🔖 5 min read

One of the most popular perceptions associated with Japanese architecture is that of small, simple buildings tucked away in serene areas. Many media outlets have contributed to the perpetuation of this stereotype by presenting tea rooms, traditional Japanese homes, and even contemporary urban areas with minimal use of space. But space limitations and financial limitations are not the only factors that contribute to Japanese modern architecture. It depicts the complex combination of historical, environmental, and cultural elements. In which aspects of Japanese culture can we see the deeper inspiration behind these ‘small’ spaces? Here are some that you might not hear so often.

Efficiency As Seen In Language

The idea of smallness is common not only in Japanese principles of building spaces and designing objects, but also in their dynamic language. Japanese people are extremely fond of abbreviating and shortening words, bending them as if they were origami art.

Arata Isozaki, a well-known architect, conducted research that demonstrated a clear relationship between language and spatial syntax and that the way we write and the way we build are directly correlated. There is always some leeway in the Japanese language to infer the meaning of the conversation. It is unclear, offers a variety of interpretations, and has a wealth of imagery. This gives the listeners’ intuition greater freedom than it does in Western languages. Similarly, it may be argued that traditional Japanese spaces do not have clearly delineated limits.

Arata Isozaki

Image Credit: The Japan Times

Shaping the Boundaries

Multiple borders between the private and public realms are created by a variety of spatial tools and arrangements, such as gates (mon), walls (hei), fences (ikegaki), and eaves (hisashi), as opposed to a straightforward division between inside and outside. These areas are all transitory, producing a heichi, or the juxtaposition of various materials rather than uniformity. As a result, space becomes expanded and decentered, structurally like the Japanese language in which small units are joined by slack syntax and grammar.

Examples of shortened Japanese terms

The practice of shortening words through well-established patterns of contraction is another fascinating feature of the Japanese language that has to do with smallness. We refer to this practice as Syouryaku. Japanese shorten all kinds of terms – names of objects and persons, businesses, institutions, publications, even highway and train lines. It is a process of bending, folding, and shrinking that results in the reduced form, which eventually becomes more prominent and widely used than the original word itself. Syouryaku reduces words to their most basic and primordial truth by doing away with all that is not necessary. It draws inspiration from Zen garden design concepts like koko, kanso, shizen, and yugen, which emphasize minimalism, suggestion rather than revelation, and simplicity.

‘Ma’ And Unique Lessons From Buddhism in Japanese Architecture

A key component of Japanese aesthetics, the idea of “Ma” has a profound impact on the form and spirit of Japanese contemporary architecture.  Although Ma can be roughly translated as “interval” or “negative space,” its actual meaning goes beyond these interpretations. It includes the way things move in relation to one another, the surrounding area, and time. This idea, which emphasizes the value of balance, simplicity, and the thoughtful use of space, is fundamental to Japanese small architecture.

Japanese Architecture

Image Credit: Two Monkeys Travel

Crafting Harmony Through Purposeful Open Spaces

The intentional placement of components makes Ma visible, providing rhythm and harmony in a small area. The utilization of open spaces, transitional zones, and thoughtfully placed voids reflects the Ma concept. These deliberate gaps and pauses in the architectural composition enhance the person’s experience within the constrained spaces of small structures by adding to a general sense of balance and peace.

A vivid example of how Ma guides the design and use of space is found in traditional Japanese tea shops, or “chashitsu.” A crucial component of Ma is emphasizing vacant or open space, which is purposefully incorporated into design. Designers thoughtfully design and value open spaces in the tea house just as much as occupied places. They see the ratio of empty space to filled space as balanced and purposefully designed.

The arrangement of a chashitsu intends to encourage people to roam around and take in certain views. The architectural features are thoughtfully arranged and interact with open spaces, ranging from the sliding doors (fusuma) to the positioning of alcoves and the tokonoma (a Japanese-style alcove). For instance, the tokonoma serves as a focal point for displaying a piece of art or a floral arrangement.

Within the rich tapestry of Japanese heritage, Ma is a cultural and artistic expression of profound Buddhist ideas. Ma’s philosophy and Buddhism are similar in that they emphasize the importance of mindfulness, impermanence, emptiness, interconnectedness, and the desire of harmony. Both provide deep understandings of the essence of life and how to develop an introspective, spiritually aware lifestyle is key to Modern Japanese architecture.

Human Life In The Growing Global City

Image Credit: The Japan Times

Tokyo, the global city of Japan, also reflects its architecture on the personal and public dimension of its citizens. The growth of people and buildings somehow created a feeling of intimacy with the city, even comparing dimensions of the human body from infancy to the transformation that occurred to achieve their world city ambition.

The idea of “kenchiku no tate-ni hito-ni awasu” (建築の建てに人に合わす), which translates to “designing buildings in harmony with people”. Moreover it emphasizes how crucial it is to take human proportions into account while creating architectural designs. The normal height and mobility of a person are frequently taken into consideration when designing doors, ceiling heights, and even window arrangements. This focus on the needs of people makes the spatial experience feel natural and welcoming.

Tokyo Architecture

Image Credit: The Japan Times

Tokyo’s Unique Blend of Japanese Architecture

Tokyo is a fascinating blend of modern and traditional design. With a distinctive architectural environment that goes against what one would expect from such a big metropolis. The unique aspect of Tokyo lies in how it weaves its small-scale architecture into the larger urban fabric, resembling an exquisite tapestry. People in Tokyo live in a metropolis that is dependent on complex infrastructure.  They feel the real compressions in the global time, space, and social dynamics of the contemporary metropolis. That kind of smallness is generated by claustrophobic spaces of subways and very expensive, tiny apartments.


Image Credit: Liam Wong

An understanding that smallness is not only dimensional but also a mindset. Therefore not an absolute concept but a relative one. It emerges from references to the body in the Japanese ways of creating spaces tuned to diverse situations. What counts is how smallness relates (or does not relate) to the context, not the size of the object itself. Because Tokyo is so huge, everything there seems to be a random collection of microcosmic scenarios. Where everything occurs on a smaller scale and disperses around a vast area. In Tokyo, everything connects equally and is equal at any point.