Japanese Art: Everything You Might Not Know

June 23rd, 2021.

Mount Fuji painted by Yokoyama Taikan in 1940.

Japanese art is one of the world’s greatest treasures, but it is also surprisingly hard to find up-to-date information on the internet.

Embark on a captivating journey through the captivating world of Japanese art, where you will encounter the ancient allure of the oldest surviving silkscreen painting, be mesmerized by the exquisite beauty of 18th century woodblock prints, and delve into the groundbreaking works of Japan’s renowned modern artist, Yayoi Kusama.

The creation of art is a result of human ingenuity. Hence, when narrating these narratives, we meticulously consider their societal and political significance. Within these recently enhanced chapters, you will discover the profound connection between nature and the Japanese culture, as well as the extraordinary masterpieces depicting the elegance of women during the Edo period.

The Japanese art scene of today is abuzz with a vibrant blend of innovation and artistic brilliance. It is our utmost delight to introduce to you a group of remarkably ingenious contemporary artists, both men and women, whose exceptional talent and craftsmanship have yet to receive the global recognition they truly deserve.

Let’s jump in!

1. The Origins of Japanese Art

The Woodblock Print “Great Wave off Kanagawa” was created by Katsushika Hokusai.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) masterfully crafted The Great Wave off Kanagawa, an undoubtedly renowned masterpiece of Japanese artistry. With an intentional focus on the awe-inspiring force of nature, this cherished woodblock print beautifully captures the majestic presence of Mount Fuji.

Japanese art has long been captivated by the beauty of nature, particularly the majestic mountains. In the ancient times, before Buddhism made its way from China in the 6th century, the Japanese people exclusively followed the spiritual path of Shinto. Shinto, at its essence, entails deep respect and admiration for the kami, divine beings believed to inhabit various natural elements like trees, rivers, rocks, and of course, mountains. To delve deeper into the fascinating world of Shinto, explore the wonders of Shinto Shrines!

In the realm of Japan, nature transcends the mundane. A mere portrayal of a natural panorama is not merely a depiction of the land, but a glimpse into the divine realm where kami dwell. The profound significance of nature in the tapestry of Japanese artistic heritage remains steadfast, as exemplified by these 5 genuine designs of enchanting Japanese gardens.

The reverence bestowed upon the wonders of nature underwent a profound transformation when Chinese art forms, along with various elements of Chinese culture, permeated a significant portion of the initial millennium.

Senzui Byobu, Landscape Panel, 12th century, Kyoto National Museum.

Behold, a marvelously intricate artwork from the Heian era (794-1185), a testament to the enduring beauty of Japanese silk screens that evolved from their Chinese roots. This masterpiece captures a distinctively Chinese influence in its style but portrays a purely Japanese landscape. It is fascinating to ponder that the artist, perhaps having never set foot in China, could create such a captivating fusion of cultures.

Artwork depicting a Cypress by Kano Eitoku, from the 16th Century, can be found at the Tokyo National Museum.

The birth of a distinct Japanese art style, called yamato-e (meaning Japanese pictures), initiated with the gradual replacement of Chinese natural elements with more familiar indigenous variations. As an instance, Japanese long-tail birds frequently substituted the omnipresent Chinese phoenix, while local trees and flowers took the position of unfamiliar foreign species. Within Japanese art, one creature that frequently appears is the kitsune, or fox. Here are some additional Fascinating Facts about the Inari Fox in Japanese Folklore! Embracing themes from Japanese literature and mythology became more prevalent. Iconic tales like the Tale of Genji can be observed throughout Japanese art, as you can admire in these 10 Captivating Masterpieces.

As the ties to China waned in the Heian era, yamato-e flourished as a deliberate declaration of Japanese art and culture’s superiority. The arrival of Zen, an imported philosophy, gradually transformed into a disciplined system that profoundly influenced every facet of traditional Japanese art. For an in-depth understanding, delve into “What is Zen Art? An Introduction in 10 Japanese Masterpieces.”

The Kyoto National Museum showcases the Ink Painting “View of Ama no Hashidate” by Sesshu Toyo in 1501.

Zen monks, captivated by the allure of ink painting, sumi-e, embraced its essence of minimalism and reverence for vacant spaces, transcending both art and spirituality. Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506), an eminent master of this art form, showcases the ingenuity of Japanese ink painting in his masterpiece “View of Ama no Hashidate,” portraying a breathtaking aerial perspective of Japan’s coastal panorama. Sumi-e endures as one of Japan’s most beloved art forms, inviting individuals to embark on their own creative journeys through our comprehensive How-to Guide to Japanese Ink Painting.

Suruga Street, Woodblock Print created by Utagawa Hiroshige.

Few sights can rival the majestic grandeur of the magnificent Mount Fuji. The dormant volcano’s impeccably symmetrical cone shape, coupled with the palpable menace of its destructive power, amalgamate into a mesmerizing entity that has garnered reverence and artistic inspiration for countless generations. Explore a myriad of captivating portrayals at Views of Mount Fuji: Unveiling the Enigma of Woodblock Prints.

2. Zen & The Tea Ceremony

The tea ceremony’s evolution left an indelible mark on Japanese art and craftsmanship throughout history. Affluent households traditionally flaunted their luxurious Chinese tea utensils during social gatherings, but a transformation occurred in the 16th century as connoisseurs started embracing a more minimalist approach.

The trend of embracing modestly adorned, rustic, and notably Japanese tea utensils (what exactly are the Indispensable Utensils for the Japanese Tea Ceremony?) Originated as a passing fad. However, it evolved into an enduring element of the Japanese aesthetic, thanks to the patronage of influential figures, particularly the military commander Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) and his tea mentor Sen Rikyu (1522-1591).

Rikyu’s preferred artistic approach has birthed the renowned style known as wabi-sabi. This zen-inspired notion, though challenging to capture precisely, encapsulates a belief in the beauty of flaws and transience. Wabi-sabi manifests through the inclination for muted earthy hues instead of dazzling painted shades, as well as the appreciation for the organic forms of handcrafted ceramics in contrast to flawlessly thrown pottery.

The tea ceremony’s popularity acted as a refreshing boost to the Japanese craft industry, sparking economic growth. During the peaceful Edo period that followed Rikyu’s era, the wabi-sabi aesthetic permeated various sectors such as textiles, incense, metalware, woodwork, and ceramics. These industries eagerly supplied exquisite Japanese designs to their tea-loving clientele. To delve deeper into tea ceremony artifacts, explore Tetsubin Tea Kettles, Kyusu Teapots, and Ikebana Flower Arrangement. Interestingly, many of these skilled craftspeople also apply their expertise in everyday life, creating ingenious bento boxes and traditional dolls in Japan.

3. The Art of the Samurai

When one thinks of Japan, the image of the revered samurai warrior often comes to mind. However, it is often overlooked that these adept warriors were honed in various disciplines beyond the art of combat.

The Samurai, or bushi, stood as the esteemed warriors of ancient Japan, flourishing primarily throughout the Edo era (1603-1867). With utmost devotion, they adhered to the intricate principles of bushido, a meticulously crafted moral compass that guided their way as warriors.

Renowned for their elevated status in the social order, the samurai were not only formidable and lethal but also cultivated and erudite. Devoted to the affluent aristocracy, who held a deep appreciation for artistic endeavors, the samurai warriors harbored a profound admiration for the arts and sought to attain mastery in various artistic disciplines.

Samurai were bound to adhere to the path of both bu and bun – the realms of warfare and refinement. This harmonious way of life, known as bunbu-ryodo, celebrates the fusion of literary mastery and martial prowess, embracing the duality of these intricate arts.

Miyamoto Musashi depicted by Utagawa Kunisada in 1858.

It comes as no shock that numerous samurai utilized their affluence and position to venture into the realms of poetry, artistry, collecting, sponsorship, or even all of the aforementioned pursuits. Miyamoto Musashi (c. 1584-1645) serves as an impeccable illustration of this multifaceted approach as he excelled as a swordsman, strategist, philosopher, painter, and writer simultaneously. He penned the renowned Book of Five Rings, which advocates that a genuine warrior should master various art forms beyond the realm of swordsmanship, including the art of tea drinking, writing, and painting.

A Performer Posing in Samurai Armor, 1870s.

Women had the opportunity to become esteemed members of the samurai class. While their main role was to support and accompany warriors as their spouses, they also possessed the ability to undergo training and engage in battle as warriors themselves. These courageous women were known as onna-bugeisha. Although they primarily took up arms when the situation demanded it, such as defending their homes during times of war, there were those who dedicated themselves entirely to the path of warfare and achieved great recognition.

Tomoe Gozen, a work by Shitomi Kangetsu from the late 18th century.

Tomoe Gozen (c. 1157-1247), an onna-bugeisha immortalized in The Tale of the Heike, was a formidable warrior who left a lasting legacy. Described as both beautiful and powerful, she possessed the strength of countless warriors, making her a force to be reckoned with. Revered as a mythical figure, Tomoe Gozen’s bravery continues to inspire warriors, making her a popular subject of kabuki plays and ukiyo-e paintings throughout history.

© The Trustees of the British Museum, Katana crafted by Osafune Sukesada.

The art of the Samurai, deeply intertwined with combat, encompasses the intricate artistry and skillful craftsmanship of both armor and weaponry. Even in modern times, the mastery of Samurai swords, which were the quintessential symbol of the bushi, continues to be revered, while the descendants of renowned swordsmiths now craft some of the world’s most cherished knives. These Katana blades, known for their strength and flexibility, elegantly curve with a single, razor-sharp cutting edge.

The tsuba, which initially served as a mere metal disk, transformed into a captivating canvas showcasing remarkable metalwork. These exquisite accessories became adorned with family crests, auspicious symbols, and captivating depictions from myth and literature. Similarly, the netsuke, initially a utilitarian tie for securing a pouch on a belt, evolved into elaborately embellished artworks. Prepare to be mesmerized by these 14 Miniature Japanese Masterpieces!

The samurai armor showcased an awe-inspiring level of detail and artistry. Meticulously handmade, it boasted materials that exuded luxury, like lacquer for protection against the elements and the incorporation of leather (and later silk lace) to link the intricate scales. Notably, the facial armor itself was a masterpiece, deserving further exploration in the fascinating realm of Traditional Japanese Masks. Even in times of tranquility, the samurai proudly adorned themselves with armor, serving as a powerful emblem of their esteemed position.

4. Edo Beauty in Ukiyo-e Prints

Three Renowned Beauties, Woodblock Print by Kitagawa Utamaro.

During the flourishing Edo era (1615-1868), a remarkable era of remarkable tranquility prevailed. Edo society thrived, witnessing unprecedented urban growth and expansion. The rigid hierarchy meticulously upheld distinct social classes. At the summit resided the revered samurai, dutifully serving the Tokugawa government, followed by the diligent farmers and skilled artisans. Lastly, occupying the lowermost rung were the enterprising merchants.

Nonetheless, it was frequently the merchants who reaped the greatest economic rewards by virtue of their position as distributors and purveyors of services. Alongside the craftsmen, they were recognized as the chonin (townsfolk).

With the advent of new wealth, a wide variety of goods thrived. Specifically, woodblock prints, known as ukiyo-e, reached their peak in terms of popularity and refinement.

Ukiyo-e, the art of capturing the fleeting world, encompasses exquisite woodblock prints that vividly portray the refined city life, trendiness, and the captivating allure of transience in Edo.

Heron Maiden, Woodblock Print created by Kitagawa Utamaro.

In this period, the evolution of printing techniques reached new heights. The creation of woodblock prints was overseen by a group known as the ukiyo-e quartet, consisting of the publisher, the blockcutter, the printer, and the artist. By the 1740s, ukiyo-e art prints were already being produced in a multitude of vibrant hues. Additionally, these prints were known for their utilization of washi paper, a material that holds its own fascinating story, which you can explore further in All You Need to Know About Washi Paper.

Image of the Temporary Quarters of the New Yoshiwara, Woodblock Print by Utagawa Kunisada, 1830.

Ukiyo-e prints served as a captivating medium to capture the essence of Edo urbanites’ fashionable existence. Bound by societal constraints, merchants sought solace in the pursuit of indulgence and opulence, which thrived within the enticing realm of the Yoshiwara pleasure district.

Yoshiwara’s Night Exhibition, painted by Katsushika Oi in the 1840s.

Yoshiwara transcended its role as a mere brothel, blossoming into a vibrant cultural nucleus for the affluent and influential gentlemen of the Edo era. This captivating tableau vividly portrays the allure of the district, captivating both attendees and onlookers alike. The brilliance of Katsushika Oi, daughter of the renowned Hokusai, adds an even deeper layer of poignancy to this masterpiece. Remarkably, this extraordinary artist remains unjustly relegated to the fringes of recognition even in modern times. Immerse yourself in the captivating tale of Katsushika Oi: Unveiling the Untold Legacy of Hokusai’s Daughter.

The enchanting courtesans of Yoshiwara mesmerized audiences through their captivating portrayal in ukiyo-e prints. Their opulent kimonos, intricate hairstyles, and meticulously applied make-up breathed life into their images. Emerging as the shining luminaries of Edo, their actions were fervently tracked by the townsfolk in their day-to-day existence, thanks to these accessible and affordable prints.

Beauty, Woodblock Print created by Kitagawa Utamaro.

Cooling down at Shijo, Woodblock Print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1885.

Ukiyo-e, the mesmerizing art form, beautifully depicted the captivating world of Kabuki theater through yakusha-e prints. These extraordinary prints immortalized the renowned actors and flawlessly portrayed the enchanting scenes of the theatrical performances, leaving the audience in awe of the artistic brilliance and intricate details. If you desire to delve deeper into the enchanting realm of Japanese theater, our indispensable guides on Kabuki, Noh, and Bunraku Theater are your gateway! Additionally, for an exquisite collection of yakusha-e prints by the talented artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, The Stories Behind the 100 Aspects of the Moon will transport you to a world of unparalleled beauty and intrigue.

Toyohara Chikanobu’s Woodblock Print, “Pleasure Boat,” created in the 1880s-90s.

One of the most renowned ukiyo-e creators during his time, Toyohara Chikanobu, has inexplicably faded into obscurity beyond the borders of Japan in present times. Nevertheless, his captivating woodblock artworks continue to be highly sought after within the country. To revel in the mesmerizing beauty of his bijinga prints, delve into the intriguing world of Who Was Chikanobu?

5. Traditional Japanese Architecture

The Shirakawa Canal in Gion, Kyoto.

Japanese Architecture is renowned for its captivating juxtapositions and paradoxes, whether it be the vast expanses of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo or the cozy ambiance of a traditional Japanese teahouse. Among the various architectural styles, the residential structures of the Edo era stand out as an emblematic representation of Japan, with numerous exquisite specimens still existing in the present day.

Japan is renowned for its collection of ancient wooden structures, which stand as a testament to the widespread utilization of wood in Japanese housing. This architectural approach seamlessly blends spirituality with practicality. With the frequent occurrence of natural calamities such as earthquakes and typhoons, builders turned to the resilience of wood, leveraging its ability to withstand external forces. Unlike Western counterparts, Japanese wooden edifices proudly reveal their natural grain, an eloquent gesture symbolizing reverence for the inherent beauty of the material.

© 2019 Periplus Editions (HK) Ltd.

The tatami mats, with their distinct flooring, continue to be a beloved feature of traditional Japanese houses. In the past, the privileged few enjoyed the luxury of tightly woven rush tatami, while those less fortunate made do with straw mats. As anyone familiar with Japan can attest, it is customary to take off your shoes before stepping onto the tatami, regardless of the type of flooring in the house. These mats are perfectly suited for Japan’s damp weather, as they have the remarkable ability to absorb moisture from the air and efficiently evaporate it on dry days.

Shoji, the screens or dividers crafted from delicate wooden or bamboo framework, possess a dual essence of functionality and artistry. Within these traditional Japanese architectural elements lies the exquisite beauty emanating from the interplay of light and shadows, as the translucent paper (washi) allows ambient illumination to gracefully penetrate the interior of a home. While some shoji screens are adorned with intricate paintings, others retain their timeless white facade. Delve deeper into the realm of shoji screens and discover the intricate craftsmanship of kumiko woodwork, which brings them to life.

© 2019 Periplus Editions (HK) Ltd.

The charm of an Edo-era Japanese residence lies in its elevated stature, cleverly designed to safeguard against rain’s insidious effects. Intriguingly, rather than relying on conventional nails, these wooden structures were ingeniously crafted using a remarkable interlocking system known as tokyo, where each piece seamlessly intertwined with the next.

Enveloping the periphery of a conventional Japanese dwelling lies a veranda-like engawa, serving as a captivating link between the realms of interior and exterior. The shoji and fusama gracefully orchestrate the dance of unveiling and concealing, allowing the influx of light, shadows, and breezes from the outside. Tokyo’s Hamarikyu gardens beautifully exemplify the teahouse engawa’s significant contribution to the harmonious interplay between indoor and outdoor spaces. For a deeper appreciation of the arrangement within a timeless Japanese abode, embark on a captivating journey Inside 5 Timeless Traditional Japanese Houses.

Gazing upon the flame-repelling edifices called kura-zukuri nestled in the Kawagoe region transports one to the enchanting era of Edo. Fondly dubbed “Little Edo,” Kawagoe thrived as a hub of flourishing commerce. Alas, the quaint township suffered heart-wrenching infernos and desolation during the 19th century. Henceforth, its revival commenced, adorned with warehouses encased in resilient clay walls, staunch guardians against future devastation.

Shirakawa-go boasts the famous gassho-zukuri farmhouses, serving as exquisite showcases of traditional Japanese architecture. With a literal translation of “Built like hands in prayer,” gassho-zukuri represents a thatched roof style specifically designed to withstand the harsh winter snowfall. The ingenious A-frame technique employed in construction creates a spacious attic area, ideal for the cultivation of silkworms. Stretching across Gifu to Toyama Prefecture, these gassho-zukuri farmhouses have garnered the prestigious status of a UNESCO world heritage site, solidifying their position as one of Japan’s top 10 winter wonderlands.

Departing from the simplistic and austere garden design of the Momoyama era, the Edo period ushered in a new era of opulence and grandeur in gardens, particularly for the upper class. These gardens, known as “strolling gardens,” were meticulously crafted to provide a serene and contemplative environment, featuring man-made hills, enchanting ponds, and an abundance of lush vegetation including bamboo. Initially exclusive to feudal lords’ private residences, the Meiji period witnessed a transformation, as these gardens became accessible to the public, as exemplified by the magnificent Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto. Rather than serving as spaces for personal habitation, these gardens were designed to be observed and admired. If you’re intrigued, we invite you to explore our travel recommendations, allowing you to immerse yourself in the exquisite beauty of Japanese garden design, whether you find yourself in Tokyo or America.

6. The Rise of Japanese Ceramics

A humble southern town called Arita holds the secret to the mesmerizing allure and grandeur of Japanese ceramics, a renowned global treasure. Explore our comprehensive A-Z Guide to Japanese Ceramics to uncover the myriad of world-class ceramic styles that have originated from this mystical place, captivating hearts worldwide since the 1600s.

Japanese ceramics have a rich history that stretches all the way back to the neolithic era, similar to many other societies. The Jomon Period (around 14,000 to 300 BCE) marked the emergence of the earliest Japanese art forms, aptly named after the distinctive corded rope technique used to imprint intricate designs onto clay pottery (jomon, meaning rope-marked).

The inception of contemporary ceramics, deemed as modern, took shape amidst the Edo period, an epoch under the reign of Tokugawa. This era is oftentimes recollected for the Tokugawa shogunate’s policies of seclusion, which resulted in a substantial prohibition on foreign commerce and voyages, effectively rendering Japan disconnected from the global community.

Despite the limitations, commerce flourished to some extent. The VOC, also known as the Dutch East India Trading Company, was granted permission to engage in trade with Japan, albeit restricted to specific ports in Nagasaki. Among these, Dejima stood out as a remarkable man-made island designed to separate foreign merchants from the local Japanese populace.

© Japan Objects, Touzan Shrine, Arita.

During Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion of the Korean peninsula in 1592, a group of Korean potters found themselves as slaves in Japan. Among them was Yi Sam-pyeong, a remarkable individual who, despite his circumstances, stumbled upon a hidden treasure – a natural clay source nestled in the mountains near Arita, not too far from Nagasaki. This discovery ignited a spark within him, compelling him to share his remarkable artistry with the local community. While historians may debate certain aspects of this tale, the prevailing account credits Yi Sam-pyeong as the esteemed progenitor of Arita pottery, a legacy so revered that a shrine in Arita is dedicated to his memory. Thus, it was through Yi Sam-pyeong’s ingenuity and passion that the illustrious Japanese porcelain industry came into existence.

Kakiemon Dish, Late 17th Century.

Whereas traditional Chinese porcelain (which previously dominated international trade) was characterized by simple blue and white patterns, Aritaware was brightly-colored due to a pioneering overglazing technique. This style is called Kakiemon after its creator, a potter named Sakaida Kakiemon (1615-1653).Output: In stark contrast to the traditional Chinese porcelain that once ruled international trade with its simplistic blue and white designs, Aritaware emerged as a vibrant and colorful alternative thanks to an innovative overglazing technique. The mastermind behind this extraordinary style, known as Kakiemon, was none other than Sakaida Kakiemon, a renowned potter who thrived during the years 1615 to 1653.

Imari, a unique form of pottery, earned its reputation as the “Imari” style among Westerners. Imari served as the pivotal port for exporting Arita ware to various corners of the globe through Dejima. Discover further insights into this contemporary region by exploring the 6 Best Japanese Ceramic Towns that are definitely worth a visit.

© Arita Porcelain Lab, Gallery Dish.

The VOC exported a substantial amount of Arita/Imari pottery to Europe. Initially, the Dutch traded pottery from China, but due to widespread conflicts and uprisings, kilns were destroyed and trade came to a halt. As an alternative, the Dutch shifted their focus to Japan, where the Arita kilns astonishingly managed to export vast quantities of porcelain to both Europe and Asia from the latter part of the 17th century to the first half of the 18th century. Discover the fascinating story of Arita and its promising future in the captivating book, The Future of Japanese Pottery: Arita Porcelain Lab.

The VOC’s impact on Japanese art extended beyond expectations. The Dutch presence in Dejima, one of Japan’s earliest foreign settlements, left an indelible mark on local artists. Prints capturing everyday life on the island became sought-after mementos for Japanese visitors. The Dutch figures became subjects of elaborate porcelain paintings, showcasing the artists’ reliance on their craftsmanship. Furthermore, the arrival of Dutch paintings and books sparked a wave of inspiration among Japanese artists, exposing them to novel concepts and innovative methods.

7. Japanese Art: The Splendor of Meiji

© Ito Shinsui, Shimbashi Railway Station, 1942.

In 1868, the Meiji Restoration emerged as a pivotal moment in Japanese history, signifying the abandonment of feudal traditions and military governance. Japan, under Emperor Meiji’s guidance, embarked on a resolute journey towards modernization and assimilation of Western practices. The era spanning Meiji and Taisho (1868-1926) presented a remarkable departure from the past in every aspect. The nation experienced an ongoing transformation, oscillating between the influences of the West and the emerging identity of a new Japan.

Japan’s newfound zeal for global interactions through international exhibitions and expositions sparked remarkable advancements in both technology and artistic styles within the realm of arts.

The textile industry witnessed the dawn of modernization in production methods. During the 1860s, Kyoto’s Nishjin, renowned for its kimono industry, dispatched representatives to Europe with the aim of acquiring the revolutionary jacquard loom, which revolutionized the art of weaving.

Nishijin-ori, the exquisite woven fabrics from Kyoto’s Nishijin district, are renowned for their vibrant silk threads intricately interwoven with opulent gold and silver embellishments, forming captivating and elaborate designs. Beyond the realm of kimono and obi production, Nishijin-ori extends its craftsmanship to festival float adornments and ornate Noh attire, showcasing its diverse and artistic range.

Silk Weaving created by Kitagawa Utamaro I in 1797.

The art of Japanese silk weaving made its debut in Kyoto when the Yasushi family, who had migrated from China during the 5th or 6th century, introduced it to the local community, imparting their knowledge and skill.

Despite its existence prior to Kyoto becoming the capital, it was only after this official designation that the Nishijin weaving industry flourished. The extravagant lifestyle of the court necessitated lavish and top-notch attire, prompting the establishment of a dedicated bureau responsible for textile manufacturing. Nevertheless, as the Heian period neared its end, the era that witnessed the pinnacle of the Imperial court, the production of court-approved fabrics inevitably dwindled.

Nishijin-ori, against all odds, not only survived but also flourished as an independent industry. The serene and opulent era of Edo bestowed upon Nishijin textiles its radiant prime, yet the winds of change blew fiercely after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. As a consequence of governmental reforms, the once-loyal feudal patrons of Nishijin-ori makers vanished into thin air. Bereft of their shogun and samurai benefactors, they stood precariously on the precipice of annihilation.

Instead of giving up on production, the weavers of Nishijin made efforts to develop more contemporary textile manufacturing techniques.

In the year 1872, Nishijin embarked on a remarkable journey by dispatching a delegation of bright young minds to the enchanting city of Lyon, France. Their mission was to immerse themselves in the cutting-edge textile innovations that were sweeping across the European continent. These ambitious students, driven by their thirst for knowledge, diligently orchestrated the acquisition of a diverse array of state-of-the-art looms, including the illustrious French jacquard loom and the ingenious English flying shuttle loom. These groundbreaking contraptions were destined to find a new home in the land of the rising sun. Armed with this invaluable expertise in industrial techniques, Japanese enterprises wasted no time in embracing the exhilarating challenge of revolutionizing their own textile industry.

Tatsumura Art Textiles stands as a testament to the mastery of their craft. With a rich history dating back to 1894, the Tatsumura family has dedicated themselves to the exquisite art of textile weaving for countless generations. Their exceptional skills have garnered them an esteemed clientele, counting Emperor Hirohito and Christian Dior among their notable patrons. This serves as a true testament to the enduring admiration and reverence that the Nishijin-ori industry commands.

Founder Heizo Tatsumura revolutionized the Japanese textile industry with his innovative designs, captivating the market to such an extent that rival companies swiftly began encroaching upon his patented creations. Nevertheless, Tatsumura astutely transformed this potential catastrophe into a golden opportunity. Drawing inspiration from ancient designs and patterns that traversed the Silk Road over a millennium ago, he dedicated a decade to studying these timeless aesthetics. The culmination of his efforts resulted in the birth of exquisite textiles, unparalleled in their uniqueness, destined to grace the elegant kimono, obi, and ceremonial tea items.

During his lifetime, Tatsumura embarked on the remarkable journey of crafting replicas and reviving invaluable tapestries found within a range of renowned historical edifices in Japan. Among these treasures were the esteemed Shosoin Repository, nestled within the sacred grounds of Todaiji temple, and the awe-inspiring Horyuji Temple, an architectural marvel as the world’s largest wooden structure. It is most befitting that these remarkable edifices grace the city of Nara, which holds the honor of being Japan’s inaugural permanent capital since the year 710.

Tatsumura Textiles flourishes with an exquisite fusion of Eastern dyeing techniques and Western weaving advancements, all crafted under the guiding principle of onko chishin – a pursuit to draw wisdom from the past and fashion something extraordinary.

In the realm of metallurgy, Meiji-era craftsmen faced the urgent need to explore fresh and fitting pursuits. The eradication of the samurai caste and the ban on sword-bearing in 1876 resulted in the abrupt demise of their trade.

However, numerous individuals discovered alternative avenues to showcase their skills, ultimately achieving remarkable triumph, which is evident in the exquisite artistry displayed on this jar adorned with a captivating dragon motif. The meticulously sculpted metal wrapper of this jar is a testament to the impeccable craftsmanship, resembling the delicate intricacy of silk despite its metallic nature.

© Uemura Shoen, Woman Anticipating the Moon to Ascend, Nihonga Artwork, 1944, Adachi Museum of Art.

The Meiji era artists enthusiastically strived to find innovative methods to express the essence of the emerging Japan. Explorers, intellectuals, and creatives frequently embarked on journeys to Europe or America, aiming to reintroduce western art styles, referred to as yōga, to Japan. However, some believed that the true essence of Japan could only be portrayed by incorporating the rich cultural heritage that had evolved over centuries.

Woodblock Print by Tsuchiya Koitsu depicts Lake Kawaguchi.

The Meiji and Taisho periods in Japanese art history were profoundly shaped by state-led nationalism, exerting a significant social influence. This patriotic fervor left a lasting impact on the arts during that era. A captivating illustration of this can be found in Tsuchiya Koitsu’s woodblock print of Mount Fuji. To delve deeper into the significance behind Koitsu’s prints of Mt. Fuji, explore “The Meaning of Koitsu’s Prints of Mt. Fuji.”

The Meiji era’s relentless drive towards modernization resonated deeply with numerous artists and artisans, igniting a fervent longing for a more ethical and inclusive approach to their craft. This longing manifested itself in the birth of Mingei, also known as the Japanese Folk Craft Movement. Its primary objective was to breathe new life into struggling vernacular craft industries through the pursuit of formal design education, drawing inspiration from the renowned British Arts and Crafts Movement that flourished in the latter half of the 19th century.

© Okamura Kichiemon, Rice Wine, Woodcut Print.

Representing the distinctive Mingei style of rural Japan, this delightful print showcases the kanji character 酒, symbolizing sake or alcohol, ingeniously composed of ceramic jars and dainty cups commonly employed for its service. Okamura Kichiemon, a master of printmaking, found profound inspiration in the ordinary artifacts of Japanese existence, including the exquisite tableware depicted in this artwork. Moreover, Kichiemon’s profound appreciation for Mingei led him to pen numerous enlightening books on the subject.

8. Modern Japanese Architecture

Following the havoc caused by World War II, Japanese Architects emerged as pioneers in the process of rebuilding and redesigning their nation. Inspired by their circumstances and driven to restore, these Architects strived not only to establish stability but also to foster innovation; their aim was to refine a truly distinctive Japanese approach to crafting spaces.

Metabolism, an innovative architectural movement born in the aftermath of war, sought to infuse urban landscapes with dynamic and organic-like structures that could adapt and evolve alongside the city’s residents. Fuelled by the influx of people into inner cities and Japan’s flourishing economy during the Bubble Era, Metabolism aimed to create living, breathing spaces that would harmoniously transform with the ever-changing needs of a bustling metropolis.

The Nakagin Capsule Building in Ginza, created by Kisho Kurokawa in 1972, stands as one of the most renowned masterpieces of its time. Photographer Tom Blachford beautifully captured this architectural marvel in his collection, Nihon Noir. This apartment business complex is comprised of small, fully furnished and removable apartment rooms known as cells, which are interconnected. Kurokawa’s design aimed to embrace a modern and even futuristic aesthetic while catering to the practical needs of hardworking salarymen. Notably, the concept of Metabolism encompassed the ability to anticipate and adapt to the evolving needs of future occupants. Over time, Nakagin has transformed into a revered monument, attracting artists, architects, and the occasional curious passerby. Yet, discussions surrounding its dilapidated state persist, raising questions about the potential fate of this iconic symbol of an influential architectural movement.

With a sense of hope and anticipation, the renowned Japanese architect, Kenzo Tenge, ventured into the creation of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Emerging right after World War II and the conclusion of American occupation around 1952, this park encapsulates a myriad of emotions tied to Western influence, nationalism, and the preservation of Japanese architectural heritage. Initially conceived as a symbol of modernity and globalization, Tenge’s vision soon evolved to encompass a deep reverence for tradition. Consequently, the redesign of the park became a testament to Tenge’s unwavering determination to differentiate Japanese design from Western influences, a cause he held dear.

In present-day Japan, the influence of modern Japanese architecture can be observed through Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque, a remarkable creation from 2001 that has been beautifully captured by photographer Naoya Hatakeyama. This architectural masterpiece exemplifies the shift towards artistic freedom in contemporary Japanese architecture. Its open design and utilization of tubes in the cultural media center warmly welcome the community into the space, while also connecting the space with the community. Toyo Ito, in a video interview by Richard Copans, explains that the inspiration for this structure originated from the image of something floating in an aquarium. Moreover, this eco-friendly building is visually captivating and offers a wide range of spatial activities, including gallery spaces, a cinema, libraries, a cafe, and much more. Staying true to the essence of Japanese aesthetics and emotions, the atmosphere within the building transforms with the changing seasons, with glimpses of street trees visible from various viewpoints.

© Benesse Art Site Naoshima, Chichu Museum.

Undoubtedly, one of the most prevailing and renowned contemporary architects in Japan is none other than Tadao Ando. Renowned for his bold experiments with concrete and his ability to challenge conventional notions of spatial inhabitation through his designs, Ando emerged as a savior for Naoshima island during the 1980s, when its population was dwindling. His masterpiece, the Benesse House Museum, beautifully intertwined the realms of architecture, nature, and art. Ando, a self-taught architect, can truly be regarded as an auteur. In a manner reminiscent of Junichiro Tanizaki’s esteemed essay “In Praise of Shadows,” Ando’s distinctive designs skillfully manipulate shadows, light, and patterns. He asserts that his creations reflect the profound connection between material and form, as well as the intrinsic relationship between volume and human existence. To truly appreciate the magnificence of his work, we invite you to explore these ten iconic Tadao Ando buildings that deserve a visit.

Embodying the essence of minimalistic simplicity and communal living, Ryue Nishizawa embarked on the creation of Moriyama House, culminating in its completion in 2005. This architectural marvel serves as a symbolic manifestation of the profound connection between a dweller and their community, delving into the intricate dynamics of self-existence and harmonious cohabitation. The task of designing a residence for a client is an intimate and delicate endeavor, presenting architects with both challenges and exhilaration. How does one artfully fashion a dwelling that not only satisfies but also anticipates the diverse needs of a human being? Nishizawa’s ingenious approach involved conceptualizing separate, angular structures, or “volumes,” which were then artfully clustered together. As a result, certain units were dedicated to a solitary function, while others emerged as captivating “mini-houses” boasting comprehensive designs. By leasing out these enchanting abodes, Moriyama himself inadvertently gave rise to a tight-knit community rooted in Japanese minimalism, effectively blurring the boundaries between private and public domains, shared and individual spaces, and other dichotomies that permeate both architectural and everyday realms.

Kengo Kuma, a prominent figure in the realm of contemporary Japanese architecture, stands out for his exceptional connection to nature, which is evident in the majority of his works. As an architect, he seamlessly bridges the gap between designer and craftsman, placing great emphasis on the materials used and their intricate craftsmanship. In his thought-provoking essay, “Studies in Organic,” Kuma emphasizes the vital bond between the craftsman and the architect. By reimagining traditional architectural practices, this modern architect incorporates elements of nature into our present-day world, thereby constructing sustainable structures. A prime example of his transformative abilities can be seen in the rejuvenated Fujiya Ryokan, where he meticulously preserved and refined a century-old building. Although his designs may appear deceptively simple at first glance, a closer and more attentive examination unveils a profound and meaningful depiction of a master craftsman at work.

9. The Japanese Art of Craftsmanship

© Pray for Kumamoto, Brooch created by Mariko Kumioka.

The post-World War II era in Japan witnessed a whirlwind of modernization, which not only brought about widespread prosperity but also sparked concerns in the art realm. There was a growing apprehension that the rich heritage of Japanese traditional craftsmanship was at risk of being overshadowed by the pervasive influence of Western cultural customs.

As a means of fostering and bolstering artistic endeavors, the government took decisive action by implementing an array of legislations. These measures encompassed the official classification of invaluable cultural assets, as well as bestowing the esteemed distinction of Living National Treasures upon skilled craftsmen, ensuring the perpetuation of age-old techniques.

Matsui Kosei, a true gem of our nation, possessed an extraordinary talent. By delving into the lost artistry of the past, Kosei ingeniously crafted the neriage technique, resulting in the creation of mesmerizing and vibrant pieces, such as this remarkable vase with its captivating striations. If you wish to discover more extraordinary ceramic maestros, be sure to explore the mesmerizing realm of These Phenomenal Japanese Ceramics, or embark on a journey to unravel the genius of Japan’s 11 Most Remarkable Female Ceramic Artists.

© Kubota Itchiku, Kimono featuring Mount Fuji and Fiery Clouds.

© Yukito Nishinaka, Yobitsugi Glass Container.

Prior to the Meiji restoration, glass was not widely utilized in Japan. Nevertheless, as western-style homes and windows became more prevalent, artists swiftly recognized the immense possibilities offered by this adaptable material. Among these craftsmen is Yukito Nishinaka, who continues to create exceptional pieces today. Drawing inspiration from traditional Japanese craft objects, Nishinaka endeavors to reenvision teaware and garden ornaments using the medium of glass. To witness more breathtaking art from Nishinaka and fellow artists, visit Glass Artists to Shatter Your Preconceptions.

© Juliet Sheath, Bamboo and Box Pin by Mariko Sumioka.

The realm of Art Jewelry, although not originally from Japan in its contemporary form, possesses the remarkable ability to harness the nation’s abundant cultural heritage to create one-of-a-kind artistic pieces. Mariko Sumioka, an exemplary artist in this field, derives her inspiration from the architectural essence of Japan. Not only does she appreciate the aesthetic worth of homes and temples, but she also recognizes the artistic significance of their individual components: bamboo, lacquer, ceramics, tiles, and various other traditional crafting and construction materials. Explore the fascinating world of other artisans who breathe life into Japanese art history through their jewelry designs in How Japanese Jewelry Design Draws Inspiration from Traditional Art.

10. The Future of Japanese Contemporary Art

© Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room, 1965.

In the 21st century, Japanese contemporary art embodies the deliberate pursuit of novelty and exploration by its creators. Present-day trailblazing artists effortlessly traverse diverse artistic mediums, unleashing their unwavering visions. From manga and fashion to digital sculpture and photography, the conventional limitations imposed by disciplines are being shattered, paving the way for fresh avenues of artistic and societal independence.

Artistic freedom holds particular significance when it comes to the rise of emerging female artists in Japan. The creative industry is witnessing an unparalleled influx of talented women who are making their mark. Inspirational figures like Yayoi Kusama have cleared the path for young female artists to flourish. Explore the world of these gifted women through resources like Female Artists You Should Know, Famous Female Painters, and Japan’s Most Popular Female Manga Artists! Additionally, you can experience Kusama’s captivating public artworks firsthand, regardless of your location: Discover Where to See Yayoi Kusama’s Art.

Junko Mori, a talented artist hailing from Wales, has crafted a mesmerizing silver wreath that beautifully juxtaposes the strength of unyielding metal with the delicacy of tender spring petals.

Mori’s remarkable creation, the ‘Silver Poetry; Spring Fever Ring’, serves as a captivating glimpse into her innate creative journey. Each piece takes shape organically, without any predetermined design, as it transforms through the act of making and contemplation. As if influenced by the serendipitous mutations of cells, a mesmerizing amalgamation of individual units gradually emerges, showcasing the essence of evolution within this artistic process.

Similar to Rakuware by a tea master craftsman, Mori’s work embodies that rare quality where accidents are celebrated for their uncontrollable beauty.

© Takahiro Iwasaki, Duct Tape Scupture, Geoeye (Victoria Peak), provided by Urano.

Takahiro Iwasaki’s Out of Disorder collection showcases an awe-inspiring display of avant-garde exploration, where he skillfully repurposes neglected mundane items to construct intricately crafted cityscapes on a miniature scale. Discover the captivating journey behind Takahiro Iwasaki’s Revolutionary Sculptures in The Chronicles of Takahiro Iwasaki’s Unconventional Artistry.

© Takashi Murakami, Flower Matango Artwork at the Palace of Versailles, 2010.

Rule-breaking convictions shine through in numerous pieces by Takashi Murakami. The mesmerizing confrontation between classical art and popular culture is perfectly exemplified by his sculpture Flower Matango at the Palace of Versailles. By melding these influences into a unique hybrid, Murakami solidifies his position as one of today’s most captivating Japanese artists. Dive into the realm of Iconic Japanese Contemporary Artworks to uncover more! And if you happen to be in Tokyo, don’t miss the chance to explore the country’s pioneering Digital Art Museum, showcasing the extraordinary works by the art collective teamLab. Get an exclusive peek at our interview right here.

Not only do the art superstars deserve recognition, but Japan is also teeming with an abundance of hidden gems, exemplified by these ten remarkable ‘Outsider’ artists!

Embracing the essence of time-honored customs, contemporary artists delve into the realm of imagination and skillfully exhibit their creative prowess. Masayo Fukuda serves as a prime example, as she ingeniously pioneers innovative pathways within the art of kirie, the exquisite Japanese paper cutting technique. With utmost dedication, she meticulously carves an intricate and mesmerizing marine creature, evoking a captivating sense of vitality when held in your hands. Discover the enchanting world of these five distinguished Japanese paper-cutting artists who have mastered the art of Kirie.

© Chiharu Shiota, State of Existence (Children’s Attire), 2013.

Chiharu Shiota, an artist hailing from Berlin, possesses a uniquely profound perspective on artistic ingenuity. With her grand-scale installations, she delves into the lexicons of unease and recollection. One of her exceptional works, State of Being, emerges as a mesmerizing depiction of the profound bonds that bind individuals with their possessions. By enveloping mundane items, such as a child’s garment, within boundless networks of crimson threads, she metamorphoses ordinary objects into poignant fragments of personal nostalgia.

Do you have any questions about Japanese art or Japanese history? Let us know in the comments below, and we’ll get you the answers!Output: Curious about the enchanting realm of Japanese art or the captivating tapestry of Japanese history? Share your queries in the comments section and we’ll unravel the mysteries for you!



Alexia Young

Hello and welcome to the world of Alexia. I am a passionate and dedicated artist who loves to create beautiful, mesmerizing art for everyone's walls. I believe in the importance of encouraging people to express their creativity and be happy.

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