Daijo Shrine (Japanese emperor’s enthronement ritual site)

To unite two distinct elements, make each appear too simple to be complete so that the beauty emerges only when the two are seen together.

That’s the design lesson I took from the Daijo Shrine (大嘗宮), the temporary building complex for the over-1,300-years-old enthronement ritual of the Japanese Emperor:

A bird’s-eye view of the Daijo Shrine on 13 November, 2019. Image source: Nikkei.com

As the new Emperor of Japan was enthroned, the ancient ritual took place on 14–15 November, 2019, with a new construction of the Daijo Shrine in the Imperial Palace, Tokyo. After the ritual was over, the shrine complex is currently open to the public for about two weeks before its dismantlement:

The crowd flocks to the front gate of the Daijo Shrine for the best photo shots. Photographed by Masa Kudamatsu (the author of this article) on 24 November, 2019.

I took this once-in-a-generation opportunity to appreciate the architectural design of ancient Japan, which turned out to be all about unifying the two halves of Japan.

Two-centered composition

The Daijo Shrine consists of two main shrines, symmetrically placed along the north-south axis.

The east shrine (called Yuki-den or 悠紀殿) is where the Emperor served to his ancestral god this year’s harvest of rice and local specialties across the eastern half of Japan. The ritual took place in the late evening of 14th November, 2019:

A front view of Yuki-den (the building behind on the right) from the outside of the Daijo Shrine. Photographed by Masa Kudamatsu (the author of this article) on 24 November, 2019

In the early morning of the following day, 15th November, the Emperor continued the ritual at the west shrine (named Suki-den or 主基殿) where this year’s harvest of rice and local specialities from the western half of Japan were dedicated to the god:

A front view of Suki-den (the building behind on the left) from the outside of Daijo Shrine. Photographed by Masa Kudamatsu (the author of this article) on 24 November, 2019

Each shrine is designed in a very similar way. The only difference is the top edges of the x-shaped roof ornament known as chigi. The eastern Yuki-den’s is horizontally cut:

On the other hand, the western Suki-den’s is vertically cut:

On its own, the design of each shrine is too simple to look like a complete entity. When the shrine complex is seen from an angle so that both of the two shrines appear in sight, the beauty comes out:

A view of Daijo Shrine from the northeast, with the Yuki-den on the left and the suki-den on the right. Photographed by Masa Kudamatsu (the author of this article) on 24 November, 2019

Two ancient Japans

If you know the ancient history of Japan, the two-centered composition of the Daijo shrine complex makes all sense.

Until the technique of rice cultivation arrived in Japan from China and Korea around the 3rd century BC, the eastern half of Japan was more thriving than the western half, with a higher population thanks to the climate and geography more suitable for fishing and gathering fruits and vegetables. The most notable form of earthenware potteries in this era originated in eastern Japan:

A flame-style pottery from 3500 BC to 2500 BC, excavated from the Sasayama archeological site and owned by Tokamachi City Museum. Image source: souda-kyoto.jp

Rice cultivation then boosted the population of the western Japan, which eventually leapfrogged the eastern Japan economically and politically. It was the western Japan where the first form of the Japanese state emerged. Recently added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Mozu megalithic tombs in a western Japan city of Sakai are thought to be the burial places of powerful kings during the 5th centuries:

An aerial view of Mozu megalithic tombs, which date back to the mid-5th century, in Sakai. Image source: Yahoo!Japan News

The ancestors of the Japanese imperial family rose to the top in this context of political development in western Japan. It wasn’t until the late 7th century that the eastern half of Japan officially came under the rule of the emperor. And it was this occasion when the enthronement ritual at the Daijo Shrine formally began.

Unifying the east with the west

The design of the ritual and its venue then needs to reflect how Japan has come into one single state under the imperial rule. And it must emphasize the beauty of the united Japan.

The bilateral symmetry of the Daijo Shrine visualizes how the imperial state of ancient Japan was formed. The simple, minimal design of each half necessitates the unity of the two to generate the pleasant view of symmetry and repetition.

Jumping over more than a millennium, the power of architectural design still conveys these messages.

Disclaimer: The interpretation of the Daijo Shrine in this article is nothing more than my personal take. I haven’t found any similar arguments in the media reports, Wikipedia, or the official description of the ritual. No one seems to wonder why the Emperor repeats the same ritual twice, first at the Yuki-den representing eastern Japan and then at the Suki-den representing western Japan…

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