daimyō and ecclesiastical gateways in edo-tōkyō

1. The Zōjōji Temple compound with the Sangedatsu-mon facing Hibiya dori Avenue.

A study contrasting the Sangedatsu-mon and Aka-mon

This brief analysis will consider two typologies of gateways from the Edo-period (1603-1868) through a comparative case study, the first is the ecclesiastical type found at Buddhist temples, the latter being the daimyo or shogunal gateway which marked the entrances of their estates. Gateways represented the power and authority of the ruling class as well as that of religion in a physical and tangible form through architecture. Their purpose was to clearly signify a precinct and delineate the rarefied inner world of privilege and enlightenment from the outer plebeian world. Their siting within the context of the city was critical for both defensive purposes and to communicate the highly stratified nature of the feudal city, where one’s position and class were clearly and deliberately defined by one’s locus within the city.

Sangedatsu-mon 三解脱門

The imposing wooden structure of Sangedatsu-mon was built in 1622 and is now one of only a few original extant Edō-period architectural structures at Zōjōji Temple, post-World War II, when most of the temple complex was destroyed in the fire-bombing of Tōkyō (The Taitokuin Sōmon, the Chokugakumon, the Onari gate also survived) (McCain et. al, Edo and Paris, p. 162-3). Initially, Zōjōji Temple was founded in 1393 in the Kanto area as an orthodox and fundamental nembutsu seminary for the Jōdo shū. Tokugawa Iyeyasu moved the temple from Hibya to its present location in 1598 after he arrived in Edo as part of the establishment of the provincial capital. Zōjōji was moved to Shiba at the edge of Akasaka-Azabu as part of a larger plan to protect the city, following Taoist principles. It in fact formed one corner of a three-pronged strategic placement of sacred spaces in what was then the outer periphery of Edo, with Sensōji in Asakusa to the east and Toeisan Kan’eiji in Ueno to the north. Each of these open spaces developed temple towns or mozenmachi 門품裁 in front of and surrounding their precincts and were often located on the main highways leading into Edo from the hinterland (Hidenobou, p. 15). The Tōkaidō passed a few blocks east of the Dai-mon on its way from the fishing village of Shinagawa to its terminus at Nihonbashi, perhaps to situate Zōjōji in a more auspicious area higher in elevation, overlooking the waterfront. The size of the gateway would probably have allowed it to be seen from the Tōkaidō (it can still be seen from several blocks to the east because of the slope down to the water and its commanding position, terminating the axis up from to Hamamatsu-chō and Hamarikyu gardens), marking the southern-most point of Edo.

2. Sangedatsu-mon, print of a woodblock by Hiroshige

The Sangedatsu-mon gateway defines the main entrance to the sprawling temple complex of Zōjōji in Shiba Park, Minato-ku, which in its heyday covered an area of 826,000 square meters and contained 48 smaller temples and 150 grammar schools. Approximately, 3000 priests and novices were resident within the compound at any time making it a veritable city within the city. The Sangedatsu-mon forms the entrance to the inner-sanctuary of the temple, while a second gateway, the Dai-mon (Large gateway), forms the outer entrance to the larger walled compound. During the Edo-period, most of the compound was also surrounded by walls, a river to the south, and moats or canals, further defining the city from the precinct. Bridges crossed the canals at certain key points along the river to continue the main arteries within the compound into the surrounding neighborhoods, including what is now Hibiya-dori Avenue (the Meiji-period Avenue which was widened directly in front of the Sangedatsu-mon in the north-south direction).

The Sangedatsu-mon is an example of the Sanmon 三門 gateway typology which can be traced back to the Heiyan-period Nanzen-ji Sanmon 南禅寺三門 (1291), the Toufukuji Sanmon 東福寺三門 (c. 1410), and Daitokuji Sanmon 大徳寺三門 (1582), all in Kyoto. The gateway’s name represents getting delivered (gedatsu) from three (san) earthly states of mind, (Ton 貪, “greed”, Shin 瞋, “hatred”, and Chi 癡, “foolishness”). The name itself is derived from the notion of passing through the three spiritual gates,  gedatsumon 解脱門, kuugedatsumon 空解脱門, and 無相解脱門 musou gedatsumon, which are physically represented by the three openings in the five bay structure. Going through the gates is the passage to enlightenment, as one enters the inner precinct of the temple. The gateway is also an example of a 2-story gateway, Nijumon 二重門 which are linked to two single-story, gable-roofed (kirizuma yane, 切妻屋根 )buildings known as sanrou 山廊, which contain stairs leading to the second story of the gateway. The sanrou are physically linked to the main gateway by fences, hei 塀, which are approximately 2 bays long and are roofed over. The gateway structure has 3 x 2 bays with 18 columns, hashira 柱, set on stone bases and secured with tie beams, nuki 貫, which support 3-on-1 bracket sets known as mitesaki tokyou  三手先斗きょう, supporting ceiling joists, tenjouketa 天井桁.

Enshrined in the upper story are images of Shakyamuni Buddha, Samantabdrha and Manjusri bodhisattvas, and the sixteen arhat disciples of the Buddha where were created by sculptors from Kyoto when Zōjōji was built (Zōjōji guide, p. 2). The structure supporting the second story roof is an example of Zen-style, zenshuuyou 禅宗様, exemplified by the bracket sets, fan rafters ougidaruki 扇垂木, and rainbow beams with bottle struts, taiheizuka 大瓶束, in the gable pediments, tsuma 妻. The transversal beams are inscribed with the abstracted image of a dragon, which point away from the main temple building of Zojoji with their heads facing Tokyo bay, supposedly warding off negative energy. The second story also has an observation deck which Hiroshige illustrated in his 100 View of Edo series, one view looking out onto Tokyo Bay, and the other looking back at the gateway itself. The second story was recently opened to the public for the first time since the end of World War II (Sep. 17 – Nov 30, 2011) allowing for a closer inspection of the interior structure and to take in the view of Tokyo as the people of Edo, Edokko would have from the Edo-period monument.

3. The Aka-mon, or Red Gate at Tōkyō Imperial University, viewed from Hongō-dori Avenue in the Meiji period (Aug., 1904).

Aka-mon 赤門

For the second case study, I will be analyzing another vermillion-coloured gateway, the Aka-mon 赤門, or Red Gate, which stands as one of the entrances to the University of Tokyo’s Hongō Campus in Bunkyō-ku. The Aka-mon is a quite different gateway typology, originally belonging to the Maeda daimyo estate which covered the approximate are of the University campus. The Maeda were feudal lords from Kaga, or present-day Kanazawa, perhaps the wealthiest in Japan and due to the sankin kōtai 参勤交代 system of alternate residence in Edo they were obligated Tokugawa to maintain a lavish residence in Edo. The Aka-mon and the Sanshiro Pond are the two last remnants of this Edō-period estate. The gateway was built in 1827 as a tribute to the marriage of daimyō Maeda Nariyasu, to the daughter of the shogun Ienari (Coaldrake, Architecture & Authority, p. 199-200).

Daimyō gateways were strictly controlled in terms of their “architectural style, structure, size, decoration, location and material used” by the centralized power administered by Tokugawa. Since gateways were very potent symbols of power, expressing the class and rank of the gate’s owner, their construction was increasingly prescriptive over the course of the Edo-period.

The bakufu concern was predominantly for correlation between architectural style and feudal rank in the interests of establishing the visual logic of Tokugawa power. The gateway (mon) is of paramount importance in the Japanese architectural tradition as a symbol of religious and secular authority and of social status. (Coaldrake, Monumenta Nipponica, XXXVI, 3, p 261)

By the early Edo period, free-standing gateways were completely banned, due to the enormous resources required to build them. This was in the context of the catastrophic fires which destroyed large parts of Edo, including the Meireke fire of 1657. This was a complete reversal of previous edicts which required the daimyō to invest large amounts of money and effort into the construction of grand gateways, a strategy to drain their coffers and thus be subjugated to Tokugawa. The Aka-mon is an exception to this rule as it was built by special shogunal permission, and constructed as a free-standing gateway. The exception was conferred as the entrance signified the shogun’s daughter’s home at the Maeda estate, and thus it is also ornamented much more than other daimyō gateways. Other gateways from this period conformed to the nagaya-mon 長屋門 typology, which integrated the gateway into a wall that surrounded the estate.

The Aka-mon is a three-bay structure with one main entrance on centre and two secondary entrances on either side. A wall connects the main gateway to two gatehouses on either side. The main gateway’s roof is longitudinal (parallel to the walls enclosing the estate) while the guardhouses have transverse roofs (perpendicular to the enclosing walls). The guardhouses have an ornate “karahafu” (cusped gable) which typically denotes the high-ranking status of the family, but in this case they signify the status of the shogun’s daughter. Intricately carved wooden beams and brackets express the distinctness of the gateway, while decorative metal fittings adorn the hinges and the junction between the column and the lintel. The Aka-mon is an example of an ‘oomunamon’ 大棟門, a typology of gateways with three bays, with the central opening having a pair of large hinged doors; the bays on either side have smaller hinged doors. This three bays are linked by a single lintel with a gabled roof, ‘kirizuma yane’ 切妻屋根, with bargeboards, ‘hafu’ 破風 which finish the ends of the gabled roof. The exterior ornamentation of the Sangedatsu-mon is rather spare and perhaps even minimal within the second story shrine, especially when compared to the rather ornately decorated Aka-mon.

Comparative architectural and urban analysis

In comparison to the Sangedatsu-mon, the Aka-mon is a significantly smaller structure, standing at one-story, with shorter bansho 番所 guardhouses. In the context of Tōkyō University, it is quite impressive standing sentinel within a large open space, set back from Hongō-dori Avenue with a plaza in front and a larger plaza within the campus. It’s vermillion colour also sets it apart from the thick green foliage of the camphor trees planted along Hongō-dori. The Aka-mon stands on one edge of the very large Hongō campus where there are several other gateways, the principal one being the Meiji-era Todaiseimon, which is on axis with the iconic Yasuda auditorium leading up an allée of stately Gingko trees. The Aka-mon is on a secondary allée of Gingko trees leading up to a garden with a grouping of medical research buildings. Maps from the beginning of the Meiji-period show the Aka-mon set back from Hongo-dori as it is now, but the plaza is a much larger rectangular shape stretching up to the northern end of what is now Fukutake Hall. The Aka-mon also seems to have previously been the main gateway leading into the daimyō estate, with a secondary gateway south of the current Todaiseimon. Prior to the Meiji-period construction of the Engineering and Arts & Letters departments on the northern side of Hongō campus, the Imperial University (as it was previously known) was mostly an open field with the Sanshiro Pond in the middle. The cluster of buildings directly east of the Aka-mon formed the nucleus of the campus, giving the gateway a more prominent location than it has today.

Hongō campus is still walled-in with the gateways acting as control points for people entering and leaving the  University. While the campus green is treated like a public park for most of the year by visitors, there are intervals in the year when access is strictly limited, for example during the entrance exam period. The gateways perform their function as points of surveillance, especially in the evenings when the larger hinged doors are closed and access is limited to one smaller bay where security can closely monitor those who enter or leave the campus. Sangedatsu-mon also acts as a control point for the Zōjōji temple precinct, limiting visitor access to the visiting hours.

Both gateways form the entrance to open spaces which were during the Edo period, in the outer periphery of the city of Edo. They continue to operate as public spaces (whether sacred, educational or simply for recreation) for the city, but they are constantly under surveillance to protect the people and buildings which inhabit the spaces. There are legitimate activities which are permitted to occur within these precincts during certain times of day, but activities not condoned by those with authority can be strictly limited and in essence the spaces transform into something of a semi-private nature. The gateways and the wall which surround Zōjōji and the University of Tōkyō facilitate this type of transformation.

Architecturally, both gateways also convey the grandeur and authority of those who have control over the inner sanctum through their articulation, scale, materiality, style and location. While some aspects are muted others tend to be exaggerated in order to express what the patron and craftsman of the gate were trying communicate. In the case of the Sangedatsu-mon, the scale of the gateway relates to the massive Zōjōji temple and Tokugawa’s ambition for Edo as the future capital. While the articulation of the gateway is reduced relative to more elaborately detailed daimyō gateways, the Sangedatsu-mon strives to communicate at the scale of a figurative highway sign. Seen from the Tōkaidō, the Sangedatsu-mon would have marked the edge of Edo on the way into the city from Shinagawa, or as the last point of reference before leaving the periphery of the city. The imposing landmark of the temple and its gateway was Tokugawa’s prescient vision for Edo. The Sangedatsu-mon thus acted as a gateway to the temple precinct as well as the controlled precinct of the city itself.

As a counterpoint to the massive authoritativeness of Sangedatsu-mon, the Aka-mon stands in a more local setting, it’s position on the Yamanote, an area of what were the sprawling estates of the ruling class, surrounded by lush wooded grounds and sumptuous mansions which only the very privileged would ever see in the time of the Shogun. The Aka-mon signalled the hushed and secluded spaces of those with power, sequestered behind their beautifully ornamented yet protective walls. What the Aka-mon lacked in terms of scale, it made up for with the regal demeanor of its cusped gables and decorative carved brackets. Perceived from Hongō-dori Avenue and set in with a plaza in front of it, the gateway would have both attracted the attention of passersby while also repulsing them by the tacit understanding of the gate’s owner’s absolute power.

The meaning of both of these gateways has changed with the shifting of political power in the modern metropolis of Tokyo. There is a kind of universal understanding about what these gates represent still, and this schema continues to be employed to ward off those who would perhaps be unwelcome inside. They are powerful reminders of the spatial control which used to be imposed on Edo and instructive as to how our modern public spaces are used and surveyed. The urban environment is a constantly renegotiated space with architecture mediating and prescribing its use, and in the case of Edo strictly controlled movement and imbued meaning which could be tacitly understood by its inhabitants.


Coaldrake, William H., Architecture and Authority in Japan, The Nissan Institute/Routledge Japanese Studies Series. London ; New York: Routledge, 1996.

Coaldrake, William H., Edo Architecture and Tokugawa Law, Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Winter, 1997), Sophia University, Tokyo: pp. 235-284

Coaldrake, William H., The Taitokuin Mausoleum, Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Autumn, 1981), Sophia University, Tokyo: pp. 541-546

Coaldrake, William H., The Gatehouse of the Shogun’s Senior Councillor: Building Design and Status Symbolism in Japanese Architecture of the Late Edo Period, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Dec., 1988), University of California Press on behalf of the Society of Architectural Historians: pp. 397-410

Fiévé, Nicolas, and Paul Waley. Japanese Capitals in Historical Perspective : Place, Power and Memory in Kyoto, Edo and Tokyo. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003

Hidenobu, Jinnai, and Kimiko Nishimura. Tokyo: a Spatial Anthropology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

JAANUS: Japanese Architecture and Art Net Users System: http://www.aisf.or.jp/~jaanus/

McClain, James L., John M. Merriman, and 馨 鵜川. Edo and Paris : Urban Life and the State in the Early Modern Era, Cornell Paperbacks. Ithaca ; London: Cornell University Press, 1997.

旧加賀屋敷御守殿門 (赤門) Agency for Cultural Affairs website: http://www.bunka.go.jp/bsys/maindetails.asp?register_id=102&item_id=520

増上寺三解脱門 Agency for Cultural Affairs website: http://www.bunka.go.jp/bsys/maindetails.asp?register_id=102&item_id=511

増上寺復興事務局. 重要文化財増上寺三解脱門及び南北繋塀・南北山廊保存修理報告書. [東京]: 増上寺復興事務局, 1974.

Zōjōji Temple, Jōdo Shu Main Temple, Information brochure


1. Photo by the author, taken from the Tokyo Tower.

2. 増上寺の雪_原画, Hiroshige, Image courtesy of the Research and Information Center, Tokyo National Museum (http://webarchives.tnm.jp/imgsearch/show/C0097207)

3. 重画 嘉永7年 (1854) ※中山道 (現・本郷通り) を行き交う人びとを描いた錦絵。道の向こう側には赤門が見える。City of Bunkyo-ku website: http://www.city.bunkyo.lg.jp/rekishikan/history/machi_e/index4.html, 歌川広

Copyright © 2012 Shabbar Sagarwala, All Rights Reserved. Any unauthorised commercial reproduction or distribution in part or in full will constitute an infringement of copyright. Permission granted to reproduce for educational use only.


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