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By Alex Brown





For a period of nearly 200 years between 1641 and 1853 Japan cut off almost all trade and diplomatic relations with other countries. All foreign influences were forbidden and the country was effectively sealed off from the rest of the world. During this time Japanese society developed its own unique traditions which have lasted until the present day.



The code of the Samurai, Zen Buddhism and Shinto, the myth of the Emperor, the enduring symbolism of  the Zen garden, the architecture, the tea ceremony, the martial arts, calligraphy, Noh and Kabuki theatre and many others which mark out the unique aspects of  classical Japanese Culture.





Japan is made up of a chain of islands lying off the Pacific coast of Asia. There are four main islands: Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu (the largest) and Hokkaido.


At present Japan has a population of approximately 120 million people most of who live in the major cities on the island of Honshu: Tokyo (the capital), Osaka and Nagoya. Four fifths of the country is mountainous and there are at least 15 active volcanoes. The country sits on a Pacific 'fault line' and is, therefore subject to earthquakes. The highest mountain in Japan is Mount Fujiyama - originally a volcano and considered throughout Japanese history to be a sacred mountain.




The Japanese islands used to be connected to the Asian mainland by a natural land bridge. It is believed the first tribes to enter Japan across this 'bridge' were Caucasians from Siberia around 7000 BC. These peoples (the Ainus) were gradually pushed to the Northern islands by later invasions of Chinese and Korean peoples who forcefully conquered and settled the Southern islands merging with each other to form the original Japanese people: THE YAMATO. (Some Ainu tribes still live on the Northern island of Hokkaido).




4.1   Shinto


The ancient religion of Japan is SHINTO (meaning: 'Way of the Gods'). Its characteristics are:


1.     It is a 'pantheistic' religion in that it has no central god but identifies with those spirits (the Kami) which inhabit the natural world of forests, rivers and mountains.


2.      The word  “Shinto” means  “the way of the gods”.


3.     Has a rich body of myths concerning the origin of the universe and the conflict between good and evil.


4.    Identifies the relationship of the emperor with the order of the natural world. That is, the emperor had semi-divine status. Shinto myths, rituals and reverence for nature have penetrated the deepest levels of Japanese society


4.2    Buddhism


Brought from China to Japan in 538AD, Buddhism flourished there. The most influential Buddhist sect was, however ZEN BUDDHISM (in China: Chan Buddhism), brought to Japan from China by the monk Ensai in the 12th century. The influence of Zen would produce the most characteristic of Japanese images to the point where Zen and Japanese culture would be inseparable. Its main features are:


1.      As a means of obtaining spiritual enlightenment: suddenly and directly through integrated, spontaneous action and               experience with no gods and minimum rituals.

2.      Meditation is used to understand the intuitive truth of experience: 'empty and marvelous'.

3.     Zen's character of quiet readiness and sudden spontaneous action: can be seen in martial arts, archery, kendo,                    karate, judo and in the arts of calligraphy and poetry. A definition of  Zen would be:


         "No dependence on words or letters

         A special transmission outside the scriptures

         Direct pointing to the human heart

         Seeing one's nature, becoming “Buddha"                                             




Until the year 500 AD (the Kofun period), Japan was in an almost continuous state of warfare as rival clans tried to establish control over parts of the country. The Sun-line clan finally established itself as the dominant military group in the Southern islands and declared themselves emperors of Japan. By linking himself to Shinto religious myths about the order of the natural world the emperor claimed descent from the Sun Goddess herself. He was considered to be of divine descent and thus the religious leader of the Japanese people.


The Emperor through his SHOGUNS (generals) fought continual wars against rebellious clans and against the 'barbarian' Ainu tribes in the North and gradually restricted the warlike activities of the clans many of whose chiefs and their families moved to the new imperial court at Nara built in 710AD.




There is no doubt that Japanese culture was massively influenced in its early days by Chinese and Korean cultures.


The Yamato (the Japanese) sent ambassadors to the Chinese Emperors court and these came back heavily influenced by Chinese power and culture. This was a pattern which would repeat itself many times throughout Japanese history. Amongst many other items imported from China (and to a lesser extent Korea) were:


bronze and iron technology

ideas about the organization of the state around an imperial court

architecture and town planning

Chinese script and calligraphy

Religion (Buddhism) and ethics (Confucianism)

Technology (both military and civilian)

art and landscape gardening



For instance, in 710 the new capital of Nara was founded and modeled after an early Chinese capital city. So too, when the Japanese emperor again moved his court to the new city of Kyoto in 794, it entailed a whole series of rituals and practices modeled on Chinese customs. The city itself was laid out as much as possible like the T'ang capital at Ch'ang-an. Chinese and Korean carpenters assisted and directed the work of building temples.


However, over time, the relative isolation of the Japanese islands, the ethnic unity of its people and Shinto traditions allowed Japanese culture to transform these Chinese models and make them uniquely Japanese.




In AD794 the Emperor Kanmu moved the imperial court to the new city of Heian-kyo - later called KYOTO.


With the rise of the SHOGUNATE (a military dictatorship centered in the city of Kamakura) the Emperor was restricted to religious or ritual duties and patronage of the arts and noble families from outlying parts of Japan were required to live in Kyoto to keep them out of politics. Kyoto became a kind of 'political prison' - although a very beautiful one - for those who might challenge the power of the Shoguns who had taken over the real government of Japan. 


The emperor and nobles spent their time and money in creating a refined and cultured environment in this city from which they could not escape and for a thousand years Kyoto would be the cultural heart of Japan.  Filled with the palaces of the nobility, temples and shrines, the city became the classical image of Japanese art and architecture.




Strict class distinctions enforced during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) brought about the rise of a new social group: the SAMURAI ('those who serve'). Originally small landowners who pledged to fight for the Emperor during the continuous civil wars in Japan, they developed a high degree of military skill and began to develop as a new 'warrior class' and eventually as Shoguns, rulers of Japan.


 Some of the characteristics of the Samurai warrior class are:


1.      A military culture based on a strict moral code called Bushido (literally: the way of the warrior), discipline, courage, total obedience to the emperor and to other superiors, readiness to die and a very strong sense of their social importance.


2.      Only the Samurai were allowed to carry swords (two swords, one long, one short) and by law inferior classes such as merchants and farmers had to show them respect. They were noted for their arrogance towards inferiors.


3.      With the onset of peace, the Samurai caste later developed their own strong and simple essentially masculine) approach to culture and the arts different from the refined and  elaborate tastes of the Kyoto nobility.


4.      Heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism. Classical sword-fighting techniques and archery benefited from the Zen philosophy of quiet readiness followed by a sudden massive  concentration of force.





Japanese art expresses the apparent contradictions in Japanese culture: at once dynamic and violent and yet serene and delicate. The character of Japanese art can understood in terms of the influences which together produced it:


1.      The Shinto religion: emphasis on nature, the 'rawness', textures and the spirit of the natural world

2.      Zen Buddhism: mediation,  direct action: boldness of execution and simplicity

3.      The enclosed world of the imperial court at Kyoto: elegance and purely aesthetic concerns  - poetic and literary -                 'feminine' character

4.      The more 'masculine' artistic tastes of the Shogunate/Samurai dictatorship centered in the city of  Kamakura and                  later at Edo (Tokyo)


5.      Chinese and Korean models: essentially elegant and harmonious - Taoist inspired


The two very different cities and cultures of Kyoto- the cultural capital and imperial home - and Kamakura -the political and military capital - express politically the contradictions inherent in Japanese culture. At one level - natural, simple and bold. At another - sometimes luxurious, flamboyant and decorative - a conscious 'cult of the beautiful'. However, the unique character of the Japanese ensures that in all cases the work of art will show boldness of execution, realism and spontaneity.




While the fundamental character of Japanese art remains constant, the turbulent political history of Japan plus Chinese and Korean influences had their effect on artistic production and the prevailing styles of each period.



PERIOD                DATE                  EVENTS                               CULTURAL ASPECTS


Kofun Period        300 - 600         Unification of Japan                  Korean influences,

                                                                                                        Tomb  Culture


Nara Period          646 - 794         Introduction of Buddhism          Tang Chinese influences



Heian Period        794 - 1195        Classical Age, Imperial capital   Refined court culture


Kamakura            1185-1333        Shogunate Dictatorship              ZenBuddhism,  Samurai 


Muromachi           1333-1575         ‘Age of the Country at War'      Civil War,

                                                                                                          Tea Ceremony, ceramics


Momoyama          1573-1600        The New Shogunate                   Stability,

                                                                                                          flamboyant,colourful art


Edo                      1600-1868        The Closure of Japan                  Conservative,

                                                                                                          Genroku culture


Meiji                     1868-1912         Restoration of the Emperor         Western Influences,





As usual its origins may lie in the Chinese tradition of ornamental gardens but as developed in Japan its final state is dramatically different - the raked sand garden or dry landscape. Generally, the aim of the Japanese Zen garden is:


1.      The creation of a miniature landscape : small in actual size but offering many different views and vistas including within it all the features which can be found in a natural landscape such  as water, islands and mountains and miniature trees (Bonsai).


2.      Created for viewing and contemplation from the verandahs of the adjoining house.


3.      In the Zen garden the natural world is represented symbolically -raked sand for water  (with its waves) and carefully chosen rocks for islands.


4.      The utter simplicity of this dry landscape forces the observer to focus on the essentials -  the spiritual dimension


5.      The Zen temple at Ryoanji in Kyoto offers the most remarkable and characteristic  example. Approximately the size of a tennis court, 15 stones are set in groups into a bed of course white raked sand.


6.      From the surrounding verandahs there appears to be some definite yet ambiguous  relationship between the groups of rocks (islands).



12.0    JAPANESE POETRY: The Haiku


The essential Japanese character is to be found in arts which express that naturalness, economy and spontaneity of expression. One may take as an example the particularly Japanese poem type the HAIKU.


Limited to 17 syllables, it must express all its emotional content within that limited number of sounds. Here are four Haiku poems showing beauty and economy of expression:


1.         "Meeting they laugh and laugh               2.         "A leaf rises to the tree

            the forest grove                                                   or it may be a butterfly"

            the many fallen leaves"  


3.         "The moon on the water                            4.         "The thief left it behind

            says what I think"                                                   the moon at the window"  


The economy and simplicity of these poems are clearly parallel in style to the design of the Zen garden. Minimum elements concentrated to achieve maximum emotive impact.





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