There are no extant examples of prehistoric architecture, and the oldest Japanese texts, such as Kojiki and Nihonshoki hardly mention architecture at all. Excavations and researches show these houses had thatched roofs and dirt floors. Houses in areas of high temperature and humidity had wooden floors. With the spread of rice cultivation from China, communities became increasingly larger and more complex, and large scale buildings for the local ruling family or rice storage houses are seen in Sannai-Maruyama site (before 2nd century BC) in Aomori or Yoshinogari site in Saga (before 3rd century BC).
After the 3rd century, a centralized administrative system was developed and many keyhole-shaped Kofun were built in Osaka and Nara for the aristocracy. Among many examples in Nara and Osaka, the most notable is Daisen-kofun, designated as the tomb of Emperor Nintoku. This kofun is approximately 486 by 305 m, rising to a height of 35 m.
The earliest structures still extant in Japan, and the oldest surviving wooden buildings in the world are found at the Hōryū-ji to the southwest of Nara. They serve as the core examples of architecture in Asuka period. First built in the early 7th century as the private temple of Crown Prince Shotoku consists of 41 independent buildings; the most important ones, the main worship hall, or Kondo (Golden Hall), and Goju-no-to (Five-story Pagoda), stand in the center of an open area surrounded by a roofed cloister. The Kondo, in the style of Chinese worship halls, is a two-story structure of post-and-beam construction, capped by an irimoya, or hipped-gabled roof of ceramic tiles.
Temple building in the 8th century was focused around the Tōdaiji in Nara. Constructed as the headquarters for a network of temples in each of the provinces, the Tōdaiji is the most ambitious religious complex erected in the early centuries of Buddhist worship in Japan. Appropriately, the 16.2-m (53-ft) Buddha (completed in 752) enshrined in the main hall, or Daibutsuden, is a Rushana Buddha, the figure that represents the essence of Buddhahood, just as the Tōdai-ji represented the center for imperially sponsored Buddhism and its dissemination throughout Japan. Only a few fragments of the original statue survive, and the present hall and central Buddha are reconstructions from the Edo period. Clustered around the Daibutsuden on a gently sloping hillside are a number of secondary halls: the Hokkedo (Lotus Sutra Hall), with its principal image, the Fukukenjaku Kannon (the most popular bodhisattva), crafted of dry lacquer (cloth dipped in lacquer and shaped over a wooden armature); the Kaidanin (Ordination Hall) with its magnificent clay statues of the Four Guardian Kings; and the storehouse, called the Shosoin. This last structure is of great importance as an art-historical cache, because in it are stored the utensils that were used in the temple's dedication ceremony in 752, the eye-opening ritual for the Rushana image, as well as government documents and many secular objects owned by the imperial family.
In reaction to the growing wealth and power of organized Buddhism in Nara, the priest Kūkai (best known by his posthumous title Kōbō Daishi, 774-835) journeyed to China to study Shingon, a form of Vajrayana Buddhism, which he introduced into Japan in 806. At the core of Shingon worship are the various mandalas, diagrams of the spiritual universe which influenced temple design. Japanese Buddhist architecture also adopted the stupa in its Chinese form of pagoda.
The temples erected for this new sect were built in the mountains, far away from the court and the laity in the capital. The irregular topography of these sites forced Japanese architects to rethink the problems of temple construction, and in so doing to choose more indigenous elements of design. Cypress-bark roofs replaced those of ceramic tile, wood planks were used instead of earthen floors, and a separate worship area for the laity was added in front of the main sanctuary.
In the Fujiwara period, Pure Land Buddhism, which offered easy salvation through belief in Amida (the Buddha of the Western Paradise), became popular. Concurrently, the Kyoto nobility developed a society devoted to elegant aesthetic pursuits. So secure and beautiful was their world that they could not conceive of Paradise as being much different. The Amida hall, blending the secular with the religious, houses one or more Buddha images within a structure resembling the mansions of the nobility.
The Hōō-dō (Phoenix Hall, completed 1053) of the Byōdō-in, a temple in Uji to the southeast of Kyoto, is the exemplar of Fujiwara Amida halls. It consists of a main rectangular structure flanked by two L-shaped wing corridors and a tail corridor, set at the edge of a large artificial pond. Inside, a single golden image of Amida (circa 1053) is installed on a high platform. The Amida sculpture was executed by Jocho, who used a new canon of proportions and a new technique (yosegi), in which multiple pieces of wood are carved out like shells and joined from the inside. Applied to the walls of the hall are small relief carvings of celestials, the host believed to have accompanied Amida when he descended from the Western Paradise to gather the souls of believers at the moment of death and transport them in lotus blossoms to Paradise. Raigo (Descent of the Amida Buddha) paintings on the wooden doors of the Ho-o-do are an early example of Yamato-e, Japanese-style painting, because they contain representations of the scenery around Kyoto.
After the Kamakura period, Japanese political power was dominated by the armed Samurai, such as Seiwa Genji. Their simple and sturdy ideas affected the architecture style, and many samurai houses are a mixture of shinden-zukuri and turrets or trenches.
In the Genpei War (1180-1185), many traditional buildings in Nara and Kyoto were damaged. For example, Kofukuji and Todaiji were burned down by Taira no Shigehira of the Taira clan in 1180. Many of these temples and shrines were rebuilt in the Kamakura period by the Kamakura shogunate to consolidate the shogun's authority. This program was carried out in such an extensive scale that many of the temples and shrines built after the Kamakura period were influenced by this architectural style.
Another major development of the period was the tea ceremony and the tea house in which it was held. The purpose of the ceremony is to spend time with friends who enjoy the arts, to cleanse the mind of the concerns of daily life, and to receive a bowl of tea served in a gracious and tasteful manner. Zen was the basic philosophy. The rustic style of the rural cottage was adopted for the tea house, emphasizing such natural materials as bark-covered logs and woven straw.
Two new forms of architecture were developed in response to the militaristic climate of the times: the castle, a defensive structure built to house a feudal lord and his soldiers in times of trouble; and the shoin, a reception hall and private study area designed to reflect the relationships of lord and vassal within a feudal society. Himeji Castle (built in its present form 1609), popularly known as White Heron Castle, with its gracefully curving roofs and its complex of three subsidiary towers around the main tenshu (or keep), is one of the most beautiful structures of the Momoyama period. The Ohiroma of Nijo Castle (17th century) in Kyoto is one of the classic examples of the shoin, with its tokonoma (alcove), shoin window (overlooking a carefully landscaped garden), and clearly differentiated areas for the Tokugawa lords and their vassals.
Katsura Detached Palace, built in imitation of Prince Genji's palace, contains a cluster of shoin buildings that combine elements of classic Japanese architecture with innovative restatements. The whole complex is surrounded by a beautiful garden with paths for walking.
The city of Edo was repeatedly struck by fires, leading to the development of a simplified architecture that allowed for easy reconstruction. Because fires were most likely to spread during the dry winters, lumber was stockpiled in nearby towns prior to their onset. Once a fire that had broken out was extinguished, the lumber was sent to Edo, allowing many rows of houses to be quickly rebuilt. Due to the shogun's policy of sankin kotai ("rotation of services"), the daimyo constructed large houses and parks for their guests' (as well as their own) enjoyment. Kōrakuen is a park from that period that still exists and is open to the public for afternoon walks.
In the years after 1867, when Emperor Meiji ascended the throne, Japan was once again invaded by new and alien forms of culture. By the early 20th century, European art forms were well introduced and their marriage produced notable buildings like the Tokyo Train Station and the National Diet Building that still exist today.
In early 1920s, modernists and expressionists emerged and began to form their own groups. Kunio Maekawa and Junzo Sakakura joined Le Corbusier's studio in France, came back to Japan in early 1930s, and designed several buildings. Influence of modernism spread to many company and government buildings. In 1933 Bruno Taut fled to Japan, and his positive opinion of Japanese architecture (especially Katsura Imperial Villa) encouraged Japanese modernists.
See also Giyōfū architecture.
As with so many other aspects of Japanese culture and society, the change to modern technology brought a quite noticeable change in architecture as well. The need to rebuild Japan after World War II proved a great stimulus to Japanese architecture, and within a short time, the cities were functioning again. However, the new cities that came to replace the old ones came to look very different. The current look of Japanese cities is the result of and a contributor to 20th and 21st century architectural attitudes. With the introduction of Western building techniques, materials, and styles into Meiji Japan, new steel and concrete structures were built in strong contrast to traditional styles. Like most places, there is a great gap between the appearance of the majority of buildings (generally residences and small businesses) and of landmark buildings. After World War II, the majority of buildings ceased to be built of wood (which is easily flammable in the case of earthquakes and bombing raids), and instead were internally constructed of steel. High visibility landmark buildings also changed. Whereas major pre-war buildings, such as the Wako Department Store, Tokyo Station, Akasaka Palace, and the Bank of Japan were designed along European classical lines, post-war buildings adopted the "unadorned box" style that some people love and some people hate. Because of earthquakes, bombings, and later redevelopment, and also because of Japan's rapid economic growth from the 1950s until the 1980s, most of the architecture to be found in the cities are from that period, which was the height of Brutalist Modern architecture generally.
However, since around the early 1990s, the situation has slowly started to change. The 1991 completion of the postmodernist Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building was perhaps a tipping point in skyscraper design. Hot on its heels was the Yokohama Landmark Tower. In 1996 came the much-loved Tokyo International Forum, which besides a unique design, sported a landscaped area outside for people to relax and chat. More recently, in 2003, Roppongi Hills was opened, which borrowed ideas from previous ground-breaking designs and furthered them. The new area of Shiodome, completely redeveloped since the late 1990s, is an excellent place to see a group of postmodern and European-style buildings, away from the usual jumble of '60s-era anonymous rectangular prisms. Still, despite this slow but continuing trend in contemporary Japanese architecture, the vast majority of suburban areas still exhibit cheap, uninspired designs.
The best-known Japanese architect is Kenzo Tange, whose National Gymnasiums (1964) for the Tokyo Olympics emphasizing the contrast and blending of pillars and walls, and with sweeping roofs reminiscent of the tomoe (an ancient whorl-shaped heraldic symbol) are dramatic statements of form and movement.
Japan played some role in modern skyscraper design, because of its long familiarity with the cantilever principle to support the weight of heavy tiled temple roofs. Frank Lloyd Wright was strongly influenced by Japanese spatial arrangements and the concept of interpenetrating exterior and interior space, long achieved in Japan by opening up walls made of sliding doors. In the late twentieth century, however, only in domestic and religious architecture was Japanese style commonly employed. Cities sprouted modern skyscrapers, epitomized by Tokyo's crowded skyline, reflecting a total assimilation and transformation of modern Western forms.
The widespread urban planning and reconstruction necessitated by the devastation of World War II produced such major architects as Maekawa Kunio and Kenzo Tange. Maekawa, a student of world-famous architect Le Corbusier, produced thoroughly international, functional modern works. Tange, who worked at first for Maekawa, supported this concept early on, but later fell in line with postmodernism, culminating in projects such as the aforementioned Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and the Fuji TV Building. Both architects were notable for infusing Japanese aesthetic ideas into starkly contemporary buildings, returning to the spatial concepts and modular proportions of tatami (woven mats), using textures to enliven the ubiquitous ferroconcrete and steel, and integrating gardens and sculpture into their designs. Tange used the cantilever principle in a pillar and beam system reminiscent of ancient imperial palaces; the pillar--a hallmark of Japanese traditional monumental timber construction-- became fundamental to his designs. Fumihiko Maki advanced new city planning ideas based on the principle of layering or cocooning around an inner space (oku), a Japanese spatial concept that was adapted to urban needs. He also advocated the use of empty or open spaces (ma), a Japanese aesthetic principle reflecting Buddhist spatial ideas. Another quintessentially Japanese aesthetic concept was a basis for Maki designs, which focused on openings onto intimate garden views at ground level while cutting off sometimes-ugly skylines. A dominant 1970s architectural concept, the "metabolism" of convertibility, provided for changing the functions of parts of buildings according to use, and remains influential.
A major architect of the 1970s and 1980s was Isozaki Arata, originally a student and associate of Tange's, who also based his style on the Le Corbusier tradition and then turned his attention toward the further exploration of geometric shapes and cubic silhouettes. He synthesized Western high-technology building concepts with peculiarly Japanese spatial, functional, and decorative ideas to create a modern Japanese style. Isozaki's predilection for the cubic grid and trabeated pergola in largescale architecture, for the semicircular vault in domestic-scale buildings, and for extended barrel vaulting in low, elongated buildings led to a number of striking variations. New Wave architects of the 1980s were influenced by his designs, either pushing to extend his balanced style, often into mannerism, or reacting against them.
A number of avant-garde experimental groups were encompassed in the New Wave of the late 1970s and the 1980s. They reexamined and modified the formal geometric structural ideas of modernism by introducing metaphysical concepts, producing some startling fantasy effects in architectural design. In contrast to these innovators, the experimental poetic minimalism of Tadao Ando embodied the postmodernist concerns for a more balanced, humanistic approach than that of structural modernism's rigid formulations. Ando's buildings provided a variety of light sources, including extensive use of glass bricks and opening up spaces to the outside air. He adapted the inner courtyards of traditional Osaka houses to new urban architecture, using open stairways and bridges to lessen the sealed atmosphere of the standard city dwelling. His ideas became ubiquitous in the 1980s, when buildings were commonly planned around open courtyards or plazas, often with stepped and terraced spaces, pedestrian walkways, or bridges connecting building complexes . In 1989 Ando became the third Japanese to receive France's prix de l'académie d'architecture, an indication of the international strength of the major Japanese architects, all of whom produced important structures abroad during the 1980s. Japanese architects were not only skilled practitioners in the modern idiom but also enriched postmodern designs worldwide with innovative spatial perceptions, subtle surface texturing, unusual use of industrial materials, and a developed awareness of ecological and topographical problems.
Example of pre-modern Japanese architecture are:
Typical architectural features are: