Japanese Influence on Western Architecture Part 2: The Early Craftsman Movement

During the transition out of the 19th century and into modernity, Western architects started implementing Japanese architectural styles, details and thought. This was done to further their inspired vision. At the time, architecture seemed to be heading toward an industrialized future of uninspired balance and materials.

What began as the Arts and Crafts movement in Great Britain was soon reinterpreted as the American Craftsman style. The craftsman bungalow and prairie designs borrowed more from Japan than any other period movements such as Tudor, Colonial Revival, or cottage did.

Movers and shakers in the Craftsman movement included world-renowned architects Greene and Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright, some of the most influential designers in modern history.

Museum building, Kurashiki, Okayama
Residence in historic Takehara, Hiroshima

Their vision included improving construction quality, reconnecting to nature through strategic use of materials and harmony with surroundings, multi-functional spaces and details, and creating expansive, emancipating spatial balance. 

In the period around 1910 the craftsman bungalow and prairie styles exploded across the US for high-end as well as modest homes. Incidentally, not only architecture, but landscaping plants were also brought over to the west. This is probably why andromeda, Japanese maple, hydrangea, satsuki azaleas, cherry trees, and other garden varieties are so common in the US today.

Greene & Greene, William T. Bolton House – California

Frank Lloyd Wright in particular created incredible structures inspired by their natural surroundings, and often emulating Japanese geometry. Cantilevered upper floors and extended roof decks covered more outdoor living space than previously, and gardens started to be more planned to match the structures. 

Frank Lloyd Wright’s home – Chicago, Illinois

His prairie style houses seem to be derived from Japanese hiraya (single-story open layout) style. 

He started out with an awkward transitional period establishing his own aesthetic, then designed a series of far-out houses that were ahead of their time (ex Winslow and Rollin Furbeck projects). Even though appearance is so completely different from Japanese architecture, Wright’s Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania, perhaps his most famous single-family design, prominently displays many of these elements and has been celebrated as an architectural masterpiece since its completion in 1939. Interesting to us is that Wright was also invited to design two buildings in the Imperial Hotel complex in Tokyo, one of the most important pre-war developments in Japan.

Fallingwater and Greene & Greene’s Gamble House in California remain perfect examples of how Japanese architectural elements are at the core of celebrated American design. 

Other influenced elements of the craftsman style are:

  • Extensive use of wood
  • Cantilever bump-outs
  • Timber lookout bracing and rafter tails
  • Flared eves
  • Compound roof lines
  • Low-pitched roofs with deep overhangs
  • Large porches with extensive glazing

Not to mention the appearance of large black siding fields directly drawn from yakisugi and sumi (black-stain) aesthetic.

Frank Lloyd Wright – Fallingwater, Pennsylvania
Greene & Greene – Gamble House, California

A Japanese Craftsman House?

A well-maintained period craftsman home that was quite obviously inspired by Greene & Greene’s designs. The compound posts on the porch overhang with extended rafters were signatures of theirs. Also note the Japanese lanterns at the entry and seamless garden flow. The low-slung tradesman aesthetic masonry is matched to craftsman millwork and glazing. This house is fabulous.

Here’s another example of the doubled-up timbers and expansive bungalow style. Also note the azaleas and rhododendrons, also the exotic spruce tree.

Wright Used Japanese Architecture Characteristics

All things Japanese were new and exciting to the rest of the world after their period of isolation came to an end. An exploding tourism industry coupled with over two centuries of homegrown development and innovation created a global race to the appropriation of their best art and design. With a budding career in architecture underway, Wright was perfectly positioned to capitalize on this newfound interest and introduce it to the rest of the world. 

He would also outfit his residential projects with Japanese art as a package with the homes he designed for clients. An excerpt from Wright’s An Autobiography (1932) p.194, tells the story of his early introduction to, and fascination with, Japanese art and architecture:

“During the years at the Oak Park workshop, Japanese prints intrigued me and taught me much. The elimination of the insignificant, a process of simplification in art in which I was engaged, beginning with my twenty-third year (1890 or 1892), found evidence in the print. And ever since I discovered the print, Japan had appealed to me as the most romantic, artistic, native-inspired country on the earth. Later I found that Japanese art and architecture really did have organic character. Their art was nearer to the earth and a more indigenous product of native conditions of life and work, therefore more modern as I saw it, than any other European civilization alive or dead.”

Ginkaku-ji (“Silver”) Temple, Kyoto, Japan
Nishihongan Temple, Kyoto, Japan
Note the massive timber, low-elevation stonework, extended flared eaves, complex roof, and Japanese-style gate
Flared eaves and extended overhangs on Nishihongan Temple, Kyoto, Japan

Japanese Inspired Architecture

There are many ways to identify a Japanese inspired house. There is both beauty and function in Japanese inspired architecture.

  • The use of hand-crafted wood and stone, prominent horizontal lines and extended eaves epitomize both craftsman and American modernist architecture, yet these characteristic details were Japanese first.
  • These themes may have been adopted in the west for aesthetics, but in Japan design culture was more practical and evolved based on environmental conditions.
  • Wood was widely used due to the availability of the material, as the country is mountainous and heavily forested. Wood is also flexible and lightweight, so ideal for structural applications due to the frequency of earthquakes.
  • Stone in Japanese buildings was almost always utilized closer to the ground for the same reason.
  • Full-wall, removable, sliding doors connected the outdoors to open interior spaces, important in a high-humidity and typhoon-prone region. 
  • Extended eves kept high precipitation volumes and high UV load off of the living spaces. This was important due to notoriously under-insulated mud set walls.
Residence in historic Takehara, Hiroshima
Frank Lloyd Wright – Spiral House, Arizona
Frank Lloyd Wright – Taliesin West, Arizona

The practical application of materials led to the overwhelming popularity of yakisugi and stucco siding in Japan over the past several hundred years. House fires have been a formidable problem in Japan historically due to the extensive use of wood as a building material and close proximity of structures in built-up areas. Historically, every individual neighborhood had its own fire department. Burning the surface of wood renders it flame-retardant, thus greatly reducing ignition risk. While heat treating wood goes back to human prehistory, the Japanese have perfected the siding application of it out of necessity. Incidentally, Professor Terunobu Fujimori, the historian and architect credited with introducing yakisugi to the west and arguably the world’s foremost proponent of it, manages the Edo Museum in Tokyo, which features extensive exhibits of the historic 1923 Kanto Earthquake fire and WWII bombing fire devastation.

Traditional Japanese design clearly inspired some of the world’s most influential architects, even before the country was more integrated with the West post-WWII. Today it continues to inspire new generations of architects and designers, and we at Nakamoto Forestry consider ourselves a small part of this ongoing story. For the past 150 years yakisugi has influenced western design in the form of monolithic black walls, and finally in the past decade the source material for this aesthetic has started to be accepted. We hope this is a continuation of the craftsman push to value wholesome, natural building materials, and to embrace tradesman aesthetic. From architecture and interior design to food and entertainment, Japanese cultural thoroughness, wholesomeness, and efficiency continue to exert influence overseas. We feel it is our task to translate and accurately share yakisugi’s rich history and modern relevance, with the mission of improving construction ethics and healthy living.

More Craftsman Home Details:

Cantilevered bump-outs like the one visible on the left side of this house became popularized during the craftsman era, and originate from Japanese kitchen windows and hiraya amado storage bays.
Note the extended rafter tails to emulate expanse, timber details, simple Prairie geometry, pedestal masonry, bump-out on the left elevation, and the Japanese azaleas and wisteria.
This house shows similar details as the house above but the garden has been leveled since built. Downspouts and scuppers might be original but we’re not sure.
This gable is textbook over-built craftsman prairie style, also note the expansive rafter tail flares.
These roof supports are indicative of the Prairie style, popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright.
This house is straight out of an Old Portland Craftsman textbook, exhibiting flared 18” barge, timber support beams under the rafter tails, and multiple bump-outs. The Japanese influence is blended with East Coast acute roof line and dormer, also period cyma drip edge and lookouts. Siding is period-standard CVG bevel-lap Doug Fir downstairs and gauged cedar shingles on the gable. A flowering cherry had been planted in the front yard but was removed recently.
Details of the eave timber rafter detail on the above home. Look familiar? Check out our last blog if you haven’t already to see how these were inspired!


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