[Sample Translation]


History of Japanese Art

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


Okakura Kakuzo (Tenshin)


Conclusion (2)



Thirdly, arts are excellent in representing the spirit of the age, most remarkably able to show the thought of the time.


Arts decline in the time of social disorders.  Evidently, they are closely related with the life of the nation.  Also, it is the arts of our country that most remarkably represent our spirit.  Our literature or religious culture should be respected, to be sure, but they are concerned with the domestic matters only, not good enough to move the whole world.  It is only the arts that represent Japan to the world.  In the scale of power or influence, our literature or religious culture is no match for our arts.


Fourthly, the arts of Japan are rich in variety.


Judging from their spirit, the Japanese arts were idealist in the Nara period, were sentimental in the Heian period, and were subjective in the Ashikaga period.  If discussed on representation of their forms, the Japanese arts experienced three major changes.  They were magnificent in the Nara period, were graceful in the Heian period, and then were freehearted in spirit in Ashikaga.  There is no other example in the world like the Japanese, who have such three properties in one race.  This should prove that the Japanese nation is rich in the artistic ideas.  Egyptian art in ancient Egypt did not change at all.  Neither did Assyrian art.  In ancient Greece, art appeared as idealist, but they did not produce sentimental art before its decline.  There you cannot see any subjective art.  Italian art is one of the richest in variety, but just sentimental, not showing an idealist or subjective spirit.  It is also true in the modern French art.  The fact that only our race has such three varieties should prove the excellence of our capacities, allowing us to boast in the world.  I cannot predict what kind of changes the Japanese art will experience in the future.  It really is your responsibility.


Fifthly, the Japanese arts are highly absorptive.


Arts in the Nara period were based on the influence of Chinese arts in the Han, Wei and Six Dynasties.  The Heian Japan adopted the culture of the Tang Dynasty, but digested it to create the arts in the Engi period.  The Higashiyama culture was an assimilation of the Song and Yuan cultures into Japanese.  In the same way, the Korean culture was assimilated into Japanese in the Toyotomi period.  The original nature of such foreign cultures was completely digested so that you cannot see its vestiges.  Some consider this proves the Japanese talent of mimicking, but I disagree with such views.  For survival, all living things digest materials with no lives, but it is they, not such materials, that make their own body.  Animals or plants grow on the nutrition they digested.  The development of a nation is also based on its capacity to digest what various things it has absorbed.  Such various things one absorbed may contain evil elements.  In the history of arts, there have been many cases of importing such evils.  For example, in the Tokugawa period, blundering arts of sculpture was imported from the Ming Dynasty, confusing the Japanese sculptural arts.  From the Kansei era, the painting of Southern Chinese style was becoming very popular and it seems such fashions swept away the tastes of gracefulness.  Therefore, you must never forget to choose with a greatest care when you import foreign things.  In the ancient times, when there was little communication with foreign nations, it was possible to take such a long time as a hundred or fifty years for digesting the virtues adopted from foreign cultures.  However, you cannot ignore the conditions have changed today, since you are competing with foreign nations.  That is also a point you must pay attention to.


Sixthly, the Japanese arts are so based on the Buddhist philosophy that they tend to be spiritualist, going beyond the realism, to find the beauty in other things than the real. 


In spite of the said richness in variety, the Japanese arts have never attached importance to realist ideas.  This quality is the basis of the spiritual supremacy of the Japanese arts in the world.  Greek art was focused on the mimesis of the real things from its arising.  In Italy, they considered the best paintings are something like a reflection of the mirror.  Even in recent years, they are still like that.  In the Nara or Heian Japan, even though trying to make realistic representation, they were not really focus on it.  They sought for beauty mostly in other things than the reality.  In the Higashiyama period, the black and white of aquarelle prevailed over realistic representation.  Even Maruyama Okyo, famous for his school of realistic art, avoided a mere realistic representation in the painting, knowing that the taste consists in the outside of the form.  In this way, the presence of beauty other than the mimesis of the real is a great discovery of Eastern arts.  They fully study the real, but do not merely rely on it.  Among factors that may cause this, it is the Buddhist philosophy that seems to have led the arts of Japan toward the spiritualism and away from the materialism.  From the Nara period to the Ashikaga period, the Buddhist thought was undoubtedly predominant over the arts.  However, it may mislead the arts to entire elimination of realistic representation, which is a great mistake even from the Buddhist point of view, as it is like differentiation of mind from materials.  Mind and materials should be coexisting as one thing.  I believe this is the goal of our arts in the future.  Japanese literature was deviated by the Buddhism, but the arts of Japan have been benefited from it.



The Seventh character of Japanese art is its gracefulness.


In the Fujiwara period, Japanese art marked the zenith of gracefulness, which means the cultural independence of Japanese art of that time.  In my views, most of the arts of Japan have a character of gracefulness.  When the Fujiwara family was dominant and our nation was out of any foreign influences, the Japanese art revealed its true nature and reached the extremity of gracefulness.  In this way, if the Japanese are freed from any kind of yokes that hinder their spontaneous developments, it will necessarily result in such points.  The art in the Higashiyama period shows the spirit of fortitude and virility, but compared with the works by Chinese painters such as Baen (Ma Yuan) or Kakei (Xia Gui), those by Japanese such as Sesshu or Masanobu are tinged with graceful tastes, like a precious gemstone with warm colors.  This is a very important quality from the artistic point of view.  This may be caused by the nature of the Japanese blood or may be formed in the beautiful landscapes of the country, but you cannot tell it exactly yet.  However, evidently it is a nature of Japanese art, which at the same time keeps a nature of fortitude.  The gracefulness embracing the fortitude is the most remarkable charm of Japanese art.  Toward the end of their school, the Kano artists emphasized nothing but virility, which did not go well with the Japanese sentiments, ending up in unpopularity.  This resulted in the prosperity of the Shijo School.  Therefore, you can say the virility without gracefulness is in disharmony with the true mind of the Japanese.


The art of Japan experienced the three major changes in these small, isolated islands.  We do not really know what sort of changes it will see in the future.  At the time of the Meiji Restoration, it was impossible to go against the trend of destruction.  The vandalism was such as they burned lacquer wares and paintings to get a little gold from the ash.  In this way, the arts suffered so much misery that I myself was overwhelmed by feeling of pity.  When the painting of Southern Chinese style was in fashion among all people, there was such a trend as if all Japanese wares were going to be abandoned.  Around 1872 to 1873, when the Japanese longed for Western culture, lots of the Japanese artists turned to the Western style.  At that point, authentic Japanese art disappeared.  On the occasion of participating in the international exposition in Austria in 1873, Japan finally rediscovered the importance of the arts of her own.  Art craft arose first.  Then the world of Japanese painting was awakened and formed an association named Kaiga Kyoshinkai in 1881.  At that time, even great masters representing Japanese art had to make a living by designing for potteries.  Their names were unknown to people.  The trend was not beyond the restoration of the fallen arts.  Someone won a silver medal by copying an ancient picture.  The new picture was exhibited with the original for reference, but people did not question such exhibits.  Today, the artists have finally restored their spirit of independence, which is an incomparable progress from that time, but there still is a question.  What is your goal?  What are you aiming at?  The soul of the Kano family has been dead for a hundred years.  The Shijo and Maruyama Schools have fallen, too.  Then, how is it possible to reform our arts?  Improvement of the subject patterns is one thing.  Subjects of the artworks are limited in certain conventional patterns, such as gfoxes,h graccoon dogs,h ghares,h gcarpsh and gautumn leaves.h  They should not be regarded to represent the art of our nation.  I believe that more and more artists should choose such subjects as human figures, history or genres in the future.  Manner of brushwork is another question.  When you shade a drawing, you should not necessarily focus on the shade or not necessarily ignore the light.  When you color, you may be told to darken it, but it is just because the present fashion is too light.  Paintings by you students may tend to be in the same fashion or manner as it may make a style of Art School, but I hope you will try hard to avoid that.  There must be many other questions to explore.


I am presenting the following words for encouraging you.  Merely to mimic old masters will lead you to decay.  History proves this.  You must keep your lineage, study your predecessors but try hard to make a step beyond them.  You should learn from the Western arts.  However, it does not mean you should follow them.  You need to make a progress, focusing on the art of your own. 


This brief history of Japanese art may not be enough to satisfy your desire to learn.  In the next year, you should supplement the insufficiency with the lecture on artistic archeology. 

1 2


Other sample translations



Books on Japan

Books for Japanese Studies


        Home            Links            Recommended


Meiji Special











Subscribe Japan

Ancient  Medieval




Modern  Edo  Miscellaneous

Culture@ Literature


Religion@ Education


Women@ Foreigners


Economy @Law



Literature@ Fictions @Poetry


Culture @Arts @Architecture @Music


Cinema @Theater @Martial-Arts


Anime @Manga @Food@ Women

Politics  @Law 




Economy  Education

Translation As Collaboration--Translator for Scholars, Researchers and Students