Japanese Art I

Throughout the history of Japan, art has had a fundamental importance and despite the multitude of styles and tendencies, despite the influence that China and the Asian continent exerted on it, it has achieved an unmistakable character and a very remarkable aesthetic level.

Traditionally, the history of Japanese art is divided into a series of periods whose exact dating is not always shared by academics and specialists.

The first found artistic examples made by nomadic peoples, gave name to the first period called “Jōmon” (ca. 10,500 – ca. 1000 to 300 BCE). These artifacts included clay pots (jōmon*) decorated with imprinted strings and cords. From the end of this period also belong some figurines of people and animals (dogū*) also made in clay and probably with some symbolic significance.

Jōmon pottery. The term “Jōmon” means “rope-patterned” in Japanese and describes the patterns that are pressed into the clay. Top Left: A spotted vessel showcasing the cord-patterned decoration from the Final Jōmon period (ca. 1000-300 B.C.). Top Right: Jōmon pottery (British Museum). Bottom Left: A “Flame-rimmed” deep bowl (kaen doki) from the Middle Jōmon period (ca. 3500–2500 B.C.) (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Bottom Right: A vase from the Middle Jōmon period (ca. 3000-2000 BC) (Tokyo National Museum).
Dogū figurines. The word Dogū literally means “earthen figure” and are small humanoid and animal figurines made during the later part of the Jōmon period (between 1000-400 B.C.). Left: Dogū figurine excavated in Ebisuda of Ōsaki, Miyagi prefecture (Tokyo National Museum). Top Right: Shakōki-dogū, these figures are known as “goggle-eyed type” figurines (Tokyo National Museum). Bottom Right: Dogū figurine (Musée Guimet, Paris).

The change from nomadism to a new agrarian culture, as well as the importation of metals brought from the continent, gave rise to a new period called “Yayoi” (around 1000 BCE to 300 C.E.) characterized by its bell-shaped bronze objects (dōtaku*). The proto-historic period of Kofun (300-710) showed certain national consciousness centered around a monarch to whom extraordinary funeral rites were dedicated and to whom an entire mound (kofun*) was designated as his tomb with a series of interior chambers in which it was found the haniwa*, excellent clay figurines that undoubtedly represent the most interesting contribution of the art of prehistoric Japan.

Dōtakus from the Yayoi period. Dōtaku (Bronze bell) are Japanese bells made in relatively thin bronze and decorated. Left: Dōtaku from ca. 1st–2nd centuries (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Center: A Dōtaku from the 3rd century (Musée Guimet, Paris). Right: Dōtaku  from the 1st-3rd centuries.
The Mozu Tombs are a group of megalithic tombs located in Sakai (Osaka Prefecture, Japan). Originally consisting of more than 100 tombs, only less than 50% of the key-hole, round and rectangular tombs remain. The kofun (“ancient burial mounds” in Japanese) are found in many shapes and dimensions, some are in circular or square shape, but the larger ones are keyhole-shaped (zempō kōenfun). The keyhole-shaped kofu represent the highest class of burial and were built in great detail, they are massive structures and are surrounded by several moats and many secondary kofun. These funerary mounds contained (along with the deceased) artifacts made of iron, weapons including arrowheads, swords, hoe and spade tips, clay figurines (haniwa) and many other similar items. Top Left and Right: The Daisenryo Kofun is the largest kofun in Japan (with 2.8 km of circumference), it was probably constructed for the late Emperor Nintoku over a period of 20 years during the mid 5th century (Kofun Period). Bottom Left: The Haze Nisanzai Kofun drawn in three-dimensional computer graphics.
Haniwa figurines. The Haniwa are terracotta clay figurines that were made for ritual use and buried with the dead as funerary objects during the Kofun period (3rd-6th centuries C.E.). Their name means “circle of clay” referring to how they were arranged in a circle above the tomb.  Haniwa clay offerings represented horses, chickens, birds, fans, fish, houses, weapons, shields, sunshades, pillows, and humans. Because the Haniwa figures display the contemporary clothing, hairstyle, farming tools, and architecture, these sculptures are important as a historical archive of the Kofun Period. Top from left to right: Two Haniwa warriors in keikō* type armor, unearthed in Ōta (Gunma Prefecture) and dated ca. 6th century C.E. (Tokyo National Museum). A Haniwa horse statuette, complete with saddle and stirrups, 6th century (Musée Guimet, Paris). A Haniwa figure of a shamaness, from ca. 5th–6th century, the figurine represents a Shinto priestess who would have presided over the funeral ceremony of a Yamato chieftain, some of her face and body pigment survives (Brooklin Museum, Brooklin, New York). Bottom: Haniwa house models, ca. 6th century C.E.
Reconstruction of the Asuka-dera Temple complex.

The “Asuka” period (538-710) marked the predominance of Buddhism (imported from the continent) over the Shinto* indigenous religion. Back then religious issues and political issues where intertwined, a situation that gave rise to a series of internal struggles from which the Soga clan finally emerged victorious. To commemorate their victory they erected the wonderful Hokkō-ji, today Asuka-dera, Japan’s first monastic complex and with this construction a brilliant artistic era of Buddhist exaltation opened. The most prominent member of this clan was Prince Shōtoku, the true founder of Japanese Buddhism and builder of hundreds of Korean-style temples in a country without a previous construction tradition. The most important was the monastic complex of Hōryū-ji (607) that remains almost intact and that keeps the superb images of Tori Busshi, the first known sculptor. These are the Sākyamuni Buddha (ca. 606-607 in the temple of Asuka-dera) and the Shaka Triad. In them Buddha, with a haughty and hieratic attitude dressed in a robe of wild folds that wave with solemnity, reflects the austere spirit of the Asuka period. This spirit would later relax as shown by the famous Kudara Kannon, an image that is also kept in the Hōryū-ji and whose author is anonymous.

The Asuka-dera Buddhist temple (Asuka, Nara Prefecture, Japan). The temple was built in 596 and is the oldest temple in Japan. Originally, the temple complex included a pagoda in the center surrounded by three main halls (kondō), one in the north, east and west respectively (see the reconstruction illustration above). This central group of buildings was surrounded by a walkway that opened to the south through the opened Middle Gate. In front of the Middle Gate was the south gate and outside the main group were other buildings. Asuka-dera is considered the first full-scale Buddhist temple in Japan. Currently only the cornerstones of the pagoda and the halls remain.
The statue in bronze of the Asuka Buddha (or Asuka daibutsu) or Sākyamuni Buddha is worshiped in the Asuka-dera temple (see above), ca. 606-607 C.E. The image is thought to be a foundation of Empress Suiko from 606 C.E. and is the first known sculpture by the first Buddhist sculptor of Japan, Kuratsukuri no Tori (or Tori Busshi). The Asuka Daibutsu is known to be the oldest statue of Buddha in Japan.
The Hōryū-ji (literally “Temple of the Flourishing Law”) is a Buddhist temple in Ikaruga (Nara Prefecture, Japan). The temple’s pagoda is the oldest wooden building existing in the world (ca. 594). The temple was originally commissioned by Prince Shōtoku. The first temple of the complex is believed to have been completed by 607. Hōryū-ji was dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing and in honor of the prince’s father. The western part of the temple contains the Kondō (or sanctuary Hall, pictured above) and the temple’s five-story pagoda. The kondō is another one of the oldest wood buildings extant in the world and measures 18.5 mt by 15.2 mt. The Kondō holds the famous Shaka Triad (see below).
The Shaka triad or Buddha Shaka and Attendant Bodhisattvas by Tori Busshi, located in the Kondō of the Hōryū-ji temple (see above). The sculpture dates from 623 C.E. and is made out of gilt bronze. Art historians consider the Shaka Triad of Hōryū-ji as Tori’s masterpiece. The sculpture features a Buddha figure seated on a rectangular dais*. Buddha’s robes flow down the front of the platform and betray the weightiness of the figure. His head is surrounded by a flaming halo, in which are seated the Seven Buddhas of the Past.
The Kudara Kannon is one of the best representative Buddhist sculptures of the Asuka period. Probably made in the early to middle 7th century, it is 209 cm in height and was carved from camphor, which was a very typical medium for Japanese Buddhist sculptures in the 7th century. While frontality is a prominent characteristic of the Shaka Triad (see above), this statue intends to be seen from the side. The figure represents a crowned Bodhisattva holding a vase with water and a mandorla* behind. The statue is located in the Hōryū-ji temple, in Nara.

In 645 with the fall of the Soga clan begun the reform of the Taika clan which assumed power and so the “Nara” period followed (710-794) so called because of the name of the state capital. During this period, the political centralism gradually increased in the new capital that only seemed to reflect the glory of the Taika: temples from other regions were moved piece by piece to the city. That was the case of the Yakushi-ji (moved around 717), which houses relevant statues of the Nara period that allow an idea of ​​the artistic maturity achieved then by Japanese art. Among these sculptures we highlight the image of Shō-Kannon (around 710) that proves the stylistic distance that separates it from Tori’s sculptures, carved in the previous period. Emperor Shōmu ruled by identifying politics and religion. To the glory of Buddhism, he built the temple of Tōdai-ji, actually the seat of government, with the gigantic Daibutsu* (Great Buddha) in bronze, whose consecration gave rise to an unprecedented national holiday. At the death of Shōmu his treasures were offered to the Daibutsu, originating the collection of Shōsō-in. Nara’s art stylistically reflected that of China during the Tang period, especially in painting that adopted not only its technique but also its themes. Gradually the despotism of the centralist government and the economic collapse generated by the continuous construction of great temples and superb bronzes, led to a marked asceticism, which culminated in 759 with the construction of the Tōshōdai-ji monastery for the Chinese monk Ganjin. Ganjin or Jianzhen arrived in Japan after an apocalyptic journey that lasted 12 years involving more than one shipwreck and with the total loss of his sight. That constituted a heroic story, one of the fundamental episodes in the history of this period. Ganjin from his ascetic monastery of Tōshōdai-ji put an end to the incipient dissipation of the court and contributed to impose artistic forms that excluded the use of excessive ornamentation.

The Yakushi-ji temple (Nara, Japan) is currently the headquarters of the Hossō school of Japanese Buddhism. Yakushi-ji was commissioned by Emperor Tenmu in 680 to pray for recovery from illness for his consort. Yakushi-ji’s layout is symmetrical, with two main halls and two three-story pagodas. The Golden Hall (or Kondō, pictured above) rests in the middle of the temple complex. Forward to the east and west of the golden hall are two pagodas symmetrically placed in order to bring attention towards the golden hall.
The main statue of Yakushi Nyorai in the Kondō of Yakushi-ji temple (see above). The image of Yakushi Nyorai Buddha (191.5 cm height) is placed on a huge (9 mt diameter, 90 cm high) circular platform which almost entirely fills the Hon-dō. Together with six small Buddha images on its halo, the main statue forms a group of Seven Buddhas of Healing. Yakushi Nyorai is protected by Twelve Heavenly Generals arranged around him facing outward. These Twelve Divine Generals are roughly life-size and were carved ca. 729–749 in clay, they were originally colored: their skin was salmon color, beards were drawn with ink, clothing and armor were painted in bright colors and gold leaf was applied in some areas. Not much of their original decoration remains.
A copy in bronze of the Bodhisattva or Sho Kannon (ca. 7th-8th centuries, National Museum of Tokyo) kept at the Yakushi-ji temple. The original bronze gilt statue from the early 8th century is mostly worn out and has a total height of 189 cm.
The Tōdai-ji (meaning “Eastern Great Temple”) Buddhist temple complex (Nara, Japan) was originally founded in the year 738 C.E. This temple serves as the Japanese headquarters of the Kegon school of Buddhism. The Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden, pictured above) houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana, known in Japanese as Daibutsu (see below).
The largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana, known in Japanese as Daibutsu, is housed in the Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden, see above) in the Tōdai-ji temple. The statue was commissioned by the Emperor in 743. The statue weighs 500 tonnes, his height is 14.98 mt and his shoulders are 28 mt across, there are 966 curls atop its head and his golden halo is 27 mt in diameter with 16 images each 2.4 mt tall.

By the mid-Nara period, paintings in the style of the Tang dynasty of China became very popular. These paintings included the wall murals in the Takamatsuzuka Tomb (Asuka village, Nara Prefecture, Japan) dating from around 700 C.E. The burial chamber of this tomb includes fresco wall paintings of courtiers. The paintings are in full color with red, blue, gold, and silver foil. The picture above shows a section of this mural paintings depicting women (ca. 684-710 C.E.).
The Tōshōdai-ji is a Buddhist temple in the city of Nara (Japan). Its Classic Golden Hall (pictured above), also known as the kondō* is considered the archetype of the “classical style”. The temple was founded in 759 by the Tang dynasty Chinese monk Ganjin (also known as Jianzhen) during the Nara period.

The “Heian” period (794-1185) is the most important in the history of Japan because during it it was achieved a national artistic expression, although altogether its art was not as brilliant as that of the Nara period. The Heian period was characterized by the infiltration of Buddhist monks who followed the ascetic teachings of Ganjin in the governmental structure, and by the abandonment of the vicious and corrupt city of Nara by Kyoto, the new capital, then called Heian. In order to spread their moralist teachings, the Buddhist monks knew how to take advantage of the weakness Empress Shōtoku had for the beautiful monk Dōkyō, to whom she not only named minister of the government, but also tried to abdicate her throne in his favor. This provoked a reform that precisely coincided with the infiltration, coming from China, of esoteric or tantric Buddhism. As architectural samples we must highlight the Tōji Monastery (796) built next to the Rashōmon Gate in Kyoto, and the Kyoto Gosho or Imperial Palace rebuilt with great care in modern times. But many monasteries, protected and fostered by the new theocratic state, were built on the mountains, in remote places of the forest, in order to escape worldly temptations and find calm conducive to reflection.

The Tō-ji Buddhist temple complex (Minami-ku ward of Kyoto, Japan) was founded in 796 and though from the early Heian period, includes buildings in its complex covering the Kamakura, Muromachi, Momoyama and Edo periods. In the picture, a view of the Tō-ji temple complex.
The Rajōmon (modern Japanese: Rajō refers to city walls and Mon means “gate”, so literally “the main city gate”) also known as Rashōmon was the gate built at the southern end of the monumental Suzaku Avenue in the ancient Japanese cities of Heijō-kyō (Nara) and Heian-kyō (Kyoto). The Rashōmon in Kyoto was the grander of the two city gates built during the Heian period (794–1185), exactly in 789. It was 32 m wide by 7.9 m high, with a 23 m stone wall and topped by a ridge-pole. By the 12th century it had fallen into disrepair and had become an unsafe place. Today, not even a foundation stone of the gate remains. A stone pillar marks the place where it once stood, just northeast of the intersection of Kujō street and Senbon Street or Senbon Avenue, a short walk west from the Heian-period temple Tō-ji (see above). Pictured above a miniature model of the possible appearance of the Rajōmon gate at Kyoto.
The Kyoto Imperial Palace (Kyōto-gosho) was the former palace of the Emperor of Japan. The Palace is situated in the Kyōto-gyoen, a large rectangular enclosure of 1300 mt x 700 mt. The palace grounds also contain the Sentō Imperial Palace gardens and the Kyoto State Guest House. The palace dates from the early Edo period and has been officially located in this area since the final abandonment of the Heian Palace in late 12th century. The grounds include a number of buildings and monumental gates, along with the imperial residence. One of these buildings, the study hall or Ogakumonjo (pictured above) was used for reading rites, a monthly poetry recital and also a place the Emperor received nobles.
The Kenshunmon gate in the outer courtyard of the Kyoto Imperial Palace (see above).

In painting the Tang influence disappeared, giving rise to typically Japanese techniques and themes, the Yamato-e*, which expresses the emotions of love and loneliness (-e means painting and Yamato was the ancient name of Japan). In the first years of the 11th century a series of cultivated and intelligent ladies directed Japanese cultural life and dedicated themselves to illustrious literary activities, as examples are Murasaki, author of “The Tale of Genji” and Sei Shōnagon, author of the “Pillow Book”. As the Heian period progressed, the power of the ruling Fujiwara clan lost vigor and other powerful families from the provinces appeared instead. In this gradual decentralization shrine of Itsukushima stood out, located in the immediate vicinity of Hiroshima, with its temple and its torii* (1170) stuck in the middle of the sea.

Yamato-e paintings. Yamato-e is considered the classical Japanese painting style. Yamato-e very often depicts narrative stories, the beauty of nature or the four seasons. The pictures are often on scrolls that can be hung on a wall, hand-scrolls that are read from right to left, or on a folding screen or panel. Top left: “Eastern House Chapter”, a scene from the Genji Monogatari Emaki illustrated hand-scroll of The Tale of Genji, ca. 1130 C.E. (Tokugawa Museum, Nagoya, Japan). These scrolls are the earliest text of the work and the earliest surviving work in the Yamato-e. Top right: Scene from The Tale of Genji painted by Tosa Mitsuoki, from the 17th century Tosa school revival. Bottom: Rinpa school version of Yamato-e landscape style on a pair of screens by Tawaraya Sōtatsu, from the 17th century.
The Itsukushima Shrine is a Shinto shrine on the island of Itsukushima (city of Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan). The shrine complex consists of two main buildings: the Honsha shrine and the Sessha Marodo-jinja, as well as 17 other different buildings and structures. It was thought to have been erected in 593. However, the present shrine has been attributed to Taira no Kiyomori, a prominent warlord (daimyo) who contributed heavily to the building of the shrine during his time as governor of Aki Province in 1168. The shrine was designed and built with pier-like structures over the Matsushima bay in order to create the illusion of floating on the water. This idea of intertwining architecture and nature is reflective of a popular trend during the 16th century and of the Heian period in which structures tended to “follow after their environment”. The torii of Itsukushima Shrine is the site’s most recognizable and celebrated landmark and appears to float in the water. This o-torii (“great gate”) is 15.24 mt tall and painted in a vermilion color, it was built of decay-resistant camphor wood. Although this gate has been in place since 1168, the current gate dates back to 1875.


Daibutsu: Also known as “giant Buddha”, refers to large statues of Buddha. The oldest is that at Asuka-dera (from 609) and the best-known is that at Tōdai-ji in Nara (from 752).



Dais: A raised platform at the front of a room or hall, usually for one or more speakers or honored guests. Historically, the dais was a part of the floor at the end of a medieval hall, raised a step above the rest of the room. On this, the master of the household or assembly (e.g. the lord of the manor) dined with his senior associates and friends at the high table, while the other guests occupied the lower area of the room.

Dogū: (From the Japanese; literally “earthen figure”). Small humanoid and animal figurines made during the later part of the Jōmon period (14000–400 B.C.) of prehistoric Japan.



Dōtaku: Japanese bells smelted from relatively thin bronze and richly decorated. Dōtaku were used for about 400 years, between the second century B.C. and the second century C.E. and were nearly only used as decorations for rituals.



Haniwa: (Literally “circle of clay”). Terracotta clay figures that were made for ritual use and buried with the dead as funerary objects during the Kofun period (3rd to 6th centuries A.D.) of the history of Japan. Haniwa were created according to the wazumi technique, in which mounds of coiled clay were built up to shape the figure, layer by layer. Their name means “circle of clay” referring to how they were arranged in a circle above the tomb. Haniwa grave offerings were made in many forms, such as horses, chickens, birds, fans, fish, houses, weapons, shields, sunshades, pillows, and humans.

Jōmon: The Jōmon pottery is a type of ancient earthenware pottery which was made during the Jōmon period in Japan. The term “Jōmon” means “rope-patterned” in Japanese, describing the patterns that are pressed into the clay.

Keikō: (Literally “hanging shell”). A Japanese armor type from the Kofun period. It was also used in Japan as armor for mounted forces. The difference between the Tankō and Keikō armor types lies in the upper chest area of the armor, which in the Keikō variant included a protective sheath of iron bands. The lower portion of both types consisted of overlapping iron lammellae. The use of leather underpinnings was also used by both forms.

Kofun: (From Sino-Japanese meaning “ancient grave”). A type of megalithic tombs or tumuli in Japan, constructed between the early 3rd century and the early 7th century AD. Many Kofun have distinctive keyhole-shaped mounds (zenpō-kōen fun), which are unique to ancient Japan.


Kondō: The main hall for the building within a Japanese Buddhist temple compound (garan) which enshrines the main object of veneration. Other names used for Kondō are Butsuden, Butsu-dō, konpon-chūdō and hondō.


Shinto: Also known as Shintoism or kami-no-michi, is a religion originating from Japan. Classified as an East Asian religion, its practitioners often regard it as Japan’s indigenous religion. Shinto is polytheistic and revolves around the kami (“gods” or “spirits”), supernatural entities believed to inhabit all things. The kami are worshipped at kamidana household shrines, family shrines, and public shrines. A major conceptual focus in Shinto is ensuring purity by cleansing practices of various types including ritual washing or bathing.

Torii: (Literally “bird abode”). A traditional Japanese gate most commonly found at the entrance of or within a Shinto shrine, where it symbolically marks the transition from the mundane to the sacred. The first appearance of Torii gates in Japan can be reliably pinpointed to at least the mid-Heian period because they are mentioned in a text written in 922. Torii gates were traditionally made from wood or stone, but today they can be also made of reinforced concrete, copper, stainless steel or other materials. They are usually either unpainted or painted vermilion with a black upper lintel.

Yamato-e: A style of Japanese painting inspired by Tang dynasty paintings from China and fully developed by the late Heian period. It is considered the classical Japanese style. Characteristic features of Yamato-e include many small figures and careful depictions of details of buildings and other objects, the selection of only some elements of a scene to be fully depicted, the rest either being ignored or covered by a “floating cloud”, an oblique view from above showing interiors of buildings as though through a cutaway roof, and very stylized depiction of landscape.