What Is the Purpose of a Japanese Pagoda?

Written by joanna crain salinas
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What Is the Purpose of a Japanese Pagoda?
Five-story Japanese Pagoda (eastern pagoda image by Bohanka from Fotolia.com)

Japanese pagodas have been used as places of Buddhist worship for more than 1,400 years. These square structures, consisting of multiple stories and elaborately tiled roofs, are traditionally built near a temple or in a religious compound. Pagodas are created to store ancient relics, writings and representations of Buddha. Famous pagodas, such as Kyoto's five-story Toji pagoda, attract tourists from around the world.

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History

Pagoda origins are traced to the Indian stupa of 3rd century BC, where they were initially created as monuments to store sacred writings and relics. Although much different in appearance to the stupas, southeast and east Asians built there own pagodas. These new tower-like monuments, like the stupas, were built to house Buddhist religious artefacts. Built in AD 607, an early example of Japanese pagoda architecture still stands in Nara's Horyu-Ji temple.

What Is the Purpose of a Japanese Pagoda?
A pagoda roof topped by an intricate spire (pagoda image by FJ Medrano from Fotolia.com)

Significance

Early Buddhist rulers, missionaries, pilgrims and devotees promoted the popularity of the pagoda through their efforts in searching for, distributing and lauding sacred Buddhist relics. Many Japanese pagodas house statues of Buddha and relics used as the main objects of worship. In the early days of Japanese Buddhism, it was common for pagodas to be built in the middle of a temple's compound.

Architecture

The body of a Japanese pagoda is traditionally square, constructed of wood and composed of a large central column surrounded by multiple interlocking beams and columns, creating each level of the pagoda. The roof, composed of clay and tile and set atop large wooden rafters, features wide eaves stretching out above each story. Each pagoda is topped with a spire to which deep spiritual and architectural significance is attached. Each spire's design reflects a different Buddhist symbol and the finial acts as a lightning rod.

Size

Japanese pagodas are constructed in a variety of sizes and include multiple stories of three or more. The tallest pagoda of Japan still standing is the Toji measuring in at 180 feet (55 meters). The tallest pagodas known were Kyoto's Shokokuji rising 354 feet (108 meters) and Hoshoji at 272 feet (83 meters). Due to their height, many pagodas attract lightning making them susceptible to fire. The construction materials used make the pagodas extremely heavy. A single spire can weigh as much as three tons.

Fun Fact

Japan is famous for its earthquakes, and yet, more than 500 pagodas with as many as five stories still stand in Japan. Only two pagodas in their 1,400 year history have collapsed due to violent shaking. Professor Shuzo Ishida of the Kyoto Institute of Technology is a pagoda expert. He attributes the resiliency of the pagodas to their master construction. When the earth quakes the pagoda's heavy-tiled roofs individually sway in opposite directions, counteracting the motion of the other.

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