History of Japanese Art

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.

Take a journey in time and explore over 12,000 years of Japanese art history. In this lesson, learn about the different periods of Japanese art history and examine some of the arts that developed during each one.

Japanese Art

The earliest inhabitants of Japan likely arrived from mainland Asia thousands of years ago so it is no surprise that Japanese art has a long history of Chinese influences. Many foreign techniques were adopted and developed locally with a unique character.

By the late 19th century, Japan opened to the western world. At that time, some tried to categorize Japanese art as a single style. However, Japanese art is incredibly diverse and each historical period has its own characteristics and prevailing forms of art.

History of Japanese Art

The study of Japanese art history is commonly divided into periods, which often correspond with important political or social changes.

Jomon Period (c. 10,500 - c. 300 BCE)

This is the start of Japanese history. Society evolved into semi-sedentary lifestyles and early architecture started, as pit houses (wooden structures) became common. Pottery developed and was decorated by pressing cords against the clay. The decorative marks are known as jomon.

Jomon pottery vessel
Jomon pottery vessel

Yayoi Period (c. 300 BCE - c. 300 CE)

New immigrants arrived in Japan from Korea and China and brought wetland rice agriculture. A simpler form of pottery developed along with techniques for making copper weapons and bronze bells.

Kofun Period (c. 250 - 538 CE)

The feudal system began during this period. Burial architecture was very important and huge mounds were built for the elite. These structures are known as kofun. Pottery also developed according to social status and elaborate and better-finished pieces, known as sue ware, were created for the wealthy.

Kofun tomb in Ojiyama
Kofun tomb

Asuka Period (538 - 710)

During the Asuka period, Buddhism arrived in Japan and had a large influence on the arts. Religious sculpture became important, usually in the form of wooden pieces. Many Buddhist temples were built and paintings were made for transmitting religious knowledge and decorating the temples.

Nara Period (710 - 794)

This period started with the establishment of a new capital near modern-day Nara. Buddhism expanded across Japan and Chinese architectural elements like the grid layout for the city and elevated eaves and roof tiles were adopted. Other arts were deeply influenced by Buddhism, like sculpture and scroll rolls (long manuscript with religious teachings).

Bronze Buddha Statue, Nara period
Bronze Buddha Statue

Heian Period (794 - 1185)

This period started when Heian-Kyo, near today's Kyoto, was established as the capital. It was a time of peace. Arts and culture developed in the city but the provinces were left unattended. Religious art focused on sculptures of Buddha and paintings representing the universe (mandalas). Lacquered pottery, bronze mirrors, literature, and calligraphy were common among the capital's elite.

Kamakura Period (1185 - 1333)

The Kamakura was a feudal period with military families in power, a political system known as Shogunate. Buddhism and Samurai warriors dominated the culture. Artwork consisted mostly of religious paintings, realistic wooden sculptures of religious figures, and military metal objects like armor and swords.

Samurai armor, Kamakura period
Samurai armor

Muromachi Period (1336 - 1573)

This period is named after the area of modern-day Kyoto where military leaders established their residence. It was a time of constant conflict and military architecture developed, particularly castles, of which many were built. Arts were influenced by China, especially in the form of monochromatic calligraphy. Both religious and secular painting were also important.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573 - 1603)

Most of the country was unified under a single government. Castles and Buddhist temples dominated architecture. Pottery continued to be locally produced although imported pieces were preferred. Painting was important and many representations of animals, birds, and urban scenes were created.

Edo Period (1603 - 1868)

There was political stability but also strict rules governing most aspects of life. The country was closed to foreign influences, so local styles developed. Painting was very important, especially woodblock printings made by carving images on wood and then stamping them on paper. The images usually depicted trees, landscapes, and women and remained a popular artistic tradition for centuries.

Wood-block print painting, 19th century (Edo period)
Wood-block print

Meiji Period (1868 - 1912)

Starting by this period, all were named after the emperor in power. Meiji is considered the start of modern Japan, as the country started to industrialize and opened towards western cultures. Painting experienced a duality between traditional styles and modern influences. Pottery, metalwork, textiles, and other crafts were gradually replaced by mass-produced items.

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