Tōdai-ji's Daibutsuden A karamon Hannya-ji's rōmon, a National Treasure A katōmado
A katōmado A tahōtō Myōshin-ji's butsuden
Examples of Buddhist architecture in Japan

Japanese Buddhist architecture is the architecture of Buddhist temples in Japan, consisting of locally developed variants of architectural styles born in China.[1] After Buddhism arrived from the continent via the Three Kingdoms of Korea in the 6th century, an effort was initially made to reproduce the original buildings as faithfully as possible, but gradually local versions of continental styles were developed both to meet Japanese tastes and to solve problems posed by local weather, which is more rainy and humid than in China.[2] The first Buddhist sects were Nara's six Nanto Rokushū (南都六宗, Nara six sects),[nb 1] followed during the Heian period by Kyoto's Shingon and Tendai. Later, during the Kamakura period, in Kamakura were born the Jōdo and the native Japanese sect Nichiren-shū. At roughly the same time, Zen Buddhism arrived from China, strongly influencing all other sects in many ways, including in architecture. The social composition of Buddhism's followers also changed radically with time. Beginning as an elite religion, it slowly spread from the nobility to warriors and merchants, and finally to the population at large. On the technical side, new woodworking tools like the framed pit saw[nb 2] and the plane allowed new architectural solutions.[2]

Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines share their basic characteristics and often differ only in details that the non-specialist may not notice.[3] This similarity is because the sharp division between Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines[nb 3] is recent, dating to the Meiji period's policy of separation of Buddhism and Shinto (Shinbutsu bunri) of 1868. Before the Meiji Restoration it was common for a Buddhist temple to be built inside or next to a shrine, or for a shrine to include Buddhist sub-temples.[4] If a shrine housed a Buddhist temple, it was called a jingū-ji (神宮寺, lit. shrine temple). Analogously, temples all over Japan used to adopt tutelary kami (chinju (鎮守/鎮主) and built shrines within their precincts to house them. After the forcible separation of temples and shrines ordered by the new government, the connection between the two religions was officially severed, but continued nonetheless in practice and is still visible today.[4]

Buddhist architecture in Japan during the country's whole history has absorbed much of the best available natural and human resources. Particularly between the 8th and the 16th centuries, it led the development of new structural and ornamental features. For these reasons, its history is vital to the understanding of not only Buddhist architecture itself, but also of Japanese art in general.[5]

General features

The roof is the dominant feature of a Buddhist temple.

Buddhist architecture in Japan is not native, but was imported from China and other Asian cultures over the centuries with such constancy that the building styles of all Six Dynasties are represented. Its history is as a consequence dominated by Chinese and other Asian techniques and styles (present even in Ise Shrine, held to be the quintessence of Japanese architecture) on one side, and by Japanese original variations on those themes on the other.[6]

Partly due also to the variety of climates in Japan and the millennium encompassed between the first cultural import and the last, the result is extremely heterogeneous, but several practically universal features can nonetheless be found. First of all is the choice of materials, always wood in various forms (planks, straw, tree bark, etc.) for almost all structures. Unlike both Western and some Chinese architecture, the use of stone is avoided except for certain specific uses, for example temple podia and pagoda foundations.[6]

The general structure is almost always the same: columns and lintels support a large and gently curved roof, while the walls are paper-thin, often movable and in any case non-carrying. Arches and barrel roofs are completely absent. Gable and eave curves are gentler than in China and columnar entasis (convexity at the center) limited.[6]

The roof is the most visually impressive component, often constituting half the size of the whole edifice.[6] The slightly curved eaves extend far beyond the walls, covering verandas, and their weight must therefore be supported by complex bracket systems called tokyō. These oversize eaves give the interior a characteristic dimness, which contributes to the temple's atmosphere. The interior of the building normally consists of a single room at the center called moya, from which sometimes depart other less important spaces, for example corridors called hisashi.

Inner space divisions are fluid, and room size can be modified through the use of screens or movable paper walls. The large, single space offered by the main hall can therefore be altered according to the need.[6] The separation between inside and outside is itself in some measure not absolute as entire walls can be removed, opening the temple to visitors. Verandas appear to be part of the building to an outsider, but part of the external world to those in the temple. Structures are therefore made to a certain extent part of their environment. The use of construction modules keeps proportions between different parts of the edifice constant, preserving its overall harmony.[6][nb 4]

Even in cases as that of Nikkō Tōshō-gū, where every available space is heavily decorated, ornamentation tends to follow, and therefore emphasize rather than hide, basic structures.[6]

Being shared by both sacred and profane architecture, these architectonic features made it easy converting a lay building into a temple. This happened for example at Hōryū-ji, where a noblewoman's mansion was transformed into a religious building.


A reconstruction of Asuka-dera's original layout

Beginnings – Asuka and Nara periods

Buddhism is not a Japanese native religion, and its architecture from the continent via Korea together with the first Buddhists in the 6th century. Officially adopted in the wake of the Battle of Shigisan in 587, after that date Buddhist temples began to be constructed.[7] Because of the hostility of supporters of local kami beliefs towards Buddhism, no temple of that period survives, so we don't know what they were like.[8] Thanks to the Nihon Shoki, however, we do know that an architect, six Buddhist priests and an image maker from the Korean kingdom of Paekche came to Japan in 577 to advise the Japanese on the arrangement of monastic buildings.[8] The layout of Ōsaka's Shitennō-ji (see below) reflects the plan of Chongyimsa temple in Buyeo, capital of Paekche from 538 to 663.[8] We know for certain that Soga no Umako built Hōkō-ji, the first temple in Japan, between 588 and 596. It was later renamed as Asuka-dera for Asuka, the name of the capital where it was located. Prince Shōtoku actively promoted Buddhism and ordered the construction of Shitennō-ji in Osaka (593) and Hōryū-ji near his palace in Ikaruga (completed in 603).[9] During this period, temple layout was strictly prescribed and followed mainland styles, with a main gate facing south and the most sacred area surrounded by a semi-enclosed roofed corridor (kairō) accessible through a middle gate (chūmon). The sacred precinct contained a pagoda, which acted as a reliquary for sacred objects, and a main hall (kon-dō). The complex might have other structures such as a lecture hall (kō-dō), a belfry (shōrō), a sūtra repository (kyōzō), priests' and monks' quarters and bathhouses.[10][11] The ideal temple had a heart formed by seven structures called shichidō garan, or "seven hall temple". Buddhism, and the construction of temples, spread from the capital to outlying areas in the Hakuhō period from 645 to 710.[9] In addition, many temples were built in locations favored by the precepts of Chinese geomancy. The arrangements not only of the buildings, groups of trees and ponds of the compound, but also of mountains and other geographic features in particular directions around the temple played important roles as well.[12]

The Chinese five elements school of thought believed that many natural phenomena naturally fell under five categories.[13] Six groups of five categories were established as a rule to the building of edifices.[14]

Five elements Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Position East South Middle West North
Weather Windy Hot Humid Dry Cold
Colour Green Red Yellow White Black
Evolution of living things Birth Growth Change Weakening Hiding
Symbolic significance Prosperity Riches and honor Power Desolation Death

A palace for a new prince would for example be placed east to symbolize birth, and yellow tiles would be used for the imperial palace to symbolize power.[13]

The five elements theory is also the basis of the gorintō, an extremely common stone stupa whose invention is attributed to Kūkai. Its five sections (a cube, a sphere, a pyramid, a crescent and a lotus-shaped cusp) stand each for one of the five elements.

Chinese numerology also played an important role. According to the Yin-Yang school, which started in about 305 BC, Yang stood for the sun, warmth, maleness and odd numbers, while Yin stood for their opposites.[13] In groups of buildings, therefore, halls occurred in odd numbers because halls themselves were believed to be Yang.[13] Being Yang, odd numbers in general are considered positive and lucky, and Buddhism shows a preference for odd numbers. In the case of storied pagodas, either in stone or wood, the number of stories is almost always odd. Practically all wooden pagodas have either three or five-stories. Specimen with a different number of stories used to exist, but none has survived.

Because of fire, earthquakes, typhoons and wars, few of those ancient temples still exist. Hōryū-ji, rebuilt after a fire in 670, is the only one still possessing 7th-century structures, the oldest extant wooden buildings in the world.[11]

Part of Tōshōdai-ji's garan (left to right, the kon-dō, the kō-dō, and the korō)

Unlike early kami worship shrines, early Buddhist temples were highly ornamental and strictly symmetrical[15] (see reconstruction of Asuka-dera above). Starting with Hōryū-ji in the late 7th century, temples began to move towards irregular ground plans that resulted in an asymmetric arrangement of buildings, greater use of natural materials such as cypress bark instead of roof tiling, and an increased awareness of natural environment with the placement of buildings among trees. This adaptation was assisted by the syncretism of kami and Buddhism, which through Japanese traditional nature worship gave Buddhism a greater attention to natural surroundings.[15][16][17] During the first half of the 8th century, Emperor Shōmu decreed temples and nunneries be erected in each province and that Tōdai-ji be built as a headquarters for the network of temples.[18][19][20] The head temple was inaugurated in 752 and was of monumental dimensions with two seven-storied pagodas, each ca. 100 m (330 ft) tall and a Great Buddha Hall (daibutsuden) about 80 m × 70 m (260 ft × 230 ft).[20] Nara period Buddhism was characterised by seven influential state supported temples, the so-called Nanto Shichi Daiji.[19] Octagonal structures such as the Hall of Dreams at Hōryū-ji built as memorial halls and storehouses exemplified by the Shōsōin first appeared during the Nara period.[11][21] Temple structures, such as pagodas and main halls, had increased significantly in size since the late 6th century. 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.[22]

Usa Hachiman-gū is now a Shinto shrine, but used to be also a temple

Another early effort to reconcile kami worship and Buddhism was made in the 8th century during the Nara period with the founding of the so-called jungūji (神宮寺), or "shrine-temples".[23][24] The use in a Shinto shrine of Buddhist religious objects was believed to be necessary since the kami were lost beings in need of liberation through the power of Buddha.[24] Kami were thought to be subject to karma and reincarnation like human beings, and early Buddhist stories tell how the task of helping suffering kami was assumed by wandering monks.[25] A local kami would appear in a dream to the monk, telling him about his suffering.[25] To improve the kami's karma through rites and the reading of sutras, the monk would build a temple next to the kami's shrine.[25] Such groupings were created already in the 7th century, for example in Usa, Kyūshū,[25] where kami Hachiman was worshiped together with Miroku Bosatsu (Maitreya) at Usa Hachiman-gū.

At the end of the same century, in what is considered the second stage of the amalgamation, the kami Hachiman was declared to be protector-deity of the Dharma and a little bit later a bodhisattva.[23] Shrines for him started to be built at temples, marking an important step ahead in the process of amalgamation of kami and Buddhist cults.[23] When the great Buddha at Tōdai-ji in Nara was built, within the temple grounds was also erected a shrine for Hachiman, according to the legend because of a wish expressed by the kami himself.[25] This coexistence of Buddhism and kami worship, in religion as well as architecture, continued until the Kami and Buddhas Separation Order (神仏判然令, shinbutsu hanzen-rei, lit. kami Buddha separation order) of 1868.[23]

Heian period

The tahōtō is an invention of the Heian period (Ishiyama-dera)

During the Heian period Buddhism became even more infused with Japanese elements: It met and assimilated local beliefs concerning ghosts and spirits (the so-called onrei and mitama), developing traits close to magic and sorcery which allowed it to penetrate a wide spectrum of social classes.[2] Its merging with indigenous religious belief was then accelerated by the systematization of the syncretism of Buddhism and local religious beliefs (see the article on the honji suijaku theory, which claimed that Japanese kami were simply Buddhist gods under a different name).[2] It was in this kind of environment that Fujiwara no Michinaga and retired Emperor Shirakawa competed in erecting new temples, in the process giving birth to the Jōdo-kyō[nb 5] architecture and the new wayō architectural style.[2]

The early Heian period (9th–10th century) saw an evolution of styles based on the esoteric sects Tendai and Shingon. These two sects followed faithfully the Nanto Rokushū architectonic tradition in the plains, but in mountainous areas developed an original style.[2] This development was facilitated by the syncretic fusion of foreign Buddhism with local mountain worship cults. Called wayō (和様, Japanese style) to distinguish it from imported Chinese styles, it was characterized by simplicity, refrain from ornamentation, use of natural timber and in general plain materials. Structurally, it was distinguished by: a main hall divided in two parts; an outer area for novices and an inner area for initiates; a hip-and-gable roof covering both areas; a raised wooden floor instead of the tile or stone floors of earlier temples; extended eaves to cover the front steps; shingles or bark rather than tile roofing; and a disposition of the garan adapting to the natural environment, and not following the traditional symmetrical layouts.[15][26] The tahōtō, a two-storied tower with some resemblance to Indian stupas, was also introduced by these sects during this period.[27][28] According to an ancient Buddhist prophecy, the world would enter a dark period called Mappō in 1051. During this period the Tendai sect believed that enlightenment was possible only through the veneration of Amida Buddha. Consequently, many so-called Paradise (or Amida) Halls—such as the Phoenix Hall at Byōdō-in (1053), the Main Hall of Jōruri-ji (1157) and the Golden Hall at Chūson-ji (1124)—were built by the Imperial Family or members of the aristocracy to recreate the western paradise of Amida on earth.[21][27][28][29][30][31][32][33] Amida Halls that enshrined the nine statues of Amida[nb 6] were popular during the 12th century (late Heian period). The Main Hall of Jōruri-ji is however the only example of such a hall still extant.[21][34]

Kamakura and Muromachi periods

Daibutsu style (Tōdai-ji's Nandaimon)

The Kamakura period (1185–1333) brought to power the warrior caste, which expressed in its religious architecture its necessities and tastes.[2] The influential Zen arrived in Japan from China, and the Jōdō sect achieved independence. In architecture this period is characterized by the birth of fresh and rational designs.[2]

The Daibutsu style (ja:大仏様, daibutsuyō, lit. great Buddha style) and the Zen style (ja:禅宗様, zen'yō, lit. Zen sect style) emerged in the late 12th or early 13th century.

The first, introduced by the priest Chōgen, was based on Song Dynasty architecture and represented the antithesis of the simple and traditional wayō style. The Nandaimon at Tōdai-ji and the Amida Hall at Jōdo-ji are the only extant examples of this style.[15][35][36] Originally called tenjikuyō (天竺様, lit. Indian style), because it had nothing to do with India it was rechristened by scholar Ōta Hirotarō during the 20th century, and the new term stuck.[37] Ōta derived the name from Chōgen's work, particularly Tōdai-ji's Daibutsuden.

The Zen style was originally called karayō (唐様, Chinese style) and, like the Daibutsu style, was rechristened by Ōta. Its characteristics are earthen floors, subtly curved pent roofs (mokoshi) and pronouncedly curved main roofs, cusped windows (katōmado) and paneled doors.[35][38] Examples of this style include the belfry at Tōdai-ji, the Founder's Hall at Eihō-ji and the Shariden at Engaku-ji.[35] The Zen garan usually does not have a pagoda and, when it does, it is relegated to a peripheral position.

These three styles we have seen (wayō, daibutsuyō and zen'yō) were often combined during the Muromachi period (1336–1573), giving birth to the so-called Eclectic Style (折衷様, setchūyō), exemplified by the main hall at Kakurin-ji.[15][38] The combination of wayō and daibutsuyō in particular became so frequent that sometimes it is called by scholars Shin-wayō (新和様, new wayō). By the end of the Muromachi period (late 16th century), Japanese Buddhist architecture had reached its apogee.[38] Construction methods had been perfected and building types conventionalized.

Azuchi-Momoyama and Edo periods

The main hall of Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto

After the turbulence of the Sengoku period and the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603, old temples like Hieizan, Tō-ji and Tōdai-ji lost their power and the schools of Buddhism were surpassed in influence by the Nichiren-shū and Jōdo-shū.[2] The Edo period was an era of unprecedented building fervor in religious architecture. The number of faithful coming for prayer or pilgrimage had increased, so designs changed to take into account their necessities, and efforts were made to catch their ears and eyes.[2] Old sects limited themselves to revive old styles and ideas, while the new relied on huge spaces and complex designs. Both, in spite of their differences, have in common a reliance on splendor and excess.[2] Early pre-modern temples were saved from monotony by elaborate structural details, the use of undulating karahafu gables and the use of buildings of monumental size.[38] While structural design tended to become gradually more rational and efficient, the surface of religious edifices did the opposite, growing more elaborate and complex. After the middle Edo period, passed its zenith, religious architecture ended up just repeating told ideas, losing its innovative spirit and entering its final decline. Representative examples for the Momoyama (1568–1603) and Edo period (1603–1868) temple architecture are the Karamon at Hōgon-ji and the main hall of Kiyomizu-dera, respectively.[38]

Meiji period

In 1868 the government enacted its policy of separation of Buddhas and kami called Shinbutsu bunri,[39] with catastrophic consequences for the architecture of both temples and shrines. Until that time, the syncretism of kami and buddhas had posed little problem, and brought a measure of harmony between the adherents of the two religions, and under the syncretic system, many customs evolved that are still in practice and are best understood under the syncretic context.[40][41] Because many structures became illegal where they stood, such as Buddhist pagodas within the precincts of Shinto shrines, they had to be destroyed, according to the letter of the law. An estimated 30,000 Buddhist structures were demolished between 1868 and 1874.[42] Buddhism eventually made a recovery in many parts of the country, yet in others, most notably in Kagoshima prefecture, there is still a near absence of Buddhist structures.[43]

Common temple features


See also


  1. ^ The six sects were called Sanron-, Jōjitsu-, Hossō-, Kusha-, Ritsu-, and Kegon-shū.
  2. ^ For an image of a framed pit saw, see here
  3. ^ The term "Shinto shrine" is used in opposition to "Buddhist temple" to mirror in English the distinction made in Japanese between Shinto and Buddhist religious structures. In Japanese the first are called jinja (神社), the second tera ().
  4. ^ On the subject of temple proportions, see also the article ken.
  5. ^ Jōdokyō, or Pure Land Buddhism, was a form of Buddhism which strongly influenced the Shingon and Tendai sects, later becoming an independent sect.
  6. ^ The statues represented the nine stages of Nirvana.[34]


  1. ^ Fletcher & Cruickshank 1996, p=716
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Fujita & Koga 2008, pp. 50–51
  3. ^ Scheid, Religiōse ...
  4. ^ a b See Shinbutsu shūgō article
  5. ^ Nishi & Hozumi 1996, p=12
  6. ^ a b c d e f g (Hozumi (1996:9-11)
  7. ^ Sansom 1958, p.49
  8. ^ a b c JAANUS, Garan
  9. ^ a b Young & Young 2007, p=38
  10. ^ Nishi & Hozumi 1996, p=13
  11. ^ a b c Fletcher & Cruickshank 1996, p=731
  12. ^ For concrete examples, see Buddhist temples in Japan#Layout and geomantic positioning
  13. ^ a b c d Fletcher & Cruickshank 1996, p=653
  14. ^ Table data: Fletcher and Cruikshank, 1996:653
  15. ^ a b c d e Young & Young 2007, p=44
  16. ^ Young, Young & Yew 2004, p=52
  17. ^ Young, Young & Yew 2004, p=44
  18. ^ Young & Young 2007, p=39
  19. ^ a b Young & Young 2007, p=46
  20. ^ a b Nishi & Hozumi 1996, p=16
  21. ^ a b c Fletcher & Cruickshank 1996, p=732
  22. ^ Young & Young 2007, p=49
  23. ^ a b c d Mark Teeuwen in Breen and Teeuwen (2000:95–96)
  24. ^ a b Satō Makoto
  25. ^ a b c d e Scheid, Angleichung ...
  26. ^ Young, Young & Yew 2004, p=47
  27. ^ a b Nishi & Hozumi 1996, p=17
  28. ^ a b Kleiner & Mamiya 2009, p. 97
  29. ^ Young, Young & Yew 2004, p=48
  30. ^ Nishi & Hozumi 1996, p=19
  31. ^ Young & Young 2007, p=56
  32. ^ Kleiner & Mamiya 2009, p. 98
  33. ^ Nishi & Hozumi 1996, p=18
  34. ^ a b Young, Young & Yew 2004, p=49
  35. ^ a b c Fletcher & Cruickshank 1996, p=737
  36. ^ Nishi & Hozumi 1996, p=20
  37. ^ JAANUS, Daibutsuyou
  38. ^ a b c d e Fletcher & Cruickshank 1996, p=738
  39. ^ Encyclopedia of Shinto – Haibutsu Kishaku accessed on March 15, 2008
  40. ^ Grapard, Allan (1984). "Japan's Ignored Revolution: The Separation of Shinto and Buddhism (Shimbutsu Bunri) and a case study: Tōnomine". the University of Chicago Press: 246. JSTOR 1062445. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  41. ^ Scheid, Bernhard. "Grundbegriffe:Shinto". Religion in Japan. University of Vienna. Retrieved 9 December 2010.
  42. ^ Breen, John; Teeuwen, Mark (July 2000). Shinto in History: Ways of the Kami. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. p. 230. ISBN 978-0-8248-2363-4. OCLC 43487317.
  43. ^ Josephson, Jason Ānanda (2006). "When Buddhism Became a "Religion": Religion and Superstition in the Writings of Inoue Enryō" (PDF). Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 33 (1): 143–68. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 April 2012. Retrieved 30 June 2011.
  44. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Kōjien Japanese dictionary
  45. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae JAANUS
  46. ^ Japanese Encyclopedia Britannica