Almost all of the traditional architecture seen in Western countries or China are decorative. In contrary, Japanese ones are “plain” or “reserved”.
Japanese traditional architecture is no more than a sub branch of the Chinese’s mainstream from a global point of view. It’s true that Japan had been influenced by the Chinese architecture even before Buddhist architecture but it was noteworthy that Japan imported Chinese architecture in an outstanding scale in the Asuka and Kamakura era.
But once again, if you compare the Chinese architecture to the Japanese’s, there’re huge differences between the two.
Especially, if you compare the architecture established in the Nara and Kamakura era when Japan was enthusiastic about importing foreign style of culture to the Chinese counterparts in the same period, you can easily notice there’s few things in common.
For example, the simple beauty of the Japanese buildings such as the hon-do (main hall ) of Shin-Yakushi-ji Temple and Hakkaku-do Hall of Eizan-ji Temple in Nara can never be seen in the Chinese architecture in the same period. Elaborate techniques of the Zenshu-yo style placed into every corner of the Japanese architect are totally different from the Chinese ones.
From 19th through 20th century, Japan faced an overwhelmingly advanced culture of the West, which made Japan strongly feel that it must intake their industrial and military technology as soon as possible. For the Japanese, “modernization” means “westernization” and vice versa.
In order for Japan to move ahead with modernization after the Meiji Restoration, they had to embark on their new architecture project suited to the new society. They mainly relied it on engineers or architects from foreign countries.
The style of architecture seen in these construction in the initial Meiji period is so called European eclecticism originated in 19th century. In Europe, the history of Modernism Architecture started with the criticism against the old-style eclecticism; however, this eclecticism itself laid the groundwork for the modernization in case of Japan.
On the other hand, Japan had a great influence on the modern architecture in the West.
It is widely known that a German Architect, Bruno Taut (1880 – 1938) wrote that he was so impressed to see the way the shrine appeared when viewed from the outside totally matched the inner configuration of The Grand Shrine of Ise. He added that he felt as if a bolt of lightning had hit him when he saw it the first time.
Up until then, it had been very typical for the Western architecture to have the façade decorated like a fancy cake. It was not until the beginning of 20th century that a building that was more functional and has a matching interior design with exterior, comprised of reinforced steels and glasses started to appear in town.
Adolf Loos from Czechoslovakia (1870 – 1933) and Richard Joseph Neutra, born in Austria and became famous in the United States (1892 – 1970) are also well known as the architects who had been highly influenced by Japan.
Richard Joseph Neutra once visited the Katsura Imperial Villa and admired the construction, saying “I’ve finally met what I’d been looking for throughout my life. That perfectly matched my sense of space as well as my sensitivity to nature.”
Bruno Tauto described in his book that “Japan inspired Europe to a great extent. When the modern architecture started to gain popularity in Europe, it was the Japanese residential architectural styles that added the greatest driving force to it. Their architectural style is based on functionality and minimalism – big windows and storage space in terms of functionality, and its minimalist design pure and simple.” That Japan’s influence has been outstanding in no-frill functional western furniture as well.
It’s very interesting to see the contrast between Japan and the western countries at that time. Japan was trying hard to modernize itself by introducing western architectural styles while the western countries found Japanese simplicity and functionality beautiful and started introducing in their architectural styles.