Contemporary Japanese architecture is a mixture of traditional design practices and modern Western aesthetics. Universally celebrated, people around the world have embraced the Japanese aesthetic, hoping to capture a piece of it in their homes.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common elements of Japanese architecture, and some of Japan’s most celebrated buildings and architects.

The origins of Japanese architecture

Prior to the 1st century B.C.E., Japanese homes looked much like any other home across the world, consisting mainly of wood with thatched roofs and earthen floors. Built before the 6th century, some of Japan’s first shrines looked similar to ancient storehouses or homes. It wasn’t until the 7th century that Japanese architecture developed its own distinct style, having been heavily influenced by other Asian nations.

It was around this period that wood emerged as a preferred building material for Japanese architecture. This is due to a lack of stone available at the time due to volcanic activity, as well as wood’s proven resistance to earthquakes.

“Traditional Japanese architecture” typically refers to buildings built during the Edo period, which was during the 17th to mid-19th centuries. Following this period, Japanese architecture started to adopt more Western influences.

Common features in traditional Japanese architecture

Wood

As mentioned, wood has traditionally been the preferred building material in Japanese architecture. In many of the older Japanese houses (as well as in some of the newer buildings) wood was left unpainted and used in its natural form in an appreciation of the grain.

Screens and sliding doors

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Movable screens (shoji) and sliding doors (fusuma) were used in many old Japanese houses. The screens were typically made from paper, to allow light and shadows to pass through.

Genken

Japanese architecture buildings
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Common in traditional and contemporary Japanese houses, Genken refers to a sunken space between the front door and the rest of the house where shoes are placed before entering.

Verandas

Older Japanese houses will usually have a wooden veranda (called an engawa) that runs around the outside of the house.

Nature

Connection to nature has always been an important feature of Japanese architecture. This can be attributed to Japan’s Shinto and Buddhist beliefs, which have had a significant influence on its architecture. This can be clearly seen in the focus on natural light and the use of raw wood as a building material.

Famous contemporary Japanese architects

Tadao Ando

Born in 1941, Ando is considered one of Japan’s best architects, despite having no formal training in architecture. His work is best-known for the creative use of natural light and concrete, as well as strong homage to the natural landscape. Some of his best-known buildings are the Asia Museum of Modern Art and the Langen Foundation in Germany.

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Ryue Nishizawa

Tokyo-based architect Ryue Nishizawa was born in 1966, and became the youngest winner of the Pritzker Prize in 2010. He founded Tezuka Architects with his wife Yui Tezuka in 2009, and is best known for creations such as the Towada Art Centre, Teshima Art Museum and the Funabashi apartment building.

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Kengo Kuma

Born in 1954, Kengo Kuma is known for his innovative use of materials and technological advancements in his designs. An architect and professor at the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Tokyo, his goal is to reinterpret traditional Japanese architecture for the 21st century. One of his best-known buildings is the GC Prostho Museum Research Center in Kasugai, Japan, which features an impressive system of interlocking wooden elements.

Japanese architecture buildings
Photography by Daici Ano

Famous Japanese buildings – old and new

Yakushi-Ji Temple, Nishinokyo - built by Emperor Tenmu in 680 A.D.

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Himeji Castle, Himejibuilt by Akamatsu Norimura in 1333, rebuilt by Akamatsu Sadanori in 1349

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Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tokyo designed by Kisho Kurokawa, completed in 1972

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Hoki Museum, Chibadesigned by Nikken Sekkei, completed in 2010

Japanese architecture buildings
Photography by Noda Gankohsha