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AzuchiMomoyama Period Art, Architecture & Pottery

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, learn about a time of political unification in Japan: The Azuchi-Momoyama Period. We will study the main characteristics of its military and residential architecture and explore the pottery and other artworks from this time.

The Azuchi-Momoyama Period

During most of the 16th century, Japan suffered wars and political turmoil, and it was divided among feudal lords who controlled the different provinces. Then, in the last three decades of that century, most of the country was reunified and order was restored; that was the Azuchi-Momoyama period.

The Azuchi-Momoyama period started around 1573 and lasted until approximately 1600. Oda Nobunaga and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi fought to politically unify Japan under a single regime, bringing the feudal order to an end. This era received its name from the two main fortresses and centers of power at the time: the Azuchi castle, selected by Nobunaga as the seat of government; and the Momoyama castle, a symbol of Hideyoshi's power.

The Momoyama Castle, also known as Fushimi
Momoyama Castle

Architecture

The architecture during this era was heavily influenced by wars. Decades of conflict started in the second half of the 15th century, thus promoting military architecture. During that time, most of the feudal lords erected their own castles as defensive structures and symbols of power.

The Azuchi-Momoyama period was a continuation of that military architecture. Therefore, constructions from this period were focused on castles and, to a lesser extent, residential settings. The creation of religious temples was nearly abandoned.

The Castles

By the time Nobunaga assumed control over Japan, each domain was allowed to have one castle. Each region had their own designers and engineers for these castles, but most structures consisted of a central tower, inner gardens and several fortified structures.

The Matsumoto Castle
The Matsumoto Castle

The central tower was usually the tallest part of the castle and served as an outpost and as a defensive structure. The regent of the castle and his generals often used it for meetings and planning military tactics.

The internal gardens were a symbol of power and wealth, so these areas were often very elaborate. Tea ceremonies, formal reunions and other rituals usually took place there.

Generals, advisers and other important officials often lived inside the castle, so specific strategic rooms and structures were heavily fortified to keep them safe in the event of a siege.

Castles were usually enclosed by thick and tall stone walls. Deep water ditches surrounding the outer walls were common, making attacks to the castle more difficult.

Castle Decoration and Interiors

Gold and other precious metals were used for decoration and as a symbol of power, so the wealthier the region, the more ostentatiously decorated the castle.

Golden Tea Room inside the Momoyama Castle
Golden Tea Room

Sliding fusuma panels were commonly used for dividing interior areas. They consisted of a rectangular wooden frame that slid over wooden rails. The frame was often black-lacquered and had rice paper or cloth panels inside of it. Wealthy families had the fusuma panels painted in a variety of motifs, like landscapes and animals.

The Shoin-zukuri Houses

The Shoin-zukuri was an architectonic style that developed for residential constructions. It was innovative and introduced the use of square columns, replacing the lumber pillars used before. Another innovation was covering the floors completely in tatami, the traditional rice straw mats. Both elements became characteristics of the traditional Japanese architecture.

Pottery

The upper classes and a growing merchant class demanded pottery goods for daily use and also for the tea ceremonies that were becoming increasingly popular. There were two main types of pottery during this period:

  • The Shino wares were made out of fine white clay, which was then glazed with white feldspar (a natural mixture of minerals). Using iron glazes, the pieces were decorated with motifs related to nature.

A Shino Dish
A Shino Dish

  • The Raku wares consisted mostly of utensils for the tea ceremony. The pieces were entirely hand modeled, so each piece was unique. The pieces were commonly glazed in dark brown or cream colors. Also, the technique used was unique and consisted of heating and then quickly cooling the pieces. The abrupt change of temperature created unique effects on the glaze.

A Raku Teacup
A Raku Teacup

However, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean pottery was in high demand in Japan at this time. It was usually glazed pottery colored in white, green and blue tones. These imported goods were preferred over the local products.

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