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Japanese Traditional Art

Kashmira Lad
Japanese traditions and art forms have always done a remarkable job to keep the rest of the world mesmerized by their beauty and grace. This story throws light on some of the most important aspects of Japanese traditional art.

A Glimpse of an ancient Japanese temple in the USA

Did you know that the island of O'ahu in Hawai'i is the home of the replica of Byōdō-in, a Buddhist temple of the Heian period (794 to 1185) that was built in the year 1052 in the city of Uji in Kyoto Prefecture, Japan. The replica was founded in August 1968 at the commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants in Hawaii.
Japan is one of the very few countries that have managed to keep their traditions and values intact even during the times when modernization is taking over the entire world.
What makes this culture all the more special, is the fact that not only has it been inspired by foreign influences - mainly the Chinese culture - its more than 200 years of seclusion from the outside world during the early 17th century, has also given Japan the opportunity to assimilate its knowledge and understanding of the outside cultures.
It was exposed to before and incorporate to create varied art forms that reflect the experiences and inclination of the Japanese people.

Japanese traditional art encompasses a whole lot of mediums of expression.
It includes the artistic sculptures and architecture, classic paintings, exquisite pottery, ikebana, origami, performing arts, music, tea ceremony, calligraphy, and more. Here's a look at some forms of Japan's traditional art that have mesmerized people for years, and continue to do so even today.

A Brief Explanation of Some Traditional Japanese Art Forms

Japanese history consists of various phases or periods. These periods are: Paleolithic (before 14,000 BC), Jōmon (14,000-300 BC), Yayoi (300 BC - 250 AD), Kofun (250-538), Asuka (538-710), Nara (710-794), Heian (794-1185), Kamakura (1185-1333), Muromachi (1333-1573), Azuchi-Momoyama (1568-1603), Edo (1603-1868), Meiji (1868-1912), Taishō (1912-1926), Shōwa (1926-1989), and Heisei (1989-present).
Various art forms have evolved from one period to the other, and are believed to have emerged sometime during the 10th millennium BC. Each period has marked a statement in terms of its unique contribution to the artistic endeavors of the time.
For instance, the Jōmon period is known for its pottery, the Edo period is famous for the popularization of ukiyo-e paintings, and the Asuka period brought about some phenomenal architectural structures and sculptures, predominantly based on Buddhism. The following sections elaborate on these art forms and more.

Architecture and Sculptures

Japanese architecture and sculpting is very much influenced by the Chinese culture. History has witnessed the building of some great temples, palaces, and gardens in this beautiful land, some of them existing even today.
The oldest building in Japan, built in the 7th century is the Buddhist temple named Hōryū-ji, located at the Nara perfecture - a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

The Heian period had some great temples built in the mountains, thereby bringing about a change in their preferences in terms of the construction materials used, to suit the location.
This era saw the replacement of earthen floors with wooden planks, roofs made with ceramic tiles with Cypress barks, and so on. An existing temple with the Heian architecture is the Murō-ji, built in the early 9th century. In fact, even today, we see that the Japanese prefer using natural elements and materials in their architectural endeavors.
Founded in the Heian period, in the year 1052, is the Byōdō-in temple, which was originally built in the year 998. It is the only original building that survived the civil war in 1336, the rest of the buildings in the compound were burnt down.
Therefore, it is a great monument in Japanese tradition, reflecting the ancient architectural art.

The Heian period also saw Chinese and Indian influences in its Buddhist architecture. The pagodas and the stupas of the temples are the examples of the same. Not only the temples, traditional architectural marvels also exist in the form of gardens and palaces.
A brilliant example for the same would be the Katsura Imperial Villa, which is situated in a district that was a popular spot during the Heian period for constructing villas, due to the excellent view of the moon.
The Three Great Gardens of Japan: Kenroku-en, Kōraku-en, Kairaku-en are still marveled at for their traditional heritage. Kenroku-en is believed to be developed by the Maeda clan from the 1620s to the 1840s. Kōraku-en was built by Ikeda Tsunamasa, lord of Okayama, in the year 1700, and Kairaku-en was built by the local lord Tokugawa Nariak in the year 1841.


The Jōmon period is not only known for its pottery, but also the small humanoid and animal figurines, called Dogū. The Yayoi period saw the manufacturing of metallic artifacts, mainly bronze bells and copper weapons.
However, the next period - Kofun - modified this art and registered its name in history for the creation of the Kofun megalithic tombs and haniwa - terracotta clay figures which were used as funerary objects.
The Asuka period saw a remarkable influence of Buddhism in the sculpting art of Japan. Buddha statues in various forms were made from this period onwards. The statue of the bodhisattva Maitreya at Kōryū-ji, and the wood statue of Miroku Bosatsu at Chūgū-ji are some legendary statues that are marked as National Treasures.
The Heian period introduced mandalas, another aspect of Buddhism that came from China to Japan. The wooden sculpture of the "historic" Buddha at the Murō-ji, and the Amida Buddha sculptures that became famous under the Fujiwara clan, are other great specimens of the early Heian art.
The Kamakura period brought about a sense of realism to Japanese sculptures. A surviving example of this is the Niō (Buddha's guardian) statue at the Tōdai-ji temple made in the year 1203. This temple also houses one of the most popular historic statues of giant Buddha, known as Daibutsu in Japanese. This was built in the year 752.
The wooden statue of Muchaku (Asaṅga) from 1208 CE at the Kōfuku-ji temple, and the Amitabha Triad at the Jōdo-ji temple are other examples of the Kamakura art.
During the Edo period, the 12,000 carved wooden statues of the Buddha by the famous sculptor, a Buddhist monk named Enkū, became popular. Some of these are still found today at the Hida and Gifu regions of Japan.

Paintings and Calligraphy

Painting happens to be one of the most preferred forms of expression in Japanese art. Among the most popular painting styles are the ukiyo-e paintings that emerged during the Edo period. Here, the woodblock printing technique was used, a technique that originated in China.
The ukiyo-e paintings mostly depicted scenes of landscape or travel, historical scenes, or those of beautiful women.

Another popular Japanese painting style is the Yamato-e, a painting style that was inspired by China, but fully developed and distinguished from it by the late Heian period.
Interestingly, none of the original Yamato-e paintings exist today. However, the style is still used to depict narrative stories (that may or may not have texts on them). The paintings generally revolve around themes such as nature and popular places.
Raigo paintings became popular among the high-end masses of Japan during the Heian period. This style showed the depiction of Amida Buddha on clouds, accompanied by bodhisattvas. In fact, religious paintings had flourished in Japan during the Nara period itself, however, that period is remembered more because of its sculptures than the art of painting.
The murals on the interior walls of the Kondō at the Hōryūji temple are considered to be amongst the earliest surviving paintings from this period.

The E-maki style of painting is also one of the traditional painting styles that comes from the Heian period.
This style continued till the Kamakura period; however, the Muromachi period introduced an austere monochrome style of ink painting known as Suibokuga.

Traditional Japanese art also saw the use of gold and silver foil in the Azuchi-Momoyama period. Monumental landscapes adorned the sliding doors and wall paintings decorated beautiful castles.
A number of new trends came to the surface during the Edo period. The Rimpa school that was seen during this period is known for its classical themes which were depicted in a very bold fashion with a decorative style.
Western art gained prominence during the Meiji period. Due to the efforts of certain art critics, traditional Japanese art saw a revival during this period especially the Nihonga art. With time, it also saw many changes in its art styles.
Today, modern artists have gone towards new themes and abstract paintings as well. The traditional art style called the Nihonga is still represented in various modern ways by artists.


The art of calligraphy in Japan has Chinese roots. According to sources, Japan became familiar to this art during 600 A.D., through the karayō tradition of calligraphy. The oldest calligraphic text in the country is at the Hōryū-ji temple: The inscription on the halo of the statue of the Medicine Buddha.
It was written during the 7th century. This temple also houses the oldest Japanese text written during the Asuka period -The Hokke Gisho. However, the oldest hand-copied sūtra in the country is the Kongō Jōdaranikyō, written in the year 686.
It was only during the Heian period that Japan found its unique style of calligraphy, and introduced 'kana' syllabary. In literature, Soukou Shujitsu, a poem written in 749 A.D., became the first text to have used a script that was somehow different from the Chinese.
During the Edo period, the Oie style of calligraphy was used for official documents. It was also taught in the terakoya schools at the time.
Even today, calligraphy is an integral part of the Japanese educational system. Even when it comes to their religion, or to be more specific, Zen Buddhism, calligraphy is practiced to clear one's mind. It is also an essential step for the Japanese in the preparation of their popular tea ceremony.


When it comes to ancient pottery, the Jōmon Pottery has made its mark in history for being the oldest ancient pottery in the country. A key distinctive feature that it had was the rope patterns that were drawn by pressing ropes around the clay. A majority of this pottery also had rounded bottoms and were made in smaller sizes.
In the Yayoi period, the art of pottery was equipped with the practice of wheel throwing and using kilns. During the 3rd and the 4th century, the anagama kiln type of pottery was brought to the country from China through Korea.
Over many centuries, Japan learned, understood, and refined the Chinese and Korean techniques of pottery, to make it distinctive and truly Japanese in nature. It was only in the 17th century, and onwards, that Japan showed significant achievements in the art of pottery.

Ikebana and Bonsai

Ikebana is the art of flower arrangement, but with a spiritual and meaningful aspect to it. Instead of just placing some beautiful flowers, leaves, and stems together, ikebana is done with minimalistic approach.
The angle at which the stem is placed, the colors that are used, and the lines and shapes that are eventually formed, are all a means for the artist to express a message. The origin of this traditional art is unknown, however, the first school of ikebana, Ikenobō, was founded in the 15th century.
The art of cultivating the miniature 'Bonsai' trees is derived from China. It was introduced in Japan during the 6th century, when Japanese Imperials and Buddhist students would visit China, and come back with bonsai trees as souvenirs.
The first lengthy work of fiction in Japanese, Utsubo Monogatari (The Tale of the Hollow Tree), written in the year 970, mentions Bonsai. The passage states: "A tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing.
It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move one." Earlier, these miniature trees carried religious sentiments, but later they were used for aesthetic purposes as well.


Japanese traditional music encompasses varied instruments and styles that were originated outside Japan. Interestingly, with time, some of these instruments disappeared from these foreign countries but are still present in Japan.
Among such instruments, the most prominent ones are the Koto, Shakuhachi, and the Shamisen. As you can see in the image above, a koto is a 13-stringed zither-like instrument, that was introduced in Japan during the 6th century from China.
Likewise, the Japanese bamboo flute known as shakuhachi, also from China, was brought to Japan during the 8th century; and the 3-stringed banjo-like instrument, shamisen, was introduced in the 16th century. Interestingly, shakuhachi only survives in Japan now, while the koto underwent some great changes.
The Japanese have actually modified, rather perfected, their musical culture from its origin, forming classic forms including Gagaku, a 7th century court music accompanied by Bugaku, a court dance.
Other musical dance forms include Dengaku, a classical dance based on the theme of planting and harvesting; and Sarugaku, another light-hearted dance act also having rural origins.

Classical Theater

Among the many traditional theatrical art forms, the following performances hold a significant honor in Japanese culture, being recognized as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.


Noh or Nogaku happens to be the oldest major theatrical form still alive today, ever since its inception during the 14th century. The word 'Noh' itself means skill/craft/talent. Those involved in this musical drama are highly trained artists.
This classical theater was popularized by a man called Kan'ami and his son Zeami during the Muromachi Period. In the Edo period, this art was made the official ceremonial art of the shogunate.
It is a traditional musical drama, distinctively recognized by its masks, props, and costumes depicting the tales of ordinary folks and their lives during the period between 12th and 16th century.
The plots and themes of these plays are mostly on the lines of dreams, supernatural entities, literature, and history. It consists of both music and dance, and the language used to narrate the story is poetic with a standardized tone.
A traditional Noh play has five main performances along with the comedic kyōgen plays scheduled in between. A kyōgen aims at making the audiences laugh and serves as an intermission between the Noh plays. These days, the practice of performing two Noh plays and one kyōgen piece has also become common.


Bunraku is the traditional puppet play of Japan that has been prevalent since the Edo period, known to have started in Osaka. Uemura Bunrakuken was the person who started the first theater in 1805.
Unlike other puppet plays, there are no strings used in this performance. The puppeteers are in full view of the audiences, using their limbs to control the movements of the puppet to give them a lifelike feel. To give their presence an invisible look, the puppeteers wear black clothes.
This play consists of puppets, three puppeteers, one or more chanters, and shamisen musicians. Typically, one chanter modulates his voice to dub for all puppets, but more chanters can also be used. The vocal expressions are brilliantly complemented by the musicians in the background. The theme is mostly based on historical legends and classic tales of love.


Just like Bunraku, a Kabuki play is also based on themes involving love stories, heroic tales from history, and other classic themes based on moral conflicts and tragedies. This art form was originated in the 17th century, during the Edo period.
While initially, only females would play the roles of both the genders, women were banned from performing Kabuki in 1629 to remove the erotic appeal it was bringing about in the society. From then on, this art has become an all-male act, where young males play the part of females.
A kabuki play is marked by its lavish stage, elaborate costumes, loud makeup, and exaggerated actions. The features of the stage play a prominent role in bringing about amusement to the audiences.
It is equipped with trap doors, revolving features, a walkway extending to the audiences, and more. The traditional music played during the act adds to the overall impact of the performance.


The word itself is of Japanese origin, where 'oru' means "to fold" and 'kami' means "paper". This art is believed to originate sometime during the 6th century, when paper was brought to Japan by the Buddhist monks. Having said that, initially, origami was used only for religious ceremonies.
It was only during the Heian period that this art became a crucial part of Japanese ceremonies. In fact, origami butterflies were used to represent the bride and groom in Shinto weddings. During the Edo period, artifacts made using this technique called Noshi were attached to gifts to signify good luck and fortune.

Geisha Culture

'Geisha', the word itself translates to a performing artist. 'Gei' means "art" and 'sha' means "person". Right from her white makeup to the beautiful kimono to her accessorized hairdo, a geisha is no less than a walking work of art.
This culture is believed to have been started during the 1600s in the Edo period. Interestingly, the earliest geisha were males and not females. However, by the 1800s, this profession was transformed into a female one. However, there still exist a handful of male geisha in the country.
Geisha are highly acknowledged and appreciated for their skills in traditional music and dancing. They are also trained in other cultural arts including ikebana and tea ceremony.
Because a part of their job is to give company to the elite section of the society, they are also trained in conversational and gaming skills. They carry a huge responsibility to keep the traditional art of Japan alive, and promote it to those they serve as hosts.
The tradition of Japan reflects in not just its temples or gardens or buildings, but in each and every aspect of the country. It is so wide and multifarious in nature that one would need to take it up as an extensive study.
The popularity of Japanese culture can be substantiated by the fact that every year, many students from all across the globe visit Japan to learn some, if not all, of its intriguing arts. We hope that this brief insight on Japanese traditional art has intrigued you to a certain extent as well.