The beginning of History of Japanese Architecture

While there were  some studies about architecture already during Edo period, it was after beginning of Meiji period that history of Japanese architecture was established as an academic discipline. Tatsuno Kingo, one of the architects in early era of Japanese architecture, triggered off its beginning as when he when to London to study, he knew Japan has virtually no study on the history of architecture.  He was not able to answer when asked about the history of Japanese architecture while staying in London. 

Itoh Chuta, a pupil of Tatsuno, issued a paper in which he argued Horyuji is the oldest Japanese architectural work. That paper was the dawn of the historical study of Japanese architecture. The Japanese word 'kenchiku' that means architecture today is made by Itho Chuta. In his paper, he argued that Horyuji was affected by ancient Roman architecture that is transmitted to Japan via the Silkroard, changing its format in every country on the road.

At 1900 Paris Expo, Japanese authority ordered Okakura Tenshin headed experts to issue a history book of Japanese art. Ito Chuta was assigned to edit the part of architecture in that book. During the  editing work of it, he was affected by Okakura's view of the historical periodization of Japanese art. His work in that book roughly made the outline of the Japanese history of architecture. 

At that era, Japan was in drastic regime change from Edo period to Meiji period. Under the political reform process of Meiji new government, many buddhist temples were forced to close. Therefore, there was an urgent need for research of buddhist temples. Sekino Tadashi studied about temples in Kyoto and Nara and decided building years of those temples.  He devoted his life mainly to studying Japanese, Korean, and Chinese ancient architectures.

In those days, there was an augment on the building year of Horyuji  between historian and architectural historian. In that argument, whether Horyuji was reconstructed or not due to a fire in 670 was argued. The truth on it yet has to be cleared. Besides, not only studying existing structures, historical documents and excavated remains are studied too. This academic discipline was deepened in the early 1900s. 

History of Japanese Architecture

1) The beginning of history of Japanese Architecture
2) Prehistoric and primitive age
3) Pre medieval times(1)
4) Pre medieval times(2)
5) Medieval times (1)
6) Medieval times (2) 
7) Early modern period



Yakushiji is a shrine located in Nara prefecture, built in the 7th century. The construction of the shrine was decided by emperor Tenmu in A.D. 680. Nara prefecture was a Japanese capital city in those days. Emperor Tenmu decided the construction of Yakushiji in praying for the empress' recovery from illness. The emperor and empress had just survived a war called Jinshin war that broke out in 672 and ended in the year. The war is regarded as the biggest war in ancient Japan. 


Former Abashiri Prison

Abasiri prison is the northernmost prison in Japan that is located in Abashiri, Hokkaido prefecture, opening in 1890 (Meiji 23). While the name of Abasiri is originally the name of a city where the prison is located, most Japanese people would imagine Abashiri prison when they hear the name. That prison has also been known as the most inescapable prison in Japan. That is because Abashiri prison was made to accommodate prisoners who have strong criminal tendency.   

Above photo is the former prison's entrance. It has been relocated to another place and publicly opened as a museum. Current prison is still existing where the former one had been, of course being renovated its appearance. However, both of them have the same entrance design even though there is a statue of prison guard in front of former one's entrance. Abashiri prison museum has been in business since 1983, being managed by a private-sector fund.

The entrance of current  prison. There is no statue different from former one.

In the first place, there were scarcely Japanese people in Hokkaido until the end of Edo period. Ainu race was the major and indigenous people of Hokkaido. It was like Native American in North American continent. When Maiji new government took over the administration of Japan, they thought to develop Hokkaido and started it by exploiting prisoners. Those prisoners were transferred from other Japanese islands to the island of Hokkaido, being worn red uniforms.  

They were dispatched to the barren land and forced to work to construct their own bed room. About two hundred prisoners died during the construction work and more than a thousand people were lost. The reason why Meiji government so desperately tackled the development of Hokkaido is to defend Japan from Russia's southward expansion strategy, and to exploit there natural resources to strengthen Japan's national power. In that era, there was a record number of 89,000 prisoners because it was a turbulent period.

As for the former Abashiri prison's structure, five building are arranged in a radial pattern, centering a watch house. That structure reportedly imitated that of Leuven prison, a prison located in Leuven, Belguim. On the other hand, current prison has a plain structure of some rectangle buildings. It is located with its back against a vast forrest, facing a city beyond a river. This location is clearly intended to prevent prisoners from breaking out of the prison.


Former Kaichi School

Former Kaichi school is built in 1876 (Meiji 9) when Meiji new government just had started its administration, renewing Japanese society that previously had been closed to foreign countries by Edo bakufu. Being aware of advanced technologies of western countries, Meiji new government frantically attempted to adopt and absorb western world's technologies and cultures. This building was built in such a trend of generation. Therefore, Its appearance became an compromise style between Japanese and Western style.

This building is located in Nagano prefecture, about four or five hours away from Tokyo by car. The reason why this building was built in such a rural area in spite of its state-of-the-art technology for that era is that Nagano prefecture had the largest number of terakoyas among all Japanese prefectures during Edo period - as for  terakoya, I wrote about it in this article. Because of that reason, one of the earliest Japanese elementary school was built in Nagano, introducing new architectural technology in those days.



Yoshinogari-Iseki (Yoshinogari- Ancient Ruins) is located in Saga prefecture and is a large scale village mainly prospered during Yayoi period that is dated B.C. 300 to A.D. 300. Yayoi period is generally though as a period when rice cultivation was introduced from Korea and China. It is said that there were large scale inflow of people from  Korean Peninsula and China who are called Toraijin, a Japanese word means people from other countries. Traijin allegedly brought about some innovative technologies into Japan in that era.

One of the architectural features of the houses in Yayoi period is their raised-floor style. That was a device for preventing rice to be eaten by mice or rats. Therefore, warehouses particularly was built in that style. Keeping good ventilation also is a purpose of that style. Preventing rice from becoming moldy was also important for people living in that period. In fact, raised-floor-style house is mainly seen in southeast Asia where there is a climatic feature of high temperature and high humidity. 

Raised-floor-style warehouse of Yayoi period

This kind of structure is widely seen all over the world, and many of those have a device to prevent mice or rats from invading into them. That device is also seen in above picture; there are flat boards on top of the each pillars. As to the purpose of these structure, however, there has been an argument where some are holding that they should be used as houses. Some people says they had been used as residences for noble people who would like to avoid humidity in paddy field are.



Suwa-Taisha is one of the oldest shrines in Japan and is located around lake Suwa in Nagano Prefecture. There are 25,000 shrines that are called 'Suwa shrine', and Suwa-Taisha is a headquarters of the shrine chain. This shrine is also known for a festival it held every six years. The festival is called 'Onbashira-sai' and in the festival, people carry 16 huge logs, going through some challenging spots, and they finally plant those logs around the shrine as sacred pillars.

Suwa-Taisha has seven mysterious legends as I describe below. 

1. God's Road 
In one day in winter, Ice covering lake Suwa is split and it makes a road on the lake. Although this amazing phenomenon is actually due to scientific causes, ancient people would find it to be some kind of godly phenomenon. 

2. Flog in Ice 
Suwa-Taisha annually conduct a ritual on New Year's Day in which flogs are made as a sacrifice to god, being penetrated with skewers. This ritual of course has been accused by animal protection organization. And what is mystery is that a few frogs are caught in the ice that can be got in the river running through its cite.

3. Fortune-telling with five grains gruel
On January 14 and 15 of every year, a ritual of fortune-telling that uses five grains gruel is carried out. Some people say that it has foretold the occurrence of the Great East Japan Earthquake. In fact, the purist who actually did the fortune-telling ritual in 2011 said after its implementation that this year would be scary as the worst result in the past 20 years had been gotten, adding the spring would come early but there would happen something like unforeseeable affair during the spring.

4. Deer with Split Ears
Every April 15, Suwa-Taisha implement its most important ritual called Ontousai, a sacred festival in which various crops, fruits, and animals are dedicated to their gods. The name 'Ontousai' comes from one of those offerings. Actually, they dedicate three deers' head that has been stuffed in advance of the festival. This format, however, is a result of modernization. In the old days, they had been offering 75 deers' head, and there surely is several split-ears deer, according to legend. That's the 'Deer with Split Ears'.

5. A Mysterious Pond
Every last day of the year, priests of Suwa-Taisha sink sacred offerings and tools that are used in the year into a pond called 'Kuzui-no- Kiyoike'. According to legend, those items emerged in other pond that is located so far from the pond where they sink those items first. That 'other pound' is, by the way, located in Sizuoka prefecture, and is called 'Sanagi-Ike'. The distance between Nagano prefecture in which Suwa-Taisha is located and Sizuoka prefecture is not that short, and it takes about 4 to 5 hours for one way when you use a car.

6. Early-ripening rice
Every August 1, rice plants are offered in the shrine. According to a legend, rice-plants planted in late June was reaped in the late July. As of now, this legend is re-enacted in the ritual. Generally, rice seeds are sowed and brought up out of paddy in advance. Then, they are planted in paddy after growing up to some extent. Usually, seeds are sowed in around April and the grown rice-plants are planted to paddy in around May. Finally, they are harvested in around late September. 

7. Three Water Drops
At a structure in its site, there are three water drops from its roof no matter how long drought lasts. In the case of drought, a ritual was held in which those three water drops were dripped into a cup made of green bamboo in order to playing for rain. While Japan has many water sources due to its variegated geographical features, people depend on rice farming that so much water requires. So drought can be fatal for them, and in fact, there were some terrible droughts in Japanese history during which so many people died. 

Recently, Suwa-Taisha has come to be known as one of the 'power-spots' in Japan. The word 'power-spot' is a coined word that is recently created by some popular writer and spread by mass media such as television, magazine, and the internet. The places designated as power-spots have come to be visited by many people who want to receive divine favor there. While relevant municipal governments favor this trend, many of religious institutions has been embarrassed at it because such visitors typically don't understand religious background of those institutions.  



Yubikan is a school for samurai class that was completed in 1691. It was located in Osaki, Miyagi prefecture that is one of the heavily stricken areas of the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. Yubikan also was completely destroyed in the earthquake, but it already has been reconstructed and completed. During Edo period, kids and youngsters of samurai class had been learning reading, writing, arithmetic, and material arts. In that era, common people also had been leaning those subjects generally without material arts in the school called 'terakoya'.

Terakoya is a form of private school that had been prevailing during Edo period. Those schools were mainly aimed at non-samurai class because samurai class could attend to their exclusive schools - Yubikan was one of them. Thanks to the terakoya system, some foreign people left impressions on Japanese's high rate of literacy during Edo period. And that is why Japan was able to absorb western civilization in remarkably short period after the end of Edo Period. 

When time passed and Meiji new government took over the authority from Edo bakufu, most of terakoyas were absorbed into its public school system, forming the bases of that system. Some major terakoyas were used as public schools, being kept as it was. In early Meiji period, Tokyo had 762 teachers who previously worked for terakoya, including 86 women. Among those teachers, the number of former non-samurai class teachers was over that of samurai class teachers. 


National Diet Building

National Diet Building is located at Nagatacho, Tokyo. While current building was completed in 1936, there were two previous temporary structures. The first one was completed in November 1890, the day before the first national diet was held. It was planned by German architect Adolph Stegmuller and Japanese architect Yoshii Shigenori, and the plan has two-story, Europian-style wooden structure. It, however, burned down by electrical fire only two month after its completion. 

The First Japanese Diet Hall

The second one was completed within a year after the fire: October 30, 1891. Yoshii Shigenori and German architect Oscar Tietze made its blueprints. Then, in August 1894, the Sino-Japanese war broke out. In relation to the outbreak of the war, Japanse imperial headquarters, the body that was authorized the power of ultimate decision-making regarding wars, was moved to Hirosima. Diet Hall accordingly was moved to Hiroshima, a prefecture that is very far from Tokyo, and reopened as a newly constructed temporary Diet Hall whose appearance was austere.

The Second Diet Hall

Hiroshima Temporary Diet Hall

In 1906, after the Russo-Japanese War, the construction of new and definitive version of the Diet Hall was decided. There were many troubles before its completion:the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923, a burning down due to a careless mistake by a construction worker in 1925, and the so-called February 26 Incident, an attempted military corp that was taken place around the construction site of the Diet Hall in february 1936. Then, the third version of the Diet Hall was completed on November 7, 1936.

The View of Completion Ceremony for the Third Version