This is part one of a series exploring the rise of Japanese art and society, from its early beginnings to the modern-day global powerhouse that it has become.
Japan, The Land of The Rising Sun, is one of the most successful nations in the world. It is one of the few nations outside of what is considered the Western World to be both, a technological world leader, and firmly rooted in its own cultural traditions. Not only that, but modern Japan has become a major cultural exporter, and has constantly reinvented itself in the last few hundred years. So how exactly did this island nation go from a feudal, secluded society to the most technologically advanced nation on the planet and a massive cultural exporter?
A map of Tokyo, the capital of Japan. Located in Japan's central Kanto region, what is today the most populous metropolitan region in the world originated as a humble fishing village called Edo before the Tokugawa Shogunate adopted it as its seat of power. Edo was made the imperial seat of power and renamed Tokyo (literally, "eastern capital") in 1868 when the Shogunate was abolished. Get this poster here.
To start with, aesthetics have always held a special place in Japanese society. The unique Japanese sense of aesthetic has fascinated the outside world, particularly the West, for over two centuries. In the island nation itself though, it has been an integral part of daily life, with ancient ideas like wabi (seeking beauty in simplicity, quietness, and freshness), sabi (the beauty of ageing and imperfection), and yūgen (mysterious and enigmatic) evolving through centuries in the archipelago, and still prevalent today, albeit mixed with more modern elements. Art and aesthetics in Japan have been heavily influenced by Buddhism and the native Shinto beliefs of the Japanese, which emphasize nature, ethics, and landscapes.
The Ryoan-ji rock garden in Kyoto is an example of the wabi-sabi aesthetic. The ageing clay wall reflects sabi and the rock garden embodies wabi.
During the Asuka and Nara periods of Japanese history, corresponding to an era spanning roughly 240 years between 542 AD and 784 AD, Japan saw a large influx of Chinese culture and the Buddhist religion with it. It was this period that saw Greco-Buddhist art from the Kingdom of Gandhara in modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan travel along the silk road, mix with Chinese elements and form the basis for Buddhist structures in Japan. The art of metal engraving, known as Choukin, also emerged during this period.
Japanese art and culture truly began to come into its own during the Heian period, when the imperial capital was established at Heian-Kyo (modern-day Kyoto) in 794, and, particularly after the Fujiwara clan established control of the government, and the emperor was made a figurehead. The Fujiwara dominated aristocracy began to throw itself into aesthetic pursuits, and Japanese art and architecture flourished, with developments in painting and building styles, both religious and secular. The Heian period is also notable for the introduction of e-maki, illustrated handscrolls depicting text and paintings, forerunners of the manga comic style that has come to be known and loved around the world. This era also saw the establishment of distinctly Japanese traditions such as the three classical Japanese arts of refinement, ikebana (flower arrangement), kōdō (incense appreciation) and chadō (tea ceremony).
Japan stopped regular diplomatic activity with China in the late Heian period, seeing innovations in native fashion and the development of what would become the kimono, depicted on these door curtains.
The Heian period was also accompanied by increasing decentralization, as the Court’s absorption with its own elite Court culture was resulting in the neglect of provincial affairs. Soon, powerful clans outside of Kyoto began to recruit their own troops, and, when a civil war saw two powerful clans take opposing sides in their support for a possible claimant to the imperial throne, the Minamoto clan emerged victorious, establishing a bakufu, or military government, at Kamakura, where he had the emperor declare him Shogun or military dictator, and de facto ruler of Japan, even though the imperial Court still nominally exercised power from Kyoto. This system of government remained in place for 700 years, until it was overthrown by the Meiji Restoration. The Kamakura period saw the rise of the military class at the expense of the traditional nobility, and Buddhism began to spread to illiterate sections of Japanese society, alongside a general popularizing trend in Japanese society. Sculpture took on a more realistic turn, and painting began to become more accessible. Kegon Engi Emaki, or Legends of the Kegon Sect, an e-maki written in the Kamakura era, features a fantastic story filled with adventure, painted with easily written syllables and including dialogue between characters next to them, much like modern manga.
The endless emphasis on the aesthetic is hard to miss in Japanese culture. One might even say it was inevitable that such a culture would develop in Japan, given the land's endless natural beauty. Cherry blossoms, as depicted in these shower curtains, are ubiquitous in Japan and symbolize the ephemeral nature of life.
The rise of the Ashikaga clan in 1388 saw the capital moved back to Kyoto and Japanese cultural momentum once again adopted an elitist, aristocratic character. The Japanese diplomatic missions to China brought with them an infusion of Chinese art and culture for a second time, resulting in the rise of distinctly Chinese elements, such as an increased interest in monochrome paintings, and decidedly more sombre colours. The Ashikaga shogunate was comparatively weaker than the Kamakura government had been and wracked by civil unrest. In 1464, the question of succession that had been plaguing shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa erupted into a civil war that plunged Japan into the Sengoku Jidai, or warring states’ period, a century and a half long period of upheaval that saw the complete collapse of the Ashikaga government, and ended with a Japan unified under the Tokugawa dynasty, ushering in the early modern period for Japan, forged in the bloody fires of the civil war. It was this Japan that made contact with the European world, and which would inspire the Japonisme movement after it was forced to reopen trade in 1858.
In the next post, we will trace the development of early modern Japan, and how it developed into the society we know today.