Japanese art covers a wide range of art styles and media, including ancient pottery, sculpture in wood and bronze, ink painting on silk and paper, calligraphy, ceramics, architecture, oil painting, literature, drama and music. The history of Japanese art begins with the production of ceramics by early inhabitants sometime in the tenth millennium B.C.E. The earliest complex art is associated with the spread of Buddhism in the seventh and eighth centuries C.E. The arts in Japan were patronized and sustained for centuries by a series of imperial courts and aristocratic clans, until urbanization and industrialization created a popular market for art. Both religious and secular artistic traditions developed, but even the secular art was imbued with Buddhist and Confucian aesthetic principles, particularly the Zen concept that every aspect of the material world is part of an all-encompassing whole.
Over its long history, Japanese art absorbed many foreign artistic traditions and carried on intermittent exchanges with China and Korea. When Japan came into contact with the Western world during the 19th century, Japanese woodblock prints, paintings and ceramics had a considerable influence on European art, particularly on cubism and impressionism. Japanese aesthetic principles of simplicity and understatement influenced Western architecture and design during the 20th century. Japanese artists also absorbed Western techniques and materials and gained international audiences. Contemporary Japanese art is concerned with themes such as self-identity and finding fulfillment in a world dominated by technology. Since the 1990s, Japanese animation, known as anime, has become widely popular with young people in the West.This article contains Japanese text. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of kanji and kana.
OverviewKitagawa Utamaro, "Flowers of Edo: Young Woman's Narrative Chanting to the Shamisen," ca. 1800
Historically, Japan has been subject to sudden introductions of new and alien ideas followed by long periods of minimal contact with the outside world during which foreign elements were assimilated, adapted to Japanese aesthetic preferences, and sometimes developed into new forms.
Like China and Korea, Japan developed both religious and secular artistic traditions. The earliest complex art in Japan was produced in the seventh and eighth centuries C.E. in connection with Buddhism. In the ninth century, as the Japanese began to turn away from China, and indigenous forms of expression were developed, the secular arts became increasingly important. A social and intellectual elite refined ink painting, calligraphy, poetry, literature and music as forms of self-expression and entertainment. Until the late fifteenth century, both religious and secular arts flourished. After the Ōnin War (1467-1477), Japan entered a period of political, social, and economic disruption that lasted for over a century. In the state that emerged under the leadership of the Tokugawa shogunate, organized religion played a much less important role in people's lives, and the arts that became primarily secular. The Japanese, in this period, found sculpture a much less sympathetic medium for artistic expression; most Japanese sculpture is associated with religion, and the medium's use declined with the lessening importance of traditional Buddhism.
During the sixteenth century, the emergence of a wealthy merchant class and urban areas centered around industries such as the production of textiles created a demand for popular entertainment and for mass-produced art such as wood block prints and picture books. In the Edo period (1603 - 1868), a style of woodblock prints called ukiyo-e became an important art form, used to produce colorfully printed post cards, theater programs, news bulletins and text books.
Painting is the preferred artistic expression in Japan, practiced by amateurs and professionals alike. Ink and water color painting were an outgrowth of calligraphy; until modern times, the Japanese wrote with a brush rather than a pen. Oil painting was introduced when Japan came into contact with the West during the sixteenth century, along with Western aesthetic concepts such as the use of perspective in landscapes. Contemporary Japanese painters work in all genres including traditional ink and water color painting, classical oil painting, and modern media.
Japanese ceramics are among the finest in the world and include the earliest known artifacts of Japanese culture. In architecture, Japanese preferences for natural materials and an interaction of interior and exterior space are clearly expressed.
Japan's contributions to contemporary art, fashion and architecture, are creations of a modern, global, and multi-cultural (or acultural) bent.
History of Japanese art
The first settlers of Japan, the Jōmon people (c 11,000?-c 300 B.C.E.), named for the cord markings that decorated the surfaces of their clay vessels, were nomadic hunter-gatherers who later practiced organized farming and built cities with substantial populations. They built simple houses of wood and thatch set into shallow earthen pits to provide warmth from the soil, and crafted lavishly decorated pottery storage vessels, clay figurines called dogu, and crystal jewels.
Statuette with Snow Glasses, Jōmon Era
The Yayoi people, named for the district in Tokyo where remnants of their settlements first were found, arrived in Japan about 350 B.C.E., bringing their knowledge of wetland rice cultivation, the manufacture of copper weapons and bronze bells (dōtaku), and wheel-thrown, kiln-fired ceramics. Dōtaku (|銅鐸), smelted from relatively thin bronze and richly decorated, were probably used only for rituals. The oldest dōtaku found date from the second or third century B.C.E. (corresponding to the end of the Yayoi era). Historians believe that dōtaku were used to pray for good harvests because they are decorated with animals such as the dragonfly, praying mantis and spider, that are natural enemies of insect pests that attack paddy fields.
A Yayoi period dōtaku, third century.
A Yayoi jar, first-third century, excavated in Kugahara, Ota, Tokyo, Tokyo National Museum.
The third stage in Japanese prehistory, the Kofun, or Tumulus, period (ca. 250-552 C.E.), (named for the tombs) represents a modification of Yayoi culture, attributable either to internal development or external force. In this period, diverse groups of people formed political alliances and coalesced into a nation. Typical artifacts are bronze mirrors, symbols of political alliances, and clay sculptures called haniwa which were erected outside tombs.
Haniwa horse statuette, complete with saddle and stirrups, sixth century
Asuka and Nara artBodhisattva, Asuka period, seventh century
During the Asuka and Nara periods, so named because the seat of Japanese government was located in the Asuka Valley from 552 to 710 and in the city of Nara until 784, the first significant introduction of Asian continental culture took place in Japan.
The transmission of Buddhism provided the initial impetus for contacts between China, Korea and Japan. The earliest Japanese sculptures of the Buddha are dated to the sixth and seventh century. In 538, the ruling monarch of Baekche, King Sông, sent an official diplomatic mission to formally introduce Buddhism to the Japanese court, and presented Buddhist images and sutras to the emperor.1
During the second half of the sixth century, Korean priests played an important role in the propagation of Buddhism, and the influence of Korean sculptors can be traced in Buddhist works of the Asuka period (538-710) from the Nara area.2 After defeating the anti-Buddhist Mononobe and Nakatomi Clans in a battle in 587, the leader of the Soga Clan, Soga no Umako, ordered the construction of the first full scale Buddhist monastery in Japan, the Asuka-dera. An entry from the year 588 in the Nihon Shoki, a Japanese historical chronology, describes the numerous craftsmen who came from Baekche to Japan to supervise work on the Asuka-dera.3
During this period the Japanese adapted other foreign concepts and practices which had a profound effect on Japanese culture, including the use of Chinese written language; historiography; complex theories of centralized government with an effective bureaucracy; the use of coins; and the standardization of weights and measures. New technologies, new building techniques, more advanced methods of casting in bronze, and new techniques and media for painting brought about innovations in Japanese art.
The earliest Buddhist structures still extant in Japan, and the oldest wooden buildings in the Far East are found at the Hōryū-ji to the southwest of Nara. First built in the early seventh century as the private temple of Crown Prince Shotoku, it consists of 41 independent buildings. The most important ones, the main worship hall, or Kondo (Golden Hall), and Goju-no-to (Five-story Pagoda), stand in the center of an open area surrounded by a roofed cloister. The Kondo, in the style of Chinese worship halls, is a two-story structure of post-and-beam construction, capped by an irimoya, or hipped-gabled roof of ceramic tiles.
Inside the Kondo, on a large rectangular platform, are some of the most important sculptures of the period. The central image is a Shaka Trinity (623), the historical Buddha flanked by two bodhisattvas, sculpture cast in bronze by the sculptor Tori Busshi (flourished early seventh century) in homage to the recently deceased Prince Shotoku. At the four corners of the platform are the Guardian Kings of the Four Directions, carved in wood around 650. Also housed at Hōryū-ji is the Tamamushi Shrine, a wooden replica of a Kondo, which is set on a high wooden base that is decorated with figural paintings executed in a medium of mineral pigments mixed with lacquer.
Pagoda and Kondo at Horyu-ji, eighth century
The Pagoda has certain characteristics unique to Hōryū-ji
Replica of Kudara Kannon in the British Museum, Hōryū-ji, late seventh century
Constructed in the eighth century as the headquarters for a network of temples in each of the provinces, the Tōdai-ji in Nara is the most ambitious religious complex erected in the early centuries of Buddhist worship in Japan. Appropriately, the 16.2-m (53-ft) Buddha (completed 752) enshrined in the main Buddha hall, or Daibutsuden, is a Rushana Buddha, the figure that represents the essence of Buddhahood, just as the Tōdaiji represented the center for Imperially sponsored Buddhism and its dissemination throughout Japan. Only a few fragments of the original statue survive, and the present hall and central Buddha are reconstructions from the Edo period.
Clustered around the Daibutsuden on a gently sloping hillside are a number of secondary halls: the Hokkedo (Lotus Sutra Hall), with its principal image, the Fukukenjaku Kannon (the most popular bodhisattva), crafted of dry lacquer (cloth dipped in lacquer and shaped over a wooden armature); the Kaidanin (Ordination Hall) with its magnificent clay statues of the Four Guardian Kings; and the storehouse, called the Shosoin. This last structure is of great importance as a historical cache, because contains the utensils that were used in the temple's dedication ceremony in 752, the eye-opening ritual for the Rushana image, as well as government documents and many secular objects owned by the Imperial family.
Nio Guardian at the Todai-ji, Unkei, 1203
Tōdai-ji: Openwork playing flute Bodisatva in Octagonal Lantern Tower, eighth century
Daibutsu of Tōdai-ji.The famous Daibutsu of Todaiji. To provide some perspective, each finger is the size of a human.
In 794 the capital of Japan was officially transferred to Heian-kyo (present-day Kyoto), where it remained until 1868. The term Heian period refers to the years between 794 and 1185, when the Kamakura shogunate was established at the end of the Genpei War. The period is further divided into the early Heian and the late Heian, or Fujiwara era, which began in 894, the year imperial embassies to China were officially discontinued.
Early Heian art: In reaction to the growing wealth and power of organized Buddhism in Nara, the priest Kūkai (best known by his posthumous title Kōbō Daishi, 774-835) journeyed to China to study Shingon, a form of Vajrayana Buddhism, which he introduced into Japan in 806. At the core of Shingon worship are mandalas, diagrams of the spiritual universe, which began to influence temple design. Japanese Buddhist architecture also adopted the stupa, originally an Indian architectural form, in the style of a Chinese-style pagoda.
The temples erected for this new sect were built in the mountains, far away from the Court and the laity in the capital. The irregular topography of these sites forced Japanese architects to rethink the problems of temple construction, and in so doing to choose more indigenous elements of design. Cypress-bark roofs replaced those of ceramic tile, wood planks were used instead of earthen floors, and a separate worship area for the laity was added in front of the main sanctuary.
The temple that best reflects the spirit of early Heian Shingon temples is the Muro-ji (early ninth century), set deep in a stand of cypress trees on a mountain southeast of Nara. The wooden image (also early 9th c.) of Shakyamuni, the "historic" Buddha, enshrined in a secondary building at the Muro-ji, is typical of the early Heian sculpture, with its ponderous body, covered by thick drapery folds carved in the hompa-shiki (rolling-wave) style, and its austere, withdrawn facial expression.
Fujiwara art: In the Fujiwara period, Pure Land Buddhism, which offered easy salvation through belief in Amida (the Buddha of the Western Paradise), became popular. This period is named after the Fujiwara family, then the most powerful in the country, who ruled as regents for the Emperor, becoming, in effect, civil dictators. Concurrently, the Kyoto nobility developed a society devoted to elegant aesthetic pursuits. So secure and beautiful was their world that they could not conceive of Paradise as being much different. They created a new form of Buddha hall, the Amida hall, which blends the secular with the religious, and houses one or more Buddha images within a structure resembling the mansions of the nobility.Byodoin Phoenix HallNageire-dou, Tottori, eleventh century
The Ho-o-do (Phoenix Hall, completed 1053) of the Byodoin, a temple in Uji to the southeast of Kyoto, is the exemplar of Fujiwara Amida halls. It consists of a main rectangular structure flanked by two L-shaped wing corridors and a tail corridor, set at the edge of a large artificial pond. Inside, a single golden image of Amida (c. 1053) is installed on a high platform. The Amida sculpture was executed by Jocho, who used a new canon of proportions and a new technique (yosegi), in which multiple pieces of wood are carved out like shells and joined from the inside. Applied to the walls of the hall are small relief carvings of celestials, the host believed to have accompanied Amida when he descended from the Western Paradise to gather the souls of believers at the moment of death and transport them in lotus blossoms to Paradise. Raigō (来迎, "welcoming approach") paintings and sculptures, depicting Amida Buddha descending on a purple cloud at the time of a person's death, became very popular among the upper classes.Raigo paintings on the wooden doors of the Ho-o-do, depicting the Descent of the Amida Buddha, are an early example of Yamato-e, Japanese-style painting, and contain representations of the scenery around Kyoto.
E-maki: In the last century of the Heian period, the horizontal, illustrated narrative handscroll, the e-maki, became well-established. Dating from about 1130, the illustrated 'Tale of Genji' represents one of the high points of Japanese painting. Written about the year 1000 by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Akiko, the novel deals with the life and loves of Genji and the world of the Heian court after his death. The twelfth-century artists of the e-maki version devised a system of pictorial conventions that visually convey the emotional content of each scene. In the second half of the century, a different, livelier style of continuous narrative illustration became popular. The Ban Dainagon Ekotoba (late twelfth century), a scroll that deals with an intrigue at court, emphasizes figures in active motion depicted in rapidly executed brush strokes and thin but vibrant colors.Emaki:Bandainagon Ekotoba, Tokiwa Mitsunaga, twelfth century
E-maki also serve as some of the earliest and greatest examples of the otoko-e (Men's pictures) and onna-e (Women's pictures) styles of painting. Of the many fine differences in the two styles intended to appeal to the aesthetic preferences of each gender, the most easily noticeable are the differences in subject matter. Onna-e, epitomized by the Tale of Genji handscroll, typically dealt with court life, particularly the court ladies, and with romantic themes. Otoko-e, on the other hand, often recorded historical events, particularly battles. The Siege of the Sanjō Palace (1160), depicted in the painting "Night Attack on the Sanjō Palace" is a famous example of this style.PanelPictorial scroll of the Tale of Genji, 1130
Heian literature: The term “classical Japanese literature” is generally applied to literature produced during the Heian Period. The Tale of Genji is considered the pre-eminent masterpiece of Heian fiction and an early example of a work of fiction in the form of a novel. Other important works of this period include the Kokin Wakashū (905, Waka Poetry Anthology) and The Pillow Book (990s), an essay about the life, loves, and pastimes of nobles in the Emperor's court written by Sei Shonagon. The iroha poem, now one of two standard orderings for the Japanese syllabary, was also written during the early part of this period. During this time, the imperial court patronized poets, many of whom were courtiers or ladies-in-waiting, and editing anthologies of poetry was a national pastime. Reflecting the aristocratic atmosphere, the poetry was elegant and sophisticated and expressed emotions in a rhetorical style.
Kamakura artPortrait of Minamoto no Yoritomo, twelfth century
In 1180 a war broke out between the two most powerful warrior clans, the Taira and the Minamoto; five years later the Minamoto emerged victorious and established a de facto seat of government at the seaside village of Kamakura, where it remained until 1333. With the shift of power from the nobility to the warrior class, the arts had a new audience: men devoted to the skills of warfare, priests committed to making Buddhism available to illiterate commoners, and conservatives, the nobility and some members of the priesthood who regretted the declining power of the court. Thus, realism, a popularizing trend, and a classical revival characterize the art of the Kamakura period.
Sculpture: The Kei school of sculptors, particularly Unkei, created a new, more realistic style of sculpture. The two Niō guardian images (1203) in the Great South Gate of the Tōdai-ji in Nara illustrate Unkei's dynamic suprarealistic style. The images, about 8 m (about 26 ft) tall, were carved of multiple blocks in a period of about three months, a feat indicative of a developed studio system of artisans working under the direction of a master sculptor. Unkei's polychromed wood sculptures (1208, Kōfuku-ji, Nara) of two Indian sages, Muchaku and Seshin, the legendary founders of the Hosso sect, are among the most accomplished realistic works of the period.
Calligraphy and painting: The Kegon Engi Emaki, the illustrated history of the founding of the Kegon sect, is an excellent example of the popularizing trend in Kamakura painting. The Kegon sect, one of the most important in the Nara period, fell on hard times during the ascendancy of the Pure Land sects. After the Genpei War (1180-1185), Priest Myōe of Kōzan-ji temple sought to revive the sect and also to provide a refuge for women widowed by the war. The wives of samurai had been discouraged from learning more than a syllabary system for transcribing sounds and ideas (see kana), and most were incapable of reading texts that employed Chinese ideographs (kanji). The Kegon Engi Emaki combines passages of text, written in easily readable syllables, and illustrations with the dialog between characters written next to the speakers, a technique comparable to contemporary comic strips. The plot of the e-maki, the lives of the two Korean priests who founded the Kegon sect, is swiftly paced and filled with fantastic feats such as a journey to the palace of the Ocean King, and a poignant love story.
A more conservative work is the illustrated version of Murasaki Shikibu's diary. E-maki versions of her novel continued to be produced, but the nobility, attuned to the new interest in realism yet nostalgic for past days of wealth and power, revived and illustrated the diary in order to recapture the splendor of the author's times. One of the most beautiful passages illustrates the episode in which Murasaki Shikibu is playfully held prisoner in her room by two young courtiers, while, just outside, moonlight gleams on the mossy banks of a rivulet in the imperial garden.
Muromachi artGinkaku-ji, Kyoto, 1489
During the Muromachi period (1338-1573), also called the Ashikaga period, a profound change took place in Japanese culture. The Ashikaga clan took control of the shogunate and moved its headquarters back to Kyoto, to the Muromachi district of the city. With the return of government to the capital, the popularizing trends of the Kamakura period came to an end, and cultural expression took on a more aristocratic, elitist character. Zen Buddhism, the Ch'an sect traditionally thought to have been founded in China in the sixth century C.E., was introduced for a second time into Japan and took root.
Painting: Because of secular ventures and trading missions to China organized by Zen temples, many Chinese paintings and objects of art were imported into Japan and profoundly influenced Japanese artists working for Zen temples and the shogunate. Not only did these imports change the subject matter of painting, but they also modified the use of color; the bright colors of Yamato-e yielded to the monochromes of painting in the Chinese manner, where paintings are generally only in black and white or different tones of a single color.
Typical of early Muromachi painting is the depiction by the priest-painter Kao (active early fifteenth century) of the legendary monk Kensu (Hsien-tzu in Chinese) at the moment he achieved enlightenment. This type of painting was executed with quick brush strokes and a minimum of detail. Catching a Catfish with a Gourd (early fifteenth century, Taizo-in, Myoshin-ji, Kyoto), by the priest-painter Josetsu (active c. 1400), marks a turning point in Muromachi painting. Executed originally for a low-standing screen, it has been remounted as a hanging scroll with inscriptions by contemporary figures above, one of which refers to the painting as being in the "new style." In the foreground a man is depicted on the bank of a stream holding a small gourd and looking at a large slithery catfish. Mist fills the middle ground, and the background mountains appear to be far in the distance. It is generally assumed that the "new style" of the painting, executed about 1413, refers to a more Chinese sense of deep space within the picture plane.
The foremost artists of the Muromachi period are the priest-painters Shubun and Sesshu. Shubun, a monk at the Kyoto temple of Shokoku-ji, created in the painting Reading in a Bamboo Grove (1446) a realistic landscape with deep recession into space. Sesshu, unlike most artists of the period, was able to journey to China and study Chinese painting at its source. The Long Handscroll is one of Sesshu's most accomplished works, depicting a continuing landscape through the four seasons.Autumn Landscape, by Sesshu Toyo
In the Momoyama period (1573-1603), a succession of military leaders, including Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, attempted to bring peace and political stability to Japan after an era of almost 100 years of warfare. Oda, a minor chieftain, acquired power sufficient to take de facto control of the government in 1568 and, five years later, to oust the last Ashikaga shogun. Hideyoshi took command after Oda's death, but his plans to establish hereditary rule were foiled by Ieyasu, who established the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603.
Painting: The most important school of painting in the Momoyama period was that of the Kanō school. Kanō painters often worked on a large scale, painting nature scenes of birds, plants, water, or other animals on sliding doors or screens, covering the background with gold leaf. The school is equally renowned for its monochrome ink-on-silk landscapes, flat pictures that balance impeccably detailed realistic depictions of animals and other subjects in the foreground with abstract, often entirely blank, clouds and other background elements. The greatest innovation of the period was the formula, developed by Kano Eitoku, for the creation of monumental landscapes on the sliding doors enclosing a room. The decoration of the main room facing the garden of the Juko-in, a subtemple of Daitoku-ji (a Zen temple in Kyoto), is perhaps the best extant example of Eitoku's work. A massive ume tree and twin pines are depicted on pairs of sliding screens in diagonally opposite corners, their trunks repeating the verticals of the corner posts and their branches extending to left and right, unifying the adjoining panels. Eitoku's screen, Chinese Lions, also in Kyoto, reveals the bold, brightly colored style of painting preferred by the samurai.
Chinese Lions (Karajishi), at the Museum of the Imperial Collections
Trees on sliding doors,
Cypress Tree Byōbu, Kano Eitoku, 1590
Maple, Chishaku-in, 1593
Hasegawa Tohaku, a contemporary of Eitoku, developed a somewhat different and more decorative style for large-scale screen paintings. In his Maple Screen, now in the temple of Chishaku-in, Kyoto, he placed the trunk of the tree in the center and extended the limbs nearly to the edge of the composition, creating a flatter, less architectonic work than Eitoku, but a visually gorgeous painting. His sixfold screen Pine Wood is a masterly rendering in monochrome ink of a grove of trees enveloped in mist.Shōrin-zu byōbu, Hasegawa Tohaku
Art of the Edo periodThe Siege of Osaka Castle, seventh century.
The Tokugawa shogunate of the Edo period gained undisputed control of the government in 1603 and was largely successful in bringing peace and economic and political stability to the country. The shogunate survived until 1867, when it was forced to capitulate because of its failure to deal with pressure from Western nations to open the country to foreign trade. One of the dominant themes in the Edo period was the repressive policies of the shogunate and the attempts of artists to escape these strictures. The foremost of these was the closing of the country to foreigners and the accoutrements of their cultures, and the imposition of strict codes of behavior affecting every aspect of life, including the clothes that could be worn, the choice of a marriage partner, and the activities that could be pursued by members of each social class.
In the early years of the Edo period, before the full impact of Tokugawa policies had been felt, some of Japan's finest expressions in architecture and painting were produced: Katsura Palace in Kyoto and the paintings of Tawaraya Sōtatsu, pioneer of the Rimpa school.
Architecture: Katsura Detached Palace, built in imitation of Genji's palace, contains a cluster of shoin buildings that combine elements of classic Japanese architecture with innovative restatements. The whole complex is surrounded by a beautiful garden with paths for walking.
Inside the Shonkin-tei at Katsura Detached Palace
Katsura Imperial Villa in Spring
Painting: The Rimpa (琳派), also romanized as Rinpa, one of the principal schools of Japanese decorative painting, was created by the calligrapher and designer Hon'ami Kōetsu (1558-1637) and the painter Tawaraya Sōtatsu (died c. 1643). Kōetsu's painting style recalled the flamboyant aristocratic genre of the Heian period. Tawaraya Sōtatsu evolved a superb decorative style by re-creating themes from classical literature. Sōtatsu and