While any visitor to Japan will delight in all things modern and eccentric, one of the traditional pleasures of a visit to the land of the rising sun is the opportunity to discover the country’s phenomenal array of art.
Spread out across a stratovolcano archipelago, and boasting 6,852 islands, Japan’s location off the east coast of Asia has benefitted its artistic endeavours over the centuries. Subject to a broad range of external influences, Japanese society has always delighted in both imitation and the development of its own brand of artistic expression.
Japan is particularly strong in the decorative arts. Historically the islands’ obsession with immaculate beauty has influenced everyday life throughout the ages. From the early Jōmon and Yayoi ceramics (10,000 – 300BC), through to today’s fashion and electronics cultures, the people of Japan have thrilled in the discipline of creating beautiful, ornate and decorative works.
Luckily, today the opportunities to enjoy the art of Nippon remain huge. Visits to religious sites, historical monuments, museums and even ordinary modern architectural structures are all intertwined with the psyche that is so quintessentially Japanese.
This list is an example of ten artistic forms, from classic craft and design to contemporary ideas that have influenced their industry and fashionable lifestyle.
The classic Japanese garment of choice over the ages, it was first used during the Edo period (1615-1868) by both men and women. The Kimono is a straight-seamed robe that wraps around, tied together by an obi (sash). The multi-designed canvas of colour is simply made from a wealth of differing textiles. With no pockets, an inrō (personal container and ultimate must-have fashion accessory) would hang suspended from the obi.
- Samurai Weaponry
The samurai warrior class, which ruled Japan for nearly seven centuries (1185 – 1868), left a precious assortment of artistic swords, blade fittings, hand arms, armour and guns (from 1540 onwards).
- Performing Arts
Traditionally all male, Japan’s stage performers have a long history. With 14th century Nō theatre an example of finely decorated actors and dancers, performing in colourfully decorated robes and immaculate face masks.
To this day ‘the gift’ is a hugely important part of social interaction, reflecting the respect given to the recipient, as much as the important generosity of the giver. This example of a 19th century gift cover (fukusa) highlights the extravagant design even in the wrapping.
- Arts & Crafts
Lacquer, wood, textiles, metal, ceramics and the natural environment have all been used to create some of Japan’s most exciting handicraft works. From ornate garden design, with painstakingly precise craft-accessories, to the world famous Japanese urushi (lacquer). Traditional methods continue to blend into modern designs. As this ornate mother-of-pearl lacquer work shows, the finish is as smooth as polished marble.
Kicking the habit must have proven that bit harder in traditional Japan, as their smoking paraphernalia became a supreme art form of its own. As this pipe and frog tobacco-holder exemplifies.
Buddhism was first carried across to Japan from Silk Road traders in the 6th century and has held huge significance, along with Shinto (worship of nature’s deities), ever since. The legacy of religious art works stretches back across time with sculptures, textiles and shrines continuously influencing artists.
The skill of masterful seamstresses has long played an important part in Japanese life, as can be seen in their changing fashions. Their weaving, stitching and dying of plant fibres, cotton and silk, remain an artistic endeavour to celebrate.
- Kawaai (culture of ‘cute’)
Originally a fad of teenage girls, Kawaai took off in the 1970s. Iconised by characters such as Hello Kitty, this popular culture now appeals to all generations, with all the frills, bells and whistles of cuteness influencing the fashion industry, music scene and design culture. It’s a hyper-feminine look that stamps modern-day Japan, to the surprise of many foreign cultures.
Where would we be without the boom in the Japanese electronics industry? Which has consistently incorporated the country’s unique zeal for modern looking art and design. For example, the first Sony Walkman I bought in 1981 (with 60% of my worldly wealth), which at the time appeared to have a slick futuristic, space-age look. I still believe it was one of the best purchases I ever made. Although it is cumbersome and clunky in comparison to today’s portable music devices, you’ve still got to love it for that unforgettable memory of hearing crystal-clear music between your ears for that very first time.