Japanese Art II

The five-story pagoda and Tōkondō (East Golden Hall) at Kōfuku-ji Buddhist temple in the city of Nara, Japan.

The “Kamakura” period (1185–1333) saw the hegemony of the new military class of the samurai. They were determined protectors of the Zen sect, one of the branches of Buddhism brought from China in 1191 by the monk Eisai. With Zen the Chinese culture of the Song dynasty infiltrated Japan. The samurai rebuilt the temples of Nara destroyed during their civil wars: Tōdai-ji was rebuilt in 1195 and Kōfuku-ji in 1189. If at first Zen was adopted only by aristocrats, it soon reached all social classes. For the arts this meant the rebirth of easily understood forms shown in the productions of the great masters of sculpture Unkei and Kaikei. Their terrifying guardians, carved around 1203 for the Tōdai-ji monastery, represent a good example of the sensationalism that characterized this artistic period. The artists then lost the imperial protection of previous centuries and as a consequence they grouped into workshops to perform a quantitatively important and very popular work but at the cost of losing its finer aesthetic qualities. Another artistic treasure from the Kamakura period is the Daibutsu of Kamakura, also known as the Daibutsu of the Kōtoku-in temple, a renowned monumental hollowed bronze statue of Amida Buddha considered one of the most famous icons of Japan and a National Treasure. According to temple records, the statue dates from around 1252 and was probably cast by either Ōno Gorōemon or Tanji Hisatomo, the leading casters of the time. The statue was originally gilded as shown by the remaining traces of gold leaf near its ears. It is approximately 13.35 mt (43.8 ft) tall including its base and weighs approximately 93 ton.

The impressive Vajradharas or Nio Guardians of the South Gate of Tōdai-ji Temple (Nara, Japan) created by Unkei, Kaikei, and other sculptors in 1203 during the Kamakura period. These guardians were erected after parts of the temple were destroyed by warring clans during the 12th century. Each wooden statue is over eight meters tall and weighs near to seven tons.
The Daibutsu (“Great Buddha”) of the Kōtoku-in temple in the city of Kamakura (Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan). This monumental outdoor bronze statue of Amida Buddha is one of the most recognizable icons of Japan. The statue dates from ca. 1252 and was probably cast by Ōno Gorōemon or Tanji Hisatomo the most important casters of the time. The Daibutsu is approximately 13.35 mt (43.8 ft) tall including the base and weighs approximately 93 tonnes (103 tons).

The “Muromachi” period (1338-1573) represented the splendor of the culture of the samurai who, militarily weakened by their internal struggles and avid for spiritual refinement, turned its eyes to Kyoto. The reigning clan of the Ashikaga continued imposing the Zen philosophy that characterized this time, undoubtedly one of the most interesting in the history of Japan. In architecture prevailed structural order and simplicity with the appearance of modulated buildings, the ostentation of bare materials and the rejection of superfluous ornaments, all these characteristics that will later impress and influence contemporary Western architects. These architectural forms were represented in the temples, rebuilt devoutly from generation to generation, of Daitoku-ji (1334), Tenryū-ji (1340), Kinkaku-ji or Golden Pavilion (1397), Ryōan-ji (1450) and the Ginkaku-ji or Silver Pavilion (1490).

The Sanmon of the Daitoku-ji temple (“temple of Great Virtue”) in Kita-ku, Kyoto, Japan. This temple complex covers more than 23 hectares (57 acres). The Sanmon refers to the gate in front of the Butsuden and most commonly has two floors. Daitoku-ji originated as a small monastery founded in 1315 or 1319 by the monk Shūhō Myōchō.
The Tenryū-ji temple (Susukinobaba-chō, Ukyō Ward, Kyoto, Japan). The temple was founded by Ashikaga Takauji in 1339 to venerate Gautama Buddha. It was completed in 1345.
The shariden at Kinkaku-ji, commonly known as the Golden Pavilion (“Kinkakuji”). Kinkaku-ji (“Temple of the Golden Pavilion”), a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, is one of the most popular buildings in Japan. The Golden Pavilion has three levels with its top two levels covered with pure gold leaf. This pavilion functions as a shariden thus housing relics of the Buddha (Buddha’s Ashes). The building was an important model for Ginkaku-ji (or Silver Pavilion Temple) also located in Kyoto.
View of one of the pavilions at Ryōan-ji temple (“Temple of the Dragon at Peace”) in northwest Kyoto. The temple’s garden is considered one of the finest surviving examples of kare-sansui (“dry landscape”).
The kannon-den commonly known as the Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku). The Ginkaku-ji temple (“Temple of the Silver Pavilion”) in the Sakyo ward of Kyoto, Japan, is one of the constructions that represents the Higashiyama Culture of the Muromachi period. The two-storied Kannon-den (“Kannon hall”), is the main temple structure. Its construction began in February 21, 1482. The structure’s design sought to emulate the golden pavilion at Kinkaku-ji pictured before.

In painting the national ideal had as model figure the works by the monk Sesshū Tōyō, from the Zen sect, creator of Sumi-e, a style of black monochrome painting that the samurai Kanō Masanobu and Kanō Motonobu (father and son) enriched by providing non-religious elements and that in turn gave rise to the Kanō school. If the Kanō school continued to be inspired by typical Chinese landscapes, another school, the school of Tosa, focused its attention on themes genuine to Japanese literature and history. But not only painting and architecture contributed to the idea of ​​a national art, other multiple cultural activities did it so: pottery, tea ceremony, gardens, poetry, music… and the (literally, “skill” or “talent”), a form of theater that evokes the metaphysical world of Zen by using powerful dramatic resources, including the use of masks that were in themselves true sculptures.

Splashed-ink Landscape by Sesshū Tōyō, 1495. Hanging scroll, ink on paper (Tokyo National Museum).
View of Ama-no-Hashidate by Sesshū Tōyō, (ca. 1502-1505, Kyoto National Museum).
Left: Landscape by Kanō Masanobu, ca. 1434-1530 (Kyushu National Museum). Right: Zhou Maoshu appreciating lotuses, a hanging scroll by Kanō Masanobu (Tokyo National Museum).
The Four Accomplishments by Kanō Motonobu, mid-16th century, a pair of six-panel folding screens; ink and color on paper (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
White-robed Kannon (Guanyin) Bodhisattva of Compassion, by Kanō Motonobu.
Paintings by the Kanō School. Top: Birds and Flowers of Spring and Summer by Kanō Eino, latter half of 17th century, a pair of six-fold screens (Suntory Museum of Art, Tokyo).  Bottom: Pair of screens with tigers scared by a storm-dragon by Kanō Sanraku, 17th century (Myoshinji-temple, Kyoto).
Paintings by the Tosa School. Top: Six scenes from “The Tale of Genji”, ca. 1700-1750, pair of six-panel screens painted in ink, color, gold and “gofun” on paper (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia). Bottom: Scene from a long narrative scroll retelling the history of a Buddhist monastery, by Tosa Mitsunobu (1434–1535).
Noh mask, Ko-omote (“a lovable girl”), colored wood, 18th century (Tokyo National Museum). This mask belongs to the Noh masks of the Konparu school, a set of 47 Noh masks formerly owned by the famous Konparu family of Noh actors and playwrights. They are now part of the collection of the Tokyo National Museum. This group of masks span five centuries, from the Muromachi to the Edo periods (15th to 19th centuries).

The “Azuchi-Momoyama” period (1573-1603) could be summed up in its tremendous castles as a symbol of power and authority. The first castle was that of Azuchi-jo (1576), in the immediate vicinity of Kyoto, decorated by Kanō Eitoku and erected by order of the fearsome Oda Nobunaga who managed to end the military power of the Buddhist monks and to consummate the divorce between political and religious powers. None of the religious buildings of earlier times could compete, neither in scale nor in lavish decoration, with those imposing multi-story castles. Of them we highlight that of Nijō (1602) in Kyoto, the only great samurai residence that today still exists, and that of Osaka (1583), built by order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and admirably described by Gaspar Coelho (a Portuguese Jesuit missionary) who was welcomed as its guest. At this time the first European, Spanish and Portuguese foreigners arrived in Japan, and the country opened up to new ideas that extended from end to end of the country decentralizing its powers. A new social structure was then drawn in which the rising commercial bourgeoisie imposed economically over the samurai. Castles went from being a defense machine to become a propaganda machine, but in short they turned to be uncomfortable for the life of opulent people. The artists were responsible for turning them into sumptuous and refined homes, in particular the members of the Kanō school descendants of Kanō Masanobu who, as we have seen, had worked for the Ashikaga clan, and whose most illustrious example was the castle of Kanō Eitoku, the “one with the golden backgrounds”.

Castles of the “Azuchi-Momoyama” period. Top Left: Ruins of the tenshu, or keep Azuchi Castle. Top right: Reproduction of Azuchi’s main keep, at Ise Azuchi-Momoyama Bunka Mura. The Azuchi Castle was built from 1576 to 1579, on the shores of Lake Biwa, in Ōmi Province. Bottom left: The Nijō Castle in Kyoto, Japan. The castle consists of two concentric rings of fortifications, the Ninomaru Palace, the ruins of the Honmaru Palace, various adjacent buildings and several gardens. The surface area of the castle is 275,000 square mt. Bottom right: View of the Osaka Castle in Chuo-ku, Osaka. This castle is one of Japan’s most famous landmarks and it played a major role in the unification of Japan during the 16th century.
The rebuilt main tower of the Tenshu of the Osaka castle central tower.

This was the time of the object, of the Maki-e (lacquer work), of the handicrafts or mingei, of gold and silver that shined lasciviously everywhere. In contrast, Sen-no-Rikyū (around 1522-1591) proposed a new tea ceremony that rejected the automatic ritual gestures in favor of a more “natural simplicity”. He was the architect of the new utensils employed in this ceremony, whose extraordinary simplicity, purity of lines and coarseness will later exert great influence in Western modern industrial design. In architecture, to the ornate exuberance of the castles, the new trend boosted the construction of delicate palaces located between idyllic and studied landscapes, buildings with a marked regularity and strong simplicity. The greatest exponent was undoubtedly the Katsura palace, in the immediate vicinity of Kyoto, so admired by 20th-century architects.

Maki-e, Left (Top & Bottom): Top: A pitcher in Maki-e from the Azuchi-Momoyama to Edo period, 16th-17th century  (Tokyo National Museum). Bottom: Stationery Box in Maki-e from the Momoyama period, ca. early 17th century, gold- and silver-foil inlay, and gold maki-e on lacquered wood (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Mingei (Right): Hideyoshi battlefield vest with birds and other animals, in silk, 16th century (Kōdai-ji Temple, Kyoto,Japan).
Tea ceremony utensils. Left: A clog-shaped tea Bowl (Chawan) with plum blossoms and geometric patterns, in stoneware with iron-black glaze, Momoyama period, ca. early 17th century. Center: Dish with grasses, in stoneware with design incised through iron-rich clay slip, Momoyama period, ca. late 16th–early 17th century. Right: Dish in the shape of a double fan with arched handle, in stoneware with underglaze iron brown and copper-green glaze, Momoyama period, ca. late 16th–early 17th century (all the pieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
Above: A view of the Katsura Imperial Villa and its gardens (western suburbs of Kyoto, Japan). Its gardens are considered a masterpiece of Japanese style gardening, and the buildings are regarded among the greatest examples of Japanese architecture. The palace grounds include a shoin (“drawing room”), tea houses, and a strolling garden.  Below: View of the pond and its gardens.

Above: The Tea House of the Katsura Imperial Villa. The most prominent and unusual aspect of this tea house is its un-floored loggia. Its location facing the pond with an open pantry in the center for tea ceremonies was very unusual for the traditional spaces used in tea ceremonies that use to perform the ritual in a space located in the back of the tea house. Below:  Interior view of the Shōkin-tei, also known as the “Pine-Lute Pavilion”. This pavilion located not far above the water level, is the first point in which the visitors could view the pond, thus in its interior the person feels walking through the space rather than just view the outer space and the pond from the interior of a building.

The characteristics of the “Edo” or “Tokugawa” period (1600-1868), the last feudal Japanese military government, didn’t differ much from the previous “Azuchi-Momoyama” period. For example, the palace of Katsura, the work of two generations that denoted an incredible stylistic unity, wasn’t finished until 1645. The development of the mingei continued as well as the evolution of ceramics one of the most sought-after arts in Japan. Japan of the time of the Tokugawa was divided into 200 clans, each with a chief and each chief with his castle. The growing preponderance of merchants and industrialists demanded, however, a new style of art more in accordance with their lifestyles. Thus, together with the schools of Kanō and Tosa in the 17th century, arose the Ukiyo-e or art of the woodblock prints with the artist Suzuki Harunobu. During this period, also made its appearance the kabuki, a more realistic and fun theater form than the , an art that would eventually become known as the Japanese national theater.

Edo Period Porcelain. Top from left to right: 1) Figure of a standing beauty, ca. 1670–1690, porcelain with over-glaze polychrome enamels (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). 2) Plate with design of fans, ca. 1650, porcelain with over-glaze enamels (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). 3) A Kakiemon vase and cover, ca. late 17th century. 4) Figurine (“Okimono”) of a Dragon emerging from waves, mid 19th century, porcelain with transparent glaze (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland). Bottom from left to right: 1) Tureen with landscape, late 17th century, porcelain painted with cobalt blue under transparent glaze (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). 2) A pair of Imari porcelain vases, ca. 1700, the vases are decorated in under-glaze blue, iron-red, green and yellow enamels with gilt work. 3) Dish depicting lady with a parasol, ca. 1734–37, porcelain painted with cobalt blue under and colored enamels over transparent glaze (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
Examples of Ukiyo-e. From Left to right and from top to bottom: 1) Dawn at Futami-ga-ura, an ukiyo-e print from an unnamed series by Japanese artist Utagawa Kunisada, ca. 1832 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). 2) Kushi (“The Comb”), by Utamaro, ca. 1785. 3)  Hototogisu satsuki (cuckoo and azaleas) by Katsushika Hokusai, ca. 1828 (British Museum). 4)  Two mandarin ducks, by Andō Hiroshige, 1838. 5)  13th station: Hara (Travellers passing Mount Fuji), from a series of ukiyo-e prints by Utagawa Hiroshige named The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido (1833–1834). 6)  Hinazuru of the Chōjiya, Kamuro Yasoji and Yasono, Shinzō Orizuru, Kiyotsuru, and Sayotsuru, ukiyo-e print from the series Models for Fashion: New Year Designs as Fresh as Young Leaves by Isoda Kōryūsai, ca. 1778–1780 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). 7) Princess Takiyasha summons a skeleton spectre, a triptych by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, ca. 1844 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). 8)  45th station: Shōno (Travellers surprised by sudden rain), from The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido (1833–1834). by Utagawa Hiroshige.
Ukiyo-e by Suzuki Harunobu. From top to bottom and from left to right. 1) Two girlsca. 1750. 2) Courtesan after work. 3) Two lovers beneath an umbrella in the snow (Art Institute of Chicago). 4) Climbing the steps one hundred times, ca. 1765. 5) Second Month: Plum tree at the water’s edge, ca. 1768 (Honolulu Museum of Art, Hawaii).
Ukiyo-e and Kabuki. From top to bottom and from left to right. 1)  Shibai Uki-e by Masanobu Okumura, ca. 1741–1744 depicting the Kabuki theater Ichimura-za in its early days. 2)  Yakusha-e print (“actor’s prints”) of two kabuki actors by Tōshūsai Sharaku, ca. 1794, it depicts actors Bando Zenji (on the left, in the role of Benkei) and Sawamura Yodogoro II (on the right, as Yoshitsune), in the play Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura (Yoshitsune of the Thousand Cherry-Trees). 3) The March 1849 production of Chūshingura at Edo Nakamura-za theater by Toyokuni Utagawa III. 4) The July 1858 production of Shibaraku at the Ichimura-za theater in Edo, a triptych woodblock print by Utagawa Toyokuni III. Below: The Great Wave off Kanagawa a ukiyo-e print by Katsushika Hokusai, between 1829-1833 during the late Edo period. It is the first print in Hokusai’s series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, Hokusai’s most famous work, and one of the most recognizable works of Japanese art in the world. The image depicts a big wave threatening three fishing boats off the coast of the town of Kanagawa (the present-day city of Yokohama) while Mount Fuji rises in the background (original impressions of the print are located in many museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, and in Claude Monet’s home in Giverny, France, among many others).

In the “Meiji” period (1868-1912) contacts with the West marked the evolution of Japanese art towards European art. In 1884, Ernest Fenollosa and Okakura Kakusō organized the first exhibition of traditional Japanese art followed later by other international exhibitions: the Chicago World’s Fair (1893), which had such strong influence on the work of the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Paris World’s Fair (1900), so decisive for the development of post-impressionist painting as reflected in the works of Toulouse Lautrec or Paul Gauguin.

“Scene from the Sino Japanese War” a triptych by a Meiji Period artist.
Kagoshima Rebellion by Chikanobu Toyohara (1838-1912) a Meiji period print.


Gofun: A white pigment made from the shells of oysters, clams, scallops, etc. used in Japanese paintings. Its main component is calcium carbonate and is characterized by the fine particles which produce a smooth matte texture. Gofun itself has no adhesive properties and is mixed with glue solution to fix it to the support medium.

Kabuki: A classical Japanese dance-drama. Kabuki theater is known for the stylization of its drama and for the elaborate make-up worn by some of its performers.



Kannon: The Japanese denomination for Guanyin or the bodhisattva known as Avalokiteśvara, the Buddhist bodhisattva associated with compassion.



Kare-sansui: (Lit.: “dry landscape”). A refined type of Japanese Zen temple garden design generally featuring distinctive larger rock formations arranged amidst a sweep of smooth pebbles (small, carefully selected polished river rocks) raked into linear patterns with the aim of facilitate meditation.


Maki-e: (Lit.: “sprinkled picture”). A Japanese technique of lacquer sprinkled with gold or silver powder as a decoration using a makizutsu or a kebo brush. The technique was developed mainly in the Heian period (794–1185) and blossomed in the Edo period (1603–1868). Maki-e objects were initially designed as household items for court nobles; they soon gained more popularity and were adopted by royal families and military leaders as a symbol of power. To create different colours and textures, maki-e artists use a variety of metal powders including gold, silver, copper, brass, lead, aluminum, platinum, and pewter, as well as their alloys. Bamboo tubes and soft brushes of various sizes are used for laying powders and drawing fine lines.

Mingei: (Lit.: “folk arts” or “arts of the people”). Refers to the Japanese folk art movement.

Nio: Also known as Kongōrikishi are two wrathful and muscular guardians of the Buddha standing today at the entrance of many Buddhist temples in East Asian Buddhism in the form of frightening wrestler-like statues. They are protector and defender manifestations of the bodhisattva Vajrapāṇi, the oldest and most powerful of the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon.


Nō: (From the Sino-Japanese word for “skill” or “talent”). A major form of classical Japanese dance-drama that has been performed since the 14th century. It is the oldest major theater art that is still regularly performed today. is often based on tales from traditional literature with a supernatural being transformed into human form as a hero narrating a story. Noh integrates masks, costumes and various props in a dance-based performance, requiring highly trained actors and musicians. Emotions are primarily conveyed by stylized conventional gestures while the iconic masks represent the roles such as ghosts, women, children, and the elderly.

Samurai: The hereditary military nobility and officer caste of medieval and early-modern Japan from the 12th century to their abolition in the 1870s. They were the well-paid retainers of the daimyo (the great feudal landholders). They had high prestige and special privileges such as wearing two swords. They cultivated the codes of martial virtues, indifference to pain, and unflinching loyalty, engaging in many local battles. During the peaceful Edo era (1603 to 1868) they became the stewards and chamberlains of the daimyo estates, gaining managerial experience and education. The Meiji Revolution ended their feudal roles and they moved into professional and entrepreneurial roles.

Tureen: A serving dish for foods such as soups or stews, often shaped as a broad, deep, oval vessel with fixed handles and a low domed cover with a knob or handle. Over the centuries, tureens have appeared in many different forms, some round, rectangular, or made into fanciful shapes such as animals or wildfowl. Tureens may be ceramic (earthenware or porcelain) or silver, and customarily they stand on an undertray or platter made en suite.

Ukiyo-e: (Lit.: “Pictures of the floating world”). A genre of Japanese art which flourished from the 17th through 19th centuries. It consists of woodblock prints and paintings of such subjects as female beauties; kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers; scenes from history and folk tales; travel scenes and landscapes; flora and fauna; and erotica. Some ukiyo-e artists specialized in making paintings, but most works were prints. Artists rarely carved their own woodblocks for printing; rather, production was divided between the artist, who designed the prints; the carver, who cut the woodblocks; the printer, who inked and pressed the woodblocks onto hand-made paper; and the publisher, who financed, promoted, and distributed the works. As printing was done by hand, printers were able to achieve effects impractical with machines, such as the blending or gradation of colors on the printing block. Ukiyo-e was central to forming the West’s perception of Japanese art in the late 19th century. From the 1870s Japonism became a prominent trend and had a strong influence on the early Impressionists such as Degas, Manet, and Monet, as well as Post-Impressionists such as van Gogh and Art Nouveau artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec.

Yakusha-e: Usually referred to as “actor prints” in English, are Japanese woodblock prints or, rarely, paintings, of kabuki actors, particularly those done in the ukiyo-e style popular through the Edo period (1603–1867) and into the beginnings of the 20th century. Most strictly, the term yakusha-e refers solely to portraits of individual artists (or sometimes pairs).