If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting Japan, one of the first major differences that you might have noticed is the architecture. Cities such as Tokyo and Osaka that were levelled in WWII are dominated by the same metal, concrete, and glass that seemingly populate every other major city in the world. But in the old neighborhoods, the countryside, and the temples and shrines dotting the entire country, you’ll find architectural remnants of an extremely developed traditional culture. The emphasis is on tasteful and intentional composition, natural materials, and true tradesman aesthetic. Historical buildings there are protected and restored by each generation, not only out of respect for their national heritage, but also artistic appreciation of timeless design and immaculate construction.
Japanese traditional design has mingled with the West’s over the past 150 years, and has actually influenced western architecture more than most people realize. In fact, some of the quintessential architectural movements in the west were founded on principles taken directly from Japan. While Japan’s historical buildings and temples may seem foreign or even alien to a westerner at first glance, digging deeper into the architectural details reveals numerous connections and similarities to American and European trends in the early 20th century. For example, one major trend was the availability of high-grade, low-cost lumber due to lower timber extraction and millwork costs as a result of the industrial revolution, right at the same time that massive timber elements, cantilevers, and focus on maximizing tradesman aesthetic were brought over from Japan. This amplified the Arts and Crafts and Craftsmen movements, right at the onset of fast population growth and globalization.
Information from Japan, let alone Japanese architecture, was not easily accessible to the West until after sakoku, a period of self-imposed national isolation under the leadership of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ended in 1854. Prior to being forced to open up for commerce by the U.S. Navy, Japan had very little communication with the rest of the world for over 220 years. Only Dutch traders had been allowed to enter Japanese territory, and only in one small, enclosed dockside enclave in Nagasaki. Prior to the mid-19th century, Japan was assumed to be uncivilized by the West.
Upon opening its borders to foreigners, Japan’s wealth of previously unshared art and culture from the period of isolation became a subject of obsession by artists and designers across the globe. Think about the impressionist movement in Europe. Japan had dramatic insular development under the united leadership of the shogunate, and the isolation produced unique styles and techniques in art, design, and the trades. It was during this initial late-19th century open period that western scientists, architects, artists, etc. began to travel back and forth to Japan. They sometimes stayed for months or years, studying and recording their observations, before returning home with new and exciting inspiration to share with the rest of the world.
Interest in Japanese culture spread quickly throughout the west, coalescing on the North American side in two exhibits at the Centennial International Exhibition held in Philadelphia in 1876. One display was a traditional Japanese dwelling, the other a low-rise commercial building with a small garden. These simple but inspired structures were placed near the main entrance of the exposition, attracting the attention of nearly everyone who visited and resulting in the west amending their previous ideas of Japan as a barely-civilized backwater. The societal epiphany spurred even more interest in Japanese culture, and it wasn’t long before westerners were lining up for their chance to see this exciting new frontier for themselves.
Notable among these early travelers to Japan was American zoologist Edward S. Morse, who initially arrived in 1877 with the intention of studying the island’s coastal marine biome. Upon receiving an offer to be the first professor of Zoology at the Tokyo Imperial University, his short visit turned into a 3-year stay. During this time, Professor Morse was transfixed by the beautiful, simple dwellings and architectural details that surrounded him. He began recording these details, sketching diagrams and writing down his observations.
The resulting book, Japanese Homes and their Surroundings (Tiknor and Co., 1886), is perhaps still the most comprehensive record of pre-war Japanese architecture and construction written in english. The diagrams, hand-drawn by Morse, depict specific elements in both construction and design that were quickly adapted by western designers and began to appear in their projects near the turn of the century. Interestingly, at the same time Japanese thought leaders were being dispatched to the west to study modern technology and culture so Japan could catch up with the developed world. They brought home and implemented elements of Victorian, Gothic Revival, and early Arts and Crafts movements. Many surviving institutional buildings throughout Japan dating from the end of the 19th century borrow heavily from the west, especially Victorian period exterior painted cornice and fenestration.
Following the publication of Morse’s book, western designers similarly appropriated elements of Japanese architecture. Ornamental details in Victorian architecture, expansive balance in Gothic Revival, and emphasis on fine craftsmanship in the early phase of the Arts and Crafts movement were reflections from traditional Japanese construction. Western designers were entranced, and proceeded to develop these trends accordingly. Roof overhangs were extended, eves were supported more by timbers, more opulent timber construction details were used, bay windows and cantilevered bump-outs became more common, also eves turned-up with a radius at the roof edge became more common.
Morse wasn’t the only documentarian enamored with Japan during this period. Other writers, designers and artists were busy making their way across the archipelago as well, learning new techniques and styles across a variety of trades that would eventually convey back to the west. It wasn’t long before Japan: Its Architecture, Art, and Art Manufacturers by Christopher Dresser came out, another book focused on Japanese design. Also one of the first on this subject written in english, it helped bring awareness to the precision, beauty, and quality of work present in Japan at the time. Christopher Dresser was inspired by the craftsmanship and beauty of the temples in Kyoto, here described by UW Professor Myungkee Min (from Japanese/American Architecture: A Century of Cultural Exchange):
“In 1882 the English ornamentalist Christopher Dresser published Japan: Its Architecture, Art, and Art Manufacturers which was favorably reviewed in American publications such as the New York Times. Dresser’s admiration for the beauty of the ornate, brilliantly colored, and gilded early seventeenth-century mausoleum of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu in Nikko reflected contemporary Western tastes in heavily ornamented Victorian architecture. But, in 1905, mirroring the values of the Arts and Crafts Movement popularized around the turn of the century, the prominent American architect Ralph Adams Cram was less interested in the ornate Japanese architectural forms of the seventeenth century. Instead he valued the simpler, straightforward structure of older Japanese buildings such as the Hōō-dō, or the Phoenix Hall at the Byodo-in Temple, near Kyoto, completed in 1053. In short, what Americans sought in exotic, non-European architecture changed as American aesthetic values changed. These shifts in interest were represented not only in publications by American writers on Japanese architecture (or publications by Europeans which influenced American readers), but also were mirrored in American buildings that incorporated characteristic elements of traditional Japanese design.”
Westerners were humbled to witness incredible skill and precision in the Japanese carpentry tradition, particularly the timber frame and sash joinery. Also designers and architects realized that they had something to learn from the newly discovered techniques–especially the economic use of materials. A good example within our niche of exterior siding is specific resaw patterns and heat treatment optimized for dimensional stability and prevention of rot in lieu of priming and painting. Even still, as the 20th century began, nobody could have predicted the immense impact and influence that Japanese architecture would have across America in the coming century. The Craftsman movement was beginning to stir in its infancy, and with it, some of the greatest architectural minds in history.
Japanese Homes and their Surroundings, pgs. 24-25, Fig. 14, 15: hand-drawn illustrations by Morse of Japanese joinery techniques used as structural support and decoration.
- Morse, Edward S. Japanese Homes and their Surroundings. 1886. Ticknor and Co.
- Min, Myungkee: Japanese/American Architecture: A Century of Cultural Exchange
University of Washington Department of Art History, 1999.