Chronology of Japan's Fine Arts

This page is based on Japan: A Pocket Guide, 1996 Edition (Foreign Press Center)

Historical movements in Japan's fine arts, such as architecture, painting, and sculpture, may be classified into the following periods:

Formative period (c. 7500 B.C.-mid-sixth century A.D.)

Japan's prehistoric culture can be divided into three periods. The Jomon period (c. 7500 B.C.-c. 300 B.C.) is so called after the cord pattern often found on the neolithic earthenware from that period. This is generally unpainted pottery distinguished by relatively unrefined vessel shapes and sharp relief decoration. Other artifacts from the period include highly stylized clay figurines known as dogu.

The Yayoi period (c. 300 B.C.-c. A.D. 300) yielded earthenware pottery displaying a more restrained and sophisticated aesthetic characterized by refined shapes and light, geometric decoration. Also dating from this period are bell-shaped bronzes known as dotaku, which were probably derived from Korean musical instruments and are thought to have functioned as symbols of authority.

The Kofun, or Tumulus, period (c. A.D. 300-c. A.D. 500) is named for the mound-covered tombs of clan chieftains built during these centuries, which saw the gradual consolidation of central authority. Artifacts from these tombs, including armor and a variety of ornamental objects, reflect close contact with the Korean Peninsula during the period. The tombs were bordered by clay cylinders called haniwa, which were often mounted by simple but expressive clay sculptures, most notably human and animal forms.

Asuka and Hakuho periods (552-710)

The introduction of Buddhism into Japan in 538 also brought many architects from the Korean Peninsula with new techniques reflecting the Chinese (Northern Wei) style of Buddhist architecture. Horyuji, a temple in Nara whose main hall and pagoda date back to the Asuka period, was built in this style. Sculpture in the Northern Wei style also flourished, as Buddhist images were in great demand for worship. The 17th meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's World Heritage Committee, held in December 1993,placed the Buddhist architecture of the Horyuji area on the World Heritage List.

Nara period (710-794)

Japanese culture during this period was consciously modeled after that of the Tang dynasty in China. In architecture the Tang style was characterized by stable and balanced proportions and by an emphasis on structure over ornamentation. The lecture hall of Toshodaiji, a temple in Nara, is one of the finest extant representations of this style. Sculpture from this period, generally of clay or dry lacquer, is characterized by an idealized, "classic" realism. The group of dry-lacquer sculptures in Kofukuji, another temple in Nara, is an excellent example of Nara sculpture.

Heian period (794-1185)

During these four centuries Japan moved away from the direct influence of continental culture as a Japanese-style aristocratic culture flowered and matured. In 794 the nation's capital was moved to Heiankyo (now Kyoto), and large-scale civil engineering and construction projects were undertaken to build the new metropolis. Art during the ninth century was dominated by esoteric Buddhism, whose complex cosmology was depicted in mandalas. Later esoteric Buddhism gave way to the Jodo (Pure Land) sect. One of the architectural masterpieces of the latter period is the Phoenix Hall of Byodoin temple, which presents an image of a Buddhist paradise based on the teachings of the Jodo sect. This period also saw major developments in yamato-e, or secular Japanese-style painting, most notably emaki (illustrated scrolls),which matched pictures to the unfolding of a story in poetry or prose. During the next period emaki further developed and flourished as pictorial narratives of wars and illustrated biographies.

Kamakura period (1185-1333)

The warrior class, which had wrested political power from the nobility, turned to the Zen sect of Buddhism, introduced from Sung-dynasty China, for its spiritual underpinnings. Consequently Zen strongly influenced the culture of that period, when Kamakura was Japan's capital. Many Zen temples were built, of which typical examples are Kenchoji and Engakuji temples in Kamakura. Meanwhile, Unkei, Kaikei, and other master sculptors revived the Nara style with realistic portrait sculpture as well as Buddhist sculpture. In the sphere of painting as well, portraits, called nise-e, appeared. Among the masterpieces remaining to this day are portraits of Minamoto no Yoritomo and Taira no Shigemori attributed to Fujiwara Takanobu.

Muromachi period (1333-1573)

The nation's political and cultural center then moved back to Kyoto from Kamakura, and the warrior culture adopted aspects of the culture of nobles and Buddhist priests that had blossomed in Kyoto. The third shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, built Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) temple and its surrounding garden. During this period landscape gardening reached its zenith of refinement, and many famous gardens with ponds and miniature hills designed by such Zen priests as Muso Soseki still remain. This period also produced the kare-sansui style of symbolic gardening, in which, for example, white sand represents water and rocks depict mountains. An excellent example is the famed rock garden of Ryoanji, a temple in Kyoto. In December 1994, 17 Kyoto temples and shrines, including Byodoin, Kinkakuji, and Ryoanji, were placed on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

Domestic architecture during the Muromachi period witnessed the perfection of the shoin-zukuri style, which is the precursor of the style of the present-day Japanese house with tatami mats covering floors. Chinese-influenced ink painting flourished, reaching a peak in the work of Sesshu Toyo.

From about this time, with the completion of the shoin-zukuri style of residential architecture, ikebana and the tea ceremony also became popular. As traditional forms of Japanese culture, ikebana and the tea ceremony are still popular among people today and have attracted attention overseas, as well.

Momoyama period (1573-1603)

The period of civil strife among Japan's feudal clans that had continued since the latter half of the fifteenth century came to an end with the unification of the nation by Oda Nobunaga. After his death, Toyotomi Hideyoshi seized the reins of government. Trade with Europe expanded rapidly under Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, and Western culture was introduced in many fields. Warrior lords built castles, which they adorned with painted folding screens and sliding doors, characterized by bold designs and the lavish use of gold leaf.

Meanwhile, merchants who amassed wealth through overseas trade increased their social influence and began to contribute greatly to the development and spread of culture. A good example is the popularization of the tea ceremony, which led to the development of sukiya-zukuri, an architectural style exclusively for tea ceremony purposes. This style is still used in architecture today. Ceramic objects used in the tea ceremony also flourished with the introduction of new techniques from the Korean Peninsula. The castle at Himeji, which was constructed in this period, was also placed on the World Heritage List in December 1993.

Edo period (1603-1868)

During this 265-year period the merchant class became a central force in cultural development under the firmly established Tokugawa shogunate, which enforced a policy of national isolation. A merchant-class culture developed in the commercial centers of Osaka and Edo (now Tokyo). The latter city became the country's political hub. Kyoto, however, retained and further developed its traditional culture. For instance, the Katsura Imperial Villa constructed near Kyoto in 1624 represents the acme of shoin-zukuri architecture. Ogata Korin developed a style of heavily pigmented decorative painting (rinpa) and also designed many beautiful objects in gold ornamented lacquer, or maki-e. Bunjinga, a style of ink painting influenced by the literati painting of China's Ming dynasty, flourished under the lead of such masters as Ike no Taiga and Tanomura Chikuden.

Maruyama Okyo developed an eclectic, synthetic style of lyric realism that was to have a profound influence on later developments. In Edo ukiyo-e (woodblock prints of everyday life) came into vogue among the common people in the mid-eighteenth century. Thus followed the golden age of ukiyo-e, characterized by colorful prints of actors and beautiful women. During this time Katsushika Hokusai and Ando Hiroshige adopted the Western method of drawing in perspective introduced by such painters as Shiba Kokan through Nagasaki, the only port open to foreign trade. Their landscapes opened a new phase in ukiyo-e.

Meiji period to present (1868-)

Full-scale contact with Western art following the Meiji Restoration created in Japan a new tradition of Western-style painting (yoga), mainly in oils, in addition to influencing the time-honored Japanese style of painting (Nihonga). European methods of carving were also introduced. In 1898 Okakura Kakuzo (Tenshin) founded the Japan Fine Arts Academy, which through its exhibitions strove to reform and further develop Japanese-style painting. Meanwhile, three Italian teachers invited to Japan by the national Technical Fine Arts School in 1876 laid the foundation of Western-style painting and sculpture in Japan. Many master painters and sculptors emerged after that, some of them receiving their training abroad, mainly in France.

Contemporary Japanese art has been strongly influenced by postwar American pop art and other art forms. Nowadays Western art and sculpture, which have attained international levels, and traditional Japanese painting and calligraphy exist side by side and exert a mutual influence on each other.

In architecture too, Western styles have spread rapidly since the Meiji era. Today Japanese cities are dominated by forests of modern skyscrapers, some of them employing traditional Japanese design here and there.

(note: all the Japanese names here follow the Japanese practice of placeing the surname first)

Reference: Robert Paine and Alexander Soper, The Art and Architecture of Japan, Pelican History of Art, Penguin Books, 1975.