Japan did not have a writing system until it began to adopt Chinese characters in the fourth century C.E. Much of what we know of Japan prior to that period derives from archaeological finds and from the traditions of the region’s native religion, Shintō.
Roughly ten thousand years ago, central Japan became one of the first regions in the world to develop ceramic technology. The term used today for Japan’s most ancient civilization is Jōmon, which means “cord-marked,” referring to the decorative textures created by rope pressed against the wet clay surfaces of the period’s pottery.
About 300 B.C.E., a variety of new technologies, including bronze and iron smelting, led to the start of a new era, known today as the Yayoi. Most artifacts dating to the subsequent period, called the Kofun (or Tomb Mound), have been found in elaborate burial sites for the ruling elite.
It is clear that, from a very early time, Japan was trading goods and ideas with the neighboring cultures of Korea and China. Nearly identical objects have been found in tombs of the Japanese Kofun period and Korean Three Kingdoms Period. What differentiates Japan in this early period is its spoken language and the development of Shintō, which remained the state religion of Japan until 1945.
Temple Sculpture in Wood
The dominant indigenous religion of Japan is known as Shintō, or “Way of the Gods.” It developed from local beliefs in nature spirits and came to be associated with the country’s leadership, as the imperial family claims direct descent from Shintō deities. Shintō shrines, notable for their T-shaped torii gates, appear throughout Japan, especially near prominent natural features such as mountains and waterfalls.
Buddhism was first preached by Shakyamuni Buddha in India in the fifth century B.C.E. and evolved into diverse sects as it spread across Asia, each with its own interpretation of ancient teachings. After the Buddhist religion reached Japan in the sixth century C.E., schools such as the esoteric Shingon, the faith-based Pure Land, and the meditative Zen grew into wealthy institutions, wielding political influence and competing for patronage.
Elite families sponsored the creation of innumerable Buddhist temple and Shintō shrine complexes, and they filled the buildings with sculptures and paintings. In Buddhism, images of the Buddhas and other gods are viewed as part of prayer; in Shintō, the enshrined deity remains unseen. The many images displayed on the grounds of Shintō shrines are votive objects, donated by the faithful in times of need.
While stone and bronze had been the favored media for religious imagery in other parts of Asia, an abundance of large trees and expertise in carving and joinery led to an important tradition of carved wood sculpture in Japan. All of these wood sculptures were painted in bright colors and were installed in buildings made mostly of wood.
Tradition and Innovation: Tea Taste in Japanese Ceramics
The ceramic objects in this case range in date from the 1200s to the 2000s, but they share traits that illustrate the continuity of Japanese pottery traditions. Japanese ceramicists were capable of making jewel-like pieces with thin walls and perfectly symmetrical forms, but they also made wares with intentional imperfections. Despite innovations in throwing clay on a wheel, some potters chose ancient hand-forming methods that result in heavy and/or lopsided pieces. Likewise, when applying glaze, they allowed for drips and other non-uniform surface coverage.
Such imperfect objects were made to be touched, particularly in the context of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The drinking of tea as part of a carefully orchestrated aesthetic experience developed in Japan in the sixteenth century. The host of a tea ceremony chose every implement with care, and the guests were expected to take the time to appreciate the details of the presentation. Under the guidance of tea masters, Japan’s elite strove to develop “tea taste,” the discernment of qualities that make objects appropriate for use in different types of ceremonies. Ceramics with an irregular shape and surface were thought to engage the senses more fully, but to the uninitiated, the distinction between beautiful flaws and ugly failures could be quite subtle.
Ash and Clay
Ceramics is the art of combining earth and fire. In most cultures, progress in ceramic technology has been driven by potters’ desires to transform the materials they use: rough, baked clay becomes smooth, cool, and sometimes colorful, thanks to advances in chemistry and combustion engineering. In Japan, connoisseurs admired and commissioned thin porcelain wares with clear, bright glazes, but they also found beauty in ceramics that revealed their origins in the elements of earth and fire. A taste for rougher ceramics is one of the major features that differentiate the traditional culture of Japan from those of China and Korea.
Continuing a tradition of beautiful irregularity (illustrated in a nearby case), the contemporary vessels displayed here reveal the artists’ aims to create forms that mimic naturally occurring phenomena. In these examples, the materials of ceramics—clay, glaze, and the kiln fire—are not refined and transformed but rather celebrated in their “raw” state. For all of these pieces, the artists have manipulated their materials carefully, with an eye to creating effects that appear to have happened by chance.
Contemporary Japanese Ceramics: Recent Acquisitions
The Brooklyn Museum was a pioneer in collecting ceramics by living Japanese masters, beginning in the 1970s with acquisitions of mid-twentieth-century wares by such artists as Hamada Shōji (1894–1978) and Shimaoka Tatsuzō (1919–2007). Although these artists were celebrated in Japan, most Western museums were focused on collecting ancient and historical materials at that time. The Brooklyn Museum acquired recently made ceramics as a complement to a larger collection of older mingei, or Japanese folk art, because several of the twentieth-century masters were interested in emulating and promoting mingei aesthetics. Of course, unlike most mingei artists, these potters did not work anonymously.
The Museum has continued to collect and display works by Japan’s ceramic artists, and the collection has grown to include a wide variety of styles and approaches. The objects shown here were purchased or donated in the past ten years; they represent the breadth and vitality of Japanese clay arts. We see both vessels and sculptures, many different approaches to decorating the clay surface, and the rise of female potters in a field once dominated by men. Many additional recently acquired objects appear in other displays in this gallery, a testament to the energy and generosity of local collectors of Japanese contemporary ceramics.
Lacquer is the term used broadly today for any substance that is painted over wood or other surfaces to create a hard, glossy, moisture-resistant coating. In the East Asian tradition, lacquer is plant-based, coming from the sap of a tree, and it is typically colored black or red. Japanese craftspeople have been working with lacquer since the Jōmon period (probably as early as 5000 B.C.E.). They have painted with it, carved it, and employed it as a surface for inlay. They have used it to cover wood, basketry, cloth, and paper. The light weight of lacquered objects makes the material ideal for personal adornments and table wares.
Lacquer is typically applied to a surface in thin layers, each of which takes time to dry. Most lacquered objects have many, many layers, requiring months or even years to complete. In some cases, layers of different colors are applied so the upper layers can be carved or rubbed away to reveal contrasting colors below. The most celebrated Japanese lacquerwares have metallic embellishments, either set into or applied onto the lacquered surface.
Long exposure to light causes lacquered surfaces to become cloudy or dull, and fluctuations in humidity can make lacquer crack. This presentation of lacquered objects will be changed on a regular basis so that the Museum can display these treasures while also protecting them for future generations.
In the Edo period (1603–1868), printed images became wildly popular among the growing middle classes in Japan’s urban centers. The market for prints remained strong through the Meiji period (1868–1912). Single-color printing from carved blocks had existed in Japan for centuries, but in the 1760s publishers developed the technology to produce full-color prints, using a different block for each color. The prints were designed by artists, who often signed their work, but these artists were part of larger production teams that included block cutters and printers, as well as the publishers who sponsored, promoted, and distributed the final product in the form of single sheets, multi-sheet series, and illustrated books.
Many of the color woodblock prints made in this period belong to a genre known as Ukiyo-e, or “Images of the Floating World.” They illustrate the major cities’ entertainment zones, known by the term “Floating World” because they provided fleeting moments of beauty and amusement for a price. Kabuki theaters and geisha houses were popular inspirations for prints that depicted favorite actors in specific roles and the loveliest women wearing the latest fashions. A related but separate genre, meisho, or “Famous Views,” offered glimpses of local industries and neighborhoods along with the natural beauty of Japan’s towns and landscapes.
Art of the Ainu People
The Ainu people are indigenous to northern Japan and far-eastern Russia. Ainu culture, which evolved largely separately from the culture most people know as Japanese, has its own language, religion, and customs. In Japan, the northern island of Hokkaidō and parts of northern Honshū were once Ainu domains, trading with the rest of Japan but absorbing very little of that foreign way of life. Hokkaidō was annexed by Japan during the Meiji period (1868–1912) and the Ainu people forcibly assimilated into Japanese society. Today it is estimated that there are fewer than one thousand speakers of the Ainu language, but the Japanese government has begun to institute laws to protect and preserve the Ainu way of life.
Until the twentieth century, the Ainu people relied heavily on hunting and fishing, and many of their religious beliefs revolve around the natural forces at work in mountains and oceans. Ainu art consists largely of carved wood implements and clothing, decorated with abstract patterns that combine geometric and botanical forms. In Ainu art, animal imagery is rare, and human imagery is virtually unknown.
In 1911, the Brooklyn Museum’s first Curator of Ethnography, Stewart Culin, arranged for the purchase of large collections of Ainu artifacts from an American missionary, John Batchelor, who had spent more than sixty years with the Ainu, and from an anthropologist, Frederick Starr, who had organized the Ainu pavilion for the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. Culin also purchased pieces directly from Ainu people he met during a visit to Hokkaidō in 1912. The Museum’s collection is a mix of objects that were made for sale to early tourists and pieces that were likely used by their Ainu owners and then discarded during a period when the Ainu people were encouraged (by Japan and by missionaries like Batchelor) to reject their old traditions. The Brooklyn Museum now houses nearly one thousand Ainu objects and is unique among American art museums in presenting such large holdings of Ainu material.