Window to Japan's Past

The World and I, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Window to Japan's Past

The Arts of Fukuoka

Although now a booming commercial center, ancient Fukuoka provides unique opportunities to experience some enchanting Japanese artistic traditions.

As Japan's material output--cars, cameras, and electronic products--envelopes the globe, its dance troupes, theatrical productions, musicians, fashion designers, movies, photography, and art exhibits are making the nation's traditional and contemporary culture available to people everywhere. Meanwhile, the millions of Japanese businesspeople, students, and tourists who are flocking to distant lands themselves talk openly of the "internationalization" of their society.

Nowhere in Japan is this desire to share its artistic traditions more obvious than in Fukuoka, which is gaining a worldwide reputation as a modern international city. The fourth-largest city in the country, with two million residents, Fukuoka is located on the west coast of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands.

Fukuoka's two-thousand-year history and traditions mark it as a crossroads of trade and intellectual exchange throughout the Orient. The closest Japanese city to Korea, which lies just across from it on the Sea of Japan, it has been a gateway to Chinese and Korean influences for a millennium. The cultures and religions of early Chinese and European civilizations were first introduced into Kyushu and then spread to the rest of Japan. Having long played an important role in communications between Asian countries and Japan, Fukuokans are progessive yet value tradition. They are also dealing with the birth pangs of urbanism and modernism.

Above all, Fukuokans are receptive to new ideas, especially those reflecting new cultural attitudes. International singers like Celine Dion, Elton John, and Billy Joel play to sold-out audiences here. Residents admire local painters Ahigeru Aoki and Hanjiro Sakamoto and love sumo wrestling--the annual Grand Sumo Tournament, or Basho, is held here--but they are also fond of eclectic American rock-and-roll artist Lenny Kravitz, a Japanese version of the popular musical Cats, and European films. Neon-lit Nakasu--located along the Naka River, which divides the old merchant town Hakata on the east side and the castle town of Fukuoka on the west side--is the largest entertainment district in western Japan.

Hakata may have undergone a drastic change over the years, but passions here remain the same. The open and unconventional Hakata temperament has been passed down through some three hundred annual festivals and numerous traditions. While the life and culture of modern-day Fukuoka stem mainly from the Meiji (1868--1912) and Taisho (1912--26) eras, artistic traditions and forms expressed in the city's current rites, celebrations, daily life, and commerce have their origins in earlier times. In their traditional arts and crafts, Hakata artists' sense of beauty is transformed into spirited works that reflect the region's optimistic outlook and vigorous attitude toward life.

Like many Japanese artists since early times, those trained in the Hakata tradition today have a great sense of pattern and a feel for the natural beauty of materials. They are just as interested in the beauty of a wood's grain or a clay vessel's texture as in the glitter of precious metals. In Japanese art there is a fine balance between the abstract and the realistic, the rich and the simple. The essential character of the subject may be shown in paintings, figurines, dolls, and woven images in textiles, but the realism is tempered by a feeling for abstract design and simple patterns. Above all, Japanese like deep colors and broad, flat patterns in their art.

Arts old and new peacefully coexist in Fukuoka. At the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum, visitors can see a demonstration of Hakatori-ori textile weaving. Known for its delicate pattern and sheen, and admired for its beauty and warmth, this silk textile is well known throughout Japan. …

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