Japanese Art and Architecture

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON-DEMAND > Cultures and Civilizations   

In traditional Japan, no distinction was made between the fine arts of painting and sculpture and the decorative arts—ceramics, lacquer, textiles, and the like. All were thought to be equally valid forms of artistic expression. Even an everyday object, if finely designed and crafted, was considered a work of art.

Today, this emphasis on design and craftsmanship continues. Many Japanese artists have adopted styles and techniques popular in Europe and the United States. But traditional art forms such as those discussed in this article remain important. Exceptionally talented artists working within these traditions are honored as "Living National Treasures." They are encouraged to teach their skills to a new generation of artists.


Most sculptures made before the mid-1800's were objects of worship displayed in temples and shrines. Statues of the gods of Buddhism and of the native Shinto religion were most common. (Buddhism is a religion of Indian origin introduced to Japan from China and Korea.) But likenesses of famous monks and powerful rulers appeared after the 1200's.

The earliest sculptures were made of clay. Small clay figurines resembling humans and animals have been found in Neolithic sites (dating from 10,000-3,000 B.C.) throughout the country. From the 300's to the 500's A.D. large clay figures were placed around the great mounded tombs of powerful rulers. These figures were of men, women, animals, and even boats and houses.

The introduction of Buddhism to Japan in the 500's influenced sculpture techniques, styles, and subjects. The 500's to the 700's are known as the classical era of Buddhist sculpture. During this time, temple sculptures of the Buddha and other gods were often made of gilt (gold-covered) bronze because of its value and awe-inspiring appearance. One of the most impressive gilt bronze statues from this period is a 52-foot (16-meter) seated Buddha in the Todaiji, a temple in the city of Nara. It was made in a lifelike style typical of the arts of the 700's.

Most statues of the 800's were carved of wood, a material that could be readily obtained throughout Japan. At first, statues were carved from solid blocks of wood. But they were heavy and tended to crack over time. Gradually, sculptors developed a better method. Many small pieces of wood were joined together like a jigsaw puzzle. They were then covered with thin layers of lacquer, gold leaf, and paint. The sculptor Jocho is thought to have perfected this technique in the 1000's. His masterpiece is a graceful figure of the Buddha Amida. It is the main object of worship in the Byodoin, a temple near Kyoto. The joined wood block technique developed by Jocho continued to be used by sculptors until the 1800's.Painting

Japanese paintings have often had religious themes. Hanging scrolls depicting the Buddha and other gods were displayed in temples and shrines. Most of these works were painted on paper or silk using ink, colors, and gold leaf. Other, less formal paintings of gods were common in temples of the Zen school of Buddhism. They were painted with loose, flowing brushstrokes using black ink only. Paintings using both ink and colors were usually produced in temple workshops by specially trained monk artists. But those painted in black ink alone were created by amateurs as well as professional artists.

Beginning in the 900's, paintings with nonreligious themes were increasingly collected by wealthy aristocrats. Especially popular were handscrolls. These were long narrative scrolls that contained both text and paintings. Sections of text, written in calligraphy (beautiful writing), were alternated with pictures illustrating the story. Handscrolls were about 12 inches (30 centimeters) high and up to 50 feet (15 meters) long. They were held horizontally in the hands and unrolled to reveal the story little by little. The subject matter of handscrolls ranged from moving romantic tales to historical battle stories.

Screen painting is often thought of as one of the most characteristic forms of Japanese art. Painted screens were a feature of Japanese residential architecture as early as the 700's. Traditional Japanese houses do not have fixed walls. Instead they have sliding doors that may be opened or closed depending on whether a large or small space is needed. Folding screens, made up of several panels each, serve as additional, portable room dividers. Both sliding doors and folding screens are used as painting surfaces.

The subject and style of a screen painting reflect its owner's taste and the function of the room for which it was designed. For the sliding door panels of a formal audience hall, military rulers favored such subjects as muscular lions and tigers and colossal, ancient trees, often placed against a dazzling gold foil background. The intended effect was to impress the viewer with the owner's power. Screens used in private chambers had gentler images. Landscapes softly painted in black ink, alone or with touches of color; close-up views of flowers and trees; and scenes of seasonal pastimes were popular subjects.

The 1500's and 1600's are considered the great age of screen painting. The Kano, a hereditary school of painters, and another group of artists known as the Rimpa school are especially famous for their work in this medium. The most acclaimed painters of the Edo period (1615-1868) were screen painters. But they were often skilled in other art forms as well. For example, the Rimpa school artist Korin is renowned for his bold and colorful screen designs. He is equally famous for the robes he painted for the wives of wealthy merchants and for the ceramics he painted for his brother, the potter Kenzan.

Woodblock Prints

Woodblocks were first used in Japan to reproduce religious texts and images. By the 1600's they were widely used to print inexpensive pictures and illustrated books that were eagerly collected by members of all social classes. Costly scroll and screen paintings were owned by the rich. But anyone could afford to buy woodblock prints. The variety of subjects found in prints reflects the wide-ranging interests and experiences of this new audience.

Prints showing famous actors in their favorite roles and beautiful women dressed in luxurious kimonos (robes) were much in demand. Some printmakers, such as those of the Torii and Kaigetsudo schools, specialized in these two categories. The artists Hokusai and Hiroshige are acknowledged as the greatest masters of the landscape print. Their works generally feature views of scenic national landmarks such as Mount Fuji. (See the separate article on Hokusai.)

Prints by these and other artists active in the 1700's and early 1800's were among the first Japanese pictures collected in the West. French impressionist painters were intrigued by the prints' distinctive design and bold use of color. They adapted some of the Japanese techniques in their own work.


Lacquer is another distinctive Japanese art form that is as much appreciated in the West as in Japan. The Chinese originated the technique of coating objects made of wood, leather, or other materials with the sap of the lac tree (a relative of poison ivy). But Japanese craftsmen brought the art to new heights. They combined lacquer with gold leaf cut into various shapes and sizes to create elaborate designs.

When dry, lacquer forms a hard, waterproof surface. This makes it ideal for coating anything from cups and bowls to furniture and saddles. However, high-quality lacquerware requires the application of at least 30 layers of lacquer. Because of this time-consuming procedure and the cost of the materials needed, fine lacquerware is a luxury item.


Japan has one of the oldest ceramic traditions in the world. Earthenware vessels called Jomon, or "cord-marked," after their distinctive surface decoration, are believed to have been made as early as 10,000 B.C. Until the 1600's A.D., all Japanese ceramics were either earthenware or stoneware. Earthenware is a reddish, nonwaterproof ware that is fired at low temperatures. Stoneware is a harder ware that is fired at a high temperature and often glazed (given a glossy finish for beauty and resistance to water).

The rise during the 1500's of a tea-drinking ritual known as the tea ceremony stimulated the growth of ceramic production. A wide range of shapes, sizes, and glazes developed in response to the requirements of the tea ceremony. The centerpiece of the tea ceremony is a beautiful teabowl, from which guests take turns sipping a special green tea. Other ceramic wares are used for preparing the tea and serving the accompanying meal.

The technique of making porcelain was introduced to Japan in the 1600's by Korean potters who settled on Japan's southernmost island of Kyushu. Porcelain is an extremely hard, white ceramic. It is fired at very high temperatures. Porcelain wares were highly decorated and often designed with the Western market in mind. They were eagerly collected by Europeans.


The earliest forms of public architecture in Japan were Buddhist temples and multi-storied pagodas built on stone platforms and crowned with gracefully curved and overhanging tile roofs. These basic two models were established in the 700's. They were largely inspired by Chinese architecture.

Residential architecture reflecting native Japanese tastes developed in the Heian period (792-1185). From that time on, the homes of wealthy people typically were rambling structures. They consisted of many single-storied, shingled buildings linked by covered corridors. Homes were surrounded by spacious gardens with flowers, trees, artificial ponds, and hills.

Sliding doors and screens were used in the Heian period. But many other distinctly Japanese architectural features did not come into widespread use until several centuries later. These include covering floors with straw mats called tatami and providing rooms with built-in bookshelves and alcoves for displaying paintings. Today most Japanese homes have at least one room furnished in this traditional manner.

Christine M. E. Guth
Art Historian

Help | Privacy Policy




(Separate multiple email addresses with commas)

Check this box to send yourself a copy of the email.


Scholastic respects your privacy. We do not retain or distribute lists of email addresses.