‘Architecture, in its noblest condition, is ... unknown in Japan’, wrote the American art historian James Jackson Jarves (1818–1888) in 1876.1 Since he never set foot on Japanese soil, his evaluation could have been taken with a grain of salt if not for Sir Rutherford Alcock (1809–1897), for years British minister in Japan and China, who noted in 1878: ‘In architecture, the Japanese, like their neighbours the Chinese, have produced scarcely anything – not even as much, indeed, as the latter, for these may claim the pagoda as a creation of their own …’.2 Art historians and art collectors of the time, however, were rather interested in the rich, colourful and manifold Japanese arts and crafts like ceramics, textiles, fans and small furniture.

More than a century later the situation is nearly reversed. While collectibles are still of interest among experts, most attention is paid to architecture. As one of the main references of the Modern Movement, which was one of the most dominant voices of the architectural and urban discourses for most of the twentieth century,3 reference to Japan’s artistic tradition valorises practically all contemporary design ideas. The decorative richness of Japanese craftwork is no longer of interest while the simple, somewhat ephemeral wooden structures are treasured. In 2000 an article introducing an exhibition at Berlin’s Bauhaus-Archiv stated: ‘The art of Japan is famous for its formal austerity. At all times functionality and simplicity characterize the design of dwelling houses and furniture’.4 How did this shift in perception from disregard to admiration come about? What does the phrase ‘at all times’ mean, given the rapid cultural changes Japan underwent during the last 150 years? How did Japan become such a potent source of inspiration in western architecture? This article draws on a decade of study on modern Japanese history and culture and introduces the first results of an ongoing research project regarding the western perception of Japanese architecture. It suggests that the phenomenon described is the result of decades of cultural referencing between Japan and the West. The formative period here is the second half of the nineteenth century. This is the period for which the most interesting source material is available.

Understood as a basic feature of cultural self-definition, cultural referencing is a means of accepting, rejecting, or modifying role models presented by the outside world in order to secure identity and belonging. Above the individual level, this applies to any group of people, be it an ethnic minority, a nation state, a gang, or a professional association. Research on reference cultures has for a long time focused on hegemonic constellations. The transfer of knowledge and the power of interpretation seemed to run in one direction: while the reference culture itself achieved recognition and cultural weight, it seemed to remain culturally unaffected. Especially with the advent of the cultural turn in academia, however, the research questions and perspectives changed, particularly thanks to postcolonial studies. To counterbalance traditional findings, the focus shifted towards marginalized groups of society at first and subsequently addressed the reciprocal effects of referencing. Thus, the area of cultural referencing is now understood as a field of exchange rather than a takeover, in which transculturation does not occur within fixed and predictable limits. More often, cultural references are adopted out of a ‘cloud’ of options derived from oral tradition, (mass) media and academic discourse.

The case of Japan allows us to examine these processes of referencing in modernity with a favourable state of sources. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, Japan was forced by western powers to end its isolationist policies and to take part in the fights for supremacy in East Asia. The Japanese Meiji government tried to avoid colonization by initiating a complex process of modernization in 1868. It introduced the western administrative machinery as well as technological and cultural knowledge from the West, dispatched students to renowned educational institutions abroad and hired experts from Europe and North America as advisers and teachers. In the newly established foreign settlements diplomats and tradesmen took up residency at first, but they were soon joined by missionaries, teachers and military personnel, as well as by transients like artists, globetrotters and journalists. Many of them reported home and thus helped to collect a body of knowledge concerning Japan.

In the decades that followed, foreigners from Europe and North America came and went. Meanwhile, Japanese diplomats and scholars travelled the world and questioned role models and the western claim to supremacy. Thus the mutual perception was at times fraught with tension, especially from the Japanese point of view. While many features of western culture were adopted intentionally, many others were rejected just as clearly to preserve national and cultural identity.

Japanese architecture is only one instance among others that enables us to analyze the process of cultural referencing in relation to modern Japan. It is of special interest to historians since architecture provides both a wide range of sources (mobile and immobile artefacts, visualizations, texts) and various levels of analysis. Architecture is a means of symbolizing thought patterns through durable three-dimensional matter. Political and economic demands are manifest in architecture but value systems, worldviews, promises and dreams likewise take shape in buildings or can be attributed to them. This complex perception with all its layers and inconsistencies can be examined regarding its development through time or it can be cross-sectioned to examine a certain epoch or region. Thus the cultural practices generating a city or a house and the accompanying changes in time belong inseparably to the analysis. What makes today’s Japan especially alluring in this respect, is its apparent dichotomy. As one of the world’s strongest economies it embodies a dynamic modern society but is at the same time perceived as a mainstay of eternal tradition and non-modernity. I argue that this phenomenon has its roots in nineteenth-century cultural referencing.

This invites a complex methodological approach that allows us to get a firm grip on as many levels of referencing as possible. The research for this article mainly uses a hermeneutic discourse analysis of texts and images. While the research approaches towards architectural history may be legitimately applied globally, many concepts are deeply influenced by European schools of thought and resulting patterns of perception. To somewhat compensate for this, the research question is influenced by a number of discourses rooted in the social sciences. Among these are Clifford Geertz’ ‘thick description’ and Homi K. Bhabha’s concepts of cultural ‘hybridity’ and ‘otherness’. The understanding of discourse and narrative is indebted to Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard, while the overall cohesion is provided by Shmuel Eisenstadt’s idea of ‘multiple modernities’. Originally coined within a specific sociological setting, the notion spread into neighbouring fields and has been divested of its initial theoretical and temporal limitations. It now provides a way to address the multifaceted discourses of postmodern ‘modernity’ in all its local embodiments and expressions, both globally and transculturally.

Research on Orientalism, Occidentalism and Japanese self-westernization is well established in academia and rests on a stable theoretical foundation. The influence of key actors and major events has been studied against the backdrop of contemporary art discourses, modern nation states and the fight for political and economic supremacy.5 Thus architecture as an important part of social communication has been widely discussed. What is still lacking, however, is research on exchanges of actual specialist knowledge like design principles, construction technologies and building practices within the field of architecture and civil engineering. Building itself, in the technical, functional, economic and aesthetic sense, rarely meets the public discourses since it is ultimately a result of expert decisions.

In this case study, I regard the (western) reception of Japanese architecture as an instance of cultural referencing within the developing field of modern architecture. The article illustrates the mediation between western Orientalism and Japanese Occidentalism, between ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’, in which the West acted both as shining example and embodiment of foreignness. As an example of one possible modernity, Japan in its interaction with the western nations provides a captivating model for intentional and non-intentional referencing. Both institutionalized as well as informal in character, the referencing expresses both continuity and discontinuity.

During a decade of study of Japanese architecture and its relation to western architectural discourses, I noticed discontinuities in narration as well as incongruences between relevant literature and on-site experience. To understand this, I started research to deconstruct the cultural referencing involved that initially focuses on the later nineteenth century as the formative years of modern architectural discourse between Japan and the west. The following sets out to show that the limited and exoticizing western perception of Japanese culture and architecture during the late nineteenth century established a space of possibilities for interpretation. When western actors such as the architects of the Modern Movement used this space to legitimize their own agenda and to prove its universal validity, they solidified and perpetuated the western perception of Japanese ‘otherness’.

1853–1900: Appropriation

After more than 250 years of highly limited and restricted contact due to the nation’s isolationist policies, by the middle of the nineteenth century Japan had become of immense interest to the West.6 The Japanese actors, however, were divided between those welcoming change and those trying to uphold isolation. After the visits of the Perry Expedition in 1853–1854, it took more than ten years for Japan to establish an official policy of intentional and purposeful modernization according to the western model. This policy was instituted in the late 1860s and is known as the Meiji Restoration. From this time onwards, the number of foreigners employed in Japan rose significantly and soon the accounts of Japan published in western languages multiplied and diversified.

The first visitors after 1853 had based their expectations on older original sources like Philipp Franz von Siebold’s (1796–1866) Nippon,7 published from 1832 onwards, or quickly compiled books like Richard Hildreth’s (1807–1865) Japan,8 first published in 1855. Most of the visitors belonged to delegations and exploited diaries or travelogues to recount their experiences. Since their time ashore was usually limited to a few hours or days, the texts focused more often on the travel itself than on the country visited. There are descriptions of the general topography, the weather and significant occurrences like the visit of a local authority aboard, or a remarkable building seen between the trees near the anchoring ground.9

After this initial stage and the start of the modernization process, the number of authors increased. The experts invited in and the curious who came of their own accord had the most diverse professional backgrounds and personal interests. Thus, the range of topics in the reports sent home was very wide and the reliability of the information offered proved to be incidental: a physician wrote the most influential Japanese-English dictionary;10 an interpreter described shrine buildings;11 a missionary analyzed cultural transfers;12 and a zoologist wrote the only book about the Japanese dwelling house for decades to come.13

The books and essays about Japanese art and culture alone show a wide array of topics and non-topics, which can be divided into three main groups. First, there are basic cultural parameters of Japan like language, customs, costumes, rites and religions which inspired curiosity and fostered tourism. Some of the regional information about Japan’s natural environment with its woods and coastlines overlaps with the second group of topics, which is focused on economic issues, with data on natural and personal resources, markets, trade, the political system and further economic and legal conditions. The third group of topics concerns specialized knowledge of fine and applied arts. Since it goes with a significant subtext about a general theory of culture and civilization, it too overlaps with the other groups of data. As is repeatedly hinted at in the literature, all this information was gathered not least to gain an advantage in the struggle for supremacy among the leading western nations.

As indicated earlier, the westerners at this time had absolutely no interest in Japanese architectural and constructional knowledge. The American art historian James J. Jarves explained his complete rejection of Japanese architecture with the ephemeral quality of wooden constructions, thus lacking the ‘fine instinct of immortality which materializes itself in our finest religious edifices, or even those aspirations which find vent in our ambitious palaces and public buildings’.14

The western architectural discourse during this period was oriented towards a clear hierarchy of major works and cultural epochs, starting with the Greek temples of the Acropolis in Athens and the buildings of the Roman Empire, followed by Renaissance churches such as St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and then by later academic styles. This implicit hierarchy is evident in many books on Japanese art and architecture during this period. It references certain building types, architectural forms and not least the building materials used.15 Thus Isaac Dooman’s (1857–1931) statement that ‘Greece will stand forever as the consummator and representative of all that is highest and noblest in man’, was a truism in contemporary architectural knowledge.16

Neither the upcoming industrial constructions like the Crystal Palace in London nor non-European designs were perceived as architecturally of interest. An exception was made for a few traditional European wooden buildings. The history and typology of vernacular dwellings qualifying as expressions of folk art had become of interest as a result of the concerted efforts in the modern western nation-states to construct a national cultural identity. In many regions, local building traditions came into focus while vernacular architecture was analyzed and restored. This field of study provided detailed information on buildings made of stone as well as on framed wooden structures, including floor plans and ornamental details. The research provided examples for contemporary buildings in ‘national’ or ‘local’ styles, which allowed for the use of wood.17 However, this did not go as far as to include the Japanese dwellings as just another example of local building tradition.

Against this background, the western architectural discourses inspired by Japan mostly did not discuss the architecture itself but concentrated on the social dimensions expressed in architecture and urban society. This was of highest relevance since the western nations of this time were experiencing the consequences of rapid industrialization and urbanization and were looking for answers. The fast rise in urban populations strained the supply of housing as well as the material and social infrastructure, confronting the lower classes with precarious existence in unhygienic environments, malnutrition and hazardous health conditions. This imperilled the supply of a reliable workforce and came with the threat of social unrest too.

Two groups of experts sought to find solutions. On the one hand, architects and civil engineers strove to re-organize the physical space by means of streets, sewers and housing projects. They looked towards technological innovation. On the other hand, social reformers from diverse professions sought to address the situation by changing social parameters by means of education and paternalist intervention.

Most of the architects and civil engineers went along with Jarves’s view regarding the aesthetic value of Japanese buildings and all experts agreed about the risk of fire. Earthquake-proof construction, however, seemed worth the effort of extended discussion. As early as 1858, United States Navy Captain Andrew H. Foote noted:

The slightly-constructed buildings are better adapted to the shocks of earthquakes, so prevalent in this vicinity, than a harder material would prove.18

The railway engineer Richard H. Brunton (1841–1901) opposed notions like this in a very blunt manner:

That earthquakes are prevalent throughout the whole of Japan is a fact which, in the minds of many, has affected the whole system of building in Japan, and has prevented the development of the native talent for construction. This is looked upon as sufficient reason for the absence of stone erections or buildings of solidity and durability. But if earthquakes have exercised this influence over the Japanese mind, the people have been influenced by false premises; as I think that to imagine that slight buildings, such as are seen here, are the best calculated to withstand an earthquake shock is an error of the most palpable kind. Now that foreigners have introduced a different system of building, the present Japanese have no hesitation in adopting it, and edifices of any size or material are now erected with their approval. No objection is ever made on account of earthquakes, and on these grounds I am of opinion that at all events the present race have not that dread of earthquakes which would lead them to eschew solid constructions, and we must seek at some other source the reasons for the want of progress in the art of building.19

French naval officer Maurice Dubard (*1845), among others, concurred with Foot.20 By contrast, while Ernst von Stein (1857–1929) noted the implications of heavy roofs for earthquake resistance, he was surprised by what he perceived as a lack of concern about stability by the Japanese.21 Both perspectives, for and against the earthquake resistance of traditional Japanese constructions, were supported until the end of the century when the 1891 Mino-Owari earthquake finally pointed towards the flaws in western constructions.22

Apart from these engineering concerns and an interest in the abundance of carvings and colours, western architects ignored Japanese building traditions. This goes even for the British architect Josiah Conder (1852–1920), who spent his whole adult life in Japan, taught western architecture and ran his own architectural office. His essays on Japanese architecture remained superficial and a later published lecture to his architecture students focused on the progressiveness of western technology alone.23

Social reformers, on the other hand, regarded Japan as a source of evidence for a reformist programme. They discussed the apparent high standard of hygiene in Japanese houses and streets of even the lowest classes, a phenomenon which seemed to conflict with the notion of a people perceived as poor and only moderately civilized.24 The German geographer Johann Justus Rein (1835–1918) wrote in the 1880s:

The cleanliness of the Japanese is one of his most commendable qualities. It is apparent in his body, in his house, in his workshop, and no less in the great carefulness and exemplary exactness with which he looks after his fields. Every Japanese, great or small, takes if possible his warm bath (yu) every day.25

In some cases, this hygienic standard was understood as the expression of untainted and ‘natural’ moral behaviour, in contrast to western societies, which experienced a loss in social structure and morality due to their growing distance from the ‘natural’ order. Thus the rise of social structures and morals in the West by education was thought to help to solve health issues and the danger of epidemics.26

In other cases, Japanese hygiene was seen as one intrinsic feature of ‘Japanese culture’ among other admirable abilities. John Nicholson Seymour, who acknowledged these desirable characteristics and suggested further improvements, commented on the complaints of fellow westerners:

I conclude then, that a Japanese house is on the whole admirably suited to Japanese life. It is small in cost, beautiful in appearance, and may be very healthy. Its chief defects can be easily remedied. The boarding of the floor should be made more close-fitting; ventilating panels should always be inserted in the amado [wooden shutters]; a really good stove might be introduced with advantage; the ceilings should be made higher, and more attention paid to space; and the drainage should be well looked to. The general character of the house does not need alteration. But if a foreigner, in using it, retains his foreign habits, he has no right to condemn it. If he clothes himself lightly, sits on a chair, and makes a large fire in a hibachi, he has no right to find fault with the house because he suffers from headache or cold feet. If he uses a high table, he must not condemn the lighting; and if he cumbers the room with furniture, he is not justified in decrying the want of space.27

His evaluation was supported by the personal physician to the Japanese imperial family, Erwin Bälz (1849–1913). Bälz furthermore emphasized differences in the cultural understanding of cleanliness between Japan and the western nations.28

Explaining surprising phenomena away by labelling them as peculiar to Japanese culture apparently served to uphold the western culture as a superior civilization while admonishing western shortcomings. By specifying Japanese culture as specifically ‘Japanese’ as opposed to ‘normal’ (western) culture, the authors defined Japan as ‘the other’, as incomparable and thus as ultimately not equal.29 Both the French art historian Louis Gonse (1846–1921)30 and the British japanologist Basil H. Chamberlain (1850–1935) used this discursive mechanism. The latter concluded:

The Japanese genius touches perfection in small things. … The massive, the spacious, the grand, is less congenial to their mental attitude. Hence they achieve less success in architecture than in the other arts.31

Thus these writers – like many others – effectively avoided competition between the western and Japanese approaches. This specific mode of ‘othering’ resulted from a normative and hierarchical understanding of culture and civilization. It planted a seed that finally grew and solidified into an imagined Japan unaffected by cultural transformations and thus a stable source for referencing.

At the same time, this ‘othering’ allowed westerners to express a longing for undestroyed tradition and civilization, symbolizing all the values which were perceived as endangered in western modernity. The authors were torn between fear of decline of the ‘traditional Japan’ and the conviction that it would endure eternally. Sometimes the recognition of this idealized Japan assumed a religious character, as with John La Farge (1835–1910):

When I began to reflect how this wood and plaster had more of the dignity of art and of its accessible beauty than all that we have at home, if melted together, would result in; that these frail materials conveyed to the mind more of the eternal than our granite, it seemed to me that something was absolutely wrong with us.32

Another discourse that used Japanese examples involved arguments regarding professional training in carpentry and related professions. The superior manual skills of Japanese artisans were a prominent topic in art history and art trade during the period, its results on display at World Fairs and art exhibitions. Edward S. Morse (1835–1925), a British zoologist, described a similar situation in carpentry and cabinetry:

A somewhat extended experience with the common everyday carpenter at home leads me to say, without fear of contradiction, that in matters pertaining to their craft the Japanese carpenters are superior to American. Not only do they show their superiority in their work, but in their versatile ability in making new things. One is amazed to see how patiently a Japanese carpenter or cabinet-maker will struggle over plans, not only drawn in ways new and strange to him, but of objects equally new, – and struggle successfully.33

He saw the reason for this in undisturbed family traditions and admonished his home country, writing ‘that civilization and modern appliances count as nothing unless accompanied with a moiety of brains and some little taste and wit’.34

Morse’s interest in Japanese houses was based on a general fondness for Japanese culture and the apprehension of its imminent decline. He collected information with a clear archival approach, as stated in the preface of his work, and thus without any analytical depth.35 Basil H. Chamberlain criticized his general approach soon after:

Morse’s Japanese Homes is a fascinating account, not only of Japanese architecture, but of every tiny detail of Japanese domestic life, even down to the waterbucket and the kitchen tongs. The only drawback is the author’s parti pris of viewing everything through rose-coloured spectacles, which makes those who would fain be instructed by him feel that they are listening to a special pleader rather than to a judge.36

Some other writers, however, shared some of Morse’s perceptions. The situation of craftsmen in Japan, be it observed or imagined, provided suggestions to reform the social position of the craftsman and the artist in western society according to a romanticized ‘medieval’ model with guild-like structures and patronage, as the British engineer George Cawley (1848–1927) noted:

… the cabinet-maker or carver of a century ago, I can see him, in imagination, in the workroom of his modest home, comfortably employed under the patronage of some art-favouring feudal lord, whose commission would be for work of excellence, and excellence only. No limiting conditions, referring to market price or time of delivery, would arise to narrow the scope of the artisan’s skill. Under circumstances such as I have pictured – now gone for ever – the skilled wood worker could freely allow his long and special training, his deftness of manipulation, and his cultured taste to combine for the accomplishment of work indicative of his highest power as a shaper of wood.37

As a whole, however, the admirers of Japanese building skills and hygienic standards remained a minority throughout the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Any argument in favour of the Japanese dwelling paled against its perceived flaws as summed up by Basil Hall Chamberlain in 1890:

Japanese houses are supremely uncomfortable to ninety-nine Europeans out of a hundred. Nothing to sit on, nothing but a brazier to warm oneself by and yet abundant danger of fire, no solidity, no privacy, the deafening clatter twice daily of the opening and shutting of the outer wooden slides, draughts insidiously pouring in through innumerable chinks and crannies, darkness whenever heavy rain makes it necessary to shut up one or more sides of the house – to these and to various other enormities Japanese houses must plead guilty. Two things, chiefly, are to be said on the other side. First, these houses are cheap – an essential point in a poor country. Secondly, the people who live in them do not share our European ideas with regard to comfort and discomfort. … Furthermore, the physicians who have studied Japanese dwelling-houses from the point of view of hygiene, give them a clean bill of health.38

From the Japanese point of view, western architectural knowledge was intentionally imported and adopted. The national programme for modernization asked for factories, shipyards and foundries along with representative public institutions like administrative buildings and train stations. For both assignments the designs and construction principles were chosen according to western examples and realized by the contracted foreign experts.39 Thus the production plants were erected in brick and iron, the bridges in iron framework. The governmental offices and ministries were as far as possible stone constructions or at least covered with stone slabs. All the decorative details matched the examples in contemporary western cities.40 The public buildings of lower status like local schools and hospitals were realized in wood but according to American design solutions.41

While the buildings of public interest became shaped in western styles, the transfer of architectural knowledge regarding dwellings was informal. The foreign residents in the handful of extraterritorial settlements wished to live according to their home regions’ local habits. They contracted Japanese carpenters to realize designs from views, sections and ground plans. This resulted in hybrid forms of Japanese carpentry and western forms which prevailed for some decades alongside the traditional wooden Japanese dwelling houses and the massive structures of public and business institutions in western style.

Next to the employment of foreign experts, the Japanese government established a School of Technology in Tokyo in 1873, which provided advanced education in the fields of civil engineering and architecture among others.42 The curriculum was established by the Scottish engineer Henry Dryer (1848–1918) and became perceived by visiting western scholars and practitioners as very advanced and superior even in relation to American institutions. From the very beginning proficiency in English was required for any prospective student, furthering the communication between Japanese students and foreign teachers as well as the cooperation with foreign experts during building projects afterwards.43 The library catalogue of the architectural department at today’s Tokyo University still shows a predominance of western teaching materials especially in English during the latter half of the nineteenth century until the 1920s. It lists many of the relevant authorities of the time, like John Ruskin (1819–1900) and Eugène Viollet-Le-Duc (1814–1879), while Japanese publications on architecture are scarce.44

Within a few years the first generation of western-trained Japanese architects graduated. Some of them went abroad to expand their studies, some remained at the school and taught and others established offices.45 During the latter half of the 1880s, the interest in Japanese building traditions rose among the students. Kingo Tatsuno (1854–1919), who by then had taken responsibility for the architectural education, accordingly complemented the ‘regular curriculum of historic western styles’ with lectures on Japanese architecture and field trips to heritage sites.46

Until the end of the nineteenth century Japanese scholars did not publish on Japanese architecture in western languages.47 The sole exceptions were a travel guide for Kyoto by Kakuma Yamamoto (1828–1892) in 187348 and Kakuzo Okakura’s (1862–1913) backup material on the Japanese pavilion, the Ho-o-den, at the Chicago World Fair in 1893.49 Thus the only indication of the Japanese perspective of their own building tradition available to people in the West who were not proficient in Japanese was the oral information given to travelling foreigners by their Japanese guides and escorts regarding architectural sights and other places visited along the road and noted down in diaries and travelogues.

However, there were also images. It is nearly impossible to overestimate the impact of visual media on the perception of the built environment in general. Until today the appropriation of architectural knowledge and the architectural planning itself is mostly visual, merely the evaluation takes place in textual or oral discourse. Next to personal visits on site, models, photographs, sketches and technical drawings provide information and inspiration. Hence an important part of the shared expertise among architects and art historians consists of canonical images of acknowledged buildings, historical as well as contemporary, actually existing as well as only designed. This imag(in)ed empire of architectural references even ensures the virtual existence of buildings after demolition. A famous example is the ‘Barcelona Pavilion’, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969) for the Barcelona Expo in 1929. The building was deconstructed in 1930 but remained – via photographs and drawings – one of the most important references for the architecture of the Modern Movement. It was reconstructed following these very documents at the same site in the 1980s.50

Regarding Japan in the late nineteenth century, architectural knowledge was mediated via illustrations in travelogues, monographs and specialized essays on the one hand and via albumen prints on the other. The illustrations consisted of copies of Japanese woodcuts and scrolls as well as of sketches or drawings done by westerners. The same goes for the photographs which were taken by Japanese and western photographers alike. Due to the printing costs, line drawings of limited size were the norm for illustrations, often accompanied by some full-size plates in black and white. Colour reproductions in books were scarce and made the coloured albumen prints all the more attractive. These collectible albumen prints revealed the local customs and costumes, beautiful women and flowers, landscapes and sights, including a number of famous temples and shrines, especially in Tokyo, Kamakura and Nikko. These picturesque sights were re-photographed, re-printed and re-described over and over again, establishing a small canon of places-to-know and places-to-go in Japan. The effect was all the greater because the foreign population was usually subject to travel restrictions and limited to the exterritorial settlements and their immediate environs.51 Thus the architectural knowledge available outside Japan consisted of an eclectic array of impressions: information fitting for inspiration but of little significance to architectural practice and research (see Figures 18).

Figures 1 and 2: 

Illustrations of architectural details: Old nails from temple doors in Nara, Compound Bracket (source:Christopher Dresser, Japan, its Architecture, Art and Art-Manufactures (London, 1882), 114, 239).

Figures 3 and 4: 

Illustrations of Dwelling Houses: House near Mororan, Yezo, Guest-Room of a Country House (source:Edward Sylvester Morse, Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings (Boston, 1885), 59, 147).

Figures 5–8: 

Albumen prints by Kazumasa Ogawa (trimmed): Girls having afternoon tea; Fujigawa river and Mt. Fuji from Iwabuchi, Tokaido; Omizusha, a basin, at Nikko Toshogu Shrine; A vegetable vendor (source: Courtesy of Nagasaki University Library, Metadata Database of Japanese Old Photographs in Bakumatsu-Meiji Period, IDs 260, 301, 353, 268).

In 1886, this lack of sufficient information for architectural practice was addressed by César Daly (1811–1894) in Revue de l’architecture et des travaux public. He referred to the omnipresence of Japanese design in arts and crafts and noted a difference regarding architecture:

Architecture, however, still seems reluctant to use this new source of inspiration. Why? A moment’s reflection is enough to understand the reason for this indifference, more apparent than real. It is because architecture is not only an aesthetic art but also a science and a technical art. If the artist as a mere decorator easily finds Japanese models to reproduce or modify, if the ‘motifs’ swarm around him in the thousands of Japanese products he encounters at curiosity dealers and museums, it is not the same for the architect. On the contrary, the latter has to cope with a total lack of reasonably complete and sufficiently detailed information to understand, firstly, the basic features of the science and technology of building in Japan and secondly the meaning and origin of the architectural forms of decoration.52

Thus he provided mechanical drawings of a typical temple building, including floor plan, support grid, views and exploded drawings of details. Additional plates show decorative parts in colour (see Figures 912). This publication remained singular, however and no references were made to it in the architectural writings of the time.

Figures 9–12: 

Plates illustrating a generic Japanese temple (source: César Daly, ‘Les temples japonais’, Revue générale de l’architecture et des travaux publics 43 (1886), plate 16–18, 21–24).

In conclusion, the lack of reliable architectural information on Japan was of no relevance for western discourses of the period. The appropriation of cultural knowledge regarding Japan followed ethnographic interests and thus found sufficient information in the publications available. The repetition of particular motives and a limited number of the same picturesque views of certain sights established a certain visual memory among the interested in the West, backed up by descriptions rich in flowery epithets and full of cultural connotation. Thus the images were strong enough to evoke a vivid imagination. In 1891 American writer Eliza Scidmore (1856–1928) complained:

The first view of Tokio, like the first view of Yokohama, disappoints the traveller. The Ginza, or main business street, starting from the bridge opposite the station, goes straight to Nihombashi, the northern end of the Tokaido, and the recognized centre of the city, from which all distances are measured. Most of the roadway is lined with conventional houses of ­foreign pattern, with their curb-stones and shade-trees, while the tooting tram-car and the rattling basha, or light omnibus, emphasize the incongruities of the scene. This is not the Yeddo of one’s dreams, nor yet is it an Occidental city. Its stucco walls, wooden columns, glaring shopwindows, and general air of tawdry imitation fairly depress one. In so large a city there are many corners, however, which the march of improvement has not reached, odd, unexpected, and Japanese enough to atone for the rest.53

The French painter Felix Regamey (1844–1907), however, found his expectations met:

Contrary to the disappointment that usually follows high expectations respecting a masterpiece of art or of nature, I found on arriving at Japan only the fulfilment of my hopes. I exactly recognized the landscapes and the people the first albums reaching France had brought before my mind in 1863.54

His similarly delighted colleague John La Farge added: ‘… it is like the picture books. Anything that I can add will only be a filling in of detail’.55 He strengthens the importance of Japan’s imagined landscapes even further by continuing later in his letter:

Late in the morning we rode to Tokio, and lunched in Uyeno Park, looking down on the great pond and the little temple which stands in it, and which you know, having seen them on the fans and colored prints.56

The western visitors and the audience at home revelled in Japan’s ‘foreignness’. The country was mostly a source of inspiration, not one of applicable knowledge. For the architects and civil engineers it was a place to earn money and to get large, prestigious public projects built to further career opportunities.

At the same time, Japan embraced western modern technology and culture with intent and calculation. It took from the ‘imagined empire’ of the West whatever was needed. In terms of specialized knowledge, that meant adopting certain national solutions like German medicine or the British education system; with regard to cultural practices like music or attire adoption did not imply discrimination but simplification and reinterpretation. The architectural knowledge adopted focused on materials, structural systems and styles of decoration. The interest in the local building traditions was encouraged by critical schools of thought both western and Japanese but scarcely impacted on architectural production. By the end of the nineteenth century, none of the characteristics which are perceived as typically Japanese and praised highly in architectural literature today were expressed in western writing. There is but the single exception of Morse’s description of the construction of a Japanese house by carpenters as a highly professional, effective and organized process:

The architect marks on his plan the number of mats each room is to contain, – this number defining the size of the room; hence the lumber used must be of definite lengths, and the carpenter is sure to find these lengths at the lumber-yard. It follows from this that but little waste occurs in the construction of a Japanese house.57

At this time, this level of efficiency was not yet of value in western architectural production. It would take several more decades of cultural referencing and some radical changes in European architectural discourse to make the principles of Japanese architecture relevant and ultimately exemplary in western discourse.

1900–1945: Imagination and Legitimation

From the late 1880s onwards, a network of aficionados promoted Japanese art and culture. With their books, articles and images Kakuzo Okakura, Ernest Francisco Fenollosa (1853–1908), William Sturgis Bigelow (1850–1926), Frank Brinkley (1841–1912), Kazumasa Ogawa (1860–1929) and others mediated characteristics of Japanese culture to a wider audience.58 However, in the attempt to differentiate Japanese tradition from the West, the non-modern and decidedly non-western characteristics of the national culture were highlighted and thus these commentators furthered Japanese ‘otherness’.59 That went well with the western interest in the exotic, but ultimately conflicted with the Japanese claim to modernity. Over time, the ‘traditional Japan’ and the ‘modern Japan’ came to be perceived as different entities.

From an architectural point of view, the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900 marked an important shift. It did not change the perception of Japanese architecture but it did provide new information. The Japanese commission issued the splendid large-format volume Histoire de l’art du Japon as part of Japanese image cultivation.60 The book not only contained painting, sculpture and handicrafts, but also included representations of architecture in photographic images of high quality throughout. When it was reprinted in English in 1908 its internal structure was remodelled: Architecture got a separate volume with many more illustrations.61 The emphasis shifted from the picturesque to the practical. In the new volume, some photographs were accompanied by high-end technical drawing with mostly Japanese annotation (see Figures 13 and 14). This volume represented the first if not only book of its type and was able to provide useable data that could be adapted for architectural design.62 It was conceived by Kakuzo Okakura, one of the most influential opinion-makers of Japanese art and culture, whose publications The Ideals of the East (1903) and The Book of Tea (1906) were intended for western audiences from the very beginning and are still re-issued today.63

Figures 13 and 14: 

Details of the Eastern Pagoda of Yakushi-ji; Todai-ji Hokke-dò (trimmed) (source: Tokyo Teishitsu Hakubutsukan, A history of the Japanese arts (Tokyo,[1908]), fig. 314, 319–320).

The architectural discourse did not seem to take much notice of this, although the number of essays and books inspired by Japan increased further and Japanese writers became more influential within the discourse on Japanese art. Okakura and the other aficionados, however, had an impact on the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), who is one of the landmarks regarding the architectural referencing between Japan and the West. Kevin Nute has dissected Wright’s relationship with Japan in great detail, but it still remains difficult to detect the actual transfers in the haze of the architect’s self-mythologization.64 There is no doubt, however, that Wright had an impact on the younger generation of European architects via the Wasmuth Portfolio (1910).65 The Czech–American architect Antonin Raymond (1888–1976) wrote in his autobiography:

I remember the enthusiasm with which we students in Prague greeted a small book on Frank Lloyd Wright’s work (about 1908), which was edited by Wasmuth in Berlin. Later Wright’s large portfolios came out around 1909 and became a veritable fountain of wisdom and the subject of endless discussions. Wright had restated the principles of building; he had overcome the cell, liberated the plan, made space flow, given buildings a human scale and blended them with nature, all in a romantic, sensual and original way which left us breathless.66

The book helped make Japan an accepted source of reference in modern architectural design and the publications available by the early twentieth century provided a font of information to work from.

A generation later than Wright, the accounts by German architect Bruno Taut (1880–1938) had a more straightforward influence. Some of his observations about Japanese life, art and architecture, made between 1933 and 1936, were quickly published in English and spread among the supporters of the Modern Movement.67 Japanese examples, especially the Imperial villa in Katsura, were used to legitimize the rationalistic approach to architecture, to prove its universal validity and to add an historical dimension to contemporary arguments: what the modern architects proposed had already been done in Japan for centuries.68 Thus the interest in Japanese architecture was initially part of an argumentation scheme alone that developed an independent existence due to a lack of opposition.69

After 1945: Legitimation & Inspiration

The Second World War hindered the building practice of some of the Modern Movement’s architects but not their discourse. The need for legitimation was still valid in 1954, when the German architect Walter Gropius (1883–1969) sent a postcard to his colleague Le Corbusier (1887–1965): ‘Dear Corbu, all what we have been fighting for has its parallel in old Japanese culture. … The Japanese house is the best and most modern that I know and really pre-fabricated’.70 Like Taut, Gropius referred to the traditional dwellings, the ‘traditional Japan’. Japan’s modern architecture recovered after World War II within the national programme to (re)integrate Japan into the global community. Hence it was programmatic to start an international competition when the lost Catholic cathedrals in Tokyo and Hiroshima were to be replaced and to accept proposals that closely reflected the global architectural development of the time. The designs realized by Togo Murano (1891–1984) and Kenzo Tange (1913–2005) got the attention of international peers, as did Tange’s sports complex for the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. This kind of government promotion of cultural affairs paralleled the rising awareness of Metabolism, an indigenous Japanese architectural approach which finally ensured the country’s autonomous standing in modern architectural discourse.71

Ever since this period, the designs and projects of leading contemporary Japanese architects have been noticed, discussed and copied in the West. The traditional building practices for dwellings became less relevant in favour of mass production in wood or reinforced concrete, but they did survive, not least due to the rising interest in heritage preservation and environmental protection. The traditional Japanese house became a western icon for ideals like human scale, the use of renewable raw materials and crafts over time. It can be assumed that the West’s persistent interest plays an important role in this development. By the late 1970s the cultural referencing had switched completely, both for traditional and modern building practices.

What remains today is a heterogeneous body of architectural learning within a vast cloud of uncertain knowledge, ascriptions and assumptions, not least due to the language barrier. The western discussion of Japanese architecture is still mostly fuelled by images, as it was decades ago. Thus the comment given in Das Werk, the official journal of both the Swiss Association of Architects (BSA) and the Swiss Association of Craftsmen (SWB), in 1938 is still the common modus operandi:

The Swiss Pavilion Paris in 1937 has been published in the Japanese Architectural journal ‘Kentiku Sekai’ No. 9, 1937 following the illustrations in our special issue, and it is presented on eight pages – in greater detail than any other. From this it may be concluded that the pavilion has met with approval by the Japanese colleagues, although we cannot read the text.72

This hinders academic research severely but provides a wide field of inspiration for western architects and designers on the one hand and a high appreciation for Japanese art and culture on the other hand.


Japanese architecture provides a perfect example of an analysis of the workings of cultural referencing and the attempts to protect vested rights of interpretation in (western) knowledge production and management. The exchange of cultural knowledge between actors in Japan and in the European and North American countries proves to be complex and heterogeneous: the process of referencing mirrors the social or professional discourses of the time. Thus the collecting of data or arguments frequently takes a utilitarian approach, in the humanities as well as in engineering. Shifts in interest usually lead to the addition of further content without any re-contextualization. Thus, old convictions are not evaluated but stretched to accommodate new needs.

Arguably the crucial shift occurred due to the need to legitimize the postulations of the Modern Movement. Stuck within a vivid public discourse between progressive social movements, industrialization and technocracy on the one hand and sceptical or anti-modern forces like aesthetic traditionalism on the other hand, the architects found two Japanese narratives at once to draw on: that of a ‘traditional Japan’ and that of a ‘modern Japan’. While ‘modern Japan’ reinforced the arguments regarding the virtues of modern technology and education, ‘traditional Japan’ provided a cultural profoundness seemingly lost in the West. Between these contrasting perspectives on architectural Japan stretched a space of possibilities for interpretation that allowed observers to construct a continuous architectural narration out of discontinuous fragments of knowledge. Japanese architecture – at least in its Western perception – made all wishes come true. It became a virtual place to long for, a Sehnsuchtsort, thus freezing the dialogue between Orientalism and Occidentalism, which started 150 years ago. The cultural referencing shifted from institutional to informal, from intentional to subconscious, from hierarchic to coequal without dissolving the roles from the very beginning. Thus Japan’s ‘otherness’ persists as perpetual reference for western identity.