Traditional Japanese architecture has a long history characterized by periods of influence by foreign powers. Nihon Kenchiku is traditional Japanese architecture typified by wooden structures with an elevated roof. The emergence of Buddhism in 538 exposed Japan to the Chinese and Korean architects who later on greatly influenced Japan’s traditional architecture.

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Nihon Kenchiku_©Yasuhiro Ishimoto

Characterized by minimalistic design with heavy tiled roofs supported by timber frames, the buildings reflect a strong emphasis on human connection with nature. Though strongly influenced by the Chinese style of horizontal building this style has distinctive characteristics typical to its place of origin, Japan. It provides a great model for symmetry, consistency while boasting a strong aesthetic unity and indigenous characteristics.

Characteristic of Nihon Kenchiku

  1. The roof is a visually impressive component of this style of Architecture.
  2. The general structure consists of a post and lintel on a large curved roof. However, it stands out in its assembly technique, a structural system that works with woodcuts and joints instead of using nails and screws.
  3. Wood is the dominant building material used in traditional Japanese architecture that was durable in Japan’s climate and disaster-prone conditions.
  4. The designs integrated with the natural environment are sustainable and serve a deep connection to nature.
  5. The fluidity of the interior spaces is another major characteristic of this style of architecture making it flexible for usage.
  6. The division between outdoor and indoor is blurred due to the use of moveable partitions and sliding doors.

Elements of Nihon Kenchiku

Roofs- Curvy elongated roofs are the focal point of this style of architecture. Adorned by kawara, traditional roof tiles of Japan, the eaves are specially designed to protect the windows during rain. The eaves extend far beyond the wall covering the verandahs whose weight is supported by a complex bracket system called kumimono. The dimness created due to these overhanging eaves contributes to the ambiance of the structure.

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Screens and sliding doors -Shoji (moveable screens) and fusuma (sliding doors) are used throughout structures made in this style in place of solid walls to further divide the room according to functions. The partitions are thin timber-framed structures with a papered core that provides privacy while also allowing diffused light to pass through them.

Tatami-An essential part of Japanese architecture and heritage Tatami is traditional flooring made of rice straw and soft rush straw with cloth edges. These tatami floor mats were used for sleeping and sitting.

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Tatami mats are framed by shoji and fusuma at a temple in Tokyo_©TOKI

Engawa-Refers to the raised wooden verandah with non-tatami flooring used as a place for relaxation.

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The view of the Engawa from the outside of one of the tea houses in the Hamarikyu gardens in Tokyo_©TOKI

Examples of Evolution of Nihon Kenchiku through Different Time Periods in History

Horyuji temple located in Nara, Japan is considered one of the oldest wooden structures in the world. Originally built in the 607 and reconstructed in 670 the temple exemplifies Japanese architecture of the Asuka period. The architecture primarily consists of a double terrace platform on which the building lies, wooden tapering columns, and heavily tiled roof.

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Horyuji Temple_©Viki Pandit

Shinden Zukuri were aristocratic mansions built in Kyoto during the Heian period (784-1185) The main characteristic of the shinden zukuri was the special symmetry of the group of buildings and the undeveloped space between them. The tōgu-do at Ginkaku-Ji is considered to be the oldest example of shinden zukuri architecture. It includes the chigai-dana (staggered shelf), tokonoma(alcove) for the display of calligraphy, flowers, and art objects, and painted shoji sliding door.

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Tōgu-do at Ginkaku-Ji_©Wally Gobetz

The Kamakuri period saw the transfer of power and a shift in architecture. The structures of this period were less ornate and more simplistic. Kinkaku-ji in Kyōto is a good example of this ostentatious architecture which is decorated with lacquer and gold leaf, in contrast to its otherwise simple structure and plain bark roof. The construction of tea houses during this period showed the use of natural materials.

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Kinkaku-ji in Kyōto_©Bernard Gagnon

Azuki -Momoyama period saw the rise in the construction of castles which were built as symbols of power. Mastumoto, Kumamoto, and Himeji known as the White Heron Castles were excellent examples of castle architecture.

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Himeji Castle_©Oren Rozen

Kasturi Imperial villa located in Kyoto, Japan showcases clear lines of the Edo period incorporates principles used in Shinto shrines, fusuma, and tatami mats as a flooring material.

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Kasturi Imperial Villa_©shigekifujishiro

Since the 19 th. century era, western culture has influenced Japan’s architecture through modern and post-modern architecture. However, with time Japan has been able to carve its unique architecture style with distinguishable features indigenous in origin.


Begoña Bescós . ” Nihon Kenchiku: Japanese Architecture”. Accessed via


A student of PMCA Cuttack. She believes nothing is black or white but grey. Like the meaning of her name, she is in quest of her grey; the perfect balance in life be it through her words or design. Her love for architecture, history, and baking best describes her.