The history of the Japanese pagoda is tied to the history of East Asia itself. These multi-storied structures followed the spread of Buddhism along the Silk Road, and although these structures do not necessarily have a strictly religious purpose, Buddhist temples often feature pagodas as sites of worship. In Japan, the complex religious history of the country means that although pagodas have a Buddhist focus, they may also represent general centers of faith for both Buddhism and the native religion of Shintoism.
The form of pagodas changed greatly after arriving in Japan. Architects began to change the construction of these structures and experimented with height and design. The earliest pagodas in Japan date back to the seventh century, and they quickly began to spread throughout the country. According to the book "What is Japanese Architecture," construction of these buildings was not uniform and differences began to spring up between different religious denominations. For example, the Shingon sect of Buddhism typically constructed five-story circular pagodas, while the Hokyointo sect often built three-floor structures.
One important aspect of pagodas is their symbolic importance in Buddhist religion. At the time of their introduction, limited technological and architectural means meant that buildings were necessarily low. However, the ease of building pagodas story upon story meant that these structures were often the highest point in a given area. According to Fischer Art History, they came to symbolize areas of worship as well as the greatness of Buddha himself, and the tall structure suggested a link between Heaven and Earth.
A Japanese pagoda is built to enshrine symbolic relics of the Buddhist faith such as statues. Unlike the Indian stupas that early architects were trying to adapt, pagodas allowed the faithful to enter and view the artifacts. This had the consequence of shifting the object of worship away from the pagoda itself, and as the centuries passed the religious importance of the pagodas began to lessen in comparison to the statues and icons of the Buddha typically housed inside or located nearby.
Although pagodas are traditionally Buddhist, the native folk religion of Japan -- Shintoism -- also began to incorporate pagodas. In Japan, Shintoism became entangled with Buddhist belief after the arrival of the latter in the sixth century. Although the two religions remained distinct in several ways -- such as methods of prayer -- followers began to build Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples together, often on the same grounds. As a result, pagodas began to feature prominently in both places of worship.
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