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Kamakura Period Art, History & Culture

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, we explore the Kamakura period, an era of Buddhism and Samurai warriors. Learn about the history and culture that developed under the military government of this time. Also, study the arts and architecture that were created.

The Kamakura Period

After centuries of an imperial government that limited itself to the capital and neglected the provinces, the rise of strong military lords all over Japan was inevitable. Suddenly, they were in control and the royal court was reduced to figureheads with almost no authority. That was the start of the Kamakura era.

The Kamakura period began in 1185 and lasted until approximately 1333. Minamoto Yoritomo, a leader of one of the military families, defeated an enemy group in 1185 and made Kamakura, a small village outside of modern-day Tokyo, his seat of power. In 1192, he was recognized as a military leader by the Emperor, receiving the title of Shogun (the highest-rank official), and the Kamakura Shogunate started. It was the beginning of an era of military government and a feudal system.

The power was taken by the Hojo clan (another military family) by the beginning of the 13th century, but Kamakura remained the seat of power for almost 150 years. Japan was still not a unified country, and struggles for power among different military families were common. The Mongols also attempted to invade the archipelago at the end of the 13th century, but they were defeated by the Japanese warriors, awakening a sense of national pride.

The Kamakura Culture

With the Shogun in power and a strong resistance against his military authority, combats were common. Therefore, a culture of war developed during the Kamakura period.

One of the best-known aspects of this culture was the samurai. They were well-trained warriors who came from many different military families. The samurai were known for their military skills and strong code of ethics and loyalty, and they had a very strong presence during this period.

Samurai armor from the early 14th century
Samurai Armor

The expansion of Buddhism was also important. Zen Buddhism became an influential religious practice as it emphasized concentration, meditation and discipline. The warriors' values of discipline and austerity were compatible with the practices of Zen Buddhism so many of them became close to this religion.

In the old capital Kyoto, the court lived isolated and with very limited power, although they kept significant wealth and land. The city remained the cultural center for the production of literature and some secular art.

Kamakura Art

Most forms of art adopted a strong local character, less influenced by Chinese art. The artwork was mostly religious, providing the iconography needed by Buddhism for reaching and inspiring the uneducated masses. The war culture also raised the demand for objects for battle, leading to the production of many weapons and armor for the warriors.

A Katana, the traditional samurai sword
Katana Sword

Sculpture

The wars had damaged many temples and the sculptures inside them, so new pieces were needed to replace them. Therefore, sculptures with religious motifs developed. They were made out of wood and included realistic representations painted in different colors. Sometimes, golden decorative elements were included or glass inserts were used for the eyes, enhancing the realistic look.

Statue of Junishinsho, a Heavenly General
Statue of Junishinsho

Painting

Painting was an important form of art encouraged by Buddhism. There were two main types of religious paintings. One consisted of religious images and circular representations of the universe (mandalas), while the other was calligraphic texts, or sutras, illustrated with drawings that narrated the different teachings of Buddha. Both types of paintings were often created as hanging scrolls with different colors applied to either a silk or paper base. It was common to incorporate some elements of the traditional Japanese religion of Shintoism, looking to connect with those followers and encourage them to join Buddhism.

Fragment of a Lotus Sutra from 1257
Fragment of a Lotus Sutra from 1257

The secular paintings had some relevance in the form of portraits of the military lords and members of the court.

Metalwork

Metalwork objects were crafted for both religious or military use. Bells, reliquaries, boxes and other ritual items were produced for temples and were usually made of gilt bronze. The warfare items included armor and the traditional samurai swords, the Katana. The armor was often made from a combination of copper, iron and leather with decorative elements. The swords often included gold inlays and inscriptions.

Bronze Ritual Bells
Bronze Ritual Bells

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