Places, Images, Times & Transformations

Issues of Authority in Japanese Architecture

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Japanese architecture has often been discussed in terms of its decorative appeal, inspired by its beauty of form, its technically proficient construction, and its agreeable materials. While the focus on the aesthetic qualities of buildings reflects our own contemporary enthusiasms, it unfortunately obscures some of the very different original purposes of Japanese architecture. In pre-modern Japan, architecture was the privilege of the elite and power-seekers and was generally undertaken for reasons other than aesthetics; building signified power and authority. As in Europe and elsewhere, the building of grand structures signaled control over architects and craftsmen, sufficient wealth, and the ability to command others to provide material and labor. Building was also about establishing control and legitimacy. Indeed, the first act new rulers generally undertook was to construct buildings to represent the ideals of their rule. For example, regional leaders founded important shrines like Ise and Izumo as visual symbols of the efficacy of their clan deities, the Japanese emperor sponsored monumental temples, exemplified by Tōdaiji, to show the vigorous support of continental Buddhas for the royal family and the nation, and the warrior elite constructed immense castles, such as Azuchi Castle, in support of its own quest for legitimacy. These varied purposes were expressed in many ways—through elevation, sheer size, by limiting access, through innovative technology, and through beauty in the form of fine materials and intricate decorations. I will discuss here a number of buildings in pre-modern Japan that were designed to exemplify the power and authority of their makers.

Ise and Izumo Shrines and Clan Authority

In pre-historic Japan, rival clans fought for physical control of the country and its resources. By the early fourth century, two powerful clans had arisen, one based on the land bordering the Sea of Japan and the other located in the Yamato (present day Nara prefecture) area. Each allied itself with a kami or deity-the Yamato clan with Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, and the Izumo clan with her brother Susanoo and his descendant Ōkuninushi. Both clans built shrines to house their respective deities, although we cannot be sure when the earliest structures were made. By the eighth century, we know through written histories, such as Nihon shoki and Kojiki, that the Yamato clan proved the more capable in making alliances, developing military power, and in constructing an ideology around their clan deity, Amaterasu. Records show, for example, that during the time the Yamato clan consolidated its power between 659 and 822, Izumo shrine was not rebuilt. By the eleventh century, however, as its central power waned, and regional clans regained some of their previous energy, Izumo shrine was rebuilt more frequently and on a progressively larger scale. Throughout the two hundred or so years from the beginning of the eleventh century through the early thirteenth century, the main hall of Izumo was rebuilt six times, each time larger than the last until the structure reached 48 meters in height and required a giant staircase 109 meters long.

Today, Ise, as the shrine of Amaterasu, progenitor of Japan's imperial family, dominates all others in importance. Two of the three imperial regalia, the mirror and the jewel, are kept at Ise, with Izumo holding the remaining symbol of the imperial house, the sword. We can see even more clearly how the current power arrangement expresses itself at Ise and Izumo by examining certain characteristics of both shrines. Elevation, for example, is one indicator of importance in buildings. The Inner shrine at Ise is raised above the approach path and can be reached only by a series of steps, while the shrine at Izumo is located on the same level as the humans approaching it. Thus, by physically positioning itself above both mortals and its competitor Izumo, Ise declares itself the more sacred and important site.

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