Travelers visiting Japan will most likely encounter at least one of the traditional Japanese arts and crafts during their trip, on purpose or not. From simple tea ceremonies to elaborate flower arrangements, it is clear that the traditional Japanese arts and crafts continue to stand to this day, albeit slightly restructured. The Japanese community takes pride in their country’s wide variety of culturally rich art forms that has helped shape Japan’s status across the globe.
The History of Traditional Japanese Arts and Crafts
Traditional Japanese arts and crafts consist of a wide variety of media and styles. Some of the more popular ones to date include calligraphy, performing arts, and pottery. These art forms have a long history behind them and date back to the 10th millennium BC when Japan was first inhabited.
In 6th century AD, the teachings of Buddha found its way to Japan through the trade route of East Asia. The foreign religion initially caused conflicts among the community but ultimately became one of Japan’s main religions, alongside Shinto. At the same time, a strong Chinese influence was made on the country’s design and style towards several of their art forms. Among China’s significant impacts to the Japanese arts were pictographic characters, painting styles, and architectural designs. Although the mix of Japan’s own style and that of China’s worked well for the artistic and economic development of the country, the initial qualities that made Japanese artwork distinct started to fade.
Sometime during the 9th century, Japan finally decided to cut off ties with China and consequently weakened the influence on their arts and crafts. The Japanese community started working on ethnic modes of expression which resulted in a higher level of importance for religious and secular arts.
The Relationship Between Traditional Japanese Arts and Culture
Many of Japan’s art forms carry with them a glimpse of the country’s culture, be it about religion, history, lifestyle, or even just a simple idea. The country was closed off from the rest of the world for quite some time. For centuries, the community learned to absorb, imitate, and integrate initially introduced cultures into their own united set of preferences. With Shinto serving as the country’s native religion, the Japanese used naturally available resources such as clay, bamboo, and wood to produce remarkable items for everyday use. The religion’s beliefs also manifested itself in other art forms such as flower arranging and garden design.
Craft production became especially abundant during the Edo period, with regions specializing in specific items. At the same time, the Japanese also found sculpture-making to be another mode of artistic expression. Other than being associated with Buddhism, this art form also prompted the creation of Japanese ceramics, which is now considered among the finest cultural items around the world.
When war broke out between Japan’s warrior clans, a change of authority from the noblemen to the warrior class occurred. Traditional Japanese art had to adapt accordingly to the new audience and appropriately found a way to satisfy them by giving focus to the skills of warfare and the importance of Buddhism to the community. Many paintings, woodblock prints, and plays were made to depict the important aspects of this period.
At present, some art forms have failed to survive the contemporary age and are no longer being practiced but continue to live on as national treasures of Japan in museums and galleries. The traditional Japanese arts and crafts that did persist through modern times still hold true to the country’s history and culture.
The Distinct Traits and Definition of Traditional Japanese Arts and Culture
Any form of traditional arts and craft will often embody at least one of the following distinctive traits that make it truly Japanese:
Ensou refers to a sense of void that promotes the Zen concepts of infinity and nothingness to achieve a clear understanding of life as it is
Geido refers to ethics and discipline which are important traits that add value and integrity to the art form.
Iki refers to a refined sense of uniqueness that translates well into the Japanese culture which does not completely stand out among other cultures but still remains distinguishable.
Jo-Ha-Kyu, roughly translated to mean slow-accelerate-end, refers to a tempo used in traditional Japanese arts such as tea ceremony, music, and martial arts.
Kawaii refers to cuteness and has become a popular aesthetic form in recent years.
Miyabi refers to a sense of elegance and promotes the absence of all things vulgar.
Shibui refers to subtlety and how simplicity can leave a bigger impact on people as compared to pieces that are loud and flashy.
Wabi-Sabi refers to imperfection and how it makes things more interesting. This concept also extends to mean impermanent, denoting that there is beauty in things that cannot exist forever.
Yugen refers to a sense of mystery and its vital role in challenging people’s minds.
Major Traditional Arts and Crafts of Japan
There is a high chance that several art forms may go unnoticed by tourists even if they were right under their nose. Travelers are encouraged to at least read about the major traditional Japanese arts and crafts before embarking on their trip to avoid missing out on a wonderful privilege.
Majority of Japan’s famous structures, including the palace, shrine, castle, and temple, are made of wood. Unique techniques developed by the Japanese community have produced a variety of remarkable wooden buildings, big and small. The Kiyomzu-dera, a well-known wooden stage in Japan, is a testament to their woodcraft and was built without using any nails.
Shodo refers to Japanese calligraphy and is among the country’s most admired art forms. This was introduced to Japan during the Heian Period along with Kanji (Japanese Characters) by China.
There are three Shodo styles – Kaisho, Gyosho, and Sosho. Kaisho, or block style, is a formal way of writing Kanji and is the first style taught to beginners. Gyosho, or semi-cursive style, creates a sense of movement and continuity from one character to the next. Sosho, or cursive style, incorporates the feeling of grass being blown by the wind and is often used for abstract art.
Ikebana refers to the practice of arranging flowers to create a harmonious piece of art. The usual flower arrangements available at florists often only concentrate on the colors of the blooms. Ikebana is different as it aims to bring emphasis on the texture of the flowers, as well, and on its capability of building a sense of balance to other plants and branches.
Ukiyo-e refers to a genre of art that flourished from the 17th to the 19th century. It is comprised of woodblock prints and paintings which typically show images of beautiful females, kabuki actors, and creative landscapes. Ukiyo-e is not often practiced today but remains to be one of Japan’s distinctive art forms, influencing the tattoo and fashion design industry.
Shikki refers to the Japanese craft of using lacquer to produce a variety of decorative objects, or lacquerware. Creating lacquerware requires a lot of skill and training as the main substance is poisonous and cannot be touched unless dry. A number of techniques and styles have been developed by various regions across Japan, incorporating gold, lead, a variety of colors, and other distinctions to each of their products.
Chanoyu refers to the elaborate way of serving tea. The origin of the tea ceremony dates back to the Heian Period and came to be what it is now thanks to the hospitality of the Japanese noblemen.
Kodo refers to the art of appreciating incense and focuses on the sense of smell. It is one of the three forms of refinement in Japan along with kado, which focuses on the sense of sight and corresponds to ikebana, and chado, which focuses on the sense of taste and corresponds to chanoyu. Kodo involves a proper way of conduct and equipment and also promotes incense-comparing activities such as kumiko and genjiko.
Traditional Dance and Music
There is a notable number of forms of traditional Japanese dance and music which can be traced to have originated from religious rituals done by Buddhism and Shinto devotees. Up to this day, several styles continue to survive the contemporary world thanks to dramatic performances often held at the local theater or hall. These performances include:
Noh, also known as Nogaku, refers to the classic musical Japanese dramas which are often based on legends that tell the story of the supernatural taking human form to perform heroic acts. Noh uses a variety of masks, props, and costumes to represent corresponding roles. The art is accompanied by an ensemble, called Noh-bayashi, which consists of only 4 musicians – three drummers and a flutist. The music contains many blank spaces and the singing done is within a repetitive and limited tonal range.
Kabuki refers to the classic dramatic Japanese dance which is done by performers donning elaborate make-up. Kabuki plays can be classified into three main categories – Jidai-mono (focuses on Japanese history), Sewa-mono (focuses on commoners), and Shosagoto (stand-alone dance pieces). The Kabukiza in Ginza, Tokyo is the prime theater for traditional kabuki performances.
Bunraku, also known as Ningyo Joruri, refers to the traditional Japanese puppet performance. It involves three artists – the puppeteers, the chanters, and the musicians.
Traditional Martial Arts Training
Another medium meant to preserve Japan’s cultural heritage involves systematic and traditional combat practices and is known as martial arts. This Japanese art form is passed down from one master to the next and is studied for self-defense, military, mental, and spiritual purposes.
Traditional Martial Arts Training involves undergoing proper training from succeeding masters of the art. This includes understanding the root tenets established by the original masters and upholding the arts’ philosophy. Each student is expected to train in the same way the founders did but may only become a master if the title is given to him by his mentor. Some traditional Japanese martial arts are:
Aikido believes in the way of harmonious spirit or in the way of unifying with life energy. The art uses the opponent’s momentum against him through entering and turning movements.
Aiki-jujutsu believes in pulling when one is pushed and pushing when one is pulled. By harmonizing one’s movement with the opponent’s, a proper response, instead of resistance, can be made towards the attack.
Iaido is the art of maintaining a sense of awareness and being able to quickly draw one’s sword as a response to a sudden attack.
Kendo provides a method of disciplining one’s character. The art involves the use of shinai, a bamboo sword, and bogu, protective gear.
Ninjutsu is a martial art that involves the use of strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare and espionage.
Sumo is a wrestling art where two rikishis (wrestlers) push each other out of a circular ring or court. It is often associated with Shinto beliefs, each aspect of the martial art representing key principles.
Paying a Visit to a Traditional Art Gallery or Museum
For tourists visiting Japan for only a short period of time, it may be quite difficult to cram all the country’s must-see traditional arts and culture in one trip. As a solution, tourists are highly encouraged to pay a visit to the many art galleries and museums of Japan that carry traditional as well as modern pieces of art:
The Nezu Museum is located in Omotesando and houses a selection of pre-modern art including sculptures, paintings, ceramics, lacquerware, and calligraphy. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM. Admission fee is priced at ¥1,200.
Ginza Graphic Gallery
Ginza Graphic Gallery is located in Ginza and is managed by Dai Nippon Printing, one of the biggest printing firms in Japan. It hosts monthly exhibitions that showcase contemporary work by local and international artists. The gallery is open from Monday to Friday, 11:00 AM – 7:00 PM and on Saturdays from 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Admission is free of charge.
Bunkamura Museum of Art
The Bunkamura Museum of Art is located in Shibuya and is one of Japan’s top art museums. It hosts a number of international shows per year and consequently houses several foreign masterpieces. It is only open on Fridays and Saturdays from 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM. Admission fees start at ¥1,000.
Sumida Hokusai Museum
The Sumida Hokusai Museum is located in Ryogoku and is dedicated to Katsushika Hokusai, Japan’s most well-known ukiyo-e artist, and his work. The museum is open every day except Mondays from 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM. Admission fees start at ¥400.
Nara National Museum
The Nara National Museum is located in Nara Park and primarily houses Japanese Buddhist art such as statues, scrolls, ceremonial items, and paintings. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM. Admission fee is priced at ¥520.
Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery
The Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery is located in Shinanomachi and houses 80 Japanese-style and Western-style paintings that illustrate the Meiji Emperor’s life. The gallery is open daily from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Admission fee is priced at ¥500.
Museum of Contemporary Sculpture
The Museum of Contemporary Sculpture is located in Naka-Meguro and houses the work of over fifty local contemporary artists. It is open to the public six days a week from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM and is closed on Mondays. Admission is free of charge.
Kamakura Museum of National Treasures
The Kamakura Museum of National Treasures is located in Kamakura and holds several national and cultural treasures, most of which date back to the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, spanning from the 12th and 13th century. It is open every day, except Mondays, from 9:00 AM to 4:30 PM. Admission fees start at ¥300.
Enrolling in the Tokyo Traditional Arts Program
Tourists who cannot satisfy their hunger for the Japanese arts through museum or gallery visits can opt to take part in the Tokyo Traditional Arts Program. It is a school of some sort but is a little less fancy than the Ritsumeikan University of Kyoto. It does not provide a college or graduate degree on Japanese arts but does provide guided classes for the different traditional art forms including tea ceremony, dance, and music.
The program is organized by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture, and The Asahi Shimbun Company.
Traditional Japanese Arts and Culture: An Illustrated Sourcebook
Of course, everything available on the internet and even in several museums and galleries is not actually first-hand information and is likely to be filtered or incomplete. For tourists interested in fully understanding the science behind the many art forms of Japan, a book appropriately titled “Traditional Japanese Arts and Culture: An Illustrated Sourcebook” provides original material about the topic.
The book is a compilation of wisely selected sources, translated and written in order of historical context. It includes short commentaries to challenge readers to relate the art forms to the values and concepts of the Japanese culture.