Thursday, July 23, 2015


Japanese art covers many mediums, and they have a large offering in the realm of world art. During the early periods in Japanese history, much of its art was relegated to clay pots as well as utilizing copper and bronze for tools and weapons.  

Architecture is also a major part of Japanese art as well. It was introduced with the spread of Buddhism since much of the architectural endeavors took the form of temples and shrines. You can see examples of this in the famous pagodas with the upward-pointed corners on the roofs. Torii gates are the traditional gates of Shinto shrines, but they can also be found at Buddhist temples as well. Perhaps the most famous of these are the Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima prefecture where it appears to be floating at high tide.

Ink painting is probably the most influential of the arts in Japan and perhaps holds the highest status as an artist. Because early writing was mostly done with a brush (i.e. calligraphy), it was easy for those studying calligraphy to venture into the painting arts. Throughout the centuries there have been several different types of painting, using different mediums and different materials. One technique was called ink wash painting, or sumi-e in Japanese. This painting was usually done on screens of various sizes (usually silk or paper) and generally devoid of color, only shades of black and grey. This method was popular throughout China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. 

Ukiyo-e is one of the traditional arts done in Japan. These are traditional woodblock prints that were popular between the 17th and 19th centuries and were quite the thing with the merchant class. The scenes depicted many of the pleasures of entertainment in the city of Edo during this time. There were far more details in the physique of the people and animals painted including the addition of a number of colors as well. 

Paper arts have been popular in Japan for many centuries and are often identified as one of the traditional Japanese arts. Most people are familiar with origami (literally meaning “folding paper”), which is the practice of folding paper to create objects. There is a famous children’s story about folding a thousand paper cranes. A related art called kirigami (meaning “cutting paper”) takes it further and combines pieces of cut paper together to create images or in some cases, pop-up scenes. The art of making paper, called washi, is also popular in Japan. When my sister went to Japan a few years after me, she was able to make a picture out of paper that she made. There are many books available at most libraries to teach you how to do these paper arts. 

Of course, today most people think of anime and manga when it comes to Japanese art. Hayao Miyazaki (along with Studio Ghibli) brought Japanese animation to the global forefront. To differentiate between the two terms, manga is more or less a comic book. It comes in a broad range of topics from fantasy to historical dramas to sports, and it’s aimed from young children to adults. If a manga series becomes particularly popular, it may be made as animation for television. In Japan, manga is used for both the comic books as well as television animation. However, for English speakers the term anime mostly just refers to animation while manga is the comic books. I’ve not been a super huge fan of anime/manga, but I do have a couple copies of Doraemon in Japanese somewhere. Every now and then, I try to get into manga, but I never know which one to start with. 

Ancient literature in Japan was still dealing with early language development of the Japanese language. It was stemmed from Chinese influences, and later hiragana and katakana was developed from this. Classical literature was primarily written during the feudal period. The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari), written by Murasaki Shikibu, is often considered the world’s first novel. And it happens to be written by a woman! (I own this and read it years ago.) Another book, The Tale of Taketori (Taketori Monogatari) is often touted as one of the first examples of science fiction. 

The Tale of the Heike (Heike Monogatari), which highlights the history of the clash between the Taira and Minamoto clans, is one of the key works of literature during the Medieval period of literature. The Meiji Restoration period marked the beginning of the Early Modern period. This period brought along a number of travelogues, and due to the small amounts of Western influences that began entering Japan, a wide variety of literary genres also began to pop up. 

Around the turn of the century between the 19th and 20th centuries, writers took a different path in their work. Writers were far more influenced by the literary movements in Europe and emulated many of these styles.  Natsume Soseki was a highly influential novelist, most famous for his novels I am a Cat, Botchan, and Kokoro (all of which I own and have read). Soseki’s likeness is on the 1000-yen bill. Shiga Naoya is considered by some to be the “god of the novel” although he only wrote one full-length novel, An’ya Koro. Mori Ougai is a noted poet and novelist, famous for his novel The Wild Geese. Kazuo Ishiguro is a Japanese writer who later moved to England, known for his novels The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, and An Artist of the Floating World. Japan has also produced two Nobel Prize winners: Yasunari Kawabata (1968) and Kenzaburou Oue (1994). 

There are many different types of poetry in Japan, although the most widely known types are haiku and tanka. Haiku are short, three-line verses where each line comprises of a 5-7-5 syllable scheme, meaning the first line is five syllables long, the second is seven, and the last one is five. Many times, haiku incorporates nature into its poetry. One of the most famous haiku poets in Japan was Matsuo Bashou who wrote during the Edo period. His poetry is still studied today across the world. Tanka is a five-line poem utilizing a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable scheme. Tanka is the modern form of waka poetry. 


Japan also had its forms of drama. The most widely known style is that of the kabuki play. I went to see a kabuki play when I was in Tokyo. It was moderately hard to understand, but thankfully, I had an earphone with an English translation of what was happening. Originally, women were allowed to participate, and it was highly popular among the teahouses and involved music and dance and drama, but many of these women also offered themselves as prostitutes as well. So of course, female kabuki was banned and became an all-male production where men played both women’s and men’s parts. (You see this during Shakespeare’s time with his plays as well.) Noh programs are also popular which usually includes five Noh plays, and the actors utilize a variety of masks, costumes, and props to portray characters in the story. Bunraku is a form of Japanese puppet theatre where performers manned large puppets and shared the stage with chanters and shamisen players. 

This movie led to the term "The Rashomon Effect" where different witnesses can all have very different accounts of an event.

The first Japanese film was produced in 1897, only three years after Thomas Edison came up with the kinetoscope. (This actually amazes me since this technology made it across the world, and this was six years before airplanes were invented.) Since that first film of the sights of Tokyo, filmmakers began creating all kinds of films, at first mostly based on theatre and historical events. Samurai films gained popularity during the 1920s, and the technology of connecting sound with the film became a big deal. The 1950s were the beginning of the Golden Age of Japanese film with such classics as Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, and Godzilla. Director Akira Kurosawa influenced a plethora of other directors and filmmakers. The 1980s brought home video to the scene as well as one of my favorite movies, Tanpopo. Hayao Miyazaki became one of the most celebrated directors throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s with films such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke. Today, Japanese horror films, science fiction films, and monster films are also enjoyed on a cult level.

Up next: music and dance

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