In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Architecture of Japan - Middle (Kofun-Nara)

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Materials and Techniques
  • Tombs and Pre-Asuka Ritual Sites

Architecture Planning and Preservation Architecture of Japan - Middle (Kofun-Nara)
Akiko Walley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0036


In present Japanese periodization, the Kofun to Nara periods are bookended by the emergence of monumental tumuli across the Japanese archipelago in the 4th century and the abandonment of the short-lived “permanent” capital, Nagaoka-kyō, to the newly established Heian-kyō (present day Kyoto) in 794. The period generally corresponds to the rise of the Yamato polity in the 4th and 5th centuries. The “Great Kings” of Yamato amassed allies and campaigned to subjugate the “barbarians” to the north and south of the archipelago, while organizing diplomatic missions to the kingdoms and dynasties on the Korean peninsula and China. In 663, it dispatched the first organized military expedition across the sea to fight alongside Baekje against the combined forces of Silla and Tang, suffering a monumental loss. Since then, Yamato spearheaded active adoption and implementation of Chinese-style polity, eventually succeeding in establishing a planned city and administrative structure in Heijō-kyō (710–784). Through the latter half of the 7th into early 8th centuries, the educated elites increasingly gained proficiency in the Chinese writing system, as the first phonetic system of representing Japanese developed. The period was also when Buddhism was embraced and disseminated, and the mythological origins of the Great Kings (later “emperors”) and their powerful allies were established, providing new philosophical foundations that defined and legitimized their political authority. In short, Kofun-Nara was a dynamic incipient period of state formation, which required massive construction projects from tombs, temples, and shrines, to gridded cities. What remains still standing, however, are just a handful of examples. The scholarship on architectural history of this period, thus, inevitably overlaps with archaeology. Due to ongoing robust excavation projects and advancement in scientific technology, any study of this period is now quickly surpassed by new research. Unfortunately, there are not enough scholars working in this field outside of Japan to keep up with the rate of new discoveries published each year in Japanese. Ancient Japanese art and architectural history remains one of the fields with the greatest gap between what research is available in Japanese and any Western language. The intent of this list is to introduce a selection of foundational studies in English (with few accessible Japanese works to supplement), which can serve as a springboard for future research in other languages for interested students and scholars.

General Overviews

An introduction to architecture of the Kofun to Nara period is typically found in three types of survey works on Japan: art and architecture; archaeology; and Buddhism and its visual/material culture. Generally, there is more emphasis on religious architecture and monuments than residences or lived environment.

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