Japanese vs American Architecture

Architecture is the subtle art of structural design. What constitutes good architecture has been an enduring debate throughout different locales and time periods. There are meaningful similarities that can be extracted from the differences, mainly, it is about the subtle relationship between function and beauty.

As the Roman architect of the first century, Vitruvius puts it, good architecture embodies, firmitas, utilitas, and venustas, (durability, utility and beauty)

However, since this artistic expression is informed by cultural, philosophical, and topographical demands, different cultural heritages produced widely divergent architectural designs. This is what makes the difference between Japanese and American architecture an interesting case study, two countries with widely different geographies and philosophical inheritance. I will be mainly talking about the differences in modern architecture between the two and the various influences that have generated the differences.

Open Spaces vs Wabi-sabi

The West is obsessed with open-concept architecture, from open-plan office designs to wide and spacious residences.

  • This design is characterized by the elimination of walls and doors and the strict distinction between different functional areas.
  • More importantly, it maximizes the ingress of natural light through the strategic and abundant use of windows and glass screens.
  • There is a practical consideration for this phenomenon in the west such as the gradual decrease in the footage of most homes encouraging most homeowners to unify certain functional areas in order to maximize space.
  • Also, there are economic considerations that have influenced the rise of open-concept architecture, such as open-plan designs requiring less material and short-term building costs. This produced an era of architectural design purposeful in maximizing the perception of space through the use of natural light and amalgamation of functional areas.

This contrasts with Japanese architecture which is more enclosed and carefully segregated.

  • Contrasts of light in Japanese homes are treated as ornamentation. Darkness is a mere function of daily life that the Japanese people adjust to rather than artificially illuminating.
  • In the essay In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki, he argues how this appreciation for shadows is an expression of the Japanese concept of the Wabi-Sabi, a tradition of acceptance, acceptance of beauty’s transience, and the inevitability of imperfection.
  • Instead, the tradition encourages the aesthetic appreciation of imperfection itself. In this view, the dazzling light of modern western architecture is perceived to be aggressive and offensive, and Japanese architecture, rather than maximizing the entry of light, strategically builds according to the shadow that is cast by the structure.


America influenced by Japan in the 1920s, developed a more minimalist approach to architecture.

  • Primarily as an economic consideration rather than a traditional one America started incorporating the Japanese architectural tenant of Zen. As discussed earlier, in response to the decrease in the average footage, architecture started to maximize the use of smaller spaces incorporating various functional areas into singular or shared spaces.
  • The rise of minimalism shared the same function in America, minimizing the distinction of every corner in order to maximize functionality and minimize distinct areas. Minimalism in this sense, therefore, is an attempt to blur the distinct qualities of the different areas. It has become important to create a cohesive aesthetic as kitchens, dining areas, and living rooms start to share the same space. Minimalism also has to do with minimizing clutter since smaller spaces cannot afford clutter and minimalism allows the create a seemingly bigger space.

In contrast, Japan prefers to have clear segregation of the functional areas. It places importance on the various functions of different rooms. Although it also creates minimalist spaces, it is not a function of an economic prerogative but a cultural one that demands simple living.

  • Inspired by the aesthetics of Buddhism that teaches the release of earthly tethers, a Japanese home refrains from the accumulation of unnecessary materiality and focuses on natural ornamentation.
  • Furthermore, many of its modern architectures still utilize traditional partitions such as the Fusama in order to customize a room for different occasions. Since the inception of many of Japan’s early architectural tenets, it has believed in simplicity and modest architectural designs.
  • Furthermore, due to their reverence for nature, they incorporate many of its elements using natural elements such as wood plants and more. Japanese homes, therefore, aim to create a more relaxing and tempered atmosphere which America only strives to reproduce.

We can see this fascination not just in America but all over the world, with artisan architecture firms offering Japanese designs in every home. You see the word, “zen,” used liberally by architecture firms to advertise their services. And what is not to like about the Japanese design, their enviable mix of nature, the earthly tones, and the use of light wood all exuding a sense of relaxation that we all need and desire.

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