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Art and Architecture of Buddhism in Japan

Art and Architecture of Buddhism in Japan

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Analyze examples of Japanese art and architecture.

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Chinese culture greatly influenced the art and architecture of Japan. This lesson covers:
  1. Time Period and Location: Art and Architecture of Buddhism in Japan
  2. Chinese Cultural Influences on Japan
  3. Examples of Japanese Art and Architecture
    1. Horyuji Kondo
    2. Tori Busshi Triad
    3. “Yakushi Triad”
    4. Scene from a Tale of Gengi
    5. Womb Mandala
    6. Amida Descending
    7. Phoenix Hall

Chinese culture, including Buddhism, Confucianism, Chinese writing, and elements of the Chinese royal court, has been very influential in the art and architecture of Japan.

1. Time Period and Location: Art and Architecture of Buddhism in Japan

The period covered in this lesson begins in the seventh century and ends in the 13th century AD. The geographical region covered is Japan, a country consisting of four large islands with numerous smaller islands, and located just east of mainland China.

Below is a timeline highlighting the period covered in this lesson.

2. Chinese Cultural Influences on Japan

China’s culture deeply influenced Japan in many ways, influencing its writing system, religion, and elements of the royal court. In particular, the Japanese culture copied Chinese Buddhism very closely.

3. Examples of Japanese Art and Architecture

3a. Horyuji Kondo

Below is our first example of Japanese architecture (required artwork).


This piece of architecture is from the Horyuji Buddhist temple complex in the Nara Prefecture in Japan. This is a kondo, which is the main hall in a Buddhist temple. It was originally built during the seventh century AD, and has been rebuilt a few times., although its core remains as it was. In fact, it is the oldest surviving example of a wooden building in existence.

The Horyuii Kondo has several formal similarities to Chinese pagodas:

  • Curved roof
  • Shrinking size of the upper stories
  • Wooden building on a stone platter
  • Chinese bracketing system (dougong)—this cannot be seen here, but it is used to support the building.
The main hall in a Japanese Buddhist temple

3b. Tori Busshi Triad

This next image is of a bronze Buddha (require artwork).


The above sculpture, the “Shaka Triad” from 623 AD, is located within the Horyuji complex, and is a bronze triad, a common Buddhist depiction of a central Buddha figure flanked by two bodhisattvas. It was created by the artist known as Tori Bushi. “Bushi” means “maker of Buddhist images.” Here the figures are depicted with elongated heads and highly stylized folds within the robes.

The central Buddha is Shaka, which is the historical Buddha, as opposed to one his many manifestations. He is seated in the meditative Lotus position, with his right hand in a specific type of mudra, or gesture, called the “fear not” gesture. Behind the Buddha is a highly stylized flaming mandorla.

In Buddhism, an artistic grouping of three characters, usually Buddha in the center flanked by two bodhisattvas, but there could be some variation

3c. “Yakushi Triad”

This next image is of the “Yakushi Triad,” from the late seventh or early eighth centuries (required artwork).


It shows a stylistic influence of mainland China’s Tang dynasty. The artist takes care to render the forms in a much more realistic manner. The clothing isn’t as overtly stylized as it is in the Tori Bushi triad. Instead, it clings to the forms and reveals the body definition underneath.

Notice the contrappostos–like stance of the nearest bodhisattva figure. According to scholars, this stylistic influence can be traced back to the Indian influence on the stylistic conventions of China, which were then borrowed by Japan. This itself may have been the influence of cultural exchange between India and Greece during the reign of Alexander the Great.

3d. Scene from a Tale of Gengi

During the Heian period in Japan, the court moved the capital to Kyoto. It was a time of extended peace and prosperity, and during this time a lady of the court, known as Lady Murasaki, wrote the first graphic novel in history.

This image is from Murasaki’s 11th century AD literary work, The Tale of Genji (required artwork).


The image is a major insight into the courtly life of an 11th century aristocrat, told through the main character, Prince Genji. The scholarly language of the time was Chinese, but Tale was written in a more common form called Hiragana script. Hiragana script was often used by women, as it was thought to be easier than other forms of Japanese writing. Keep in mind this was a contemporary opinion.

Works of writing such as this were not considered equal to poetry, so it’s very likely this would’ve been looked at as nothing more than a novelty in its time.

The above image is a scene from the talk from The Tale of Genji. Interestingly, these stories are told from the perspective of the reader, who views the characters from above at an angle inside a building, thanks to the roof being blown off. This is typical Japanese stylistic preference. Also similar is the way in which emotions are conveyed through color, symbolism, poses, and overall composition.

Heian Period
“Heian” means “peace and tranquility”; a period from 794 to 1185 in Japanese history when Buddhism, Taoism, and Chinese influences were important; a period of time especially noted for its art, poetry, and literature.
Hiragana Script
Japanese writing system of characters

3e. Womb Mandala

During the Heian period, Esoteric Buddhism became the main form of Buddhism. It emphasized complex hierarchies of gods, which were depicted in mandalas such as the Womb World Mandala, shown here:


This Womb World Mandala can be thought of as a Buddhist flowchart of sorts; it helps to keep things straight.

3f. Amida Descending

Pure Land Buddhism remained popular during the Kamakura period in Japan. The late 12th century through the early to mid-13th century set the foundation for feudalism in Japan. Pure Land Buddhism emphasizes the importance of the Amida Buddha and the path to salvation that is achieved by committing oneself to the salvation of Amida Buddha, or Amida Buddha.

During this time, speedy descent images of the Buddha became popular with Amida Buddha shooting down from the clouds to help someone in need, usually a dying person. This next image, however, is an image of the Amida descending slowly over the mountains. Obviously, speedy is a relative term."

Below is an image of the Amida Buddha descending slowly over the mountains (required artwork).


3g. Phoenix Hall

The pure land of Pure Land Buddhism referred to a paradise, of sorts, created by one of Buddha’s manifestations. The Phoenix Hall, located in Kyoto, Japan, uses careful stylistic details such as:

  • More accentuated curled roofs
  • More recessed, central building
  • Narrower space between sections of the roof
  • Reflection pool to evoke a sense of a heavenly realm of the pure land on earth

Below is the Phoenix Hall (required artwork).


Japan and its art and architecture were greatly shaped by Chinese cultural influences. This lesson covered the time period and location of art and architecture of Buddhism in Japan. Throughout this lesson, you explored works of art and examples of architecture that walked you through these influences. These examples included:
  • Horyuji Kondo
  • Tori Busshi Triad
  • Scene from a Tale of Gengi
  • Womb Mandala
  • Amida Descending
  • Phoenix Hall


Terms to Know
Heian period

Heian means peace and tranquility; a period from 794-1185 in Japanese history when Buddhism, Taoism and Chinese influences were important; a period of time especially noted for its art, poetry and literature.

Hiragana script

Japanese writing system of characters.


The main hall in a Japanese Buddhist temple.


In Buddhism, an artistic grouping of three characters, usually Buddha in the center flanked by two bodhisattvas, but there could be some variation.