Japanese visual arts

To many Western eyes, Japanese art begins and ends with manga – a word used to describe the country’s home-grown comics and print cartoons. This oft-imitated aesthetic – all wide-eyed girls, cutesy creatures and overly styled haircuts – is, nevertheless, a fraction of Japan’s contribution to the world’s artistic heritage.

Japanese Visual Arts


Japanese crafts date back to the pre-historic Jomon period (10,000-300 BCE), where people created pottery that included styled earthenware and functional vessels. By the Yayoi period (300 BCE–300 CE), bronze and iron crafts had began to appear. The introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century saw the development of exquisite lacquer and metal crafts.

Between the 16th and 19th century, a bona fide ‘tradition’ of Japanese crafts was formed, with the ruling classes helping promote crafts industries. The further development of unique forms of folk and fine art was aided by Japan isolating itself from the outside world – Europeans in particular – between the 17th and mid-19th century.

Painting in particular took on a uniquely Japanese flavour, one that was more abstract, spontaneous and naturalistic than Chinese works of a similar period. Japanese paintings typically featured symbolism associated with plants, animals and nature as a whole, with many works focused on specific subjects – seeking to capture their ‘essence’.

Japanese Visual Arts

Traditional Japanese arts and crafts began to be disregarded as the Meiji restoration took hold. The Meiji period began in 1868 and lasted approximately a century and a half. During this time, Japan went through something of a visual revolution, as it sought to join in the larger cultural developments in the US and Europe.


The Japanese style of painting known as Ukiyo-e became known to Westerners through woodcut prints of the 19th century heavily influence many artists with its unique and dramatic use of colour and line.  Similarly, the Japanese use of natural forms in decorative design was important in the development of the Art Nouveau movement.

The prints and paintings by Japanese artists such as Sharaku and Hiroshige were known to have influenced Vincent van Gogh, Edouard Manet and James MacNeil Whistler with their use of neutral backgrounds, simplification of form and unusual perspectives.

Modern and contemporary art

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the adoption of the newly-introduced style of oil painting, referred to as ‘yoga’. Subsequent artists sought to incorporate western realism and techniques into a Japanese framework. Others chose to reject western standards altogether.


Modern painters of note include Tsuguharu Foujita – who used French oil painting techniques to create uniquely Japanese works – and Ayako Rokkaku, Chinatsu Ban, Kenjiro Okazaki and Naohisa Inoue, most noted for the creation of detilaed fantasy lands.


Takashi Murakami is a renowned sculptor, credited with the founding of the Superflat movement.  Kotaro Takamura is another sculptor who has successfully blended Western and Japanese traditions.

Modern Japanese Art


Kawai Kanjiro was a key figure in both the Japanese folk art revival (known as ‘mingei’) and the studio pottery movements.


Shiko Munakata and Hiroshi Tomihari are renowned printmakers, as are Rey Morimura, Katsunori Hamanishi and Yoshiko Shimada.

Resource Box:

Fairchild gallery

Interesting collection of Japanese artwork.


Commercial auction site, but also provides non-commercial info on Japanese art.

Brighton Japan Festival

A Japanese cultural festival for all those studying on a Japanese course in Brighton.


2 thoughts on “Japanese visual arts

  1. Interesting! I didn’t know much about Japanese art but I love the images, especially the middle one. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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