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Vinayak Bharne & Iku Shimomura

February 06, 2003

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We in Asia have always felt the magic of the trees. They represented natural enigmas where many things happened as part of an overall cosmic order and under which lay the source of enlightenment. After all the Buddha did not receive his wisdom within a building but under a tree directly beneath the sky. Hence we never felt the need for much enclosure, comfortable with the idea of a simple parasol that could shield us from heat and rain whilst allowing the breeze to flow over our bodies. The most profound social images such as those of worship and education were not that of a closed building, but a place under the spreading boughs of a tree confirming our affinity to the natural, and our propensity to an open-to-sky place. So in Japan where the forest was as ubiquitous as the breeze, it was natural that wood rather than stone or earth was the secular and sacred building material.

The abundance of trees on the seismic archipelago coupled with the philosophical and religious notions of the culture engendered a unique receptivity towards timber. There was a saying in traditional Japan - trees and plants always have something to say - confirming the Japanese belief that trees had a soul and were the abodes of spirits. It is said that the ancient Japanese religion which later became Shinto was founded on this belief of the divinity of trees. The tree was a yorishiro [1], the means by which Gods descended to the earth; and thus old trees struck by lightening were often revered objects, considered evidence that the Gods had indeed landed. Almost every building type, be it a house, shrine, temple or castle used wood as its major structural material bearing the extremes of a humid summer to a dry winter, and of typhoons and fires and earthquakes. It was amidst these arduous and sensitive rhythms that evolved Japan's culture of wood.

Architecturally the simplest wooden buildings were huts of thatch - the Yayoi dwellings - characterized by a tent like timber roof covering a circular pit dug into the ground [2] (figs. 1-2, above). These early dwellings evolved the second incarnation of the trabeated system - timber posts set into the ground, with horizontal members joining them laterally - the frame supporting a timber roof and making habitable space. The early earth floor eventually transformed into a floating timber floor (fig. 3, above), and with the in-fill of wood paneling marked the birthstone of traditional Japanese architecture, that made the fabric of its early towns and villages (figs. 4-5, above), and evolved over time into the refined expressions of the Shoin and the Sukiya styles [3] (figs. 6-7, below).

It would be incomplete to talk about Japan's post and beam system without underscoring the timber pillar - the structural core of traditional Japanese architecture and the symbolic epitome of its rituals of ancient tree worship. Structurally, the ancient pit dwellings rested on a single row of pillars down the center that were loosely embedded into the earth, creating a kind of a hinge joint to provide flexibility and stability during an earthquake. This idea permeated residential architecture, with typical minka (farmhouses) and machiya (townhouses) having a main pillar called daikokubashira at the center of the building supporting most of the roof weight. Symbolically, the pillar attained the status of an object of worship as the dwelling place of the God of the household. Even today in old households, children are not allowed to lean against the central pillar and at every New Year, it is decorated with pine fronds and a straw rope and revered with offerings of sake and mochi (pounded rice) (figs. 8-9, below).

The third incarnation was the advent of the timber bracket, an ingenious importation from China that ushered several new possibilities. Civic and religious buildings could now be bigger autonomous objects with larger spans in their interior spaces. The evolution and stylistic diversities of the bracket is an elaborate discussion in itself [4], but fundamentally a bracket complex, kumimono or tokyo, was made of two basic parts - the bearing block masu and the bracket arm hijiki. The bearing block was a square or rectangular cube beveled at the bottom. It could be set directly into a column to become a daito (large block) or it could be set on a bracket arm to become a makito (small block). The outward support of the bracket complex was provided by bracket arms typically beveled at their projecting ends and resembling human elbows, the entire network directly supported the purlins above. Building types such as vertical pagoda and the hooden that housed the gigantic Buddha statues express the architectural possibilities of the bracket and the pillar as both the structure and ornament of the building. (fig. 10-11, above)

If the buttress represented for gothic architecture the aesthetic outcome of a structural intention, enabling the walls to have larger punctures, then the timber bracket could be thought of as the Japanese equivalent, enabling the roof eaves to stretch beyond the vertical columns. But the aesthetic outcome of the bracket also broke down the visual scale of the building, it source stemming from a genetically functional intention, unlike the icons and sculptures on the surfaces of stone buildings of the West and India. The entire system was an ingenious craft in pure wood joinery, no nails being used to join members, and thus providing a looser connection to behave as a shock absorber during an earthquake. The bracket represented the perfect blurring of the lines that separated function, structure and ornament (figs. 12-16, above).

The significance of Japan's wooden traditions is aggravated in that there were no architects in traditional Japan, shokunin (craftsmen) being the form givers of the Japanese vernacular [5] (fig. 17, left), much of the character evolving as pragmatic responses to problems. For instance azekura-zukuri or storage chambers made of triangular shaped logs evolved a stacked aesthetic (similar to the log cabins of the West) that came from the natural rhythms of the regional wood. During the moist summer season the wooden members expanded sealing the gap between the stacked logs and protecting the inside from moisture. During the dry winter season the wood shrunk creating a gap between the stacks and letting outside air in (fig. 18, below). The aesthetic of Japan's castles amalgamating timber with plaster and tile emerged from the pragmatic need for protection against fires (fig. 19-20, below). In some jokamachi (castle towns) such as Odawara, the pragmatism of the castle spread through the townscape, houses often plastering their lower levels if not their entire surfaces in white. The yuka or raised floor emerged to keep the wood away from the moist earth, and allow the breezes to flow around it to keep it healthy; and the vertical interior of the traditional minka, evolved from the need for the smoke from the hearth to rise to the underside of the thatched roof, and keep it free from pests before escaping from the roof vent (fig. 21, below).

The lightness of a chopstick is peculiar to Japan and could be compared to the lightness of the shoji screen. There are chopsticks in other cultures, but they are heavier, made of ivory, silver or other metal; there are sliding doors in many cultures, but the ability to slide a door with the tip of one's finger is unique to Japan. The evolution of the shoji began in the early Nara period when boards were used as room dividers with the addition of thick opaque paper. Gradually this paper began to get increasingly translucent and evolved into the light shoji with washi (rice paper) stretched across a grid of wooden pieces, evolving the latticed Japanese aesthetic (fig. 22-23, below).

But perhaps the most sublime notion to the culture of wood was in the subtle perceptions of its sounds, smells and sights. The practical yet elegant uguisu-bari, the squeaking floors of the castles was an ingenious security alarm to protect the feudal lord from intruders, and the soft vibrations and smells of fresh tatami was part of a cultural rhythm. The architecture of the tea hut [6] added a metaphorical dimension in putting a premium on the rusticity and the beauty of the knots in the wood, materials chosen scrupulously on a discriminating aesthetic sensibility. Such an approach probably took its origins from the aesthetics of modest timber huts, evolving unique standards that allowed natural characteristics such as bark and crude surfaces to be used (figs. 24-25, above; figs. 26-28, below). The wood employed in the tea rooms came from a variety of trees, including Japanese cedar, red pine, chestnut and bamboo, due to which a process of coloring was employed - wherein all of the wood sections of the building were coated with a pigment mixed from a red cosmetic resin called ni and soot - so that the wood became nearly black while simultaneously the knots and other natural features in the wood remained visible.


The contrast between Japan's culture of wood and the timber traditions of the West could be summed up in the Japanese notion of Setsuna, meaning transience. It imparted to wood the same materiality of life and death as at the heart of human consciousness, translating in the Japanese resistance to nails, thereby not hurting wood or wooden components. On another plane the notion manifested the inevitable tolerance at the wooden susceptibility to fire, moisture and harsh weather. It was this philosophical and pragmatic resultant that brought forth a distinctly Japanese attitude to wood and its use.

Traditional wooden Japanese cities and towns were repeatedly devastated by fires, wars and earthquakes but after every death, new cities and buildings were reborn. For instance in the Edo period, due to numerous fires through out the city, the Shogun government mandated Edoites to have clay tiles on their roof. But the people in response put clay tiles only where they could be seen, leaving their cheaply built townhouses to be destroyed in the next fire. There was a famous phrase - urban fire and street fights are flowers of Edo - embodying the subconscious propensity towards transience and rebuilding. To rebuild a house every three to five years after being destroyed by a fire was as natural as replacing the fragile washi paper in the shoji, a cyclic renewal like that of the revered Ise shrine.

Shikinen Sengu, the rebuilding of the Ise shrine every twenty years [7] would never have been had Japanese architecture been made of stone. It is the rituals of Ise, marking more than thirty steps in its cyclic construction process - and keeping alive a thirteen hundred year old tradition - that differentiate it from any other traditional wood construction project in the world. The first group of rituals mark activities that disturb the natural environment, such as tree harvesting and ground breaking. True to the spirit of ancient Shinto beliefs, they intend to appease the kami gami (deities) for the lives that are being taken as part of the process. The apologetic enactments protect the workers from harm and heavenly recrimination.

Another group of rituals celebrates that commencement of particular phases of the wood construction process. An example is the Kozukuri hajime-sai (festival marking the beginning of making children), held before the loggers harvest the forest trees, including prayers for the worker's safety. This group of rituals also marks the inception of new phases of work and serves as a periodic reminder of the sacredness of the entire endeavor. A third group of rituals is held after the installment of particular building elements. An example is the Shin no mihashira hoken, which celebrates the installation of the sacred heart pillar beneath the main sanctuary. This pillar has no aesthetic or structural function, and is hidden behind a small fence, unattached to the building. But it represents in symbolic form a kind of an axis mundi connecting heaven and earth. The ceremony demonstrates the reverence for the symbolic values that are associated with distinct building elements.

The fourth group of rituals celebrates the entire construction process as a sacred activity. The Oshiroi ishi mochi-sai (White Stone Placement Festival), involves each of the hundreds of thousands of participants, placing a river washed pebble on the ground within the inner sanctum. The final group of rituals celebrate those aspects of wood construction that the early Japanese believed to be important. They reveal among other things the major perceptual difference between Japanese and Western understandings of nature - the Shinto attitude of humility and gratitude to the world of energy and matter, and the acknowledged interdependence of man and nature. Through renewal and rebuilding the transience of timber as a building material becomes at Ise its greatest celebration.

In the changes that Japan saw during the past century, there were at least two historic circumstances that threatened the traditional understandings of its wooden culture. The first was during the Meiji Restoration [8] in 1868, when a modern government implied a new constitutional monarchy as a paradigm shift from the past. In an attempt to strengthen authentic cultural roots and enhance the symbolic presence of the emperor as a descendent of the kami, the new government deprived the existing custom of integrated Shinto-Buddhist places and ordered the removal of everything Buddhist from Shinto shrines, eventually aggravating a national revolution to raze Buddhist temples. Several wooden temples were brought down as a result and many castles destroyed and replaced as government offices or military posts. The second was during World War Two, when entire cities were destroyed, and numerous wooden structures were razed to the ground to slow down the spread of fire.

With the post-war years seeing the wide adoption of American lifestyles by the Japanese, new building methods replaced earlier wooden traditions in response to safety concerns. Such changes represent for contemporary Japan - when the idea of razing an entire forest for building is both ethically and ecologically questionable - a shift of dialogues from its traditional timber culture. One style, like the rituals of Ise, beckons a selective assessment of construction methods, where traditional wooden components of demolished buildings can resurrect themselves through reuse in their modern counterparts, and is founded on the conviction that Modern build-and-scrap practices pose a global threat to the environment. Another attitude, seeking to amalgamate nostalgia and pragmatism, re-evaluates the physicality of the modern Japanese wooden structure: the wooden ground sill is placed on top of a concrete foundation, connections are made using nails and bolts, the traditional joinery techniques of notching and cutting are renounced, and the structural distribution relies more on the rigidity of its outer faces than a single pillar at its core. (fig. 29, above; figs 30-33, below)

Yet another method, rejecting the literal and intellectualizing not so much the tangibility of its past products but more the processes that made it, argues that contemporary techniques such as exposed concrete - a popular tendency in Post-Modern Japan - relies heavily on the craftsmanship of today's construction workers, and thus keeps the past culture alive. But if this is indeed true, then with modern construction workers using power tools for most activity, there is - for those that treasure Japan's authentic intentions - the apparent danger that modern concerns with labor efficiency and cost effectiveness could undermine that contemplative and focused atmosphere integral to the refined aesthetic of the past.

Today even at Ise, where the culture of wood is practiced with the same rigor on the ancient holy ground, and where even the minutest dent made by an object falling onto the soft wood of the shrine proper is symbolically a defilement necessitating the piece of wood to be replaced, the shrine has opted to have the suyane - the traditional temporary shed over the construction site - made of prefabricated modern materials for better protection of both the building and the workers during its disassembly.

What thus remains most noticeable in this dialogue is the ever-dwindling voice of Japan's culture of wood, not because there is no single culprit this culture can point to and accuse, but because the culture itself is dying. For is it not a post-industrial inevitability that one no longer hears the hammers joining timber beams; and only natural that the electric drill dominates a steel-driven urban frequency? With every rare and remnant traditional townhouse razed to the ground, does not Japan express a helplessness, an involuntary desperation to keep alive its modernity, at the cost of renouncing its past? The culture of wood is nostalgia, a slice frozen in Japanese myth. The culture of wood is dead.

But in observing today's Japan, it occurs that buildings are designed in the expectation not that they will stand the test of time, but that they will be torn down sooner rather than later and replaced by something more appropriate to the economic and technological demands of the future. The annual degree of change within the densely built urban zones is about 30%, encompassing façade improvements to entire new structures. In Tokyo more than a hundred thousand square feet of building is demolished every day, more that six times that number constructed on a daily basis [9]. On its scarce and notoriously expensive land the list is long of the many small and large structures - obscure and prominent, dilapidated and fresh - that challenge any simple understanding about the normal course of aging, necessitating a substantial reinterpretation of the meaning of durability and ephemerality in architecture. This peculiar outlook to apprehending the city as a series of fleeting events rather than an object of substance echoes the age-old profundity of transience, change and renewal. In Tokyo, which so constantly seems under construction - urban skylines crowded with forests of cranes - the ghost of its ancient culture of wood still possesses the 'brand new city' built everyday (fig. 34, above - fig. 35, below).

And so like the 'Angelus Novus' in Paul Klee's painting, Japan seems like the angel of its own history looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. His face is turned towards the past where he sees a deep-rooted culture. He perceives a chain of events, a single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, keep alive what is being wrecked. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has caught in his wings with such violence that he can no longer close them. It irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is Japan's progress.

Text and images © Vinayak Bharne & Iku Shimomura, 2003 : not to be reproduced without permission.

1 It is possible that the existence of Japanese architecture in which pillars are lined up in a single row in the center of the building is related to the significance of the 'yorishiro'. The 'yoroshiro' also eventually became the original shape of the Shinto shrine. The shin no mihashira (esteemed pillar of the heart) under the center of the floor of the main temple at Ise is significant because it is regarded as a 'yorishiro' in which the Gods reside. [back]

2 The Yayoi era (200 B.C. - A.D.250) brought with it wet rice cultivation and the sophisticated use of iron tools, which in turn prompted advances in building techniques and the development of the second type of prehistoric building that was elevated on posts. The best example of a Yayoi community is Toro in Shizuoka Prefecture, where one can see the Yayoi pit dwelling and elevated storehouse in conjectural reconstruction. [back]

3 The Shoin style of residential architecture gradually developed during the Muromachi period (1338-1573) out of the Shinden style. Early Shoin style features were found particularly in the 'kaisho' hall of Shinden complexes and the abbot's quarters (hojo) of Zen monasteries. The earliest extant example of this style is the Dojinsai room of the Hall of the Eastern Quest (Togudo) in Yoshimasa's Silver Pavilion complex in Kyoto. The word 'sukiya' literally means abode of refinement and the most successful examples of the Sukiya style combine the elegance of the formal Shoin style with the relaxed atmosphere and artistic idiosyncrasies appropriate to a man of taste. Each sukiya structure though unique, shares with all others certain general characteristics of understatement and irregularity. One of the most congenial representations of the sukiya style is the Manshuin, a monzeki temple built for an abbot in north Kyoto. [back]

4 Though the bracket complexes used in the Japanese, Great Buddha and Zen styles are all different in configuration, that of the Japanese style is the most basic and its general characteristics apply to the other two as well. The development of the three-stepped bracket is also a subject of elaborate study beyond the scope of this essay. [back]

5 The craftsmen who built the temples and shrines of Japan's pre-modern era were grouped into a number of distinct specialties including carpenters, plasterers, stone masons and sawyers. Illustrations on folding screens, picture scrolls and woodblock prints provide glimpses into their activities, some of the most telling being those by Kuwakata Keisei (1764-1824), called Shokunin zukushi e (Pictures of Tradesmen). Very few tools used by the carpenters remain from the Edo period, but compilations such as the Wakan sansai zu e (Sino-Japanese Illustrated Encyclopedia) and illustrations made by the Nagasaki painter Kawahara Keiga (1786 - ?) provide information on this subject. [back]

6 The Tea Ceremony originated as a Zen technique of meditation and spiritual training involving a host preparing tea for a guest. The entire act traditionally occurred in Tea Hut that was approached through a Tea Garden designed to abet the feel of a forest. The 'Soan' (literally grass cottage) Tea Hut in Kyoto is an example of a 'Soan' style 'Chasitsu' or space in which the traditional 'Cha-no-yu' or Tea Ceremony was held. Typically the Hut was designed as a remote rustic cottage with a Tea Room for the ritual proper and an Ante-room for preparations and storage. [back]

7 The Ise shrine buildings are rebuilt on a contiguous lot every twenty years in order to ensure ritual purity to Ameterasu, the goddess of the Sun. The rebuilding process, beginning with the cutting of special limber far in the mountains, takes years to accomplish and is enormously costly. Ise therefore is the only shrine today that is regularly built, though the practice was common at many shrine sites in the past. [back]

8 In 1867/68, the Tokugawa Era in Japan found an end in the Meiji Restoration. The emperor Meiji was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo, which became the new capital. The new government aimed to make Japan a democratic state with equality among all its people. The boundaries between the social classes of Tokugawa Japan were gradually broken down. In order to transform the agrarian economy of Tokugawa era into a developed industrial one, many Japanese scholars were sent abroad to study Western science and languages, while foreign experts taught in Japan. [back]

9 This information is based on statistics from Tokyo Metropolis : Facts and Data ( Tokyo Metropolitan Government, 1994), 16 [back] | Articles