Norihito Nakatani


Revised on 29 Sep 2008

1. The structure

The phrase "Japanese modern architecture" consists of the following three words;
"Japan (nation state)" + "modern (time)" + "architecture"
So when we try to analyze modern architecture in Japan, we have to consider how these words are combined and what structural meaning these words have, separately and combined?

2. Chronological analysis

How were the words "Japan (nation state)", " modern (time)", and "architecture" combined? I'd like to propose the following five historical phases through which we can consider this question:

- The 1st phase: the birth of the Modern World System (the notion based on I. Wallerstein's ideas), which was brought into being as the worldwide capital movement that started in the late sixteenth century. In response to this new worldwide system, some Japanese samurai warlords showed some limited reactions by adopting those material elements of Western civilization, such as maps and paintings, which were introduced by the Jesuits, as well as Christianity itself. As for architecture, according to some Japanese researchers, the form of a Japanese castle donjon, Tenshu-Kaku, had been inspired by European castle architecture.
- The 2nd phase: the formation of the Japan nation state in the late eighteenth century. The rise of Koku-Gaku Sha (Nativist, National Learning School) resurrected the ancient figure for modern Japan. It can be seen as a form of resistance to the worldwide capital movement. As for architectural movement, in this phase, Mitsuyo Uramatsu, one of the Koku-Gaku Sha members, had revived the plan of the ancient Kyoto Imperial Palace. This was the beginning of the notion that the idea of traditional architecture should bear significance for modern world as representation of the Nation State.
- The 3rd phase: the Industrial Revolution in the mid-nineteenth century. Toward the end of the Edo period, in spite of Japan's official isolation policy, the Shogun's government tried to import new industrial technology to counter the encroachment of the Western powers, and some military establishments, docks, factories, ironworks were erected. After the new revolutionary (but fundamental) government was born in 1867, marking the beginning of the Meiji era, the same policy of adopting Western technology continued.
- The 4th phase: the influx of Modernism. Modernism (with a capital M) was an ideal and aesthetic representation of the Modern World System. Architecturally speaking, the International style also became popular in 1930's Japan where it had grown to become the primary principle of "Japanese modern architecture."
- The 5th phase: the economic growth after World War II in the late 20th century. This "megalomaniac" phase was a result of the integration between the Modern and Japan in architectural history. The architecture of Metabolists such as Kenzo Tange became the typical symbol of Modern Japan.

3. Structural analysis

Throughout the five historical phases discussed above, "Japanese modern architecture" had been formed and developed as a combination of "Japan (nation state)", " modern (time)", and "architecture." This combined notion is structurally supported by the modern economic system, the creation of nation state, and the Industrial Revolution, having been existing since the 19th century (the 3rd phase) in the case of Japan. So what kind of structural meaning does "Japanese + modern + architecture" have? It depends on the arrangement of these three words with their different emphases. When the emphasis is on "nation," the phrase should signify "modern Japan's architecture." Here, "nation" is the master and "modern" is its servant, while both are formally represented by "architecture." On the other hand, it can mean "modern architecture in Japan." Here, "modern" is the master and "nation" is its servant. These different interpretations can be contradictory but structurally related to each other. In Japan, this contradiction between these two interpretations should be at the heart of the best criticism expressed by contemporary architecture. The third possible interpretation of "Japanese modern architecture" is the combination of the two interpretations, which is rarely attained.

4. The Matrix (The Japanese case)

The following is my attempt to illustrate how the historical phases discussed in (2) and the structural variations in (3) intersect.

  Modern + National Architecture National + Modern Architecture Architecture which integrate both highly
The Birth of Modern World System,
16th century
(The westernized top of Shogun's Palace)
The formation of Nation State ,
18th century
reconctruction of DAI-DAIRI
(Ancient Imperial Palace)
The Industrial Revolution, and Imported Industry
19th century
(Pseudo Western style)
Industorial building  
20th century
Min-Gei Movement,
Kindai Sukiya
Tei-Kan Style Sutemi Horiguchi's Architecture
The Economic Growth after World War II,
late 20th century
Isoya Yoshida's Architecture Metabolism Kenzo Tange's Architecture