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Asuka Period Architecture, Painting & Art

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Asuka period is the first era in Japanese history that was recorded in writing, so it's an interesting one. In this lesson, we'll examine the arts of the era and see what they tell us about Japanese lives under the Asuka period.

The Asuka Period

Japanese culture has long been one defined both by internal innovation, as well as the influence of foreign ideas. There's an ancient history to this, but one of the eras we see it most prominently is in the Asuka period (roughly 538-710 CE).

The Asuka period is one of the first eras in Japanese history we know a lot about, because this is the first time they started keeping written records of their own. The concept of writing entered Japan from China and Korea. This is also the era in which Buddhism first flourished in Japan, which also entered from China and Korea, albeit originally from India.

Overall, the Asuka period was an era when Japanese courts imported a lot of ideas from foreign nations, absorbed them, and began the process of transforming them into something uniquely Japanese. Even the name of Japan at this time reflected this. The island previously called itself Wa, but in the Asuka era adopted the name Nippon. That name came from the Chinese description of Japan as the land of the rising sun and yes, that's what Japan calls itself to this day.

Today, we're going to focus on Asuka developments in architecture, painting, and sculpture. There are two underlying themes that unite all of these arts:

  1. All were influenced heavily by foreign ideas.
  2. Of those ideas, Buddhism was the most transformative.

Architecture

Buddhism entered Japan through Korea in the 6th century, right around the beginning of the Asuka period. It brought with it the rich symbolic and artistic tradition of Buddhist architecture, which blended with the flourishing Japanese styles.

In India, the main component of Buddhist architecture was the stupa, a tower denoting a Buddhist place of worship. Indian stupas made their way to China, were reinterpreted there, and then made their way to Japan. Japanese architects quickly turned the Chinese tower into the five-story pagoda that would define Japanese Buddhism for centuries to come.

In terms of temple architecture, we see very strong evidence of foreign influence in Asuka structures. Chinese and Korean influences are very pronounced, but those aren't the only influences.

China at this time was already engaged in Silk Road trade with West Asia and even Europe, and some of those ideas made it into Japan. For instance, consider the Horyu-ji Temple of the Nara Prefecture in Japan.

The pagoda of Horyu-ji
pagoda of Horyu-ji

Considered the oldest surviving wooden structure in the world, the temple's pagoda has uniquely curved or swollen columns. The closest place in the world to embrace this same style is The Parthenon in Greece.

Painting

Buddhist architecture is not generally associated with austerity in design, and painting flourished in Asuka Japan in association with Buddhist temples. Unfortunately, not much of it has survived, with the most notable exception being the Tamamushi Shrine, a 7-foot tall shrine modeled as a miniature temple, complete with miniature temple paintings. Buddhist scenes, deities, and symbols are depicted in bright colors very reminiscent of Korean and Chinese Buddhist art.

Buddhist painting on the Tamamushi Shrine
Tamamushi Shrine

The Tamamushi Shrine is one of the only surviving works of Asuka-era Buddhist painting, but there is evidence of tomb painting as well. The walls of some tombs were painted with images of Japanese life, but this tradition too is a near-carbon copy of Korean tomb paintings, even down to the depiction of Korean fashions and clothing.

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