The History of Japanese Art – Part 1

Arts and crafts in Japan has a wonderful history; like its culture, Japan has a vast tradition and many of its styles have been greatly influenced by the great Japanese artists. For many hundreds of years Japan was isolated partly due to its geographical position, but also because of its culture which led to a rather solitary path. Japan was building its own lonely civilization that had little interaction with other countries and cultures. The art that developed was far different than the arts and crafts being developed anywhere else in the world. Not just the subject matter that the artists painted but the techniques and the way they painted and drew.

Nihonga Painting

Madaraneko (斑猫, Tabby Cat) by Takeuchi Seihō

One of the main painting techniques of early Japanese art was Nihonga, and it was based on Japanese traditions that were thousands of years old. The art is painted on either washi, a traditional Japanese paper, or sometimes on silk and applied by brush.

Chinese Influences

Finally, Japanese art started to get influences from foreign elements, and the first was China. 16th Century Chinese art was particularly influential which can be seen in the really early drawing and paintings of the time. One hundred years later, more Western influences were creeping into Japanese art, particularly the prewar era that lasted from the mid-1800’s right up to 1940. The biggest influences to Japanese art and artists at the time were European romanticism and Impressionism.

The History of Japanese Art

Tensho Shubun and Japanese Art

Japan has a long history of painting and has several traits that identify it as Japanese. Firstly, the influence the Buddhist religion had on Japanese paintings was significant. Another important element is the style of ink washing for depicting landscapes, this was taken from Chinese influences. Birds and flowers were a common subject matter for Japanese art that easily identifies it. Other strong traits are: Wabi meaning transient, Sabi meaning the beauty of aging, and Yugen which means grace and subtlety. All these traits can still be seen in Japanese art today.


Finally, the last important strong influence on Japanese art is Ukiyo-e which is one of the most popular art genres in the country. Basically, Ukiyo-e refers to a method of printmaking which dominated Japanese art for centuries right up to the late 19th Century. Artists during this period developed a woodblock way of printing, and the subject matter was wide and various, containing sumo wrestlers, kabuki actors, female beauties and even erotica, some travel scenes and landscapes were made this way.

A way of understanding Japanese art is to study the best artists and their most famous works, and this we will be undertaking in part two of the blog. You may not be aware of some of the artists but the work they have produced is famous around the globe. There is something unique about Japanese art that is challenging and stops the viewer in his tracks. Perhaps it is the subject matter, or the vibrant stark colors, or simply that it represents a culture that not many people understand and empathize with.