Chapter 8 Art of Japan


Chapter 8 Art of Japan

The history of Japanese culture is a history of adaptation and change. It was responsive to imported ideas such as Buddhism and Chinese writing systems and had a great ability to meet challenges. Japan developed a distinctive culture characterized by wide variety. There are strong regional variations in art, dialect, cuisine, customs, and even physical appearance.

Japans indigenous religion is Shintoism a worship of spirits called


They believe that kami reside in trees, water, rocks, and the other many parts of nature. This is why nature is so important to the Japanese because nature is where the kami reside. Each clan had a kami as protector of the clan.

Shrines were built as a place of offering. In Japan today there are shrines literally everywhere. Priests would make offerings of grain and fruit and pray for the clans. Visitors to shrine areas have to wash in a ritual of spiritual and physical cleansing.

Purity is a very important aspect of Japanese life. These concepts of purity account for the cyclical rebuilding of the sanctuaries at grand shrines. Such rebuilding rids the sacred site of impurities. During rebuilding, the old structure remains standing so that an exact duplicate can be built next to it, preserving ancient forms with great precision. Despite the predominance of

Buddhism today, Shintoism continues as a vital religion in Japan.

Buddhist Japan

The Asuka Period in Japan marked the beginning of a time when Japan’s ruling elite embraced major elements of the continental culture that had gradually filtered into Japan. In 552 One of the rulers of Korea’s three kingdoms sent Japan’s ruler a gilded bronze statue of Buddha along with the

sutras (Buddhist scriptures)

translated into Chinese (the written language of eastern Asia. For half a century after 552, Buddhism met with opposition, but was firmly established after that time. Older Shinto beliefs continued to have significance especially in agricultural rituals and imperial court rites.

As time passed Shinto deities even gained new identities as local manifestations of Buddhist deities. In the arts associated with Buddhist practices, Japan closely followed Korean and Chinese prototypes. In fact early Buddhist architecture in Japan that has survived has been used t understand the Buddhist architecture in China that did not survive. Buddhist temples were actually building complexes rather than individual structures.

The main building in a Buddhist temple complex is the image hall which housed the icon and provided a site of worship and prayer. At


an important early site


the hall is called

kondo (Golden Hall),

and dates from around 680. The covered porch is an eighth century addition and the upper red railing was added in the 17 th

century. The Chinese influence is clear.

How can one tell a Chinese building from a Japanese one? The corners of the roof of a Chinese building have a greater more pronounced upward curve than the Japanese styles which are much less curved.

Among the earliest examples of Buddhist sculpture in Japan is a bronze

Buddha triad (Buddha flanked by two bodhisattvas).

Rescued from

Horyuji’s predecessor, which was destroyed by fire in the 7th century, it became one of the main images in the Horyuji kondo. The central figure is

Shaka (the Indian/Chinese Shakyamuni), the historical Buddha. Shaka here is in transhistorical disguise, having achieved a higher state of being.

Behind the main image, a flaming

mandorla (a lotus shaped petal nimbus)

bears small figures of other Buddhas. The sculptor Tori Busshi (Busshi means maker of Buddhist images), was a descendent of a Chinese immigrant. This Buddha dating to 623 reflects the style of early sixth century Chinese and Korean Buddhas. He elongated the heads and gave greater attention to the stylization of the drapery than the physical substance of the bodies and garments.

Heian Period (794-1185)

In 784, the imperial house of Nara moved its capital to the north to Heiankyo

(capitol of piece and tranquility), it is today known as Kyoto. During this time Chinese influence on Japanese affairs diminished.

During the Heian Period there was the introduction of two variations of


Esoteric Buddhism

taught that all individual possess Buddha nature and could become enlightened to this reality through such acts as meditation and careful living. Another variation was called

Shingon (True

Word) Buddhism

and had a much wider impact. Shingon followers believe anyone can achieve enlightenment through contemplation and rituals using special hand gestures (mudras) and recite particular words or syllables.

Because of the emphasis on ritual and meditation in Shingon the arts flourished. Paintings and sculptures provided the followers with visualizations of specific Buddhist deities and allowed them to contemplate the transcendental concepts central to the religion. Of particular importance in Shingon meditation was the

mandala (mandara in Japanese),


diagram of the cosmic universe. Among the most famous is the


World (Taizokai),

which was usually hung on the wall of a Shingon kondo.

The Womb World is composed of 12 zones, each representing one of the various dimensions of Buddha nature (for example, universal knowledge, wisdom, achievement, and purity). The mandala illustrated her is among the best preserved in Japan and is located at Toji, the Shingon teaching center established in 823. In [the Womb World] mandala, all kinds of Buddhas and deities are lined up together. If we ask if only the very magnificent Buddhas are lined together, the answer is no. Only the cosmic Buddha Dainichi

Nyorai [a.k.a. Mahavairocana] in the center is one hundred percent perfect.

Many of the others surrounding it are deities from Indian folk religion. On the very outer edges, a lot of snakes and demons have been included. Each one of them is an offshoot of Dainichi Nyorai. Each has some kind of special characteristic, and each can become a Buddha by means of that special characteristic. What we find here is a logic by which even something that is ninety-nine percent bad has a hundred percent value by virtue of the one percent of the special characteristic it has.…Therefore there is no such thing as leaving behind something that is ninety-nine percent bad.

Because they have a special characteristic in the amount of one percent, they are seen as an offshoot of the one hundred percent that is Dainichi Nyorai.

Such a world is woven into the mandala. It is a way of thinking in which everything is embraced and every single special characteristic is nourished.


Japanese Mandalas

, 58]


(Eastern Temple) is a Buddhist temple of the Shingon sect in Kyoto,

Japan. It once had a partner, Saiji (Western Temple), and the two stood alongside the Rashomon, the gate to the Heian capital.

The famous priest Kobo Daishi (Kukai) founded Toji in 823 A.D. by order of Emperor Saga. The temple's formal name is Kyo-o Gokoku-ji, indicating that its function was protection of the nation. Its principal image is of

Yakushi Nyorai, the healing Buddha.

The pagoda of Toji stands over 180 feet high, and is the tallest wooden tower in Japan. It dates from the Edo period, when it was rebuilt by order of the third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu.

Recognizing the historical and spiritual significance of Toji, UNESCO designated it, along with several other treasures in Kyoto Prefecture, a

World Heritage Site. Today it is an oasis of calm in central Kyoto.


Japan’s most famous literary classic is the

Tales of Genji,

written around

1000 by Lady Murasaki, a lady in waiting at the court. The story recounts the lives and loves of Prince Genji and his descendants and provides the readers with a view of Heian court culture. This story was told and illustrated on a set of 10 hand scrolls dating from the early 12 th

century. It is believed that they were produced by five teams of artists. Each team consisted of a nobleman talented in calligraphy, a chief painter, and assistants. The script is primarily


a sound based writing system developed in Japan from Chinese characters. Hiragana originally served the needs of women who did not know Chinese and became the main script for

Japanese court poetry. In these hand scrolls pictures alternate with the text.

The work is focused on emotionally charged moments in personal relationships rather than on lessons in exemplary behavior. Something like melodrama or today’s soap operas.

In these illustrations we see various scenes depicted. What is important for us is the understanding of the composition. Here we see a radically upturned ground plane and strong diagonal lines suggest three-dimensional space rather than an illusionistic (observed reality) portrayal. Further these features convey an elevated eyelevel or viewpoint; the painter omitting roofs and ceilings to allow a privileged view of the emotionally charged moments typically represented in the interiors. Flat fields of unshaded color emphasize the paintings two-dimensional character, but rich patterns in the textiles and architectural adornment give a feeling of sumptuousness. The human figures appear constructed of stiff layers of contrasting fabrics; the artist simplified and generalized the aristocratic faces, using a technique called “line for eye and hook for nose.” This lack of individualization may reflect societal restrictions on looking directly at exalted persons, or it may have served to ease the viewer’s identification with a character in the story.

The Legends of Mount Shigi,

painted in the late 12 th

century, at the end of the Heian Period, represents a different aesthetic approach to narrative hand scroll painting. The stories belong to the genre of pious Buddhist tales devoted to miraculous events involving virtuous individuals. Unlike the

Genji scrolls, short segments of picture and text do not alternate. Instead, painters took advantage of the scroll format to present several scenes in an unbroken stretch. For example, in the first scroll the same travelers are shown at several stages of their journey through a continuous landscape.

The Mount Shigi scrolls illustrate three miracles associated with a Buddhist monk named Myoren and his mountain top temple. This detail relates the story of the flying storehouse and depicts Myoren’s begging bowl lifting the rice-filled storehouse of a wealthy landowner and carrying it off to the monk’s hut in the mountains. The painter depicts the astonished landowner, attendants, and onlookers in exaggerated expressions and poses, in striking contrast to the Genji scrolls.

Kamakura Period (1185-1332)

In the late 12 th

century, a series of civil wars between rival warrior families led to the demise of the imperial court and the establishment of the


(military government) by the Minamoto family at Kamakura in eastern Japan. The imperial court still existed at Kyoto but it was merely for show and lacked any power or authority. More frequent and positive interaction with China in this period brought with it an appreciation for recent cultural developments there, ranging from architectural styles to Zen


The priest

Shunjobo Chogen (1121-1206)

was a leading figure in the planning and direction of the rebuilding efforts in Nara. Shunjobo was reputed to have made three trips to China between 1166 and 1176. His portrait statue is a striking example of the high level of naturalism prevalent in the early Kamakura period. Characterized by finely painted details, powerfully rendered signs of aging, and the inclusion of details, such as, prayer beads, exhibit the great skill of the Kei School of sculptors. The Kei

School displays fine carving techniques combined with increased concern for natural volume and detail learned from studying surviving Nara works and those imported from Song China. Enhancing the natural quality of

Japanese portrait statues is the use of inlaid rock crystal for eyes, a technique found only in Japan.

All the painting types flourishing in the Heian Period continued to prosper in the Kamakura Period.

The Burning of the Sanjo Palace,

is a fragment of a work illustrating some of the battles in the civil wars at the end of the Heian

Period. Here, the viewer sees the drama unfold in a swift violent staccato brushwork and vivid flashes of color. At the beginning of the scroll (read from right to left), the eye focus’ on a mass of figures rushing toward a blazing building (not shown here) – the paintings crescendo – then moves at a slowed pace through swarms of soldiers, horses, and bullock carts. Finally a warrior on a rearing horse arrests the viewer’s gaze. The horse and rider serve as a

deceptive cadence

(false ending). They are merely a prelude to the single figure of the archer, who picks up and completes the soldier’s mass movement, drawing the narrative to a close.