Japan Art History - AP Art History Japan

Topic 4: Japan

  • The prehistoric origins of the Japanese people and culture remain somewhat mysterious, though artifacts, including some of the oldest pottery known, indicate a long history of human settlement in the islands of Japan. Early in the Common Era, the culture of Japan was transformed by extensive cultural borrowings from China, including the borrowing of a written language (a separate Japanese script developed alongside the adopted Chinese one). The historical period of Japanese culture begins in many ways with this period of cultural borrowing.

  • Confucian culture and beliefs entered Japan via China, as did Buddhism at a somewhat later period. These belief systems co-existed alongside Shintoism, the native Japanese religion which featured strong animistic and shamanistic elements, possibly of Central or North Asian origin (Korean arts and culture possibly reflect even stronger influences of this nature). Shintoist holy sites and rituals would remain important; in particular, Shintoism was tied to the cult of the Imperial family as beings of divine origin.

  • Due to these extensive cultural borrowings, Japanese art and architecture developed in close relation to Chinese forms and often strongly resemble them. Buddhist art and architecture show an especially strong Chinese influence. Japanese arts and literature flourished during the Heian period, between. Later eras saw the decline of imperial power and the rise first of provincial nobles, then of the shoguns, military leaders who essentially ruled in the emperor's place. During the period of shogun rule, Japan cut itself off from the outside world after an initial period of contact with western powers drawn to East Asia by its wealth.

  • Characteristic Japanese art forms include the pictorial scrolls known as emakimono, which combined words and images in dynamic narratives, the arts of the tea ceremony, which developed out of Zen (from the Chinese term Ch'an) Buddhism. Perhaps the most influential genre of Japanese art was ukiyo-e - "paintings of the floating world". The "floating world" referred to the urban demi-monde of performers and courtesans. Many "floating world" images were not paintings but woodblock prints. These prints later reached the west and had a profound effect on Western artists, who were fascinated by Japanese artists' use of color and perspective, and their sophisticated approach to composition. At the same time, some of the most famous graphic artists of Japan, such as Hokusai, began to incorporate Western influences into their work.

Related Links:
East Asia: China, Korea, & Japan Quiz
Southeast Asia
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AP Art History Notes