[Sample Translation]


History of Japanese Art

Lecture at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, 1890 to 1892


Okakura Kakuzo (Tenshin)





This is the end of my lecture on the history of Japanese arts.  My lecture is so incomplete that you should not be satisfied with this.  If you want a complete history of Japanese arts, you must wait for another twenty or thirty years.  It is you that are in charge of that work.


As I told you at the beginning, the history of Japanese arts started with the reign of Empress Suiko.  There must have been a kind of Japanese arts before, but today we do not have surviving works of the times for discussion.


The 1,300 years from the era of Empress Suiko to the present day can be divided into the three major periods, or seven, fourteen or eighteen periods.  However, I believe the following table shows a complete periodization of the history of Japanese arts.


Nara Period

Time around Empress Suiko

Time around Emperor Tenji

Time around the Tenpyo Era



Fujiwara Period


Time around the Konin Era

Time of the Fujiwara Family

Time around the Engi Era

Time of the Genji-Heike Conflicts

Time of the Kamakura Shogunate



Ashikaga Period

Time of the Higashiyama Culture

Time of the Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Time of the Tokugawa Shogunate

Time around the Kanfei Era

Time around the Kansei Era


The time of the upper antiquity is called the Nara period.  The middle antiquity is called the Fujiwara period.  The early modern period is called the Ashikaga period.  Between them, there is a time called the Kamakura period, which is related with the Fujiwara period in one aspect but shows a sign of the Ashikaga period in another.  Therefore, this period is put between the two.


Around the reign of Empress Suiko, as the first stage of the Nara period, Chinese arts in the Han, Wei and early Six Dynasties were imported to this country in addition to the arts of Japanese origin.  They developed with the Buddhist culture to form a style of art.  Such sculptors as Tori Busshi and Yamaguchi-no Oguchi Atai were artists of this period.


Around the reign of Emperor Tenji, when the arts in the Suiko style made a progress, there was a conflict between the south and the north in the late Six Dynasties in China.  In particular, the Northern Dynasties of China communicated with the Central Asia, Persia and India and imported arts from the Western Regions.  They were also imported to Japan through Korea or China.  Such arts, which were entirely different from those of the Han, Wei and Six Dynasties, formed another type of arts.  The mural painting of the Horyuji Temple is based on this style.


The arts of the Nara period reached the prime around the Tenpyo Era.  However, the extremity of the prime is decay.  Therefore, it was in the late Tenji or the early Tenpyo that the true arts of the Nara period were created, I believe.  Around the Tenpyo Era, the arts in the reign of Emperor Shomu were in the prime.  They started to decay in the reign of Empress Koken and fell in the reign of Emperor Konin.


The Fujiwara period, which started with the transfer of the capital to Heian-kyo, can be called the Heian period.  The late Tenpyo of Japan falls on the Tang Dynasty in China, but the arts imported this time were in the style of the late Six Dynasties.  The arts of typical Tang style were formed around forty or fifty years after the death of Emperor Xuanzong.  Therefore, they were imported to Japan around the time of the monk Kukai introducing the esoteric Buddhism.  Such are the arts around the Konin Era, including the Mandala of the Jingoji Temple in Takaosan in Kyoto.


Around the Engi Era, despite the prior influence of the Tang style, the arts became authentically Japanese.  There was such a famous painter as Kose-no Kanaoka, whose influence remained even in the Genji-Heike times or the Kamakura period.


Under the inertia of the prior trends, the arts were both virile and graceful, but in a time the artists emphasized the gracefulness, ignoring the charm of fortitude.  From such artists as Fujiwara Motomitsu and the monk Eshin (Genshin), the gracefulness prevailed and reached the extremity in the works by Fujiwara Takayoshi or Fujiwara Takachika. 


In the early years of the Genji-Heike conflicts, the virile elements of the Japanese arts had a chance to arise.  There was a monk painter named Toba Sojo (Kakuyu), who was a predecessor of Tokiwa Mitsunaga and Keion.



The Kamakura period was divided into two.  In the first period, there were lots of reconstructions of Buddhist temples, which were destroyed through the battles of the Genji and the Heike and other disasters.  This brought a great chance to artists, including the sculptor Unkei, and such master painters as Tokiwa Mitsunaga, Keion and Fujiwara Nobuzane.  The second period was a time of decline.


In the Ashikaga period, there were black-and-white aquarelles [Sumi-e] created for the first time.  Previously in the second period of Kamakura, some Chinese monks came to Japan from China under the Song or Yuan Dynasties to bring a seed of that art.  Works by such Sumi-e artists as Tensho Shubun and Li Xiuwen (Ri Shubun) were so popular among the Japanese and followed by the famous artists such as Sesshu, Sesson or Kano Masanobu, who formed the time of the Higashiyama Culture, the prime time of the Ashikaga period.


In the time Toyotomi ruled Japan, the nation was finally reunited after the long time of provincial wars.  Powerful lords of samurai built a lot of mansions.  Arts were influenced by foreign arts through the invasion to Korea by Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  Such movements resulted in a luxurious and magnificent style of art, which broke the tradition of the Ashikaga style.  Kano Eitoku and Kano Sanraku represent this period.


In the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Japanese arts returned to the style of the Higashiyama period.  Around the Kanfei Era, Kano Koi and Kano Tanyu created their own style.  The school led by Ogata Korin brought a revolutionary change to the Tosa School.  The school of Hanabusa Iccho made an innovative change of the style of the Kano School.  In a time, however, such revolutions went to the extreme, resulting in the abuses and reactions in the time around the Kansei Era. 


Around the Kansei Era, influenced by Chinese study, which was very popular at that time, and by the rising of the realist school, the art of the Kano School began to change.  That was the dawn of the situation we see today.


Those are descriptions of the vicissitudes of the Japanese arts.  To conclude this, as lessons to be learned for the future, I am going to point out several issues.


Firstly, we must note that the intense spirituality and the valuing of ideas are the basis of the rising of arts; while, on the contrary, the mere pursuits of forms will necessarily result in decadence.


Arts flourished in the early Nara period when they had a spirit, but decayed when satisfied with it and wishing for forms.  Arts in the era of Konin pursued for the spirit.  Such attitude, then in harmony with forms, led them to the prime in the Engi Era, but in the years of conflicts between the Genji and the Heike the arts decayed in pursuit of forms.  In the Kamakura period, the keen spirit of the Engi School led their arts to the prime, but they already decayed in the second period when their forms were completed.  Also in Higashiyama period, like Shubun or Josetsu, their spirit was so keen though their forms were not complete.  In the time of Kano Motonobu and Soami, their arts reached the Higashiyama style or the Muqi Fachang style, showing signs of decline.  Under the rule of Tokugawa Shogunate, Kano Tanyu, the greatest master of the time, had a wish to synthesize the arts of Higashiyama period.  Even he was no match for Sesshu, but was mimicked by his descendants, resulting in worsening of decay.  Maruyama Okyo was talented enough to be a good match for Tanyu.  When the followers learned his way, his school also declined.  The present situation is that the exquisiteness of the Kano School has been dead for a hundred years while the Shijo-Maruyama School is just breathing feebly.


The rises and falls of the Japanese arts are illustrated in the previous table.  Arts rise when the prevailing spirit is strong and keen.  They fall when they pursue forms and are bound by them.  Through all the historical periods, you can say the arts of Japan reached the summits in Tenpyo, Engi, Kamakura and Higashiyama periods.  In the periods in between, excellent art works were really scarce.  Once reaching the peak, suddenly the arts fell.  As for the sculptural arts, they reached the top in Tenpyo period.  Works by Jocho were second to them.  Those by Unkei were next.


Secondly, arts follow their lineage for development and leave their lineage when falling.


Arts are not isolated.  The forms of the arts that make an epoch cannot be without their predecessors.  Japanese arts, which had been developing from the time of Empress Suiko to that of Emperor Tenji, completed around the Tenpyo Era, but such completion was not done by the Tenpyo masters alone.  The basis of the prime was already made by somebody in the previous times.  Giving other examples, it is like the monk Kukai as a predecessor to Kose-no Kanaoka; the monk Toba Sojo (Kakuyu) as a predecessor to Tokiwa Mitsunaga or Sumiyoshi Keinin (Keion); Li Xiuwen (Shubun) and Tensho Shubun as predecessors to the monk Sesshu; Kano Motonobu (Kohogen) as a predecessor to Kano Eitoku.  As you see the case of Kano Tanyu, who followed Kano Koi, or the case of Maruyama Okyo, who followed Watanabe Shiko and Ishida Yutei, no artist can be a great master if he is isolated.  It was not unreasonable that Soga Shohaku, who stood aloof from any lineage, did not have a great influence over the society of that time.  It is really like that.  You cannot expect anything to be completed in a time.  Try to follow the lineage of your ideas so that yours will be able to make a step toward completeness.  When you stop such efforts once, then forms prevail over ideas, resulting in decline of arts.  In study of the history of arts, therefore, I believe it is more important to study the predecessors than the great masters who followed them. 

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