Japan's architectural bullies

Architecture and Authority in Japan
January 9, 1998

In this, the latest in the excellent Nissan Institute Routledge Japan Studies Series, William Coaldrake enriches our understanding of the seemingly universal tendency of power to create monuments to itself, but with an emphasis on a culture and iconography far removed from western Christianity. As the general editor of the series, Jaa Stockwin, points out, this "is a book to be read at home and to be carried on trips around Japan".

Throughout the book, the architectural achievements of the "great" civilisations are compared with Nara, Kyoto and Tokyo, Japan's capitals past and present. The richness of detail, be it of small interior friezes of temples or about the political manoeuvrings of a recent governor of Tokyo, add to the general interest of the book, which accommodates a wide readership from Japan specialist to architect or interested traveller.

Chapters are arranged chronologically, beginning with the two great national Shinto shrines, at Ise and Izumo. Coaldrake shows exactly how these two buildings, quite different in style but within broadly the same cultural tradition, betray the power struggle between two clans claiming to be the country's legitimate rulers.

The great Buddhist temples of the Nara period (710-794) receive detailed analysis, utilising plans and drawings, with an emphasis on building techniques. Coaldrake uses illustrations of the buildings to show that power was conveyed via the use of scale and Chinese Confucian models of city planning and spatial concepts.

The book's central section, covering the period from the mid-16th century up to 1868, shows vividly the symbols of authority of the Shogunal era, such as military power, castles and mausolea. Japan's castles were built in the short period between 1576 and 1638, but, sadly, the impermanence of such monuments is the legacy we have been left, and very few originals remain.

The book's highlight is the weaving together of the histories of the "three great national unifiers" -Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) -and their use of architecture. The iconography of the inner chambers of palaces and castles, conveying the subtlest of authoritarian messages to the visiting Daimyo lords (described as "well-schooled in interpreting the visual vocabulary of architectural form"), demonstrates the "psychology of architectural intimidation".

The emphasis placed on traditional building methods and materials that permeates most of the book is replaced by the irresistible march of modernisation and westernisation in the concluding chapters. The Akasaka Detached Palace and the Tokyo Railway Station are chosen as outstanding examples of Meiji period (1868-1912) architecture. neo-baroque, classical Greek, Corinthian Caps and rococo style are featured as part of early 20th-century Japanese architecture. The final substantive chapter focuses of Tange Kenzo's two outstanding contributions to Japanese architecture, the buildings for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic games and the recently opened Tokyo Metropolitan Government offices in Shinjuku.

It is a pity that Coaldrake did not consider the Meiji state's Shinto shrine-building scheme, which included a vast shrine designed by Ito Chuta, a pioneer of Asian models of architecture in the westernising frenzy of early 20th-century Japan. Another unfortunate omission is a shrine complex built for the emperor's enthronement in the heart of Tokyo in 1990 by master craftsmen using only wood and rushes. However, this excellent book will become the authoritative work on architecture in relation to Japanese history and politics.

David Forfar is Okinaga research fellow in modern Japanese studies at Wadham College, University of Oxford.

Architecture and Authority in Japan

Author - William H. Coaldrake
ISBN - 0 415 05754 X and 10601 X
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £55.00 and £16.99
Pages - 335

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