Japanese Pagoda: What’s In a Tier?

Japanese Pagoda: What’s In a Tier?

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Five-story pagoda of Taiseki-ji in Shizuoka, Japan.
We all know the striking image of a multi-tiered Japanese pagoda, but what exactly are they? And what are they called in Japanese, anyway?

Anyone who has wistfully browsed the tour guide section of their local bookshop would probably be familiar with the five-tiered hūreitō of Arakurayamasengen Park.

Its vermilion outline against the shadow of Mount Fuji is something of a symbol for tourist fantasies of Japan. Its shape and silhouette are familiar.

But on closer inspection, they raise so many questions.

For instance, why are they called ‘pagodas’ in the English language? In Japanese, they’re called ‘sōtō’ (tiered towers), or hōtō (treasure towers). The latter is also one of China’s words for pagoda – ‘baota’ (also ‘treasure towers’).

Why do pagodas come with multiple tiers, and why in largely three or five-tier variations? From a cost-performance perspective, the tiles of the tiers on the middle layers are wastes of clay. And the middle ages were not immune to the economy.

The Belltowers of Christianity or the minarets of Islam, from which adhan call the faithful to prayer, have a purpose. There is no obvious reason for a tower on a temple site.

Why, in fact, do they even exist?


Where does the word pagoda come from?

Pagodas, however, are far from being the himbo towers of Buddhism. Although, if their purpose is just to be tall, beautiful, and appreciated, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Their shape comes from stupas, which were originally Indian pre-Buddhist domed structures for housing the dead. Stupas are reliquaries, thought to contain the bones and remains of Buddha. They’re thought of as the physical representations of the body of Buddha in this world. They acted as visible and tangible manifestations of the Buddhist concept of ‘dharmakāya’, the ‘living Buddha’ known in Japanese as ‘hōshin’.

In the English language, a divergence occurred where Indian towers were more often called ‘stupas’. East and South-East Asian towers, driven by a specific architectural image, were ‘pagodas’.

The Chūreitō pagoda, Yamanashi Prefecture.

The word ‘pagoda’ comes from the 16th-century Portuguese word ‘pagode’, but the origin of this word is a linguistic mystery. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘pagode’ was once thought to stem from the Persian ‘but-kada’. This translates roughly to ‘idol temple’, ‘but’ meaning ‘idol’ and ‘kada’ being ‘abode’.

More recent theories suggest a source from Tamil. This may be either ‘pākavata’ (devotee of Vishnu, from Sanskrit equivalents) or ‘pagavati’ (devotee of a goddess, possibly Kali). A translation of Portuguese chronicler Fernão Lopes de Castanheda’s books on his investigations of India (for conquest) by N.Lichefield in 1582 contains the first use of the word in English. The translation reads: “All the Kings doe dye in one Pagode [Port. pagode], which is the house of praiers to their Idolls.”

Japanese pagodas: no regular tower

At its core, the idea of pagodas representing the living body of Buddha is consistent throughout many Buddhist sects. But over time and geography, pagodas developed their own regional characters.

In Japan, the pagodas are often built in five-tier or three-tier formats. They’re made of wood, and with tiers shrinking in size towards the top for earthquake resistance. Likewise, their wooden construction, their hollow insides, and the complex beam arrangements about the central spine – the ‘shinbashira’ (heart pillar) – are also anti-earthquake architecture choices.

The number of tiers tends to be odd (there are seven- and thirteen-tier pagodas on record). The number of sides to each floor is even (usually four). Whilst the ground floor may contain images and relics of the Buddha, the rest of the floors are largely decorative.

The next most important religious feature of a pagoda, after the ground floor, is arguably the ‘sōrin’ spire on the rooftop. It supports the crowning ‘hōju’ (Buddha’s gem, or Chintamani), an emblem of a wish-granting jewel.

This doesn’t stop the decorative floors, however, from being an extra opportunity to flex symbol literacy. The five tiers of a five-tiered pagoda, for example, are thought to represent the five elements from Indian cosmology. From bottom up, these are earth, water, fire, air, and the Universe.

Theories on the three tiers of the three-tiered pagoda are less clear. They may represent a truncated version of the cosmology in earth, water, and fire.

What do the number of tiers in a pagoda signify?

There are a number of theories on why some temples have five-tiered pagodas and others three.

One theory is that they loosely correspond to a preference by Kūkai’s Shingon Buddhist sect for the five-tiered and Saichō’s Tendai Buddhist sect for the three-tiered. The rivalry between these two Buddhist luminaries had a rivalry so hot, Shonen Jump should give us the Buddhist discourse battle manga we all need.

Both Kūkai and Saichō established their sects at the start of the ninth century. And both likely felt a keen need to distinguish their respective sect identities.

A statue of Kukai, behind which stands a pagoda.

Things become a bit more complicated in the 17th century. Both Tendai and Shingon sect built temples in the Edo area which show the reverse. During this period, Tendai built five-tier pagodas, with Shingon building three.

The 17th century was when Edokko (men of Edo, born and raised) and the Edo culture defined themselves. Perhaps we can think of this as a way in which Edo sects attempted to distinguish themselves from their Kamigata (Osaka and Kyoto area) counterparts. The styles, then, would reflect the new times and the shifting power center in the country.

In shaping the identity of a local community, the value of a visible and distinctive piece of architecture is unquestionable. But the act of building a pagoda in itself also has clear value. In constructing a manifestation of Buddhist dharmakāya, building the pagoda is comparable to copying sutra. It accrues Buddhist virtue.

We can see this reflected in the jeweled pagoda mandala (kinji hōtō mandara) genre of Buddhist painting. Artists painstakingly copied out sections of the Lotus Sutra in gold ink into pagoda shapes. The pagodas are ‘written’ with a degree of architectural accuracy so reverently high that it can only be thought deliberate.

Japanese pagoda: a symbol of history

So, there we have it. The hollow and wooden Japanese pagodas have been shaped by cosmology, history, local identity, and, it has to be said, a touch of mystery, as consensus is still to be reached on what the choice of three or five tiers reflect. Some historians have suggested that the three tiers were for poorer temples, building pagodas on a budget.

Standing at the foot of one older than my family name, I can be sure of one thing. Tall, upright, and with the oldest pagodas in Japan each around fourteen centuries old, they make powerful symbols of endurance; especially in a land where the ground is so often out to literally knock you, your home, and your livelihood down.

Every pagoda is a tall and visible marker that, once upon a time, a human with a vision was there. When much of Japanese Buddhist philosophy reflects upon impermanence and the fleetingness of things, that the pagoda stands and has been built to withstand makes it an oddly poignant curiosity.


  1. It should be noted that neither stupas nor pagodas are exclusive to Buddhism, with there being Hindu stupas and Taoist pagodas too.
  2. Two-story Tahoto pagodas are a story for another time


pagoda, n.”. OED Online. June 2021. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/136027?redirectedFrom=pagoda (accessed July 08, 2021).

Miyazaki, K 2012, ‘Tracing the Origin of Japanese Pagodas along the Silk Road’, Archi-Cultural Translations through the Silk Road 2nd International Conference, Mukogawa Women’s Univ., Nishinomiya, Japan, July 14-16, 2012 Proceedings. https://www.mukogawa-u.ac.jp/~iasu2012/pdf/iaSU2012_Proceedings_002.pdf (accessed July 09 2021)

O’Neal, Halle (2015) Performing the Jeweled Pagoda Mandalas: Relics, Reliquaries, and a Realm of Text, The Art Bulletin, 97:3, 279-300, DOI: 10.1080/00043079.2015.1009326

Winfield, P.D. 2020. Word Embodied: The Jeweled Pagoda Mandalas in Japanese Buddhist Art (Harvard East Asian Monographs 412): By Halle O’Neal. 2018. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 310 pp., 90 illustrations. ISBN 9780674983861. Material Religion: Light Mediations, 16(1), pp.123–124.

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Oats Miike

British-Japanese writer in the UK, who enjoys science, history, literature and anthropology, and wherever the fields muddily intersect. She has a weakness for seasonally limited products which makes Japan a dark forest for her wallet.

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