go back

Japanese Buddhist Architecture

By Devik Balami at
Japanese Buddhist architecture

Japanese Buddhist Architecture mainly includes the architecture of Buddhist temples which was influenced by the architectural styles from China. Earlier, the attempts were to make the Buddhist architecture as original as it was looked in China but gradually the buildings were localized due to the problems posed by local weather and Japanese tastes.

Historical development of Japanese Buddhist Architectures

The development of Japanese Buddhist Architectures can be broadly divided into the following periods

Asuka and Nara Periods

The Buddhism and the Buddhist architecture were literally imported from China via Korea in the 6th century. As the Buddhism was introduced in Japan, the Buddhist temples were started to build in the country but due to the hostile behavior of supporter of the local kami, the buildings were no longer stand by itself and there are no written records of the architectural styles of that period.

But later the Buddhism got its support from the Prince Shotoku. He ordered the construction of Buddhist temple, Shitennoji in Osaka (593) and Horyu-ji near his palace in Ikaruga (603). During this period, the temple layout was strictly prescribed and followed. This act helped to maintain the architectural style uniform. In this period the main gate was constructed facing south and the most sacred area surrounded by a semi-enclosed roofed corridor accessible through a middle gate. The temple complex also contains the main hall with Buddha statue, and pagoda which houses sacred objects. The other structures include a lecture hall, a belfry, a sutra repository, priests and monks quarters and bathhouse.

Nara Period observed quite different architectural development. The temple structures, such as pagodas and main halls, had increased significantly in size. The placement of the pagoda moved to a more peripheral location and the roof bracketing system increased in complexity as roofs grew larger and heavier.

In the 8th century, Kami worship and Buddhism was reconciled and thus shrine-temples were founded to support both groups. This coexistence of Buddhism and Kami worship continued until the Kami and Buddhas Separation Order of 1868.

Heian period

In this period, Buddhism was more localized with addition Japanese elements, local beliefs. With this localization Fujiwara no Michinaga and retired Emperor Shirakawa erected new temples and hence developed Jodo-Kyo architecture and the new Wayo architectural style.

In the early period, Rokushu architectonic traditions were also observed. This style of architecture was developed only in the plains but in mountainous areas, it was an original style. The architectural style was characterized by the simplicity which uses local resources like natural timber.

The architecture includes a main hall which is generally divided into two parts; an outer area for novices and an inner area for initiates. The roof is a hip and gable which covers both the areas. The floor is little raised which is made up of wood.

Kamakura and Muromachi periods

In Kamakura period, Daibutsu style and the Zen style of architectural design emerged. The first style represents the antithesis of the simple and traditional Wayo style while the Zen style characterized as earthen floors, subtly curved pent roofs, cusped windows, and paneled doors.

In Muromachi periods, the above-mentioned style of architecture was often combined to form the new style of architecture, Eclectic style of architecture.

Other notable periods in the history of the development of Japanese Buddhist architecture were Azuchi-Momoyama and Eddo periods, and Meiji period. In these periods the Buddhist architectures were also developed accordingly focusing on the local beliefs and use of local resources.

General features of Japanese Buddhist Architectures

Actually, the architectural styles of Japanese Buddhist buildings were imported from China and various other Asian countries. With time, these architectural styles were localized in order to suit the Japanese tastes, and the local resources and weather.

Japanese architects have used a locally available material, mainly wood in various forms. It is hard to see the buildings that use stones except for certain specific uses as in temple podia and pagoda foundations.

Almost all the buildings share the common general structure: columns and lintels to support a large and gently curved roof. The walls are also paper thin, which is often movable. We can notice that the arches and barrel roofs are completely absent. It is recorded that gable and eave curves are gentler that in China and columnar entasis limited.

The most impressive component of the Japanese Buddhist architecture is the roof. The roof has the slightly curved eaves that extend far beyond the walls, covering verandas. These oversize eaves give the interior a characteristic dimness, which contributes to the temple's atmosphere. The building normally consists of a single room at the center called Moya.

As it is already mentioned that the inner walls are paper thin and often movable, the room size can be modified as per required. Hence, the large, single space offered by the main hall can, therefore, be altered according to the need.

Sometimes the architecture is shared by both sacred and profane building structures. Therefore, these architectural features made it easy to convert a lay building into the Buddhist temple. The popular Horyu-Ji Buddhist temple in Nara Prefecture is the excellent example. This building was once used to be the mansion for the noblewoman.