Japanese Gate Typology (7)

This is a series of posts describing the many varieties of Japanese gate, or mon (). If you look at the preceding kanji more closely,  you can think of it as a picture of a pair of swinging doors, reminiscent of saloon doors in a wild west movie. I thought that it would be a nice idea to bring more awareness to a western audience as to the tremendous diversity in forms and types of Japanese gates. This series intends to be a gateway to gates.

Previous posts in this series:

  1. Heijūmon 
  2. Kabukimon 
  3. Kōraimon 
  4. Yakuimon 
  5. Yotsu-ashimon 
  6. Munamon


A reader commented in the previous post,

Was hoping you could sometime comment on the culture/tradition/superstition around the gates as it seems a number of them have not been built as part of a defensive perimeter but rather for other reasons. It also seems that in some cases the gates have been preserved while the walls have been removed/destroyed hence suggesting they have a specific significance.

That’s a great question and it seemed worth taking an entire post to look at it in some detail.

First off, like the Inuit and their many terms to describe snow, the elaboration of the use of a word or term in a language gives some sense of the significance and depth of its meaning. in Japanese, the character for gate, (門) mon, also read kado, and the associated character compounds employing that character, takes up a few pages of the dictionary. Let’s take a look at a few examples, in no particular order:

  • monjin (門人): pupil, disciple, follower. Literally, the person (人) at the gate (門).
  • mongai (門外): outside the gate (= outside of one’s specialty)
  • monchi (門地): family lineage/status. Literally, the gate’s (門) place (地)
  • monzenbarai (門前払い): turning someone away at the gate (= refusing to see someone)
  • kadochigai (門違い): called at the wrong gate (= barking up the wrong tree)
  • monshi (門歯): incisors, the front teeth (i.e., the gate of the mouth). The opening at the other end of the digestive tract: kōmon (肛門)
  • ichimon (一門): a family or clan. Literally, one (一) gate (門)
  • nyūmon (入門): handbook, primer, admission, entrance. Literally, to enter (入) the gate (門)
  • senmon (専門): one’s specialty. Literally, the exclusive (専) gate (門)
  • senmonka (専門家): a specialist, an expert
  • hamon (破門): excommunication, expulsion. Literally, to break (破) the gate (門)
  • zenmon (禪門): entering the Zen priesthood
  • namagakumon (生学門): superficial knowledge

As you can see, the character for gate connotes familiar groups and social groups of various kinds. Japan being very much a culture of in-groups and out-groups, it is not surprising that a symbol of the passage into or out of a group, which often corresponds to certain phases of one’s life, should be a gate, which divides inside from outside. Gates also connote status in the way they are configured or decorated. At certain times in Japanese history, there were sumptuary laws controlling the sort of gate that a person of a given social status could build, or even if one could have an entry gate at all. Sumptuary laws were enacted on behalf of the upper class to limit the behavior of, primarily, the mercantile class, who had grown wealthier over time, and were a borrowing from China. Sumptuary laws were enacted to maintain public decorum in a prescribed manner, and used to limit potential threats to authority. Thus sumptuary laws controlled both the content and expression of ideas, but the physical appearance as it is connected to wealth. These laws restricted consumption and maintained class divisions, and inevitably progressed from being rather generalized early-on, to becoming very detailed with the passage of time. These laws eventually came to detail even the sort of clothing in which puppets were dressed (!)

Tokugawa sumptuary laws forbade entry gates on the residences of all but the upper classes, and thus, to those viewing such gates from the outside, these gates became powerful symbols of status. Also, those laws banned the use of walls and fences around peasant houses. A law dating from 1834 in Fukushima Prefecture lists at least 13 prohibitions specific to peasant houses. They could not be larger than 748 sq.ft., the pillar in the display alcove (toko-bashira) had to be bamboo instead of wood. A law from 1754 prohibits farmers from building their houses in an L- or T-shaped floor plan. Such floor plans, which were originally designed to separate human from animal habitation within a dwelling, were only allowed for those with higher status.

By 1898, Civil Codes controlling property boundaries were well established and very detailed. Rainwater or snow from one house could not drop onto an adjoining property. Houses and outbuildings were not permitted to shade any portion of a neighbor’s fields, and if they did, the owner was required to pay compensation to the farmer. overlooking windows were required to be screened. Property boundaries were carefully defined. The ‘face’ of the property, the point on the property where one can enter or leave, or get a glimpse of the world within, is the gate and it is no surprise therefore that gates became a highly elaborated aspect of Japanese material culture, as they had in China and Korea.

The gate is more than an entrance though. It acts to mediate between an inner world, which often included some form of courtyard, and the outer world. As an opening in a fence or wall, a gate is primarily a passageway, or breach. However, the ground on one side of a gate may, in the case of a temple, be sacred space, while the ground outside the gate is profane space. So the gate also acts as a barrier, or stop between these two types of space. A node between two different worlds.

In the ancient period, worshippers did not actually enter the temple grounds, but rather came to the gate and prayed there. Thus the architectural character of the gate had to match the scale and physical qualities of the sacred structures within, on the one hand and act as a suitable place for worship on the other. Rites enacted by priests at the temple and even the shogunate (in palace compounds) were altered so as to take place within view of people watching from the gate. Inner gates of temple compounds came to be places of worship. Later, these functions changed as people were allowed into the compound proper, and even into the religious buildings themselves. Mitsuo Inoue’s book Space in Japanese Architecture details this process in considerable detail.

I think roofed gates in Japanese architecture are largely a borrowing from Chinese architecture. The indigenous form of Japanese gate is the torii (and it is by no means certain that it is not a borrowing from Korea), which has no roof to speak of. Roofed gates, which are built similarly to small pavilions, allow for certain functions to occur beneath them, like waiting, like greeting, like praying. some gates have no doors, and are thus always ‘open’. So to see gates as merely some part of a defensive fortification is an overly-narrow perspective.

As to why gates may all be that remain of some former compounds, like castles, the reasons for that are perhaps manifold. A similar thing occurs with some pagoda’s, in which the original structure is long gone and all that remains is either the upper most story, the lowermost story, or the metal representation of the stupa on top, the sōrin. I think a gate is a convenient symbol representing the world which once was found behind it.

All for today – thanks for coming by. I’ll leave you with a very nice picture of a munamon, outside a garden in Wakayama:

Click on the image for a bigger picture.

On to post 8, where we continue with gate typology.

6 Replies to “Japanese Gate Typology (7)”

  1. Adam,

    thanks for the encouragement! I was actually surprised during my research for the post how little information there seems to be on Japanese gates and their cultural significance. It seems like an area ripe for further investigation.


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