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The art of Japan demonstrates the sensitive character of the inhabitants of that East Asian archipelago over a period of more than eighteen thousand years. Among the more consistent qualities revealed through Japanese art are a love of nature, attention to detail, playfulness, a preference for natural materials, and the ability to succinctly capture the innate qualities of a subject. Japanese history is divided into periods that are named for the location of the national seat of political power.
The oldest human artifacts of unglazed earthenware appear to date from Japan’s Jomon period (c. 10,000–300 BCE). These ceramics, mostly vessels, are typically decorated with overall patterns of incised or impressed decoration, some of them made by rolling the surface with braided cords or ropes. For this reason, the ceramics, the people, and the long Neolithic period to which they belong were given the name “Jomon” (cord-marked). The Jomon people, unlike most ceramics-producing cultures, were primarily hunter-gatherers. Scholars since the mid-twentieth century have debated the date for the beginning of the period, as early as 16,500 BCE by some estimates—not only about when the transition from Paleolithic to Neolithic technology took place (the dates continue to recede with new discoveries), but whether Jomon earthenware is indeed the world’s oldest ceramic type.
The stylistic characteristics of Jomon pottery vary geographically and according to the phase from which they date. In Middle Jomon, earthenware vessels often featured spectacularly extruded mouths, referred to as “flame-style” (kaenshiki) rims by Japanese archaeologists. In Final Jomon, clay figures called dogu were created to be broken during rituals that may have been intended to improve fertility or to combat illness. The predominantly abstract decoration on Jomon wares may be of religious or ritual significance.
The beginning of the Yayoi period (300 BCE–300 CE) marks an influx into Japan of immigrants from continental Asia who brought systematized wet rice agriculture, hierarchical societal organization, and technology for manufacturing bronze. Tools, weapons, and mirrors of bronze began to be made within a century or two after similar items arrived from China and Korea. One of the more idiosyncratic Yayoi bronze objects is a type of bell known as the dotaku. These bells appear to derive from bronze bells of the Chinese Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) and, made during the second half of the Yayoi period, were probably intended for ritual use. One example bears cast designs, including a representation of a grain storehouse on stilts. The similarity of this storehouse to existing Shinto shrine buildings, such as the principal halls in the shrine complexes of Ise and Izumo, may indicate that at least some aspects of the Shinto religion originated during Yayoi period. Yayoi period earthenware, simpler in form than that of the Jomon, comprised vessels for ritual and household use. Like Jomon ware, it was made from coils of clay, but was smoothly finished by the use of a small handwheel.
The Kofun period (300–710 CE) is named for the numerous tumuli (kofun) constructed from around the mid-third century until after the introduction of Buddhism in Japan, around 550 CE. Buried within these tomb mounds were a variety of items that reveal close connections between Japan’s aristocracy and inhabitants of the Korean Peninsula. Some items, such as gray earthenware funerary vessels, beads, and certain items of metalwork from fifth- and sixth-century Japanese and Korean tombs, can be distinguished only by specialists. Tumuli were mostly small, especially at the beginning of the period, but those built for emperors such as Nintoku (reigned 313–399) were huge, keyhole-shaped constructions surrounded by moats. Some tumuli had burial chambers lined with stone that were decorated with wall paintings. Earthenware cylinders known as haniwa, arranged atop and around the perimeter of some tomb mounds, were commonly surmounted with clay figures in the form of humans, animals, or even inanimate objects such as shields or buildings. The exact purpose or function of these earthenware sculptures is uncertain, but it seems likely that they were intended to support the deceased in the afterlife.
The Asuka period (552–645 CE) overlaps the preceding Kofun period and marks the introduction of both Buddhism and writing from continental Asia. Because of those features, it is Japan’s first fully historical period. Within three decades following the adoption of Buddhism as the state religion under the Soga clan in 587 CE, three Buddhist temples in the Nara-Osaka region were established. Although all three were completely or mostly destroyed over the centuries, works of art from them survive, mainly in the temple called Horyu-ji (in Nara Prefecture). The most significant Buddhist sculpture of the period comprises several works by Tori Busshi (active late sixth–early seventh centuries). Tori’s masterpiece is the gilt bronze Shaka Triad of 623, now located in the Golden Hall (Kondo) of Horyu-ji. The three figures resemble Chinese Buddhist sculptures from the Northern Wei kingdom (part of China’s Southern and Northern Dynasties, 220–589 CE). A bodhisattva (enlightened deity) figure in Horyu-ji is known as the Kudara Kannon, which tradition says was brought to Japan from Korea’s Paekche (Kudara) kingdom (18 BCE–663 CE). These sculptures, as well as the layout and architecture of buildings such as Horyu-ji’s Golden Hall and pagoda (late seventh century), reflect the strong influence of continental Buddhist models.
Continental models were even more influential during the Nara period (710–794 CE). Throughout the eighth century CE, the influence of Tang dynasty China (618– 907 CE) was dominant in works made for the Buddhist establishment and the aristocracy. Heijo-kyo, the capital (modern Nara City), was laid out in the manner of Chang’an (modern Xi’an), the capital of the China’s Tang dynasty. During the rule of Japanese emperor Shomu (reigned 715–749 CE), a huge temple, called Todai-ji, was built in Nara to house a massive bronze image of the Dainichi Buddha (called Vairocana in Sanskrit). The current hall, an eighteenth-century replacement only two-thirds the size of the original, remains the largest wooden building in the world. Emperor Shomu also ordered the establishment of regional Buddhist temples throughout Japan under the kokubunji system, which necessitated the production of large numbers of Buddhist statues and implements in Tang dynasty style. In contrast with Asuka period Buddhist images, Nara period sculpture featured rounder, fleshier figures imbued with a sense of elegance and movement.
As rulers of the easternmost point of the Silk Roads, eighth-century Japanese emperors had access to luxury goods from as far away as Persia. The active trade that took place is reflected in the high-quality artworks preserved in the Shoso-in repository, established in 756 to house the possessions of Emperor Shomu. Among the items kept there are mirrors, textiles, ceramics, lacquerware, furniture, musical instruments, glass objects, and paintings. Some of the works are of continental manufacture, while others are domestic products that show the impact of imported forms, materials, and techniques.
In 794 CE, Emperor Kanmu (737–806 CE) moved the capital to a new site, Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto), initiating the Heian period (794–1185). Contact with China declined after 894, when the Japanese court ceased to send embassies to the continent. In response, native art and architecture began to develop along independent lines. The buildings of the imperial palace were constructed in a hybrid Sino- Japanese form, with gardens and furnishings of native taste, while retaining certain Chinese elements to communicate weight and authority. A distinctly Japanese court culture grew up, described in great detail in Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s tenth-century novel The Tale of Genji, and illustrated in a superb set of twelfth-century narrative hand scrolls, the Genji monogatari emaki. The scrolls, only a few of which survive, feature not only compelling paintings of scenes found in the novel, but outstanding calligraphy, another hallmark of visual culture of the Heian court. The illustrations, which use a complex system of perspective, placement, and color but depict human faces in a quite generalized manner, represent the beginnings of a native form of painting known as Yamato-e.
In the early part of the period, the two Esoteric Buddhist sects of Tendai (Tiantai in Chinese) and Shingon (Zhenyan in Chinese) were introduced from China. These sects emphasized secret knowledge and complex rituals, often using cosmic diagrams known as mandalas. Numerous colorful and minutely detailed mandala paintings were made during the Heian period. In the middle and latter parts of the period, the populist Pure Land (Jodo) sect grew, and many sculptures of the Amida Buddha (Amitabha in Sanskrit) were constructed. Most notable is the sublime Amida figure by Jocho (d. 1057) made for the Phoenix Hall (Hoodo) at the temple called Byodo-in. The temple was built as a personal shrine for the government official Fujiwara Yorimichi (990–1074) in 1052.
In 1185 CE, the Minamoto warrior clan defeated its rival, the Taira clan, and established a military government that ruled in the emperor’s stead. Seeking refuge from court influence, the first shogun moved his seat of power to Kamakura, far from earlier capitals. In contrast to the refined and elegant Heian art, Kamakura period (1185–1333) works are characterized by stronger, more straightforward approaches. In Buddhist sculpture, works by Unkei (1148?–1223) and others of the Kei school of sculptors display a powerful naturalism that reflects the rise of military culture. The Jodo monks Honen (1133–1212) and Shinran (1173–1263) exploited unease about the changes in society, inspiring greater numbers to place faith in the Amida Buddha. As a result, paintings of Amida descending to greet the soul of a dying believer (raigo paintings) and depictions of Amida’s Western Paradise (Saiho Gokuraku) came to be made in large numbers using valuable materials such as silk and gold leaf. Portraiture grew in popularity, especially among the military elites and Buddhist clergy, following the same trend toward naturalism as sculpture.
Following his defeat of the Kamakura government regents in 1333, Ashikaga Takauji (1305–1358 CE) set up his own military government in the Muromachi district of Kyoto. Although much of the Muromachi period (1333–1573) was tumultuous, certain art forms did flourish. Zen temples grew in number and influence because of the support of the military class. Zen-inspired calligraphy and ink painting prospered, as did rock-and-gravel gardens (sekitei) such as those at the Kyoto temple named Ryoan-ji. The most famous painter of the period was Sessho Toyo (1420–1506), a priest whose work built upon styles of ink painting developed in China during the Song dynasty (960–1279). Sessho traveled to China in 1469–1470, and his painting reportedly was highly admired by Chinese at the time. His most celebrated works are landscapes in ink, sometimes with light color added.
The cultural apex of the period came under the rule of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358–1408), who subdued warring factions, reopened official contacts with China, and encouraged the arts. Under his patronage, the Noh drama developed, and outstanding masks and robes for the theater were created. Yoshimitsu built a personal retreat at Kitayama, which included a building called the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku). The three-story building, famous for the gold leaf on its exterior, is an innovative combination of three architectural styles: Zen temple, warrior dwelling, and court residence. Sited in a beautiful strolling garden with a lake, the current building is a close replica of the original, which burned in 1950. Yoshimitsu’s grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1435–1490), built his own retreat at Higashiyama, with its own unique building, the Silver Pavillion (Ginkaku). The two-story building, never covered in silver, was the centerpiece for Yoshimasa’s aesthetic diversions, later known collectively as “Higashiyama culture” (Higashiyama bunka). These pastimes included Noh drama, garden design, art collecting, and tea ritual. Yoshimasa’s influence continued to be felt in these areas over the succeeding centuries.
In 1573, Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582) deposed the final Ashikaga shogun and continued his quest to consolidate military and political power over all Japan. After his assassination in 1582, the same pursuit was taken up by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598) and largely achieved; yet it was not until Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616) that an enduring dynasty could be established and internecine warfare eliminated. Despite intermittent warfare, the Momoyama period (1573–1600) marked one of the most creative eras in the history of Japan. Active trade provided cultural stimulation, as Japanese ships sailed throughout East and Southeast Asia. European merchants and missionaries were welcomed, and many of the items they brought were incorporated into Japanese visual and material culture. Decorative motifs in applied arts such as lacquerware and textiles were particularly influenced by foreign designs. Painting was characterized by the growth of several existing schools and the establishment of others, spurred by the demand for artistically embellished sliding doors and folding screens for the interiors of elite residences and castles. Many of these works featured backgrounds of gold-leafed paper that helped reflect light in the dark interiors of large buildings. Among the most prominent painters were Hasegawa Tohaku (1539–1610), Kaiho Yosho (1533–1615), and Kano Eitoku (1543–1590), whose bold and striking works came to characterize the vibrant ambiance of the Momoyama period.
Under the influence of codified tea drinking, sometimes known as the tea ceremony, notable advancements were made in ceramics. In the 1570s, the low-fired, glazed ceramic later to be called Raku ware was devised, and Raku tea bowls soon achieved popularity among tea connoisseurs. The capture and inducement of continental potters to Japan during the 1592–1598 invasions of Korea resulted in the rapid advance of ceramics technology and the concurrent expansion of production throughout the country. Tea masters like Sen Rikyo (1522–1591) encouraged the creation of original and idiosyncratic wares that reflected the somber and restrained aesthetic known as wabi (rustic simplicity).
In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun, establishing in the city of Edo a line of hereditary military rulers who would control Japan for over 250 years (known as the Edo period, 1600/1603–1868). The beginning of Tokugawa rule overlaps with the latter Momoyama period, since Ieyasu did not completely vanquish his Toyotomi rivals until 1615. Once in control, the Tokugawa shogunate instituted a policy of national isolation and a rigid Neo-Confucian class system. Such measures curtailed individual freedoms, but also contributed to general economic prosperity and social stability. These in turn stimulated unprecedented growth in the arts, especially among the common people.
During the seventeenth century, Kyoto remained the capital of arts and culture, experiencing a renaissance of culture reminiscent of that of the Heian period. Emblematic of this renaissance was Hon’ami Koetsu (1558–1637), a Kyoto artist who excelled in calligraphy, lacquerware, and raku tea bowls. Collaborating with the painter Tawaraya Sotatsu (flourished early seventeenth century), founder of Rinpa-style painting, Hon’ami created scrolls featuring classical poems inscribed against a backdrop of evocative natural designs by Tawaraya in gold and silver pigments. Toward the end of the century, Ogata Korin (1658–1716) brought Rinpa style to full flower in his striking compositions created by abbreviating and carefully arranging pictorial elements. Korin’s brother, Ogata Kenzan (1663–1743), translated Rinpa into the ceramic format, devising innovative implements for use in the practice of tea.
Among warrior-class elites, the two most influential painting schools were the Kano school, based upon Chinese art traditions, and the Tosa school, descended from Heian period Yamato-e. In the eighteenth century, however, new styles of painting developed. Notable among them were the literati (Bunjinga) style, an outgrowth of Chinese scholar painting of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644– 1912) dynasties, and the Maruyama-Shijo school, which incorporated elements of European naturalism into native modes of depiction. Within the merchant class, genre painting gave way to paintings and woodblock prints featuring beautiful women, actors, and travel landscapes. This style, known as ukiyo-e (floating world pictures), eventually became Japan’s most widely known artistic style.
In 1854, the re-establishment of international contact began with the opening of ports that had been closed to foreign commerce for more than two centuries. European artistic ideas flowed freely into the country, and soon “painting in the Western manner” (Yoga) was firmly established. In the 1880s, with the encouragement of the American scholar Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908), native painting practices reasserted themselves, combining into a new tradition called Nihonga (Japanese painting). Nihonga used native materials and formats, such as painting with ink and mineral pigments on paper or silk, but also incorporated certain aspects of Western traditions such as shading and perspective. During the twentieth century, distinctions between the two modes became increasingly blurred, but the separation continued to be recognized in official art circles, especially the annual national art exhibitions first held in 1907 and later known as Nitten (Japan Exhibition). In the 1950s, artists like Yoshihara Jiro (1905–1972) began to explore concepts such as abstraction and performance art, becoming the first in Asia to present a credible challenge to the West from an equal artistic footing.
In the twenty-first century, art in Japan is as diverse as in any country in the world. A large number of Japanese artists are recognized internationally, especially in nontraditional genres such as installation art and video. In addition, the comic book / cartoon art genres of Manga and Anime have had tremendous impact on artists worldwide, especially those born after 1980.
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