For centuries, Japanese architecture was influenced by Chinese architecture. However, specific differences are apparent between the two styles. One of the main differences between the two types of architecture is that Japanese architecture has historically allowed for people to sit on the floor, where Chinese architecture provides for people to sit in chairs. During the Meiji period, this began to change.
One other important influence upon the architecture of Japan is the climate of the region. The houses that are built in Japan take into account the long, hot summers, providing raised roofs for air flow. The climate is cause for the use of certain materials, including wood, as it adjusts well for earthquakes and accommodates seasonal changes.
The final influence upon Japanese architecture is the spiritual worship of Buddha. Buddhist architecture was first introduced in Japan around the 6th century from China and Korea. Temples, built for the worship of Buddha, included compound like areas that provided housing for nuns and monks. After the 8th century, these compounds began to include seven significant structures: the pagoda, a main hall, a lecture hall, the bell tower, a repository, a dormitory and a dining hall. The compounds were made secure by giant walls and gates. Tourists to Japan can take note of differences in Buddhist temples merely by noting the size of the lecture or main halls. In early temples, the lecture hall was the largest building. As various factions of Buddhism arose, styles of Japanese architecture evolved.
In contrast to Buddhist temples, Shinto temples incorporate their belief that kami (Shinto gods or deity) live inside of every living thing, from the mountains to water to rocks and trees. The kami dwell in Shinto shrines, and thus people worship kami there. One will find the Shinto temples built in much more harmony with nature, often finding the Shinto temple built up and around trees, rocks and mountains or connected to those objects. The Shinto shrine or temple is much simpler, as compared to the Buddhist shrine.
The various influences and styles of Japanese architecture have changed consequent to the time periods and ruling emperor. As with other regions of the world, the Japanese have very few records of early century housing or architecture. Research and archeologist digs have found that the Japanese used thatched roofs and dirt floors for their earliest dwellings. Prior to the 3rd century, and because of the rise in rice cultivation (from China), communities increased in size and became more complex, including large buildings for the local ruling family. Rice storage facilities became numerous as well.
One of the earliest known structures in Japan today is an old wooden building found at the Horyu-ji, to the southwest of Nara. This is a prime example of the earliest architecture in the Asuka period. As the prime private temple of the Crown Prince Shotoku, this temple consists of 41 separate buildings, with one main worship hall. The main worship hall (or Kondo) stands in the center of an open area, and is a two-story building, made of post and beam construction, very much like the style of Chinese worship halls.
As Buddhism began to spread in Japan, the architecture reflected this. One form of Buddhism, Shingon, which was introduced from China in the 9th century, influenced the next era of architecture. At the center of Shingon worship are mandalas. Mandalas are diagrams of the spiritual universe, and this was to be the main influence for temple design during this time period. The temples built for this sect of Buddhism were often built into the mountains, quite a distance from the court and the capital city. Because of the topography in the mountainous areas, Japanese architects had to rethink the construction of the temples. Architects began to incorporate nature and its’ elements in their designs. Rather than thatched roofs and dirt floors, temples were made of cypress bark for roofs and wood planks for floors.
It was really during the Kamakura period (from 1185-1333) that Japanese architecture began to change and pull away from its Chinese origins. Taking into account the elements of nature that the Japanese had to contend with (earthquakes, heavy rainfall, and summer heat), architects and craftsmen began to use a new type of architecture that relied heavily upon the use of wood. Today, the wood carvings are still intact in many of these temples and shrines. However, because of the heavy reliance upon the use of wood, many temples and shrines were eventually destroyed by fires.
During the Muromachi period, two new styles of architecture developed. This era was characterized by a militaristic tone, and thus the castle (a defensive structure) and the shoin (which was a reception type of structure) were two structures that were commonly built. The castle provided a refuge for the feudal lord and his soldiers in a time of discord. The shoin was an area that was designed as a private place to further the relationship of the lord and the vassal within the feudal society.
The Edo period saw many fires and with the incorporation of wood in its architecture the fires spread easily and wiped out entire towns. In an attempt to prepare for such disasters, lumber was stockpiled prior to the onset of dry winters, so that in the event of a fire, houses in the towns would be quickly rebuilt.
Once Emperor Meiji came to the throne, after 1867, Japan began to see new forms of European art in its architecture. Noteworthy buildings like the Tokyo Train Station and the National Diet Building were constructed in this manner prior to World War I. Then, in the 1920’s, modern and European architects began to incorporate their styles in government buildings and the spread of modernism in architecture flourished.
Of course, World War II provided stimulus for the rebuilding process once Tokyo and other cities were destroyed. The influence of much more modern styles took root and replaced the traditional Japanese style in architecture. Western influences in style, equipment and materials changed the face of the cities, and the caused the stark contrast that exists between pre-World War II buildings and the buildings that replaced them. Buildings that previously would have been built using wood were replaced in material with steel.
World War II, and the destruction caused by it, gave way to an era of reconstruction that would proliferate urban planning and the beginning of modern skyscraper design in Japan. Whereas traditional Japanese style had flourished prior to the war, now it was only used in religious and domestic buildings.