Futagawa). The limited space of the building would feel confined with walls.  But when walls are removed, a panoramic view of the city is revealed that enlarges the spatial perception of the room. In tight urban areas, it is common to also see fusuma paintings of buildings, gardens, and landscapes as an illusion to attempt to achieve the same effects of scenery borrowing.

The scene borrowing technique is an outward-looking use of greenery. Another aspect of Japanese gardens is to look inwards and experience something greater. This is the creation of microcosms of landscapes and even the cosmos within the limited confines of a garden. This is most commonly seen in Japanese rock gardens composed of exotically shaped rocks, and gravel that masks the entire ground surface. Gravel is raked into abstract patterns, representing the flow of water (or of the universe depending on the interpretation), and the rocks usually represent mountains that imitate scenery found in traditional Chinese ink paintings (Inaji).

The art of the bonsai too is part of this same culture of miniaturization of landscapes in limited space. The images above (Fig. 16-17,  Futagawa) of Ryoan-ji, perhaps the most famous of the Japanese rock gardens, also uses the previous technique of borrowing surrounding scenery beyond the walls of the complex to frame the view. The same two techniques are used in Ando’s Lee Ufan Museum (Fig. 18, Jodidio). On a flat gravel ground, the only objects are trees, a rock, and a tall concrete column, recalling the Korean artist’s minimalistic style of painting and installation artwork. The site is also engulfed in greenery, and the borrowed scenery helps frame the building and rock garden.

The Lee Ufan Museum is an epitome of an architect’s masterful attempt to recall ancient techniques, styles and aesthetic sensibilities in a new, modern form. The geometric building is very simple. An open 30×30 meter plaza paved with cobblestone gravel welcomes the visitors, and leads them into a triangular courtyard enclosed by concrete walls. Three rectangular galleries form the main building. Each is buried into the ground and allows different lighting conditions as desired by the artist. A combination of both indirect natural light and artificial spotlights are used inside to illuminate the exhibits, further contrasting the artist’s boulder installations with the architect’s rectilinear building. “As in some of my previous architecture, the unity with nature and merging it into the landscape was the main theme of the design” says Ando himself, and this is very apparent. From inside the second, enclosed courtyard, the tall concrete walls frame the sky, but moving around, green foliage can be seen peeking in over the tops, a deliberate framing on the part of the architect (Jodidio).

IV. Influences from Historic Residence Styles

Modern architecture in Japan also recalls several elements used in traditional residential styles. One style is the open room plan found in the Shinden during the 8th century Heian Period. Historic buildings from this era have a main building that is the living quarters, but there is no fixed furniture inside to indicate any specific use or program of that building. There are no fixed walls just curtains, shoji blinds and folding screens, all of which can be removed. This characteristic continues to be present in all succeeding building styles including the Shoin, Machiya and Sukiya. An example of the Sukiya style is the Sugimoto House (Fig. 19, La Maison). Here, a space which is usually divided by fusuma sliding doors into up to four rooms becomes one space with the fusuma removed. This large space can hold any activity as there is no indication of use or program.  

A modern example that illustrates this sensibility for adaptability of space well, is Kiyonori Kikutake’s Skyhouse in Tokyo (Fig. 20, Lucarelli). This building takes the adaptability of space to a whole different level. The main living space is almost identical to the Shinden style palaces. It is an open plan room, and furniture in any formation can be placed around this single room. Without furniture it is impossible to guess the program of that space (Fig. 21, Lucarelli). The concrete building is propped on four concrete stilts, perhaps recalling the granary style of prehistoric Japan, but, more importantly, it is to provide space for additions should there be an increase in the number of family members. The diagrams to the right show the different additions added onto the building as the family grew over the years (Fig. 22, Lucarelli).

Another technique found in the Shoin or Sukiya style is the staggering of buildings in order to achieve optimal sunlight exposure by avoiding the blocking of sunlight by each preceding building. Because it is both effective and aesthetic in composition, this is still used today. The Kasui-en Miyako Japanese suites on the rooftop of a Westin hotel in Kyoto (Fig. 25-27, Ito) is mimicking the building layout found in Shoin style palaces. Here are images of the hotel’s plan (Fig. 23, Ito) as compared to the plan of Nijo Castle (Fig. 24). This staggering not only provides optimal sunlight exposure, but also forms zigzag paths that, as mentioned in an earlier section, make for a much more pleasurable journey through the building.

In modern Japan, with the ever-increasing shortage of land, it seems that this technique must evolve to function in tight urban areas. The staggering of building masses is turned on its side. This is done by making balconies that retract as they get higher, a technique that can be seen in Tadao Ando’s Atelier (Fig. 28, Jodidio), and the staggered skylight monitors in the Four Boxes Gallery by Atelier Bow Wow (Fig. 29-30, Tsukamoto). These techniques are equally effective in bringing light into the building and require less space as compared to the traditional staggering in plan, which requires a large expanse of land area.

Another lighting feature found in the Shoin style is the actual Shoin. The Shoin, literally “book room”, is a small desk alcove to the side of a Tokonoma display alcove, and usually comes with a shoji window that brings light into the room from the side. In William Coaldrake’s essay, he explains the psychology of architectural intimidation based on the case study of Nijo castle where this is used to great theatrical effect. To further dramatize the presence of the shogun, the only light source in the room is the Shoin at the back of the room, which creates a mysterious silhouette and reinforces the mystic, almost divine status of his figure sitting in front of the Tokonoma. Ando’s Sunday School addition to the Church of the Light achieves the same effect. By keeping the interior dark and having just a narrow slit of fenestration at the end of the room that illuminates the area where the priest stands, the priest and the cross on the wall invoke the same mystic and divine presence as Ieyasu at Nijo Castle.

Lastly is the influence of the Machiya. Machiya, literally townhouse, is a type of building found in the tight urban fabric of cities such as Edo and Kyoto. They are usually deep complexes with a relatively humble facade known as mise facing the street. The complex is roughly divided into two compartments. The front reception room (omotemune) and a rear reception room and main living quarters (okumune). The two buildings are connected by corridor and between the two is an extra unbuilt space which evolved into a decorative garden (tsubo niwa) shared by both. Behind the okumune is the classic back of house decorative garden, a vestige of what used to be the vegetable garden that would sustain the inhabitants of the house. Behind this main garden is often a kura, a fireproof storehouse for the storage of the family’s valuables. This is shown in the diagram below.

The Azuma Row house by Tadao Ando looked at earlier is also a modern interpretation of the Machiya townhouse style. The facade that contacts the street is small, and the parcel is narrow and deep. There is a main building that connects to the road, which would be the equivalent of the Omotemune, another building in the back, the Okumune, and an interior courtyard space that links the two where the Tsubo Niwa, or inner garden, could be. Another example from Atelier Bow Wow would be the Split Machiya shown below. Both houses are tightly packed between two other houses. The increased demand for land meant that houses could no longer afford the luxury of a large backyard garden, making the Tsubo Niwa, as a place where the inhabitants grab some fresh air, a huge asset for the houses in the cramped neighborhood. These are two good examples of how Machiya architectural elements resurfaced to provide modern day city dwellers with the same escape that the people of Edo would have used.

Analysis & Conclusion

Architecture is attached to the land, and that land, to its surroundings. It is never created in a vacuum, and it won’t be until we move to Mars. So I believe that when designing any building, if you can afford to, it is always better to research the climate and culture of that region and area. Time and space are inseparable, but the Japanese definitely have a higher focus on the latter, due to its geographical location and population density. Several examples looked at in this paper demonstrated the different techniques and tricks used to tweak the viewer’s perception of space, and allow them to experience it as if it were larger than it actually is, effects that are still used today in both traditional and modern forms. The ethnic Shinto religion laid the ground for the respect that the Japanese have for building materials. Materials are treated with care and the greatest craftsmanship and are all exposed since materials are most cherished in their natural form. Gardens have also been an essential part of the Japanese lifestyle, and the examples looked at explored the different ways that the natural world is brought into the building, as well as how small gardens are able to capture the beauty and presence of larger, more substantial landscapes. Lastly, modern architects today also pull references from older styles that were successful and incorporated them into the design and planning of their buildings. All of the examples mentioned were very successful in what they were trying to achieve, although whether or not all of these techniques are successful cannot be captured by writing or photography, and must be experienced in person. But in the end, I think the act of going out of their way to incorporate the sensibilities of local architecture into their work is worth praising in its own right, and I would very much like to do the same.

Works Cited

Jodidio, Philip and Tadao Ando. Tadao Ando: Complete Works 1975-2014. Koln: Taschen, 2014. Print.

Futagawa, Yukio, Teiji Ito, and Isamu Noguchi. The Roots of Japanese Architecture; a Photographic Quest. Tokyo: Bijutsu Shuppan-sha, 1963. Print.

Inaji, Toshiro. The Garden as Architecture: Form and Spirit in the Gardens of Japan, China and Korea. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1998. Print.

Ito, Teiji, Yukio Futagawa, and Ikko Tanaka. Sukiya. Kyoto: Tanko Shinsha, 1967. Print.

Kultermann, Udo. New Japanese Architecture. New York: Praeger, 1967. Print.

Nitschke, Gunter. From Shinto to Ando: Studies in Architectural Anthropology in Japan. London: Academy Ed., 1993. Print.

Tsukamoto, Yoshiharu, and Momoyo Kaijima. Behaviorology. New York: Rizzoli, 2010. Print.

Zhang, Qingyu. Japanese Spatial Conception: A Critical Analysis of Its Elements in the Culture and Traditions of Japan and Its Post-war Era. N.p.: n.p., 1982. Print.

Articles & Documentaries

Coaldrake, William H. “Ise Jingu” and “Nijo Castle and the Psychology of Architectural Intimidation.”Architecture and Authority in Japan. London: Routledge, 1996. 138-62. Print.

Dream Window: Reflections on the Japanese Garden. Dir. John Junkerman. Youtube. Lumivision, n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2017.

Ise Jingu. Dir. Mamoru Abe. Perf. Peter Barakan. Begin Japanology. NHK World, 23 Jan. 2014. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

La Maison Sugimoto. Dir. Richard Copans. Arte France, Les Films D’ici, 2009. Web. 30 Apr. 2017.

Lucarelli, Fosco, Grace Says, and Fosco Lucarelli Says. “Evolutionary Housescape: The Metabolist Sky House by Kiyonori…” SOCKS. MICROCITIES: Fosco Lucarelli and Mariabruna Fabrizi, 01 Mar. 2015. Web. 29 Apr. 2017.

Schumacher, Mark. Color Red. Its Symbolism in Japanese Buddhism and Japanese Shintoism. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2017.


By Gunn Chaiyapatranun, anticipated Minors in Architectural History and Japanese Studies in May 2019 and Teaching Assistant for course “Historical Survey of World Architecture and Urbanism I”.

Taken architectural history courses: Historical Survey of World Architecture and Urbanism I (Diane Shaw), Modern Architecture (Kai Gutschow), History of Asian Architecture (Susan J. Zitterbart), Rediscovering Antiquity: Travelers, Archeologists & Architects in Mediterranean (Francesca Torello), Architectural History of Mexico & Guatemala (Diane Shaw), History of Architecture in the Islamic World- A Primer (Francesca Torello)


One thought on “An Essay on Japanese Architecture

  1. Fantastic read! I loved the architecture in Japan. I feel like I understand why I like it better now. The time vs. space thing is really interesting and one I will be thinking about for a while.


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