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Japanese Architecture - Influences

( Originally Published 1921 )

I. Geographical.—Japan, with its principal island, Nippon, and the long string of attendant isles to north and south, lies off the east coast of China, with the Pacific Ocean to the east and the Sea of Japan on the west. Japan presents many points of geographical resemblance to Great Britain : both have deeply indented coast-lines with good harbours ; both are island empires well situated for commerce, as they both lie opposite populous continents ; both are at the head of great ocean water-ways, the one of the Pacific, the other of the Atlantic, and both are warmed by ocean currents producing equable temperatures.

II. Geological.—The prevalence of earthquakes has favoured timber construction, and the Japanese exhibit scientific ingenuity in the framing together of the various parts. Forests occupy four times the area of the tilled land, with a greater diversity of trees than any other country in the world, and bamboo is largely used in house construction. Stone in Japan is unstratified, hence it is frequently used in polygonal blocks, particularly for the lower part of walls on which is erected the upper timber construction. There are granites, porphyries, and volcanic rocks, but practically no limestones or sandstones.

III. Climatic.—The island climate is made equable by ocean currents and by the prevalence of sea breezes. Houses, where possible, face the south, and deeply projecting eaves form a protection against the summer sun, and high courtyard walls against the winter wind. In summer the movable casement windows and partitions, which form the house fronts and offer little resistance to the penetration of heat, are removed, and so leave the houses entirely open to the breezes.

IV. Religious.—Shinto was the indigenous religion which, without any definite moral code, consisted of ancestor and nature worship and did not involve a desire for graven images or elaborate temples. It was, like the Taoism of China, finally absorbed by Buddhism, which had been brought from China about A.D. 550. The Buddhist religion introduced the building of temples, while its mysterious and awe-inspiring symbolism so acted on the artistic Japanese temperament as to result in the production of numberless images of every possible size, and of various fantastic forms of demons and monsters, woven into conventional representations of landscapes under the changing seasons. In early times the priests contributed to the general development of the country, even in the matter of road-making and bridge-building, as in Mediaeval Europe.

V. Social.—Japan is credited with civilisation, culture, and commerce even before the historic period, which commences about A.D. 400, when Chinese civilisation, arts, and social customs came into Japan through Corea, with a consequent increase in the building of canals, roads, bridges, and houses. Buddhism, too, brought in its train further Chinese ideas, and domestic architecture in Japan advanced along the lines of temple structure. Social conditions were long unstable ; intrigue against the Imperial house raged incessantly, superstition was rampant, divination was practised, and abuses flourished. In the seventh century reforms began under Kotoku ; governors registered land and labour, administration of justice was improved, bribery forbidden, great estates were limited, and taxes took the place of forced labour, while Imperial tomb-building, which had, as in Egypt, laid heavy burdens on the people, was limited by law. The Emperor became a mere emblem of authority with a civil bureaucracy and military " Shoguns." When the capital, which had changed with every emperor, ceased to be mobile, the city of Nara was laid out with nine gates, a palace, and seven great temples. When later Kb-to became the capital (A.D. 794) the art of domestic architecture and landscape gardening made great strides. Through various vicissitudes and Shogun aggressions Buddhism waxed stronger, and fortified monasteries were multiplied. Feudalism, which was at its height in the thirteenth century, recognised three groups—the Emperor and nobles, the military, and the people. Under the Tokugawa Dynasty (A.D. 1598) the divine descent of the Mikado was emphasised, and, after continual strife between civil and military authorities, the last of the Shoguns resigned in A.D. 1867. Then the people began to be considered, so that the constitution was promulgated in A.D. 1890, and representative government laid the foundation of the present progressive position of Japan. The ancient national custom of tea-drinking influenced the arts, and the formation of tea clubs led to a special treatment of tea-houses, buildings, and gardens, the size of which was regulated by law.

VI. Historical. —While the domestic or social history of Japan in early times is dim and mythical, her external history through all ages is vague and largely non-existent, owing to the frequent exclusion of all foreign intercourse. The Japanese, however, date back their unbroken dynasty of Mikados to the Emperor Jummu, who is said to have ascended the throne as early as B.C. 660, which would make him contemporary with Nebuchadnezzar. Written records only begin with A.D. 712, but there is evidence of Chinese social influence in Japan as early as the seventh century, which seems to have created a distinction between civil and military classes. Oversea trade was always regarded in japan as a government monopoly, and thus there was no incentive for individual enterprise in foreign commerce, which in other countries has always been an emissary of international civilisation. Foreign intercourse, which was intermittent, was carried on with China and Corea as early as the eighth century of our era, but it was not until A.D. 1543, when the Portuguese discovered and began trading with the islands, that japan was brought into contact with Europeans. In A.D. 1549 S. Francis Xavier introduced Christianity, and started a Christian propaganda which led to many conflicts. In A.D. 1582 the first Japanese envoys sailed for Europe and came in contact with the art and customs of Portugal, Spain, and Italy, and in A. D. 1592 the Japanese invaded Corea. The pendulum, however, swung back once more, and in A.D. 1614 all foreign priests were expelled and their churches demolished ; Spaniards were driven out in A.D. 1624 and Portuguese in A.D. 1638, when Christianity was finally interdicted and Japan was closed to the outside world for nearly 200 years. In A.D. 1854 commercial treaties were entered into with America and with European countries, when japan came under Dutch and Russian influence and felt the effect of American enterprise and English institutions. After this came the war with China, while in A. D. 1914 japan joined in the great alliance against Germany.

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