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Daisen-in rock garden, Kyoto
Courtesy Jane T. Griffin


Contemporary outdoor sculpture by Isamu Noguchi, Kagawa Prefecture
Courtesy Asahi Shimbun


Aristocratic lady reading, early Edo period, ukiyo- e school, attributed to Iwasa Matabei (1578-1650)
Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art (69.15), Smithsonian Institution, Washington


Rimpa school painting, Edo period, showing a screen, garments, and other objects
Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art (69.15), Smithsonian Institution, Washington


Shinoda Toko, a leading modern abstract painter, at work
Courtesy The Phillips Collection, Washington


"Unseen Forms," a two-panel sumi screen by Shinoda Toko
Courtesy Chase Manhattan Bank


Kyogen master Shigeyama Sengoro in Kyoto, 1989
Courtesy Asahi Shimbun


Botoh dance group Sankai Juku performing "Jomon Sho
Courtesy Kiyomi Yamaji, Sankai Juku, and Jomon Sho


A noble spying on two princesses playing a koto and a lute. Watercolor, nineteenth century, Tosa school, from Genji monogatari (Tale of Genji)
Courtesy Barbara L. Dash

The introduction of Western cultural values, which had flooded Japan by the late nineteenth century, led to a dichotomy between traditional values and attempts to duplicate and assimilate a variety of clashing new ideas. This split remained evident in the late twentieth century, although much synthesis had occurred, which had created an international cultural atmosphere and stimulated contemporary Japanese arts toward ever more innovative forms.

Japan's aesthetic conceptions, deriving from diverse cultural traditions, have been formative in the production of unique art forms. Over the centuries, a wide range of artistic motifs developed and were refined, becoming imbued with symbolic significance. Like a pearl, they acquired many layers of meaning and a high luster. Japanese aesthetics provide a key to understanding artistic works perceivably different from those coming from Western traditions.

Within the East Asian artistic tradition, China has been the acknowledged teacher and Japan the devoted student. Nevertheless, Japanese arts developed their own style, which can be clearly differentiated from the Chinese. The monumental, symmetrically balanced, rational approach of Chinese art forms became miniaturized, irregular, and subtly suggestive in Japanese hands. Miniature rock gardens, diminutive plants (bonsai), and flower arrangements, in which the selected few represented a garden, were the favorite pursuits of refined aristocrats for a millennium, and they have remained a part of contemporary cultural life.

The diagonal, reflecting a natural flow, rather than the fixed triangle became the favored structural device, whether in painting, architectural or garden design, dance steps, or musical notations. Odd numbers replace even numbers in the regularity of a Chinese master pattern, and a pull to one side allows a motif to turn the corner of a three-dimensional object, thus giving continuity and motion that is lacking in a static frontal design. Japanese painters used the devices of the cutoff, close-up, and fade-out by the twelfth century in yamato-e, or Japanese-style, scroll painting, perhaps one reason why modern filmmaking has been such a natural and successful art form in Japan. Suggestion is used rather than direct statement; oblique poetic hints and allusive and inconclusive melodies and thoughts- -all have proved frustrating to the Westerner trying to penetrate the meanings of literature, music, painting, and even everyday language.

The Japanese began defining such aesthetic ideas in a number of evocative phrases by at least the tenth or eleventh century. The courtly refinements of the aristocratic Heian period evolved into the elegant simplicity seen as the essence of good taste in the understated art that is called shibui (see Nara and Heian Periods, A.D. 710-1185 , ch. 1). Two terms originating from Zen Buddhist meditative practices describe degrees of tranquillity: one, the repose found in humble melancholy (wabi), the other, the serenity accompanying the enjoyment of subdued beauty (sabi). Zen thought also contributed a penchant for combining the unexpected or startling, used to jolt one's consciousness toward the goal of enlightenment. In art, this approach was expressed in combinations of such unlikely materials as lead inlaid in lacquer and in clashing poetic imagery. Unexpectedly humorous and sometimes grotesque images and motifs also stem from the Zen koan (conundrum). Although the arts have been mainly secular since the Tokugawa period, traditional aesthetics and training methods, stemming generally from religious sources, continue to underlie artistic productions (see Tokugawa Period, 1600-1867 , ch. 1).

In the Meiji period (1868-1912), Western art forms came into Japan and were studied with intense interest by Japanese artists, who quickly imitated a variety of European models. By the early twentieth century, a period of assimilation began as techniques were mastered and the new forms of literature and the visual and performing arts were adapted. Artists divided into two main camps, those continuing in traditional Japanese style and those who wholeheartedly studied the new Western culture. By the late 1920s, a generation of Japanese artists had synthesized Western and Japanese artistic conceptions. Oil painters used the calligraphic, black lines of traditional Japanese brushwork, and musicians used the Asian tonal system and instruments to create Western-style music, while new theaters dealt with social themes in the allusive traditional literary style. Artists employing Western forms were accused of imitating rather than innovating. Yet, the age-old Asian cultural tradition has always entailed copying a master's style until it has been perfected, which explains why so much so-called "imitative art" was produced. As a result, Japan has produced much vibrant and unique new art through such exchanges.

After World War II, many artists began working in art forms derivied from the international scene, moving away from local artistic developments into the mainstream of world art. But traditional Japanese conceptions endured, particularly in the use of modular space in architecture, certain spacing intervals in music and dance, a propensity for certain color combinations and characteristic literary forms. The wide variety of art forms available to the Japanese reflect the vigorous state of the arts, widely supported by the Japanese people and promoted by the government.

Traditionally, the artist was a vehicle for expression and was personally reticent, in keeping with the role of an artisan or entertainer of low social status. The calligrapher--a member of the Confucian literati class, or samurai--had a higher status, while artists of great genius were often recognized in the medieval period by receiving a name from a feudal lord and thus rising socially (see Kamakura and Muromachi Periods, 1185-1573 , ch. 1). The performing arts, however, were generally held in less esteem, and the purported immorality of actresses of the early Kabuki theater caused the Tokugawa government to bar women from the stage; female roles in Kabuki and No thereafter were played by men (see The Bakufu and the Hojo Regency , ch. 1).

There are a number of specialized universities for the arts, led by the national universities. The most important is the Tokyo Arts University, one of the most difficult of all national universities to enter. Another seminal center is Tama Arts University in Tokyo, which produced many of Japan's late twentieth- century innovative young artists. Traditional training in the arts remains: experts teach from their homes or head schools working within a master-pupil relationship. A pupil does not experiment with a personal style until achieving the highest level of training, or graduating from an arts school, or becoming head of a school. Many young artists have criticized this system as stifling creativity and individuality. A new generation of the avant-garde has broken with this tradition, often receiving its training in the West. In the traditional arts, however, the master-pupil system preserves the secrets and skills of the past. Some master-pupil lineages can be traced to the medieval period, from which they continue to use a great master's style or theme. Japanese artists consider technical virtuosity as the sine qua non of their professions, a fact recognized by the rest of the world as one of the hallmarks of Japanese art.

The national government has actively supported the arts through the Agency for Cultural Affairs, set up in 1968 as a special body of the Ministry of Education. The agency's budget for FY 1989 rose to 37.8 billion after five years of budget cuts, but still represented much less than 1 percent of the general budget. The agency's Cultural Affairs Division disseminated information about the arts within Japan and internationally, and the Cultural Properties Protection Division protected the nation's cultural heritage. The Cultural Affairs Division is concerned with such areas as art and culture promotion, arts copyrights, and improvements in the national language. It also supports both national and local arts and cultural festivals, and it funds traveling cultural events in music, theater, dance, art exhibitions, and filmmaking. Special prizes are offered to encourage young artists and established practitioners, and some grants are given each year to enable them to train abroad. The agency funds national museums of modern art in Kyoto and Tokyo and the Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, which exhibit both Japanese and international shows. The agency also supports the Japan Academy of Arts, which honors eminent persons of arts and letters, appointing them to membership and offering 3.5 million in prize money. Awards are made in the presence of the emperor, who personally bestows the highest accolade, the Cultural Medal. In 1989 the fifth woman ever to be so distinguished was cited for Japanese-style painting, while for the first time two women--a writer and a costume designer--were nominated for the Order of Cultural Merit, another official honor carrying the same stipend.

The Cultural Properties Protection Division originally was established to oversee restorations after World War II. In 1989 it was responsible for more than 2,500 historic sites--including the ancient capitals of Asuka, Heijokyo, and Fujiwara, more than 275 scenic places, and nearly 1,000 national monuments--and for such indigenous fauna as ibis and storks. As of 1989, some 1,000 buildings, paintings, sculptures, and other art forms had been designated national treasures. In addition, about 11,500 items had the lesser designation of Important Cultural Properties, with buildings accounting for the largest share, closely followed by sculpture and craft objects.

The government also protects buried properties, of which some 300,000 had been identified. During the 1980s, many important prehistoric and historic sites were investigated by the archaeological institutes that the agency funded, resulting in about 2,000 excavations in 1989. The wealth of material unearthed shed new light on the controversial period of the formation of the Japanese state (see Early Developments , ch. 1).

A 1975 amendment to the Cultural Properties Protection Act of 1897 enabled the Agency for Cultural Affairs to designate traditional areas and buildings in urban centers for preservation. From time to time, various endangered traditional artistic skills are added to the agency's preservation roster, such as the 1989 inclusion of a kind of ancient doll making.

One of the most important roles of the Cultural Properties Protection Division is to preserve the traditional arts and crafts and performing arts through their living exemplars. Individual artists and groups, such as a dance troupe or a pottery village, are designated as mukei bunkazai (intangible cultural assets) in recognition of their skill. Major exponents of the traditional arts have been designated as ningen kokuho (living national treasures). About seventy persons are so honored at any one time; in 1989 the six newly designated masters were a kyogen (comic) performer, a chanter of bunraku (puppet) theater, a performer of the nagauta samisen (a special kind of stringed instrument), the head potter making Nabeshima decorated porcelain ware, the top pictorial lacquer-ware artist, and a metal-work expert. Each was provided a lifetime annual pension of 2 million and financial aid for training disciples.

A number of institutions come under the aegis of the Cultural Properties Protection Division: the national museums of Japanese and Asian art in Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka; the cultural properties research institutes at Tokyo and Nara; the national theaters; the Ethnological Museum; the National Museum of History and Folk Culture; and the National Storehouse for Fine Arts. During the 1980s, the National No Theater and the National Bunraku Theater were constructed by the government.

Arts patronage and promotion by the government are broadened to include a new cooperative effort with corporate Japan to provide funding beyond the tight budget of the Agency for Cultural Affairs. Many other public and private institutions participat, especially in the burgeoning field of awarding arts prizes. A growing number of large corporations join major newspapers in sponsoring exhibitions and performances and in giving yearly prizes. The most important of the many literary awards given are the venerable Naoki Prize and the Akutagawa Prize, the latter being the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize in the United States.

In 1989 an effort to promote cross-cultural exchange led to the establishment of a Japanese "Nobel Prize" for the arts--the Premium Imperiale--by the Japan Art Association. This prize of US$100,000 was funded largely by the mass media conglomerate Fuji-Sankei and was awarded on a worldwide selection basis.

A number of foundations promoting the arts arose in the 1980s, including the Cultural Properties Foundation set up to preserve historic sites overseas, especially along the Silk Route in Inner Asia and at Dunhuang in China. Another international arrangement was made in 1988 with the United States Smithsonian Institution for cooperative exchange of high-technology studies of Asian artifacts. The government plays a major role by funding the Japan Foundation, which provides both institutional and individual grants, effects scholarly exchanges, awards annual prizes, supported publications and exhibitions, and sends traditional Japanese arts groups to perform abroad. The Arts Festival held for two months each fall for all the performing arts is sponsored by the Agency for Cultural Affairs. Major cities also provides substantial support for the arts; a growing number of cities in the 1980s had built large centers for the performing arts and, stimulated by government funding, were offering prizes such as the Lafcadio Hearn Prize initiated by the city of Matsue. A number of new municipal museums were also providing about one-third more facilities in the 1980s than were previously available. In the late 1980s, Tokyo added more than twenty new cultural halls, notably, the large Cultural Village built by Tokyo Corporation and the reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theater. All these efforts reflect a rising popular enthusiasm for the arts. Japanese art buyers swept the Western art markets in the late 1980s, paying record highs for impressionist paintings and US$51.7 million alone for one blue period Picasso.

After World War II, artists typically gathered in arts associations, some of which were long-established professional societies while others reflected the latest arts movement. The Japan Artists League, for example, was responsible for the largest number of major exhibitions, including the prestigious annual Nitten (Japan Art Exhibition). The P.E.N. Club of Japan (P.E.N. stands for prose, essay, and narrative)--a branch of an international writers' organization--was the largest of some thirty major authors' associations. Actors, dancers, musicians, and other performing artists boasted their own societies, including the Kabuki Society, organized in 1987 to maintain this art's traditional high standards, which were thought to be endangered by modern innovation. By the 1980s, however, avant-garde painters and sculptors had eschewed all groups and were "unattached" artists.**********

Data as of January 1994


  • Section - Japan -. The Society and Its Environment

  • Japanese Education and the Arts

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