Japan, an island nation located along the Pacific coast in East Asia, has a population of nearly 126 million people. Due to its geographical position, Japan is situated where several continental and oceanic plates meet, making it highly susceptible to frequent earthquakes and tsunami waves. The country’s strategic location has compelled its inhabitants to adapt and develop earthquake-resilient construction techniques.

Earthquake Proof Design in Japanese Architecture - Sheet1
Representative map showing the probability that each site will be affected by an earthquake of seismic intensity 6 lower or more within 30 years_©https://www.j-shis.bosai.go.jp/en/shm

The Need for Earthquake Resilient Design

The impact of earthquakes in Japan can be devastating. In 2011, Japan experienced its strongest earthquake on record, known as the Great East Japan Earthquake or Tohoku Earthquake. This massive earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami wave along the Pacific coast, losing thousands of lives. The disaster also caused severe damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, resulting in a nuclear crisis. The incident highlighted Japan’s urgent need for robust infrastructure and disaster preparedness.

Another significant earthquake that profoundly affected Japan occurred in 1995. Known as the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake or Kobe Earthquake, it struck the city of Kobe and its surrounding areas. The earthquake, measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale, caused extensive damage to buildings and infrastructure and resulted in the loss of over 6,400 lives. The disaster served as a wake-up call, prompting Japan further to strengthen its earthquake-resistant construction techniques and disaster response capabilities.

In addition to these major earthquakes, Japan has a long history of devastating seismic events. One of the most significant earthquakes in Japanese history occurred in 1923. Known as the Great Kanto Earthquake, it struck the Tokyo-Yokohama metropolitan area. With an estimated magnitude of 7.9, the earthquake caused widespread destruction, claiming the lives of over 100,000 people. The catastrophic event led to significant advancements in earthquake-resistant construction practices and the establishment of seismic design guidelines and regulations. These disasters have prompted Japan to continually refine and improve its earthquake-resistant construction techniques and disaster response strategies. The lessons learned from these events have contributed to the development of robust infrastructure and stringent building codes to ensure the safety and resilience of its population in the face of future earthquakes.

Learnings from the Vernacular and Traditional Architecture of Japan

Earthquake Proof Design in Japanese Architecture - Sheet2
Minka; a vernacular house with a basic shape and a characteristic roof_©https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minka#/media/File:Shirakawago_Japanese_Old_Village_001.jpg
Earthquake Proof Design in Japanese Architecture - Sheet3
The Shokin-tei tea house with the famous chequered blue sliding doors and sliding doors with the tatami mats_©https://platform.hetnieuweinstituut.nl/en/tatami-floor-cover-building-block-and-lifestyle-carola-hein

Japan’s vernacular and traditional architecture encompasses several key learnings that have stood the test of time. One significant aspect is the flexibility of the structure, which was achieved by stacking simple forms together, initially sideways and then upwards. Interestingly, these structures consisted of structurally independent spaces, allowing for adaptability and functional versatility. Additionally, the layout of rooms in traditional Japanese architecture was often dictated by tatami mats, which influenced the overall organization and functionality of the space. 

The Pagodas

Earthquake Proof Design in Japanese Architecture - Sheet4
Horu – ji, a traditional Buddhist Temple which served as a Seminary and Monastery with the characteristic roof_©https://en.wikipedia.org/

 Another crucial lesson comes from the pagodas of Japan, which have demonstrated remarkable longevity. One of the primary reasons for their enduring success lies in their construction material, wood. Instead of relying on nails, the joints of these pagodas were intricately carved, resulting in a robust and durable framework. The modular units employed in their design also contributed to their strength and stability. A cylindrical column positioned in the middle facilitated the swaying of independent units in opposite directions, enabling the pagodas to withstand seismic activity.

The Shoji

Earthquake Proof Design in Japanese Architecture - Sheet5
A Shoji screen can be used as a door, window or a partition _©https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b6/Gs01-rinsyun.jpg

In vernacular architecture, achieving the right balance in the building envelope plays a crucial role in shaping the nature of the space. This balance is achieved by regulating the entry of light, heat, and air, thereby enhancing thermal comfort. Cross ventilation is also highly valued, promoting natural airflow and cooling within the structure. To facilitate these principles, thin panels of concrete walls or traditional shoji screens are often utilised. Shoji screens, consisting of wooden panels that slide and are often wrapped in plastic or paper, serve as doors, windows, or partitions. Incorporating light structural elements allows for flexibility and allows inhabitants to adapt spaces according to their needs. 

Namako Kabe and Shosoin

Earthquake Proof Design in Japanese Architecture - Sheet6
A vernacular Namako kabe_©https://www.aisf.or.jp/~jaanus/deta/data_image/image_n/namakokabe1.jpg
Earthquake Proof Design in Japanese Architecture - Sheet7
A Shosoin _©https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/art-japan/nara-period/a/the-shsin-repository-and-its-treasure

However, it is worth noting that there are variations in vernacular architecture, such as the namako kabe and shosoin kura storehouses, which deviate from the typical shoji houses. These structures tend to have smaller openings and differ in design as compared to the more open shoji houses. These structures are built to store the belongings of the people safely.

Moreover, the philosophies of the 3Rs—reduce, recycle, and reuse—are deeply embedded in vernacular architecture and promote a minimalist lifestyle and sustainable practices. Furthermore, there is an acknowledgement of impermanence as a guiding principle, emphasising the transient nature of structures over an excessive focus on safety alone. These characteristics collectively define the essence of vernacular architecture and reflect traditional Japanese design’s wisdom, resourcefulness, and ecological sensibilities.

Continuations from Traditional to Contemporary 

Earthquake Proof Design in Japanese Architecture - Sheet8
Aso Farm Village_©https://www.japan.travel/en/spot/646/
Earthquake Proof Design in Japanese Architecture - Sheet9
Sendai Mediatheque_©https://www.archdaily.com/118627/ad-classics-sendai-mediatheque-toyo-ito
Tokyo Skytree_©https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokyo_Skytree

In contemporary structures, the learnings from traditional and vernacular architecture have been applied and continued, resulting in innovative and resilient designs. For instance, the Aso Farm Village, a health facility near Mount Aso, implemented a hemispherical shape for its houses. This form effectively distributes stress, making the structures earthquake-resistant. Another noteworthy example is the Sendai Mediatheque, a cultural media centre that emphasizes steel slabs supported by lattice columns and glass facades. This design approach prioritises lightweight and flexible envelopes. Similarly, the Tokyo Skytree, one of the world’s tallest buildings, draws inspiration from pagodas. It features a central cylindrical shaft surrounded by a steel truss structure, ensuring seismic resistance. The Apple towers in Sendai further showcase seismic resilience with their foundation built using seismic isolation techniques.

In modern buildings, there is a focus on enhancing thermal comfort, drawing from traditional and vernacular practices. However, thicker walls replace massive roofs, reflecting a minimalist approach. The exterior walls often follow the style of kuras, while interior walls resemble shojis, as exemplified in Architect Tadao Ando’s Azumi House. Additionally, a shift towards renewable energies has become paramount for sustainable construction. Earthquake-resistant pipe systems, construction waste management, and disaster preparedness are also integral considerations. Architect Shigeru Ban has made significant contributions in this regard, constructing structures that address these concerns.


Overall, contemporary architecture seamlessly integrates traditional wisdom with modern advancements. The amendments in the Building Regulation Rules also highlight the importance of Earthquake resilience. The incorporation of earthquake-resistant designs, thermal comfort considerations, sustainable practices, and disaster resilience reflects the evolution and adaptability of architectural principles in pursuing safer, more efficient, and environmentally conscious structures.


  1. Earthquake Resilient Architecture in Japan [online]. Available at: https://issuu.com/wirkonas.agn/docs/earthquake-resilient-architecture

  [Accessed date: 28 May 2023].

  1. AD Classics: Sendai Mediatheque / Toyo Ito & Associates  [online]. Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/118627/ad-classics-sendai-mediatheque-toyo-ito   [Accessed date: 28 May 2023].

Ar. Sandhya Parameswaran is a creative individual seeking opportunities to evolve continuously through learning and unlearning, traveling, reading, and writing. Currently working as Associate Professor with the Saveetha College of Architecture and Design (SCAD), Chennai; she is looking forward to sharing her unique and untold stories far and wide.