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Japanese Art

The hallmarks of ancient Japanese art are characterized by a distinctive aesthetic that embodies traditional Japanese beliefs and cultural values. Known for its minimalistic aesthetic Japanese art often involves clean lines, simplistic forms, and basic shapes. The emphasis is on creating art that is simple yet effective, using minimalistic elements to convey a deeper meaning. Nature also plays an important role in Japanese culture, and this is reflected in their art as well. Ancient Japanese art often incorporates themes of flowers, trees, landscapes, and animals, symbolizing the natural beauty and harmony of the world. We also see ancient Japanese art was created with meticulous attention to detail, often requiring years of apprenticeship and practice to perfect. The art is crafted using traditional materials such as ink, paper, and wood, and involves complex techniques like woodblock printing, ceramics, and textile weaving. Additionally, religion and spirituality have played a significant role in Japanese culture for centuries, and this is reflected in their art as well. Ancient Japanese art often features images of Buddhist or Shinto deities, as well as religious symbols like lotus flowers, dragons, and phoenixes. Finally, much of ancient Japanese art is steeped in symbolism and metaphor, with objects and colors used to convey deeper meanings. For example, the cherry blossom is often used to represent transience and impermanence, while the color red symbolizes life and vitality. In all, ancient Japanese art can be characterized by an emphasis on simplicity, nature-inspired themes, strong craftsmanship, religious and spiritual symbolism, and deeper layers of meaning.

Let's take a look at some art and design atheistic that embody the features mentioned we have discussed...

Art in the Kojiki 

The Kojiki (“Records of Ancient Matters”) is Japan’s oldest surviving written work. Based on oral tradition, it is a mixture of dialogue, song, narration, and commentary, and provides a long and wide-ranging history of the four islands of Japan. The first book, set in the Age of Spirits, recounts the story of how Japan and its spirits were created and developed. The second and third books are set in the Age of Mortals and detail the deeds of legendary human heroes and the imperial lineages of the rulers of Japan, all the way to the death of Empress Suiko in 628 CE. The compiler of the Kojiki was a nobleman and chronicler called O no Yasumaro. He carried out the task on the orders of Empress Genmei, who reigned from 707 to 715 CE, and wanted Japan’s myths and legends to be recorded more accurately. Once completed, the Kojiki, became highly influential in the development of beliefs, practices, and customs in the Shinto religion. 

Here we see the artwork entitled "Amaterasu hides in a cave" (Fig 1). The subject features Amaterasu, who is the highest deity in Japanese mythology. The theme of this work connects the narrative of Kojiki in which it depicts when ancient Japanese spirits trick Amaterasu into leaving a cave. In particular this scene from Utagawa Kunisada’s 19th-century woodblock print, Amaterasu emerges from the darkness radiating divine light. This is the most famous legend about her, where she shuts herself away in a cave, and winds up bringing disasters to both the world and heaven.

Fig 1. Origin of Iwato Kagura Dance Amaterasu by Toyokuni III (Kunisada) 1856
"Origin of Iwato Kagura Dance" triptych by Utagawa Kunisada (aka Toyokuni III). The goddess Amaterasu-Ōmikami is in the center. Amaterasu became curious how the gods could make merry while the world was plunged into darkness and was told that outside the cave there was a deity more illustrious than she. She peeped out, saw her reflection in the mirror, heard the cocks crow, and was thus drawn out from the cave.
Toyokuni III (Kunisada), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Japanese Tea Gardens: Contemplation Inspiring Mediation

The traditional Japanese garden is celebrated for its graceful beauty, from perfectly trimmed vegetation, serene tea houses mirrored in the reflection of the ponds, to the scent of blooming flowers that sway across the perfectly raked gravel in the Zen gardens. It is an art canvas employing simplicity to reflect balance that inspires mindfulness for the observer.

Weaving of the elements

The weaving of the natural elements and carefully developed landscapes invite calm and peace into the visitor’s inner and outer worlds. Influenced by cultural, religious and philosophical ideas, these diverse gardens have a deep history that date back thousands of years.

Japanese gardens are living art and poetry in motion, achieving a beautiful aesthetic by carefully marrying the elements to provide a meditative experience. Water symbolizes renewal, calm and continuity. Some gardens use elevation so that water can circulate in ponds and streams, purifying the air and inviting peace through sound. Water features are often situated using precise orientation to the sun so the reflection is optimized in the water. 

Stones and rocks are symbols of duration and omnipresence of the forces of nature, the anchor of the garden to the earth invoking a sense of grounding and presence. Larger stones represent mountains and hills and smaller rocks line water features and paths. ‘Dry gardens’ which came from the introduction of Zen Buddhism, are constructed entirely of hand-picked rocks, chosen specifically to represent islands, mountains and hills, with raked gravel pathways flowing like rivers and waterways throughout.

Islands of all sizes are prominent in Japanese gardens, ranging in size from single rock formations to stand alone islands large enough to support buildings and pagodas. They often represent real islands or are imaged after turtles and cranes, which are symbols for health and longevity. One can find many references to Horai, which is a sacred mystical mountain that projects a perfect world in Taoism, welcoming an energy of balance and harmony to the landscape.

A variety of trees, shrubs, flowers, mosses and lawns are carefully arranged to be aesthetically pleasing, while manicured seamlessly to promote a sense of calm in the overall garden theme. Considerable attention is devoted to every corner of a Japanese garden, carefully bringing the elements together to create a serene experience.

Historical influence of religions

The Japanese garden tradition spans millennia, and has been heavily influenced by the varying cultural periods still reflected in modern times. Religion and spirituality can be seen in the garden architecture, and in Japan’s homegrown Shinto religion, there is an emphasis on nature worshipping with Gods being represented in natural elements like, rocks, bodies of water, trees, mountain and animals. The introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century, brought an influence of symbolism, minimalism, and mindfulness which used nature as a tool for meditative practices. Other Chinese cultural influences like feng shui, the concept of using energy forces to harmonize individuals with their surrounding environment, also influenced the garden design. During the Kamakura & Muromachi period (1192-1573), Japanese monks brought Zen Buddhism from China to Japan, which had a great impact on garden philosophy. Gardens previously built for recreation, were now attached to temples for meditation and spiritual enhancement. Minimalism and simplicity were emphasized but still applied the same elemental features of prior periods. 
Japanese gardens today borrow from all these genres to allow nature to facilitate an inner awakening that connects to a deeper part of ourselves. This atmosphere of contemplation inspires meditation-the more you observe the more you see, and equally the more you go inwards the more you let go of outer distractions. The Japanese garden is a reflection of the inner beauty and calm that can be found within us all, with a philosophy to carry with us as we tread along the garden pathways back into our daily lives.


Japanese Tea Gardens, San Francisco, USA 

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