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By Alex Brown



1.0    THE CLOSURE OF JAPAN  (1641-1853)


Fears of invasion and colonization by the West led the Shogun Tokugawa in 1641 to ban on all trade and contacts with the outside world, order the persecution of Christians and impose a period of isolation  on Japan which lasted 200 years. During this time Japanese culture  - stripped of all foreign influences -developed in isolation and consolidated its unique character and traditions.




Simplicity, restraint and the elimination of the insignificant were among the obvious requirements of Zen in life, art. So too the understanding that enlightenment can be achieved through the most ordinary activities. This applied equally to the drinking of tea which, (under the Shogun Yoshimasa (1486)) became a key social and cultural feature amongst the Japanese nobility - a gathering of friends to discuss works of art


Organized and arranged by a set of tea masters (Zen monks and scholars), the Tea Ceremony had important social functions:


1.      Allowed for education and artistic criticism in various field of art: calligraphy, painting, ceramics, flower arrangement and including the design of specially designed tea houses. This helped establish and define the artistic tastes of the period.

2.      As a Zen Buddhist discipline in itself  - a concentration on essentials - the process and  ritual of making and drinking tea.


3.      Established certain rules of social behavior required during the ritual of the tea ceremony itself. Had a civilizing function on the otherwise ill-educated Samurai warrior caste.


4.      As a purely social function enjoyed by Shoguns and ordinary Samurai. (Note that the Samurai had to leave their swords on a rack by the entrance).


The rituals of the Tea Ceremony and their special requirements also had an affect on the domestic architecture of Japan requiring the building of specially designed tea houses within the palaces of the nobility.




By the Heian period (794-1195), the Japanese had developed an architecture unique to themselves. The basic classical type of Japanese architecture is the 'SHOIN' (alcove) style of dwelling which was generally typical of the largest palace and the smallest tea house.


Two buildings represent the classic works of Japanese architecture: the Shinto shrine at Ise and the Zen Buddhist-inspired Katsura palace.


The Ise Shrine (set in a forest South-East of Kyoto) is a purely Japanese work, the original of which was built in 686 before the major wave of Chinese influence came to Japan. Every 20 years, the shrine is rebuilt on an adjacent plot in exactly the same form as before. The shrine - a small building with raised floor a thatched gable roof - stands in a graveled courtyard. Cylindrical timber posts, purlins projecting high above the roof and a series of ridge beams all exquisitely detailed give it its characteristic Japanese character.


The Katsura Palace (started in 1616 and South West of Kyoto) consists of several teahouses and a main building laid out in an asymmetrical arrangement of gardens and courtyards. The buildings are pitched roof, timber framed structures the roofs of which are planned on the basis of the TATAMI mat dimensions of approximately 1 metre X 2 metres. The simplicity of the buildings - black structure and white rice-paper screens set amongst gardens have a classical Zen Buddhist simplicity which represents the key image of Japanese architecture.




An ancient Chinese proverb states that 'Calligraphy is a painting of the mind'.


In Japanese Zen terms, the art of calligraphy is just another vehicle or `way' (Jap. 'do') of contemplation. To quote the calligraphy teacher, Setsudo: "Do not think that calligraphy is simply the copying of Chinese characters!"


In comparison with the elegance and complexity of Chinese characters, Japanese characters seem more direct, vigorous and less consciously contrived. For the Japanese the boundary between calligraphy and painting was never precise. The beauty and power of a few characters - in a one line saying written out on a scroll -would be regarded as a whole image much like a painting. Calligraphy-paintings such as these might include images of bamboo staffs or wandering monks along with the characters. These were produced by Zen masters or Samurai and became popular and would be studied and discussed at tea ceremonies. A one line saying: 


"The elegance of the unattached life:flowing like water through the rocks" (Tesshu).




The growing popularity of the tea ceremony had a considerable effect on the design of ceramic ware. Under the influence of such renowned tea masters as Sen Rikyu (1522-1591), simple utensils and locally made ceramics were preferred. The goal was to achieve the aesthetic effect of simplicity, austerity and age.


The main ceramic kilns were at Mino northeast of Nagoya and they responded to the increasing demand for ceramic ware by producing several new kinds of design. One can take three examples:


1.       Shino: a fine white potting clay coated with a thick glaze with painted images. This combination of simply sketched motif, the thick white glaze like water and the natural  cracks in the glaze suggest great age and agelessness.


2.      Oribe: the most brightly coloured of tea ware. An unevenly applied bright copper-green glaze with designs executed in brown against a white softly coloured surface. The texture of the cloth used to produce the vessel is left exposed on its surface. ('naturalness').


3.      Raku: It is coated with black, transparent or white glaze. The ceramic is removed from the kiln while it is hot, it is immersed in cold water, which introduces an element of chance into the final product. The aesthetic of sudden change fits in with the idea of Zen enlightenment nd Sen Rikyu's preference for simple unadorned ceramics.




In 1603 the Tokugawa became rulers of Japan and this family ruled the country for the next 250 years. During that time Japan was effectively sealed off from any contact with other cultures. This period was called the 'Great Age of Peace in the Realm'. The Shogunate developed and made law a strict class system and codes of conduct designed to ensure national political stability. This period is also called the EDO period after the city (now called Tokyo) which grew up around their castle.


In the arts, the Tokugawa associated itself with preserving traditional institutions, re-building Buddhist temples, building new ones and the establishment of Confucian schools and temples. In line with their political policies, the Shogunate supported conservative styles of painting (Kano)  essentially decorative decorative works with mainly Chinese themes.


However, this long period of peace brought prosperity and the rise of  a middle class who developed their own popular culture - GENROKU - outside the conservative classical traditions imposed by the Tokugawa Shoguns.


7.0    Genroku, Ukiyo-E and the Floating World


The economic prosperity created by the long period of peace during the Edo period allowed the development of a new middle class culture with its own literature art and poetry: GENROKU culture. Up till then only nobles or scholars had produced the art of Japan. Now, the merchant class (Chonin) had the money and time to enjoy and commission works of art.


Genroku culture is more colourful and flamboyant than the classical art of the Kyoto court or the conservative art commissioned by the Shogunate. The most obvious example is the KABUKI theatre, more dramatic, action-packed and 'theatrical' than the classical theatre of the nobles - NOH theatre. Kabuki was popular entertainment for the middle classes and lower Samurai. So too was the BUNRAKU puppet theatre with its metre-high puppets operated by three men.


This 'Floating World' as it was called referred to the world of pleasure surrounding the popular arts - particularly the theatre - and enjoyed by the middle classes. It contrasts with the severe social codes imposed on the higher social classes.


Yet Genroku culture also produced works of severe elegance such as the Zen-influenced 17 syllable haiku poetry written by the poet Matsuo BASHO:


'An ancient pond - a frog jumps in - PLOP!"


So too the ink on paper paintings of the Zen Master HAKUIN and BUSON have all the freshness and vitality of classical Zen works.


The pictorial expression of popular Genroku culture was called UKIYO-E (or Kasei): the polychrome woodblock print used for Illustrated books of popular stories, prints of beautiful women, landscapes or heroic tales from the past. However, the most popular subject for the print was of the characters who inhabited the floating world of the theatre and its adjoining 'red-light' districts. Many of the most famous prints depict the most beautiful women of the period: whether Geisha (hostesses) or courtesans and many of the prints are erotic. The artist-printmaker UTAMARO (1753-1806) represents this aspect of the art.


The artists HOKUSAI (1760-1849) and HIROSHIGE (1797-1858) both produced works of unrivaled technical brilliance in the area of landscape and scenes of ordinary Japanese life.


Again it is worth noting the contradiction in Japanese culture at the time: the strict and conservative social codes imposed on the upper classes by the Shogunate and the colourful, flamboyant and erotic world of  Genroku culture thriving amongst the middle classes. It can be stated as the split between Classical and Popular culture.




The final test of the Shogunate policy of exclusion of foreigners came in 1853 when four American ships (two of them steam powered) under the command of Commodore Perry arrived at Edo harbour. The Americans in effect forced the Japanese to open trade and diplomatic relations with them and consequently with other nations. The result of this intrusion was:


1.      To force the Japanese to learn about Western military technology as fast as they could in order to protect themselves from the "barbarians' in future. As they had in the past, the Japanese set out to absorb and transform influences from other nations.


2.      The political effect was the overthrow of the Shogun Keiki by a group of Samurai who considered him weak in his dealings with foreigners. They restored the Emperor Meiji as ruler of Japan who immediately set out to modernize Japan.




The Emperor Meiji set up institutes for the study of Western technology and culture. Eg. 'Institute for the Study of Barbarian Books'. (That is, Western books!) in an attempt to catch up on the West and thereby protect Japan. Japan included culture and the arts as another area which should be 'modernized'. (That is, Westernized), and for a time the traditional arts of Japan ceased to be popular or fashionable. The overall result of this and the 'open door' policy was:


1.      The importation and popularity of Western art and architectural styles. Eg. perspective, landscape and portraiture in painting and Classical or Gothic styles for major public  buildings.

2.      From 1871 till the late 1880s Japan imported Western architects, painters and sculptors into its academies as part of government policy to transfer knowledge from the West. 


3.      Western entertainments and popular culture: fashion, hairstyles, music, bicycles, circuses, dancing, hot air balloons, etc.


However, by the 1880s, increasing nationalism caused a backlash against Western influences and a return to traditional styles, techniques and subject matter in art and involved a search by Japanese artists for a style which was at once authentically Japanese and yet Modern. Japan's growing industrial and military strength gave new confidence to those Japanese who sought to protect a purely Japanese artistic culture. 




A new wave of nationalism and a samurai-inspired military class led Japan to invade the Chinese province of Manchuria, link itself with Nazi Germany and in 1941 enter the Second World War against the Americans and British. The defeat of the Japanese by 1945 led to a complete political and social reconstruction of the country.




At its best, Japanese design has all the characteristics of classical Japanese art, including its contradictions - appearing to be both serene and spontaneous, violent and harmonious. Whether the product is a building or a piece of electronic equipment, one can outline the characteristic features of Japanese design in the following way:


1.      The intensity of the  jewelry-like detailing suggestive of the precisely-engineered carpentry and metal detailing found in Shinto shrines. Clear structural expression with whole elements locked together in jigsaw-like precision. The jointing of forms becomes tactile and sensuous.

2.      The domination of surfaces as against space or whole forms

Japanese design articulates surfaces to define space and form. In the West space is a 3-D reality. In Japan it is the 'empty and marvelous' void defined only by its edges where the material


3.       Exaggeration of  some element of the form

This one over-designed or over-scaled element acts as the central motif for the whole form and gives the work a dramatic expressionist character. It is the 'sudden' act of Zen: the "fish  leaping suddenly out of a clear still pool".


4.     Ritualistic elements float in a neutral grid or frame

Harmony is established and celebrated by a clear overall order whether of spatial module or simple overall form. This however, is disrupted (and yet emphasized) by detail elements which subvert or contradict the harmony of the whole.


Whether of plastics or rough hewn timber, electronic or driven by the wind, the essential Japanese approach to form and design reflects that ever-present tension between contemplation and violent action, restraint and spontaneity which is central to the Japanese 'art of being-in-the-world'.






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