Japanese Art
Jomon Ceramics, Buddhist Temple Art, Zen Ink-Painting, Yamato-e Scrolls, Ukiyo-e Prints.

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Guardian Deity (Kongorikishi) (711)
Temple sculpture in clay & wood

Japanese Art (c.14,500 BCE - 1900)
Guide to the Arts & Crafts of Japan

Here is a short introduction to the origins, influences, and historical development of five important types of visual arts from Japan.

Jomon Ceramic Pottery
Art of the Buddhist Temples
Zen Ink-Painting
Yamato-e ("Japanese Painting")
Ukiyo-e ("Pictures of the Floating World")
More About Art in Asia

For the influence of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints and other decorative art on European artists, see: Japonism (c.1854-1900).

Dogu Clay Figurine from the
Late Jomon Period.

For more information about
art from the Far East, see:
Chinese Painters
Chinese Porcelain

Jomon Ceramic Pottery

"Jomon" is the name given to ancient pottery produced in Japan during the epoch of prehistoric art: that is, all clay-fired pots, vessels and decorative ceramic figurines produced from 14,500 BCE to about 100 BCE. The Jomon culture thus begins during the era of Paleolithic Art and continues throughout the period of Neolithic Art (10,000-2,000 BCE). In fact, the term "Jomon" is now used to refer to the entire period of Japanese Stone Age Art. To see how Jomon ceramic ware fits into the chronology of pottery-making around the world, see: Pottery Timeline (26,000 BCE - 1900).

Jomon vessels were almost certainly influenced by Chinese pottery, which had been produced continuously since Xianrendong Cave Pottery (18,000 BCE) and Yuchanyan Cave Pottery (16,000 BCE). Around 14,500 BCE, Chinese techniques spread across the border into Siberia, as evidenced by the start of Amur River Basin Pottery, dating to 14,300 BCE, and probably also crossed the Sea of Japan to Honshu. In any event we know that Japanese pottery also began at this time, as can be seen from the radiocarbon dates obtained at the oldest Jomon sites, namely: Odaiyamamoto I site (Tohoku) (14,540 BCE); Fukui Cave (Kyushu) (14,000 BCE); and Kamino (Kanto) (13,500 BCE).

Jomon pottery evolved over six periods: Incipient Jomon 14500-8000 BCE; Initial Jomon 8000-5000 BCE; Early Jomon 5000-2500 BCE; Middle Jomon 2500–1500 BCE; Late Jomon 1500–1000 BCE; Final Jomon 1000–100 BCE. To see how Japanese ancient art, fits into the evolution of arts and crafts around the world, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).

Early Jomon ceramic art was made of unrefined clay, low-fired in outdoor bonfires. Vessel forms were limited to simple bowls and jars with pointed or round bases, while decoration was confined to rope-markings on exterior surfaces. However, as the Neolithic developed, pottery-making became more refined. (See also: Neolithic Art in China: 7500-2000 BCE.) Thus vessels became more varied in shape, and included flat bases and more ornate types of decoration. Firing techniques improved and primitive kilns were introduced, while social changes led to greater demand for new ranges of ceramic objects. In due course, new types of vessels were created for use in religious or ritualistic ceremonies. The middle and late Jomon witnessed the proliferation of "dogu" clay figurines - a range of anthropomorphic figures, including strange "goggle-eyed" forms (see image, left).

Art of the Buddhist Temples

Japan is a treasury of some of the world's greatest sculpture, virtually all of it Buddhist, and at first strongly dependent upon prototypes from Chinese Art. Medieval Buddhist art in Japan, however, is often much better preserved than in China or Korea, and, because of the lack of correlative examples, it is often difficult to decide whether a particular piece of religious art is imported, or by a native Japanese, or by an immigrant.

Japanese history before Buddhism came is divided into three principal epochs, the Jomon (approximately 7500-200 BCE), the Yayoi (200 BCE - 200 CE) and the Tumulus (200-600 CE), From these periods mostly small-scale ceramic sculpture survives. The neolithic Jomon figurines are of grey and red earthenware, their bodily features defined with ridges and shallow incisions, great round eyes giving the abstracted image life, The Tumulus period takes its name from the great burial-mounds constructed by its rulers, around which quantities of haniva have been found - ceramic cylinders topped by figures of retainers, women, animals and houses. According to an ancient text, haniva were substitutes for the living people and real objects which had in former times accompanied the great into the grave - though archeology has not corroborated this.

The first wave of Buddhist influence came to Japan from the kingdom of Paekche in Korea; it is reported that the Korean king sent the Emperor of Japan a gilt-bronze image of the Buddha in 538. The Emperor declared himself deeply moved by the profound Buddhist doctrine, but because pestilence came in its wake the gift was thrown into a canal. However, more images, and then artists (including one known master, Tachito, from China - see Chinese Buddhist Sculpture), followed, and by the end of the sixth century Prince Shotoku, Regent of Japan, was welcoming Buddhism openly. The famous monastery of Horyu in the region of Nara was founded then, among others, and images began to be produced in large numbers. At first Buddhist sculpture was confined to a few subjects only - Shaka (the historical Buddha), Yakushi (the healing Buddha), Miroku (or Maitreya, the Buddha of the future), Kwannon or Kannon (the Bodhisattva of compassion) and the guardian kings of north, east, south and west. Two Buddhist trinities the Buddha flanked by two Bodhisattvas) in bronze are recorded by the hand of Tori, grandson of the immigrant Tachito, who was rewarded for them with a higher social status. The style of this early Japanese sculpture is clearly derived from Chinese examples (compare, for instance, those at Longmen and Yungang), often brought to Japan through the medium of Korea - as with "The Kudam (Paekche) Kannon", traditionally ascribed to a Korean artist. The forms are somewhat stiff and elongated, smoothed into gently gradated surfaces scored with a calligraphy of drooping folds and graceful pleat-ends. (Note: To see how Chinese-style arts and crafts spread across East Asia, see: Korean Art.)

For details of early Chinese Buddhist art, see: Arts of the Six Dynasties Period (220-589) and Sui Dynasty Art (589-618).

During the seventh and eighth centuries, wood became a favoured medium of Japanese sculptors. It was carved and polished into smoothly undulating volumes, formed by gentle contours, more or less enlivened by linear patterning. (See also: Jade Carving.) One of the finest examples of this period, however, is in bronze, the colossal free-standing Buddhist trinity at the Yakushi temple in Nara, probably of the early eighth century. The drapery lines coil freely about the magnificent and massive Yakushi; the Bodhisattvas, too, are plump, epitomizing elegance. Such huge images, probably derived directly from Chinese Tang prototypes, now lost, were frequently ordered during the Nara period (710-84) from each province to celebrate the passing of a plague, an emperor's accession and so on; one which survives at the Todai temple in Nara consists of nearly five tons of metal, even though the figures are hollow, cast by the lost-wax method. For a guide to the aesthetic principles behind Oriental art, as exemplified by painting, sculpture and numerous crafts in China, see: Traditional Chinese Art: Characteristics.

Another vein of sculpture, in unfired clay, appears in the freely modelled small figures of mourning disciples in the tableau of The Death of the Buddha (711) in the Horyu monastery. Each disciple is conceived as a distinct individual. A similar realism charges the magnificent dry-lacquer portrait of the Chinese monk Ganjin, founder of the Toshodai monastery and widely revered as a kind of saint in Japan. From China he seems to have brought with him artists, and a new wave of influence. The huge Kannon in the Toshadai temple, 5.5 metres (18ft) high, with its thousand arms (in fact 953) creating around the calm face a fantastic aureole, is also of dry-lacquer. While the Ganjin initiates a new and powerful tradition of portrait sculpture, surely related to the trend in China that culminated in the individualistic figures of Luohans, the Kannon reveals a new ponderous and static style, with drapery of heavy curving folds.

In the Heian period (784-1185) an esoteric sect, the Shingon Buddhists, began to flourish; their prolonged rituals required large numbers of images embodying a ramified pantheon of spiritual powers, each with distinct, often fantastically elaborate attributes. In the eleventh century the sculptors resorted to the technique (yosegi) of jointing sections of carved wood in irder to produce ever more complex figurations. The elaborate rituals practised during the Kamakura Shogunate (1185-1392) were no longer under state patronage, though much sculpture, both large and of high quality, continued to be made for them, with increasingly dynamic invention and with insistent realism. Two great woodcarvers of the thirteenth century, Unkei and Kaikei, were famous; their statues of guardian deities are magnificently menacing.

The Buddhist temples were furnished not only with sculpture but with murals embroidered banners, figured silks, illustrated manuscripts, drawings and block-printed scrolls. Private individuals owned both miniature versions of the images in the temples and small portable shrines, sometimes carved in precious materials.



Zen Ink-Painting

"Zen" is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese "Chan" - the vigorous, fundamentalist Buddhist sect which first flourished in China during the era of Tang Dynasty art (618-906). It stood for the rejection of the elaborate rites and duties of the traditional Buddhism practised in the great monasteries, with their immense apparatus of ceremonial, their treasures of paintings and sculptures; Zen monks sought enlightenment through personal dedication, through austerity and concentrated meditation, and expected to reach it in the midst of the ordinary course of everyday activity.

During the Kamakura Shogunate (1185-1332) Zen Buddhism was adopted by much of the warrior class. The Shogunates were military dictatorships ruling Japan in the name of a puppet emperor, regarded, together with his courtiers, by the Shogunate as effete, frivolous, fettered by ceremonial. The Shogunates fostered in contrast Zen Buddhism and the caste and code of the Samurai ("Warriors") whose ethics and prowess were founded on the precepts of Zen. In their martial arts of sword, bow and spear Zen discipline, the training by which enlightenment might be attained, played a significant part. The strokes of the Samurai had to be spontaneous and immediate, without any extraneous thought interposing between need and act. A similar quality was cultivated in ink-painting.

By the fourteenth century, in the Muromachi period (1333-1573), ink-painting - especially as practised by Zen priest painters - dominated the arts in Japan as it dominated Asian art on the Chinese mainland. It was founded on the ink-and-wash painting of Song China: pure black Chinese ink (suzboku) was the prime medium, and its subjects, too, were drawn from the Chinese repertoire - above all landscapes and the seasons, but also portraits. Its aesthetic demanded directness of vision, spontaneous reflection of sensitivity to Nature - it was closely based on Chinese canons, but was achieved by the Zen techniques of meditation. A series of painters had gradually established this Chinese style in Japan - among them Shubun (active 14th century) and Bunsei (active 15th century); the greatest of them was Sesshu (1420-1506), who was perhaps the greatest distinctively Japanese ink-painter, although he, too, was still strongly influenced, like his predecessors, by the great painters of the era of Song dynasty art (906-1279), including the Zen monk Muqi, but also by the Ming painter Dai Jin. It is reported of Sesshu that while he was studying in China (1467-68) he was regarded as the greatest living ink-painter there. In fact Sesshu's brush-line was harsher and more angular than that of the Song painters, expressing his experience of Nature with greater freedom and a stronger personality, overriding the academic harmony of form and spirit for which the Chinese masters were then striving. Later generations of Japanese artists were to draw continually on his example - not least the painters of the Kano family school.

According to tradition the founder of the Kano school was Kano Masanobu (1434-1530), who began painting in the soft style of his master Shubun, and then developed a more decorative expression in remarkably clear and balanced compositions, notably in a huge series, mostly lost, of murals and screen-paintings for Zen monasteries. His son Kano Motonobu (1476-1559) consolidated the Kano style in strong and lyrical outlines reflecting his admiration of Sesshu, but also of the styles of the great masters of Song China. Like his father he worked for Zen monasteries, and he did much to gain the Kano school its official status with the Shogunate.

The great castles on towering stone plinths built by the nobles during the rule of the Momoyama Shoguns (1568-1615) in response to the import of cannon offered huge acreages of wall to be painted - an opportunity to which the Kano artists responded with energy and imagination. The great genius was Kano Eitoku (1543-90), grandson of Motonobu. He injected into the subdued ink-painting style the rich colour and gold-leaf characteristic of the secular decorative traditions of yamato-e, and in his screens set huge trees or rocks, drawn in great sweeping lines, against a golden, hazy, immaterial background. unfortunately little by his hand has survived the destruction of the palaces and castles in which he worked. There are also decorative screens, atmospheric, asymmetrically designed, by his contemporary Hasegawa Tohaku (1539-1610), who is best known, however, for his monochrome painting, and the subtlety of his apparently casual brushwork. The Kano school continued to flourish into the eighteenth century, gradually losing inspiration.

The strict Zen style of painting was given fresh life in the Edo period (1615-1867), when simplicity and directness was reasserted by Niten (1584-1645), ink-painter and Samurai swordsman, whose brushwork has a corresponding swift, summary quality. Niten's vivid monochrome brushwork was matched by that of his contemporaries Sotatsu (d.1643) and Koetsu (1558-1637), who were not only ink-painters (though not in the Zen style) but also decorative artists, instrumental in the revival of yamato-e. The conception of Zen was by this time no longer so austere; the tea ceremony, originally practised by monks as a contemplative ritual, came to be cultivated as more an aesthetic than as a religious activity, and it is from the Momoyama and early Edo periods that the finest, subtly casual, decorated vessels associated with it survive. The renewal of Zen stimulated also the development of the allusive, epigrammatic 17-syllable verse-form of the haiku and its pictorial counterpart the haiga, perfected by the poet-painter Yosa Buson (1716-83). A closely similar aesthetic informed the painting practised by Zen monks to test their intuitive insight - an extreme, "minimal" version of the principle that has always guided Japanese ink-painting to express the most by means of the least.

For important dates in the evolution of East Asian culture, see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present).



The essentially secular mode of painting the Japanese call yamato-e, "Japanese painting", grew originally out of Chinese Tang dynasty styles which penetrated Japan and were assimilated in early medieval times. It was initially a court style, and clearly distinct from the painting, directly inspired by later Chinese example, which dominated art during the Kamakura and Muromachi Shogunates (1185-1573). Its more formal, more decorative, more colourful aesthetic was entirely opposite to the spontaneity, intuition and personal expression - usually in monochrome - of the Zen ink-painters, although, as we have already seen, the two modes interacted to some extent.

Features of yamato-e are early apparent in the famous portraits of court dignitaries by Fujiwara Takanobu (1141-1204), reflecting the extremely strict conventions governing the intercourse of the medieval Japanese nobility. The faces now seem highly stylized, with an emphasis on simple, graphic design enlivened with decorative detailing. In their day, however, their realism caused some scandal.

The most important examples of yamato-e are painted scrolls. During the Heian period (784-1185) probably Tang Buddhist scrolls imported from China inspired the development of long narrative scrolls, emakimono, mirroring the sophisticated and cultured pleasures of the imperial court. A group of the earliest and finest of these illustrates the celebrated eleventh-century novel of courtly life by the lady Murasaki, "The Tale of Genji", with the scenes alternating with passages of text. The figures, outlined in black ink, are drawn according to a formula; it is their fashionable robes which define their identity and status, rather than the faces reduced to empty ovals, with noses rendered by little hooks, eyes by tiny black ticks. Buildings are mostly roofless and in such projection as to allow a view of interior scenes.

Other narrative scrolls of different type but of a related style were devoted to the lives of Japan's Buddhist saints or to Japan's often ferocious history, retailed sometimes satirically, sometimes highly dramatically. The twelfth-century Ban Dainagon scrolls are perhaps the most dramatic. They are remarkable in that successive episodes are integrated into a continuous representation, carried forward in countless vividly drawn, animated figures, barely millimetres high, as the long scroll was unrolled from right to left. All classes of people, from nobles to peasants, are depicted, in a range of hectic gesticulations expressing violent emotions.

The skill in portraying lively genre with dashing line and decorative colour was to be practised and developed vigorously from these early prototypes in a long series of narrative scrolls reaching virtually to modern times. The tradition was dominated by the Tosa family school, established in the conservative and ceremonious environment of the sacred imperial court of Kyoto. The early Tosa artists cultivated refined techniques of surface decoration, with rich colouring and much gold-leaf; during the early Shogunates the school declined, but its decorative splendour re-entered the mainstream of Japanese painting during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, having been reanimated by Tosa Mitsunobu (1434-1525). From the example of the Tosa school the artists Koetsu and Sotatsu (famous also for their experiments in ink-painting, see above) developed in the early seventeenth century in Kyoto a colourful style, which was taken up by Ogata Korin (1658-1716), an ardent admirer of Sotatsu. Korin's superbly elegant screens and scrolls combined elements from the traditional imagery of Chinese painting with Japanese folklore, presented in dramatic designs and with an extraordinary feeling for colour and texture. He also painted, in contrast to the formal splendour of his purely decorative works, lively naturalistic studies.

The final and outstanding period of yamato-e dates from the removal of the Shogunate from Kyoto to Edo, modern Tokyo, in 1615. Art for the citizens of Edo, an urban class of a new prosperous type, was a matter neither of social ceremonial nor of religious expression, but was purely for pleasure. For their delectation the revived yamato-e style was applied to genre paintings such as that of the Matsuura screens, peopled with ladies in gorgeous contemporary dress. Such would be the subject matter of ukiyo-e; and the prime medium of the ukiyo-e artists, the wood-block print, was developed in seventeenth-century Edo notably by Moronobu (c.1618-94), who was one of the first to use the process for book illustration. Moronobu saw himself as a follower in the yamato-e tradition, and signed himself accordingly. Erotic art was practised by all Edo artists; Sigimura Jihei (active late 17th century) made magnificent prints of erotic dalliance, which were very popular.

Note: Another Japanese craft invented during the Edo period is Origami, the art of paper-folding.

The range of expression of yamato-e extended from its early sophisticated formality to the sentimental, highly opulent and sometimes crude Edo styles; not the least of its many offshoots was the art of lacquer-painting. Several famous painters had experimented with lacquerwork, including Koetsu and Korin in the seventeenth century; Chinese lacquerware had been made since ancient times and became very popular during the era of Ming dynasty art (1368-1644). During the Edo period the Japanese developed a quite extraordinary skill in painting little lacquer cups and dishes, and in particular the compartmented medicine-boxes known as inro. These were attached to the wearer's sash by a cord secured with a netsuke, a small carving in wood, ivory or a semi-precious stone. Whether in relief or in the round, within a remarkably small, miniature compass Japanese craftsmen were able to conjure astonishing, fantastic effects.



The subject matter of ukiyo-e, "pictures of the floating world", first appeared in screens and hanging scrolls, but in the later seventeenth century was taken up by woodblock printers. Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, published both as illustrations to novels and as independent pictures, were made in the shops of specialist printmaking craftsmen to artists' designs, and their typically calligraphic style was already formed in the hand-coloured prints made by Kaigetsudo Ando (active 1700-14) and his associates. In Kaigetsudo Ando's single-figure pictures of famous beauties of the Yoshiwara, the brothel quarter of Edo (now Tokyo), the emphasis was placed on the gorgeous designs of the kimonos, depicted with wiry curves and strong, broad angles in a boldly two-dimensional composition. (See also: Woodcuts.)

Lacquer prints appeared about 1720, in which certain parts of the design, such as the sash of a kimono, were painted with glossy ink, while other parts were covered with glue and dusted with metallic powder - a technique exploited later in the century by Sharaku. The invention of the multi-block colour print by Suzuki Harunobu (1724-70) came in 1765. Harunobu's imagery revolved around a fragile type of woman, almost childish, tripping along the street, or pictured at home lounging or in conversation, or making love: it was Harunobu who established the prevalent mood of ukiyo-e during the second half of the eighteenth century, as a vision of everyday reality invested with an elegant glamour.

Amongst a multitude of considerable artists at work during the first maturity of the Edo print were three giants, Koryusai, Kiyonaga and Utamaro. At first the style of Koryusai (active 1765-84) was very close to his master Harunobu's, but after Harunobu's death he began in the 1770s to design to a new, larger format (which soon became standard for other artists) and commenced a long series of courtesan pictures - beauties of the Yoshiwara, standing or promenading either alone or with attendants - whose images he presented in splendid compositions, using sheaves of lines to define cascades of drapery and sweeping folds. He was also pre-eminent in bird and plant compositions, and, like nearly all the other Edo artists, he produced prints showing love in action. Kiyonaga (1752-1815) specialized in extended compositions of figures in an architectural or landscape settings, the landscapes distinguished by a remarkably subtle aerial perspective. His designs were frequently continuous over a number of sheets - two or three or more - bringing extended narratives within the reach of the print.

Utamaro (1735-1806) is often looked on as the greatest of the ukiyo-e printmakers. He evolved a new type of female beauty, large-bodied, soft but strong, evoked in broadly looping lines - and also used this type in his illustrations of Japanese legend and folklore. He was fertile in technical devices, introducing effects conveying the transparency of fabrics, and cutting off the figures by the borders of the composition - a trick which was to be admired and imitated by Impressionists.

These artists were rivalled at the end of the eighteenth century by a younger generation, including the mysterious Sharaku (active 1794-95). He is thought to have been by profession an actor in the traditional Noh theatre; he turned to prints for ten months in 1794-95, producing at least 136 remarkable portraits of Kabuki actors. His forceful and searching draughtsmanship is relished now, but his harsh characterizations do not seem to have appealed to the public at the time.

Hokusai (1760-1849) had in contrast an immensely long career: in his later years he signed himself The old man mad about drawing, and he was indeed an experimental artist, full of humour and appreciation for the oddities of both life and art. Until about 1823 he produced comparatively conventional actor and courtesan prints, and in 1798 one tiny series of Views of Edo, his first landscapes. Then between 1823 and 1829 he found fame with his Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (later made up to 46 prints): no previous ukiyo-e artist had taken such a direct interest in the drama of landscape, carried in such a witty and bold design. He was extremely prolific, not only in prints but in bird and flower pictures, illustrated greeting cards and in drawings (his Manga) collected from 1814 in 13 volumes. See his Mount Fuji in Clear Weather (c.1829) in the British Museum, London.

Hokusai was a major artist, but also a transitional figure, linking the eighteenth century to the nineteenth. Under some pressure from censors, the subject matter of the prints changed. It was Hiroshige (1797-1858) who became the greatest artist of landscape. His Views, though certainly influenced by Hokusai's style, abandoned his bravura and were full of poetic atmosphere, with a sympathetic observation of the common people about their daily business. Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) developed quite another mode, Japan's rich repertoire of legends, the warfare of the Samurai. In sets of large prints, including some in triptych format, he illustrated heroes battling against hideous odds and monsters. But the work of Kuniyoshi and of Hiroshige is variable; Western influence and declining standards of technical accomplishments were eroding the quality of Japanese prints at just about the same time that Western painters began avidly to collect them, and to incorporate their bold designs and superbly decorative colour into their own work.

More About Art in Asia

For more about the arts and crafts practiced in Asia, see the following:

Indian Sculpture (3300 BCE - 1850)
Pillars of Ashoka, Ajanta Caves, Chola bronzes, and more.
Classical Indian Painting (Up to 1150 CE)
Pali illuminated manuscripts, late classical Buddhist art, and more.
Post-Classical Indian Painting (14th-16th Century)
Vijayanagar painting, Gujarat illuminations, and more.
Mughal Painting (16th-19th Century)
Babur, Akbar, Jahangir schools, and more.
Rajput Painting (16th-19th Century)
Rajastan painters plus the Upper Punjab schools, and more.

Source: We gratefully acknowledge the use of material in the above article from David Piper's outstanding book "The Illustrated History of Art".

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