Japanese art, works of art created in the islands that make up the nation of Japan.
The earliest art of Japan, probably dating from the 3d and 2d millennia BC, consisted of monochrome pottery with cord-impressed designs (Jomon), also the name for the early period of Japanese art. Later Jomon (1000–300 BC) finds include bone earrings, blades of ivory and horn, lacquer objects, and small clay figurines. The subsequent period of the Yayoi (300 BC–AD 300) produced wheel-thrown pots and large ritual bronze bells known as dotaku. The Kofun period produced simply modeled clay figures of animals, people, houses, and boats known as haniwa, which were placed around tomb mounds.
Buddhist and Chinese Influences
The stylistic tradition of Japanese art was firmly established at the time of the introduction of Buddhism in the 6th cent. The teaching of the arts through the medium of Buddhist monasteries and temples progressed under Korean monks and artisans, who created Buddhist sculpture and pictures representing divinities, saints, and legendary figures. The close relationship between Chinese and central Asian culture is reflected in the objects preserved in the Shosoin depository at Nara. Throughout its history Japanese art has relied heavily on forms and techniques borrowed from China. Rare examples of wall paintings in the golden hall at Horyu-ji, near Nara (early 8th cent.) were based on Chinese Horyoji sculpture based on Korean models, reflecting the T'ang style of painting.
The Nara Period
In the sculpture of the Nara period (710–784) clay figures and statues made in the dry-lacquer process (lacquer applied to a solid core of wood or lacquered cloths placed over some kind of armature) attained great popularity. Representations of Buddhist deities and saints in wood and bronze evolved in style from an elegant thinness in the works of Tori (active c.600–630) to the more massive figures of the 8th and 9th cent., which reflect the style of the later T'ang dynasty in China.
During the Nara period the traditional technical methods of Japanese painting were established. The work was executed upon thin or gauzelike silk or soft paper with Chinese ink and watercolors. It was then mounted on silk brocade or its paper imitation and rolled upon a rod when not in view. The hanging scroll is called kakemono. The long, narrow horizontal scroll (emakimono), unrolled in the hands, usually illustrates a narrative with progressive scenes.
The Fujiwara Period
The Fujiwara period (898–1185) is marked by the crystallization of the Yamato-e tradition of painting (based on national rather than on Chinese taste). Kanaoka (late 9th cent.) was the first major native painter. The famous illustrated scroll of the Tale of the Genji—written in the early llth cent. by Lady Murasaki—with its rich color and subtracted treatment of the features of men and women reflects the extreme sensitivity and refinement of the court during that period. The same delicacy of taste can be seen in the sculpture of Jocho (11th cent.).
The Kamakura Period
In the Kamakura period (late 12th–14th cent.) the country was governed by the military, which preferred boldness to refinement, action to contemplative atmosphere, and realism to formality. The new class created a demand for paintings and sculptures portraying officials, warriors, priests, and poets. The school of the sculptor Jocho was continued by Kokei, Kaikei, and Unkei, the principal Kamakura sculptor. These artists imbued their works with a vigor and attention to realistic detail that was never equaled.
Takanobu and his son Nobuzane were the most esteemed portrait painters of the age. Most of the fine emakimono that survive today are from the Kamakura period. These scrolls are often executed in continuous narrative form, often with accompanying text, with the same figures appearing many times against a unified background. This method of representation was used with utmost skill and imagination in superb scrolls such as the Tales of the Heiji Insurrection (13th cent., Mus. of Fine Arts, Boston). In this art form the affairs of people construe the main focus of the format, whether the subject is religious (Shigisan-engi) or secular (Tales of Ise).
The Muromachi Period
The Muromachi period (1392–1573) ushered in a renaissance of Chinese-style ink painting. The Zen sect of Buddhism, which enjoyed a growing popularity in the early Kamakura period, received the continued support of the new rulers. Ink painting was accepted as a means of teaching Zen doctrine. Such priest-painters as Josetsu, Shubun, and Sesshu are the most revered of Japanese landscapists. Their works are characterized by economy of execution, forceful brushstrokes, and asymmetrical composition, with emphasis on unfilled space. During this period sculpture began to lose its Buddhist inspiration.
The Momoyama Period
Architectural sculpture was on a par with the unprecedented grandeur and ostentation achieved in painted screens of the Momoyama period (1568–1615). At this time constant warfare created a need for many great fortresses. Their interiors were lavishly decorated with screens painted in strong, thick colors against a gold background. The Kano family of artists succeeded in fusing the technique of Chinese ink painting with the decorative quality of Japanese art.
The Edo Period to the Twentieth Century
The school of painting started in the Edo period (1615–1867) by Koetsu Hon'ami and Sotatsu Tawaraya and continued by Ogata Korin and Ogata Kenzan represented a return to the native tradition of Japanese painting. The Deer Scroll (early 17th cent.; Seattle Art Mus.) by Koetsu and Sotatsu exemplifies the happy union of literature, calligraphy, and painting. A great demand for miniature sculptures in the form of ornamental buttons (netsuke) arose at this time, and great masterpieces of carving were produced. Dutch engraving found its way to Japan in this period and influenced such painters as Okyo Maruyama, the leader of the naturalist school, who created pictures with Western perspective.
There arose a new type of art in the form of wood-block prints known as ukiyo-e (pictures of the fleeting floating world), which appealed first to the taste of the lowest, but wealthiest, groups of feudal society. The color-print designers eventually won worldwide recognition and influenced Degas, Whistler, and numerous other Western artists. Among the major ukiyo-e painters are Harunobu, Kiyonaga, Utamaro, Hokusai, and Hiroshige.
Recent Japanese Art
In the mid-19th cent. a few print designers attained distinction, but no masters appeared to equal their predecessors. In the 20th cent. the majority of painters and sculptors have been overwhelmingly influenced by Western styles. Contemporary Japanese painters such as Taikan Yokoyama and Kiyoteru Kuroda have received international acclaim. In lacquerware, ceramics, and textiles traditional forms have been retained, and modern Japanese pottery is widely esteemed.
See R. T. Paine and A. Soper, The Art and Architecture of Japan (rev. ed. 1975); S. Noma, Arts of Japan (2 vol., 1978); J. Stanley-Baker, Japanese Art (1986); P. Fister, Japanese Women Artists, Sixteen Hundred to Nineteen Hundred (1988); R. Lane, Images from the Floating World (1988).