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.
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.
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.
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 “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.
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.
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.