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6 Old Principles of Japanese Culture and Their Reflection on Today’s Japanese Architecture

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There is usually a gigantic difference between a country’s modern and traditional architecture in the first glance. Especially in the West. Although you could connect the dots between the two when you dig deep. Well, that is not entirely true for Japanese architecture!

Some features of Japanese architecture like being minimal, simple, and functional style makes a better part of Modern architecture mottos sound like these folks’ convention.

Most architects of international, minimalist or modern styles tried to reduce their architectural features to the essentials, but Japanese architecture didn’t necessarily have the same challenge.

What others called the new trend, Japanese architects could call tradition.

But this doesn’t mean the transition from their traditional architecture has been a smooth one.

What is Japanese architecture? Here we introduce Japanese style architecture’s underlying characteristics and show their deep bond to their modern practice.

Museum by Tadao Ando

1. Erected Out of Nature

Japan; A land known for its exotic natural beauty. Trees with countless hues crouched over secluded lakes. It’s hot springs and vast forest.

Sendai Mediatheque in Sendai, Japanese style architecture

Examples could go on and on but what all these beautiful natural scenes whispers in the locals’ ears have made them men of nature over the centuries.

They deem themselves and whatever they make, babies of the same mother and parts of a single soul.

Although Shinto might seem like a religion, it’s more a set of beliefs that see everything in nature as parts of the same spirit; Kami.

Deep down they don’t see natural disasters just as devastation; there’s more to Japanese architecture thinking.

Powerful and formidable, yes; but not evil!

That’s probably why they are always the cutting-edge pioneers to deflect nature forces like destructive earthquakes. That’s the key to survival in Japanese architecture ontology; you have to dance to nature’s song instead of guarding against it.

That’s also the reason why the distance to nature is usually very short in a traditional Japanese house or even partly in their modern houses. You’re always a few steps from a garden or its comfortable view.

Sendai Mediatheque withstood one of the most severe earthquakes of the history without a broken glass; It did so by waving out the earthquake’s shocks across this Japanese architecture’s dynamic structure and facades.

2. Zen and the Japanese Architecture

Almost all features of Japanese architecture are deeply influenced by Buddhism too. It’s written all over the Japanese culture.

A Zen Garden - Landscape Japanese Architecture

If you’ve seen any Zen or Rock Gardens before (which you probably have otherwise you wouldn’t be here!) you’d have no problem recognizing a new one right away. The signature’s pretty obvious.

An Open Space in a Museum, Japanese Style Architecture

They emulate water ripples with sand and have a sense of calm and plainness to them that makes every element - like a small tree - stand out. It’s mostly the empty space that strikes up the dialogue with you. A lot of contemporary Japanese architects absorb the same principle in their work.

You see these sometimes-large blank areas in Tadao Ando’s work. His Chichu Art Museum in Kagawa best portrays such negative empty space.

3. Understating Hints Rather Than Giving a Full Disclosure

Have you ever experienced an awkward silence in a conversation where you felt like you had to fill the gap? Blurting stuff out just to escape the pressing silence?

Well, the awkward feeling? Not so much with the Japanese architecture characteristics. There’s a concept called “Ma” in Japanese style architecture culture. It could be described in phrases like “Void” or “Empty Space”.

They believe emptiness is more than just nothing. It’s not just a mere gap, rather it has the conversation of its own. That’s the notion behind the open space in Japan’s Rock Gardens.

Tadao Ando Museum

Ma could also be applied to time as an element. For instance, in Traditional Japanese house Futons (Japanese bedding equipment) are wrapped and put aside in a closet during the day; so house furniture has a temporal sense to it.

In a way, there’s an Open Space of Time present as one of the Japanese architecture characteristics that doesn’t chatter all the time; it leaves you to yourself to deal with the silence of time.

This dominant empty space makes way for even the tiniest spots and elements to shine and make hints of the essence the architecture is supposed to bring to life.

Speaking in terms of the western language of architecture, it’s a kind of minimalist approach to design.

4. Tranquility and Energized Calm

This feature might especially take form in the Japanese Gardens. Seijaku speaks of a stillness that cries of the peaceful ocean that’s only a tremor away from waking up and sweeping up anything that gets in its way.

The way every rock, tree or a wavy sand spread sits across a scene in a Japanese architecture Garden or a traditional house is so shrewdly positioned; Alarming of the chaos, should any disorder happen to it.

a Japanese temple in Tokyo, Japan

It’s called the “active calm”. How could it be mixed with a modern apartment or a high-rise?

It’s mostly exhibited by the use of strong basic geometric forms in the design of modern buildings.

As for the building in the picture above by Tadao Ando, you could see the strong slanted facades, promising a strong and sustainable design.

5. Flawed Beauty, Imbalance and Imperfection

a modern Japanese hallway

There’s a tickling element of surprise to an asymmetrical object, whether it’s an ancient clay saucer or an apparently unfinished form in a modern building. Like the one in the picture.

This notion of imperfection is called “Sabi”. There’s another closely-tangled principle in the Japanese architecture called “Wabi” that roughly translates to Flawed Beauty.

It invites you to embrace the imperfection and gap that happens every day in nature. It sees the beauty in the cycle of growth and decay in nature.

Worn-out woodwork in traditional Japanese tea rooms give a sense of natural erosion and a passing of time which exactly captures and best portrays Wabi; the imperfection of getting old and threadbare.

That could be counted as a justification for the use of copper or concrete as base material since they reflect the passage of time and the erosion it brings upon everything.

Part of this roots back to Zen aesthetics in the Japanese style architecture.

Case in point, the Enzo or Zen circle (an unfinished circular brush) which is a symbol of the imperfection that’s a part of life, that tries to value the same flaws that are innately coded in nature.

Advanced institute of higher education in Kyoto, Japan

Nature is full of asymmetrical yet harmonious patterns inspiring artists to do the same.

As mentioned earlier, the use of the sort of material like wood, architectural concrete, and copper is prevalent among Japanese architecture practitioners who have the same principle in mind.

6. Escaping Routines

Aside from Sabi and Wabi, there are two other closely-tied characteristics of Japanese aesthetics called “Mono no Aware” and “Datsuzoku (脱俗)”.

Let’s just swiftly plunge into the core of each and then see how they mold into shapes in different branches of Japanese art; especially architecture.

“Mono as Aware” roughly translates to the awareness of life’s impermanence. The knowledge of an eventual finish line. The fact that life is not a chain of repetitive cycles, but a continuum of different new stages at every turning point.

Datsuzoku, on the other hand, points at the freedom from any routine or convention. It’s yet another fold of the Japanese culture that’s best shown in their Gardens. Every turn you take simply confronts you with a new amazement.

These two principles collectively talk of dealing with change and taking new against the old.

Ise Grand Shrine complex in Ise, Japan, represents the same belief. Every 20 years the whole complex is torn down and rebuilt. A Japanese architecture tradition that’s been going on for more than 1300 years.

Ise Grand Shrine in Naiku, Japan


Japan’s unique nature and the locals’ beliefs that are certainly affected by it, have engraved a set of Japanese architecture characteristics in their culture over the centuries.

Architecture is a part of this culture, so it possesses the same characteristics.

  • Things like dancing along with nature’s moves instead of resisting it
  • Embracing an open space that bears part of the dialogue between the building and the ones who use it
  • Simplicity, calmness and a surprise through imperfection

It’s your turn; what other untouched features of Japanese architecture seems staggering to you? Let’s better understand the architecture of this great nation by sharing your thoughts below.

Mitchel Sardy
Author: Mitchel Sardy
I am a Computer Engineer and an architecture enthusiast, graduated on both majors up to the master's degree from the University of Washington; I'm an advisor to early-stage architecture startups all around the globe; the ones using computer-based solutions to design in architecture.

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