Japanese Pagodas: Architecture, History & Facts

Instructor: Stephen Taul

Stephen has master's degrees in both architecture and city planning and has taught architecture design studios.

Learn about the architectural style of the Japanese Pagoda and its historical evolution from the burial mounds of ancient India. Discover the meaning behind its unique form and the role it has played in religious life.

The Origin of Pagodas

Have you ever been to a Japanese garden and wondered about the tall structure with many roofs? What is the significance of so many roofs? And more importantly, what is the building's function?

This monument of many roofs is called a pagoda. It's history can be traced back to the Indian stupa, a dome-shaped structure that served to enshrine the remains of rulers and other leaders. Though, following the death of the Buddha in the 5th century BCE, they became symbolic of the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia.

The Great Stupa at Sanchi
Indian stupa

At first, the Buddha's ashes and bone fragments were divided and placed inside the stupas, but as Buddhism continued to spread, other items began to be used such as holy texts, precious items and the ashes of other holy beings.

In China, the pagoda emerged taller and in a tiered configuration due to the influence of the existing architectural style at the time in contrast to its predecessor. In addition, the increased height was seen as more powerful and held significant meaning.

Pagodas in Japan

While Japanese pagodas were modeled after the Chinese ones, several differences emerged over time. In Japan, pagodas are almost all constructed out of wood. Due to this, they are able to withstand earthquakes, but are extremely susceptible to fire.

There are stone pagadas in Japan, but they are small replicas of these famous buildings and can be usually be seen in Japanese gardens.

They also showcase much larger roof overhangs in comparison to their Chinese counterparts. Interestingly, the wood pieces are cut so that each one fits perfectly into slots in an adjoining piece. This way few nails are needed in construction, and it becomes well-suited to earthquake-prone areas.

The Architecture of the Pagoda

The base of a pagoda is square and each level contains twelve pillars that support the level above. Each successive floor is smaller than the one below it and supported by a horizontal plane. This plane is held up by beams that extend past the roof-line. These beams carry the weight of the heavy roof overhangs and are counterbalanced by the vertical columns.

Pagoda of Daigoji
Daigoji Temple

At the very top, the spire or 'sorin', reminiscent of the stupa, serves to provide the weight to prevent the beams supporting the uppermost roof from popping up in the center. Adding to the pagoda's strength is the central pillar that connects the various components together, while allowing each floor to move independently of each other.

Meaning and Function

The pagoda's symbolic meaning, function and role within the context of a temple has changed over time. Many pagodas in Japan have five roofs or levels each symbolizing one of the great elements of earth (lowest level), water, fire, wind and space (or void, top level).

Pagoda of Ninnaji
Ninnaji Temple

For the Japanese, the pagoda is not the focus of the temple complex as in China, but seen as a separate accessory structure. Instead of being used as a meditation hall with a Buddha statue, pagodas serve as ceremonial space for holy artifacts and precious items, since they generally have very little interior space.

Facts and Known Pagodas of Today

The height of pagodas range from 52 feet up to as tall as 180 feet. In the past, however, pagodas reached heights of 270 to 355 feet, unfortunately these have been since destroyed by fire.

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