The History of Japanese Art

The first evidence of human life on the Japanese archipelago dates to approximately 30,000 years ago. Before the introduction of Buddhism in the 6th-7th century, Japan developed a highly unique culture even while receiving influence from the continent.

In the Jōmon period, which began around 14,000 BCE, people lived hunter-gatherer lifestyles and used earthenware vessels characterised by distinctive decorative effects, including the cord imprints (jōmon) from which the period takes its name. Pottery with such patterns included vessels with wave-shaped rims, which are unlike anything else in the world. The Middle Jōmon period in particular saw richly decorative earthenware vessels flourish, and other Jōmon artifacts such as dogu clay figures and earthenware objects. Ornaments and lacquerware from this period also demonstrate a remarkable sense of design.

In the Yayoi period (circa 300 BCE to 250 CE) rice-growing culture entered Japan from continental Asia and metal objects came into use. While first created for practical uses, the bronzeware later became more ceremonial, increasing in size and developing in southern Japan, from Kyushu to the Tokai region. Ceramic vessels from the Yayoi period display a simple and refined aesthetic, while dotaku bell-shaped bronzes, representative of the Yayoi metal objects, preserve unusual designs and primitive illustrations. This bronzeware enlivened rituals with musical sounds and a lustrous sheen.

During the Kofun period, circa 250 CE – 538 CE, which saw greater political centralisation and the construction of giant tomb mounds, advanced cultures entered Japan from the continent spurring the development of a variety of technologies. Haji earthenware, Sue stoneware and haniwa terracotta tomb ornaments exemplify the beauty of ceramic form while mirrors, adornments, weapons, armour and equestrian gear incorporate stylish metal and glass craftsmanship. The hajiwa were initially made in abstract cylindrical shapes, but a  large variety of representational ones were later created. Many aspects of this period, including ceremonies, clothes, tools and weapons, are shown three-dimensionally by these figurines. The wall paintings preserved within the kofun burial mounds, or tumuli, for which the period renowned provide excellent examples of the illustrative expression of the time.

Buddhism arrived in Japan in the mid-6th century via the Kingdom of Backje in Korea. In time, Buddhism was embraced by the imperial court, leading to the creation of many temples and sculptures with the assistance of Backjean artists who came to Japan from 577 CE. Japanese culture developed rapidly following the adoption of Buddhism throughout the Asuka period (circa 538 CE to 710 CE), to the point where the casting of the Great Buddha of Todaiji temple, an enormous seated bronze statue, was undertaken by the state in the Nara period (710 CE to 794 CE). Buddhist art included sculptures, sutras, reliquaries and ritual objects.

In the Heian period (794-1192), Buddhism became even more firmly integrated into Japanese culture. In the early 9th century, coinciding with the introduction from China of esoteric Buddhism and belief in the Lotus Sutra, Buddhist art became increasingly diverse. Buddhist art prospered, particularly among the nobility, and many masterpieces were created during this time. While the courtly culture of this period was modelled on Chinese culture, the mid-Heian period saw it flourish based on Japanese aesthetics. Waka poetry was an art was an art indispensable to the daily lives of courtiers and poems and literary works were transcribed onto sumptuously decorative paper.

In the following Kamakura period (1192-1333), new sects emerged and introduced Buddhist teachings to the common people, while Zen buddhism was embraced by the warrior class. In this way, Buddhism gradually spread from the nobility, to the warrior class and subsequently to the general populace. With the appearance of a theory interpreting Japanese indigenous gods as incarnations of Buddhist deities, artworks combining elements of Buddhism and Shinto came to be produced. Zen buddhism also brought with it a new trend from China – the arts of the Southern Song to Yuan dynasties, most notably ink painting. Following Chinese styles and methods, ink paintings came to be produced in Japan for religious appreciation in Zen temples. In the Morumachi period that followed, ink painting transcended the borders of Zen temples and established  itself as an independent genre on Japanese painting.

During the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603), trade with overseas nations flourished, stimulating the domestic economy. This period saw the emergence of grandly sumptuous paintings which emphasised the power of the warrior class.

The Edo period signified 250 years of relative peace for Japan, in contrast with preceding ages of battle and upheaval. People enjoyed the opportunity to select from a range of daily utensils and furnishings, including ceramics, lacquerware and metal implements to suit their preferences and needs. These objects were rich with seasonal motifs. A system of appointing painters to the Edo government was established with the Kano school, and their gracefully stylised paintings style became and official standard.

Tokyo National Museum is open from 9:00 to 21:00 and the last entry is at 20:30. Admission costs 630 yen for adults.


  • Information signs at the Tokyo National Museum.

One thought on “The History of Japanese Art

  • May 27, 2017 at 3:16 pm

    I love the Jomon vases. We have one at San Antonio Museum of Art. The wave shape is really unique.

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The History of Japanese Art

by Uncover Travel time to read: 3 min
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