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Japanese architecture & temple structure
Leon Z. Lee

The Todaiji "Great Eastern Temple" is one of Japan's most famous and historically significant temples and landmark of Nara. It holds Japan's largest Buddha statue and is the world's largest wooden building.


Some state that "Architecture" is the divine inspiration of mankind in representing heavenly themes in physical form. Others see it as the mathematical principles of harnessing natural forces within a designated space. Regardless of the rationale, architectural concepts transcend national boundaries, carry the evidence of great civilizations, and highlight the modern societies that have inherited its legacy. In this regard, socio-religious architecture is one of the important characteristics of advanced civilizations, for it can demonstrate cultural interactions, shared social values, and common political beliefs. Buddhist temple architecture is a prime example of such cosmopolitan interaction between Japan and the East Asian mainland. What Gothic-style cathedral architecture was to Europe during the Middle Ages, TANG-dynasty era Buddhist architecture was to Japan and laid the foundation of temple design for the next 1,400 years up to modern era. From a distance, temple architecture between China and Japan seems identical to the novice viewer, but closer examination will reveal qualities unique to the Japanese social outlook and national character.


Buddhism is one the ancient religions which was founded in India during the 6th century BC. By 1st century BCE, it was introduced to multi-ethnic populations in China. It appealed to the populace via the doctrine that personal salvation can be attained by absolving oneself of passionate materialistic desires and to serve the public good through deeds in order to achieve "Nirvana": the state of void or nothingness, whereby all mental, physical, and emotional forces are in perfect equilibrium. Depending upon the Buddhist monastic order, achieving Nirvana can be accomplished via personal meditation, invocation of Buddha's saving grace, rhythmic magical chants, or a combination of all three. The focal point for such congregational activities was the Buddhist temple complex.

In the early 7th century that Japan's YAMATO imperial court established regular contacts with China's TANG imperial court. This relationship facilitated a procession of knowledge flowing from China, through Korea, to Japan. Buddhism was granted quasi-state recognition status by Japan's imperial court and welcomed among the noble families. Thus a series of temple building projects commenced around the Kansai region, including the cities of Nara and Kyoto. Spectacular complexes were constructed, such as the Todaiji and Horyuji temples, which still exist today.


In contrast to her Asian mainland neighbors which used a combination of stone and wood materials for temple configurations, Japan almost exclusively used wood in such endeavors. The nation was blessed with abundant forests throughout all the home islands, and was thus complemented with a skilled class of woodworking artisans. Wood also represented life; hence to envelope one's creation with wood was to celebrate the existence of life itself. Stone, despite its strength and time resiliency, was time-consuming to carve and incurred high transportation cost.

Another particular Japanese feature was the construction of temples on raised platforms. Due to the hot and humid climate conditions, these stilts provided the necessary ventilation along the foundation base to prevent moisture from compromising structural integrity.

A third feature reflected the Japanese cultural outlook in being conservative decorators. Chinese Buddhist temples were often ornately decorated with eaves and columns painted in bright base colors. The Japanese rendered the temples in polished bare wood finish to emphasize natural simplicity. In any event, certain types of wood (such as cypress) are weather-resistant in both hot and cold climates, therefore does not require painting for surface protection.

A fourth feature integrated concepts from Japan's "Shinto" (Way of the Gods) religion via the arch gateway called the "Torii". This religion has been colloquially called "Emperor Worship" in the West, but is somewhat of a misnomer. A more correct definition is the worship of terrain phenomena or coalescence of natural forces, such as a waterfall nestled deep in the forest, prominent mountain peaks, and unusual rock formations.


The focal point of the temple complex was the main worship hall, which generally housed a large statue of Buddha. In accordance with TANG-era Confucian principles, the arch gateway, main temple thoroughfare, and the worship hall were aligned on the same North-South or East-West directional axis. This channeled the pilgrims along a prescribed spiritual journey upon reaching the temple complex.

The arch gateway identified the temple threshold as the pilgrims summoned their spiritual energy. As they traveled along the main thoroughfare reciting incantations, the symmetrical layout of buildings and pagodas reinforced the imagery of cosmic order. Upon reaching the temple worship hall, they are within the physical presence of Buddha and thus focused their prayers towards the religious icon.
In order to project a grandiose, yet harmonious atmosphere within the worship hall, a special architectural style divided the temple into four interdependent areas: 1) Base columns, 2) Sloping roof, 3) Interlaced brackets, 4) Roof decorations.

All four areas were mathematically dependent upon each other. Therefore, structural integrity changes in one area required the recalculation of the other three areas. Since temple-building was both a ritualistic and architectural endeavor, the entire project followed a predefined modular process, for no parts were prefabricated ahead of time.

1) Base Columns

Base of the worship hall was demarcated by support columns anchored along the rectangular perimeter. To ancient man, this rigid geometric shape also identified divine boundaries since one was in the physical presence of Buddha, as represented by the interior statue. Some say this rectangular shape was another Confucian-inspired symbolism of cosmic order and structural stability.

2) Sloping Roof

In order to maintain geometric balance with the natural surroundings, a parametric (gently angled) roof with decorative eaves (projecting overhang at the lower portions of a roof) was conceived. A steep-angle of descent began at the top of the roof, but tapered off to a more gradual incline upon reaching the eaves. This easy-flowing rhythm blended well into the background scenery of hills, forest, mountains.

3) Interlaced Brackets & Rafters

Purlins were horizontal wooden beams braced to the rafters. Rafters were sloping wooden beams that supported the pitched roof. Special grooves were cut into these components for a custom fit (similar to American log cabin construction). Multiple wooden brackets were installed in a step-wise fashion at major connection points where the purlins, rafters, and column all met. Thus, forming the critical framework underneath the roof. This stacking feature enabled bracketed columns to expand the surface support area. With fewer columns upholding the temple roof, unobstructed view of worship hall was maintained.

An intriguing characteristic is the Japanese hardwood's geo-resonance quality within the column framework. It has been documented that during low-intensity earthquakes, the interlaced bracketed columns are able to convert kinetic energy from the ground trembles, into thermal energy via moderate friction among the wooden components. No doubt ancient man would have viewed this quality to be divinely inspired.

4) Roof Decorations

As with Gothic-era water-spouting stone gargoyles, TANG-era roof tiles also channeled rain water to prevent erosion. Temples with smaller roof areas used overlapping ceramic tiles placed in a wave-like rhythm, while roof with larger areas used contoured wooden planks that gave it an overall smooth arc-like feature.


The layout of the temple complex evolved throughout the centuries in Japan. The original 7th century TANG-era emphasis on symmetry and axis-alignment were gradually replaced by asymmetrical designs and terrain-contouring features as Zen and Shingon Buddhist doctrines gained more prominence. However, the temple architecture itself has remained relatively unchanged up to the present day.

The construction of interdependent purlins, rafters, and interlaced bracketed columns achieved a mathematical harmony that both ancient and modern man could intimately appreciate. In essence, the legacy of the Chinese civilization has transcended national boundaries, language barriers, and ethnic diversity to speak to us via this architectural medium of its past accomplishments.

On a modern cosmopolitan level, TANG-era temple architecture can be found interwoven into modern day office buildings and residential dwellings, as well as temple complexes throughout East Asia and North America. Although external decorative preferences may vary among the different ethnic groups, the architecture itself has remained consistent.

* Leon Z. Lee is fluent in Japanese, Chinese and English.

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