Ancient Japan

Early Japanese Visual Arts
The visual . . .. . .  arts . . .in Japan begin at a remarkably early period—in fact, over twelve thousand years ago. Unlike any other people that we know of, the Jomon culture that inhabited Japan developed ceramics long before any other culture. It is traditional in anthropology to consider pottery to be a human development that occurs only after the invention of agriculture around the world. Pottery, along with agriculture, is what traditionally separates mesolithic from neolithic cultures. However, several thousand years before any human being ever engaged in any activity remotely resembling agriculture, the hunter-gatherer Jomon were not only crafting pottery, but crafting pottery of incredible design. The pottery was built from stacked coils and the raised lines that mark the boundary of these coils give the pottery a "roped" look—hence the name Jomon or "roped."

   Despite the very early appearance of pottery, the Jomon peoples very slowly developed different visual designs, using their fingers or string to impress repeated designs on the surface. In the Middle Jomon period (2500-1500 B.C.), the Jomon people became more settled and began producing figurines. The simple decorations of their ceramics develop into highly energetic decorations in this period. While the figurines of the Middle, Late (1500-1000 B.C.) and Final Jomon (1000-300 B.C.) periods are identifiably human, they remain abstract and highly stylized.

   In architecture, we know that from the Middle Jomon period onwards, the people lived in pit-houses dug about four or five feet into the ground. The pit-house would be standard architecture well into the Heian period, and all the legends of the gods recounted in the Nihongi and Kojiki have gods living in muro, or pit-houses.


Yayoi   As has been discussed in more detail in the section on the Yayoi, this short period in Japanese history, lasting from 300 B.C. to 300 A.D., introduced the most dramatic cultural changes in Japanese society. The culture changed from a semi-agricultural kinship based culture to a class-based culture. The Yayoi lived in settled agricultural communities, cultivated rice, and worked in bronze and iron (making them officially "modern" humans).

   The development of settled communities and agriculture changed Japanese architecture from a pit-house dominated architecture to a raised building architecture. It also allowed for the development of purely ceremonial objects, such as bells. The pottery and metal vases evidence elaborate and sophisticated designs, many of which were imported from China. Like so much else in Japanese culture, much of the arts and technologies of the Yayoi period were imported from Korea and China.


Kofun   More than anything else, the visual art which stands out from the Kofun period are the massive tombs built for powerful emperors and others, some immensely long. Many cultures, including cultures in the New World, developed some kind of similar funerary architecture, but we seem understand its origin in Japan. The Yayoi traditionally buried their dead on hillsides overlooking farmland; the great hill-tombs built by the Kufun are probably an extension of this practice. Rather than burying important dead on a hillside, the Kufun Japanese simply built an entire hill for them.

   As with some of the very best tomb-mounds, the Japanese kufun can be truly spectacular. Shaped either as a circle or a keyhole, these hills were built over burial chambers. By the fifth century, massive artificial hills surrounded by moats were being built. The largest of them, built for Nintoku Tenno, is over 1600 feet long and 90 feet high—the entire tomb, including its three moats, takes up almost 460 acres!


We know. . . much about . . .Kufun visual arts because the dead were accompanied by objects that, supposedly, they would carry into the next world. Besides food, these objects included iron tools and weapons, jewelry, pottery, mirrors and, most intriguing of all, clay figurines we call haniwa.

   The exact nature and purpose of the haniwa remains a mystery, but the Kofun Japanese produced them in prodigious numbers. These small clay figurines were almost always representational of Kofun people and material culture to some degree. Some are of houses, shields, tools, and humans. The Kofun people are representing the world around them to some degree, and their representations allow us to glimpse not only how they lived, but how they thought of how they lived.

   As haniwa crafstpeople improved their skills through the Kofun period, the human figurines begin to be recognizable on the basis of their economic function: soldiers, hunters, singers, dancers, and so on. The largest number of human figurines show men in armor, which suggests that either the period was one of constant warfare (confirmed in part by the Nihongi and the Kojiki, the first Japanese histories of Japan) or else that the intended audience prized warfare in some way.

   There's another intriguing aspect to the haniwa—they not only represent economic function, they often represent the figure's state of mind. Warrior figures, for instance, tend to have neutral features. A haniwa of a farmer found in Gunma has instead a huge smile on his face, suggesting that the craftsperson intended to represent peasant life as relatively free from care.


Asuka   From the Yayoi period onwards, Japanese visual arts are not easily separable from Korean or Chinese arts. The tumuli and the haniwa of the Kofun period are notable exceptions, but on the whole the visual arts were derivative of continental models. This derivative nature would seem to become outright slavishness in the seventh and eighth centuries when the Japanese visual imagination began to explode into a variety of visual genres.

   This explosion of the visual imagination in Japan was at its most dynamic in the buiilding of temples. From what we know of early Shinto, very little emphasis was placed on buildings in its practice. At most, some places were considered sacred and small shrines were built, but full-out temple worship and architecture seems to have been alien to early Shinto. The contact with the mainland introduced the idea and practice of temple worship, mainly through Buddhism, and this initially was applied to Shinto.

   If you were to identify one and only one radical departure in the visual world of the ancient Japanese, this building of temples would probably be your best candidate. While the Japanese certainly drew on some Chinese models, the overall architectural model that they followed was that of the granary, an indigenous architectural development in the early Yayoi period. The granary was an elevated wooden structure designed to house rice well above the ground. The granary was built on a scaffolding that elevated the granary; steep steps led up to an entrance.

   The very first Shinto temples would follow the granary model closely. The greatest of these temples is the Grand Shrine at Ise, which became the center of the national Shinto cult. The center of these architectural complexes is the honden, or main hall. The architecture of Shinto, unlike that of Buddhism, is almost entirely an architecture of ritual. The shrine complexes are about a series of purification rituals—one, you might say, proceeds through the architecture in stages until one is pure enough to get close to the precincts enclosing the honden (only priests could enter these precincts. The architecture of these shrines is closely integrated with the natural surroundings. The Shinto gods are primarily natural forces, so the architecture gives way to natural formations, such as rivers and forests, as part of the spatial organization of the ritual. For instance, at the shrines at Ise, worshippers follow a path with torii , or basins, available to wash and purify the mouth and face. These give way, however, to a river, which in ancient Japan had to be waded through to continue the complex. Wading through this river purified one even more completely then the torii .

   This is important to understand. From what we gather about the architecture of Shinto, the human made materials were meant to be an extension of the natural world. The artificial distinction that we make between human architecture and the surrounding natural world did not seem to operate in the visual imagination of Shinto. It's quite possible that the worshippers at these large shrine complexes saw little distinction between human architecture and natural formations.


As I . . .. . . earlier, . . .temple building was largely introduced through Buddhism. This religion, however, got off to a shaky start in Japan. It wasn't until 593 that the first Buddhist temple, the Shitennoji, was built in Nara (present-day Osaka). These early temples were almost slavish imitations of Korean Buddhist temples, consisting of a central pagoda surrounded by three buildings (kondo) with everything surrounded by a roofed corridor.

   Not only was temple building introduced into Japan with Buddhism, but sculpture as well. The first large sculptures produced in Japan were those of the Buddha. These early sculptures, produced in prodigious number from the seventh century onwards, drew their visual language almost entirely from Chinese and Korean models.


The Heian Period   By the beginning of the Nara period (710-794), Japanese visual arts were almost totally dominated by Buddhism and by Chinese subjects. The Nara period did not fundamentally challenge this state of affairs. Marked by ferocious building, sculpture, and painting activity, the arts of the Nara period largely served the expanding Buddhist culture centered around Nara and later Mount Hiei.

   It wasn't until the Heian period (794-1185) that the visual arts began to change. Paramount among these changes was the development of yamato-e, or Japanese painting. The yamato-e depicted Japanese subjects and scenes from Japanese life. Once this genre of painting was created it also created retrospectively the genre of kara-e, or "Chinese painting." While yamato-e would not have the same prestige as kara-e, the depiction of Japanese scenes required a different visual imagination.


Japan Glossary
Miyabi

Ancient Japan
The Flowering of Japanese Literature
   This development in the Japanese visual imagination was a highly gendered one. In the Heian court culture, women's communities were the most significant culturally creative centers of Japanese society. In addition to literature, women also influenced the nature of painting until two distinct painting styles were recognized: otoko-e, or "men's paintings," and onna-e, or "women's paintings." Otoko-e was characterized by strong calligraphic outlines on figures with washed colors so that these strong lines would not be overwhelmed by the color—the illustration below, from the illustrated manuscript Shigisan engi emaki , beautifully represents the style of otoko-e. Onna-e was characterized by rich colors and subtle outlines. The otoko-e was the medium for action subjects involving war or conflict; the onna-e was the medium for communicating, or courtliness, appropriate to the literature of miyabi, such as The Tale of Genji. The most interesting aspect of onna-e is the "cutaway" painting, in which interior scenes are painted by "cutting away" the roof. The viewer seems to be looking down into a house or room from which the roof has been removed. This unique illustrative device points out the dominant aspect of onna-e: it is primarily concerned with the Japanese life that goes on inside the court or house, while the otoko-e is primarily concerned with the public life outside the court or house. Both of these painting styles emerged as a means to represent specifically Japanese subjects and the cultural ideas represented in these subjects.
Illustration from the Shigisan engi emaki

Otoko-e painting style from the Shigisan engi emaki

The greatest . . .. . . artistic medium . . .of these new painting styles was the illustrated manuscript, or emakimono, developed in the late 900's. The emakimono ("painted scrolls") were really scrolls that one rolled out. Illustrations would occupy the full height of the scroll; beside the illustration would be the story. The greatest of these scrolls is the Genji monogatari emaki , an illustrated scroll of The Tale of Genji from the early 1100's.


Japan Glossary
Amida Buddhism
   Buddhism during the Heian period underwent some dramatic changes. Among these was the introduction of Pure Land Buddhism, a salvation religion based on a bodhisattva (manifestation) of the Buddha called Amitabha or Amida in Japanese.

   The late Heian nobility eagerly adopted Pure Land Buddhism, which promised its adherents entrance into a Land of Pure Bliss, or Paradise, on their death if they had faith in Amida. Pure Land Buddhists believed that the death of a believer would be accompanied spiritually by a great celebration, called a raigo , in which the Amida Buddha would come to the newly released spirit with twenty-five Buddhas and thousands of bodhisattvas, all accompanied by a purple cloud, flowers, perfume, and music.


   Among the upper classes, raigo paintings and sculpture became very popular, as they depicted the Amida Buddha coming down in celebration in relation to dead relatives or to one's own house. Some of these paintings are clearly yamato-e , or Japanese paintings in that they gave artists a chance to paint Japanese landscapes.
Detail from Mount Koya raigo

Detail from Mount Koya Raigo painting

   The illustration above is a detail from the most famous of the raigo paintings, that at the Mount Koya temple. The detail itself is only a very small part of the painting, but it is the figure at the very front of Amida's entourage and represents Kannon with a golden pedestal on which to carry of the spirit of the deceased. On the whole painting itself, Amida sits cross-legged in the center while descending on a lavender cloud. Two figures dominate the front of the painting. To the right of Amida is Seishi praying, to the left is Kannon holding the golden pedastel for the spirit of the deceased. Kannon (Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit), as the bodhisattva of compassion, is the most important of the bodhisattvas. Originally male, Kannon was eventually transformed into a female figure in Chinese and Japanese art, as here.

   This is a magnificent painting for getting into the very soul of Japanese Buddhist life as practiced in the late Heian and the medieval period. Look closely: this is what you, as a deceased believer, will see on your deathbed. What world view is represented by Kannon and her pedestal? How does this image affect the way you view the events of life and history?

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-20-97