Many of Japan’s great works of art, particularly paintings, are locked away in storage rooms because they are considered too fragile to display at museums.

Many temples only display their finest art works on rare occasions, say, every 48 years or so. Tokyo Seitoku University professor Kazuko Kanamaru told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “each temple has a different reason for not displaying their Buddha statues. Some base their decisions on the policy of their respective sects, while others merely want to carefully preserve their precious statues.”

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has one of the world’s best and most extensive collections of Japanese art. The British Museum also has a fairly extensive collection of Japanese art including a fairly large ukiyo-e collection.

Art exhibitions in Tokyo often draw the largest crowds in the world. An exhibition of late 18th century Edo period painters at the Tokyo National Museum drew 6,446 visitors a day in 2006. This was more than any show in London or New York or elsewhere in the world drew that year. A show in 2005 at the Tokyo National Museum featuring works by woodblock artist Hokusai drew 9,436 a day, the highest number since figures on exhibitions have been kept.

In recent years Japanese art has been fetching high prices at Christies and Southby’s auctions with painting selling for over $1 million, wooden statues selling for over $14 million, and woodblock prints of which hundreds were made selling for over $100,000 each.

Websites and Resources

Good Websites: Japanese Art and Archeology art-and-archaeology.com ; World Art Treasures Japanese Sculpture bergerfoundation.ch ; Buddhist Art of Japan buddhist-artofjapan.com ; Japanese Buddhist Statuary onmarkproductions.com ; Identifying Buddhist Images in Japanese Painting and Sculpture aasianst.org/EAA ; British Museum on Japanese Buddhist Statuary britishmuseum.org ; Miho Museum near Kyoto miho.or.jp ; Miho Museum Photos danheller.com

Good Websites and Sources on Japanese Art: Artelino on Japanese Art artelino.com ; Web Japan web-japan.org/museum/paint.html ; Japanese Art Portal japaneseart.org ; ; Japanese Art and Architecture from the Web Museum Paris ibiblio.org/wm ; Zeroland zeroland.co.nz ; Asia Society Virtual Tour asiasociety.org ; Daruma, Japanese Art and Antiques Magazine darumamagazine.com ; Art of JPN Blog artofjpn.com

Art History Sites Art History Resources on the Web — Japan witcombe.sbc.edu ; Early Japanese Visual Arts wsu.edu:8080 ; Japanese Art History Resources art-and-archaeology.com ; Books: “History of Japanese Art” by Penelope Mason (Harry N. Abrams, 1993); “The People' Culture — from Kyoto to Edo” by Yoshida Mitsukuni (Cosmo Public Relations Corporation, Tokyo, 1986); “The Shaping of Daimyou Culture, 1185-1868" by Martin Collcut and Yoshiaki Shimizu (National Gallery of Art, 1988).

Art Museums in Japan Columbia University Page on Collections of Japanese Art columbia.edu ; Tokyo National Museum site tnm.go.jp ; Kyoto National Museum official site kyohaku.go.jp ; Tokugawa Art Museum tokugawa-art-museum. ; National Museum of Japanese History rekihaku.ac.jp ; Nara National Museum narahaku.go.jp ; Kyoto University Museum inet.museum.kyoto-u.ac.jp ; National Museum of Art, Osaka nmao.go.jp ; National Research of Cultural Properties Tokyo tobunken.go.jp ; National Research of Cultural Properties Nara nabunken.go.jp/english ;Miho Museum near Kyoto miho.or.jp ; Photos danheller.com

Museums with Good Collections of Japanese Art Outside of Japan ; Columbia University Page on Collections of Japanese Art columbia.edu ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Sackler Museum in Washington asia.si.edu/collections ; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston mfa.org/collections ; British Museum britishmuseum.org ; Los Angeles County Museum of Art lacma.org/art ; Ruth and Sherman Lee Institute for Japanese Art Collection ucmercedlibrary.info

Links in this Website: JAPANESE CULTURE Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE CULTURE AND HISTORY Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; CLASSICAL JAPANESE ART AND SCULPTURE Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE PAINTING Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; EDO PERIOD ART Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; UKIYO-E, HOKUSAI, HIROSHIGE Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE CRAFTS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE POTTERY AND LACQUERWARE Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE ARCHITECTURE Factsanddetails.com/Japan ;

Traditional Japanese Art and Crafts

1,700-year-old bronze mirror
In Japan there isn't as clear a distinction between "pure art" and "functional arts and crafts" as there is the West, where painting and sculpture are generally lumped into the art category and basketmaking, ceramics and gardening are generally regarded as crafts or something else.

The Japanese did not make a distinction between the fine and applied arts until the 19th century. A famous art work in Japan is just as likely to be a fan or tea bowl as a painting or sculpture. Tim Clark, head of the Japanese section ay the British Museum, told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Historically there is a very interesting cross-over between what in the West has been classified as fine art and craft. It’s a much less clear distinction in Japan. In fact traditionally those distinctions didn’t exist so much and I think that explains a lot of the formal strength and power of Japanese crafts.”

Clark also said, “What is very surprising and exciting to me is that perhaps in the West we think of “traditional” and “contemporary” as opposites in some way, whereas in so many Japanese pieces these two things are functioning at the same time...They are drawing on traditions and not only that but the traditions are constantly being updated each generation and often, in formal terms, you end up with something which seems very contemporary and visually very up-to-date and exciting.”

Many traditional Japanese art forms’such as laquerwear painting and screen painting — require the skills of a painter and a craftsman. Many traditional Japanese arts and crafts are passed down from generation to generation by family member to family member or from teacher or master to student.

“Shi, Ha Ri” is a mantra repeated by traditional artists that encourages them to transcend boundaries in pursuit of creativity.

Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties in Japan

7th century
national treasure
The Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties of 1950 recognizes 1,054 artworks and buildings. The law defines the tangible cultural properties that are designated as such as buildings, artworks and documents that are deemed valuable from historic, artistic or academic standpoints.

The Japanese government officially recognizes almost 200 traditional national industries. They include doll making, origami, gold foil laquerwear, silk kimono painting, traditional dance, tea ceremony, flower arranging, ancient court music, bunraku puppetry, geisha girl dances, and Kabuki drama.

Today, many traditional art forms are dependent on government help for their survival, but even with subsidies, the art objects require so much skill and time to make, few people can afford them. A distinctive white-and-brown ceramic bowl, for example, costs around $220, and an originally crafted vase, $6,800. Kimonos that take months, even years to make, can cost on he hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Human Treasures in Japan

Some Japanese craftsman and artists are considered so skilled and talented, they are honored as Living National Treasures. Subsidized by the government and given the official title "Holders of Important Intangible Cultural Properties," artist have be involved in a traditional craft, art or performing art to qualify.

As of 1990, 97 people had been named in the performing arts of kabuki, noh and bunraku and 92 were named for their work in crafts such as ceramics, papermaking, weaving, swordmaking, and lacquer. One dollmaker who was recognized used to spend as much as 10 years working one a single doll. A Kabuki actor that was honored was the great-great-great-great grandson of a famous Kabuki actor.

The first Living Treasures were named in 1955 in accordance with Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties of 1950. The idea behind the human treasures belonged to, of all people, Douglas MacArthur, who was appalled by the destruction of priceless art during World War II, and wanted to make sure that Japan's ancient arts weren't lost and that the people who carried on the art forms were well taken care of.

Looted Art in Japan

Some of the art in Japanese museums and collections is of dubious origin. The Italian government has a list of 100 works of art in Japanese museums that are believed to have been looted from Roman sites in Italy. Many were obtained through Gianfabrica Becchina, an Italian art dealer believed to have ties with the Mafia, and a Japanese antiques dealer, who worked through a syndicate in Basel, Switzerland involved in trafficking stolen art objects.

The Miho Museum in Kyoto is notorious for buying up looted art. The Italian government has said that several pieces in the museum, including a bronze statue of Ceres dated o 100 B.C. and other sculptures and frescoes were looted in Italy. There are also works are believed to have been taken from Afghanistan during the Taliban years.

Concept Behind Japanese Art

wabi found in 2,000-year-old pottery
The beauty of Japanese art is expressed in the concepts “miyabi” (“refined elegance”), “mono no aware” (“pathos of nature”), “wabi” (“quiet taste”) and “sabi” (“elegant simplicity”). Traditional Japanese art forms, whether they be painting or dollmaking, tend to emphasize things like purity, form, tradition, stillness, line, color, value, texture and inner calm. [Source: Bennet Schiff, Smithsonian magazine, November 1988]

The Japanese have a deep reverence for art objects that are used in everyday situations or for specific occasions. These situations and occasions in some instances have became art forms themselves, in which ethical behavior, formalized ritual, and ambiance are as important to the occasion as things like texture, form, color and design are to art objects. The most obvious example of this is the relationship between the tea ceremony and traditional ceramics, architecture and painting.

Japanese art is rich in symbols. Crows evoke the sun and rabbits bring to mind the moon. Some paintings have rabbits that glow whiter and whiter and whiter as the room darkens. Much of Japanese art is viewed in dark places — behind paper screens, by candlelight or charcoal and in rooms with few windows in palaces and dark corners and alcoves in temples.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s Collection of Japanese Art

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has a large collection of Japanese art, exhibition features about 90 pieces, including Buddhist paintings, suibokuga ink paintings and early modern period paintings, due to the joint efforts of art collectors Ernest Francisco Fenollosa (1853-1908) and William Sturgis Bigelow (1850-1926), as well as the Japanese scholar Tenshin Okakura (1863-1913). [Source: Kyoji Maeda, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 11, 2012]

Among the museum’s possessions are what are thought to be the two greatest picture scrolls kept outside Japan: Minister Kibi's Adventures in China (late 12th century) and one of the three volumes of Heiji Monogatari Emaki (late 13th century).Fenollosa helped the Boston museum to obtain the volume of Heiji Monogatari Emaki, which is titled Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace. The picture scroll depicts the emerging samurai class in the late 12th century and only three of its volumes remain today. The two remaining volumes are owned by the Tokyo National Museum and the Seikado Bunko Art Museum in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo.

The Boston collection also includes about 10 pieces created by Soga Shohaku (1730-81), who is known for his flamboyant style. One of the artworks is Dragon and Clouds, which was originally drawn on eight sliding doors. The eye-catching piece is of a manga-like dragon on a unique background that has been accentuated with an ink wash.

Some Japanese people have mixed feelings about foreigners possessing art pieces deemed national treasures or seen as culturally important. When the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston added Minister Kibi's Adventures in China to its collections in 1932, the national government introduced a system to identify important art objects in Japan and prevent them from being exported. However, great Japanese art objects held overseas have contributed to enhancing the acclaim of Japanese art internationally.

Artworks are owned by wealthy people, and it is normal for them to be transferred from one owner to another, said journalist Yuriko Kuchiki, who published a book last year titled, House of Yamanaka. The book is based on her research on a Japanese art dealer who helped build the Boston museum's collections and was involved in its acquisition of Korin’s Eight Bridges.

Overseas collectors sometimes find value in artworks that are overlooked by Japanese people.One example is Joe Price, an American collector of Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800) and other painters in the Edo Period (1603-1867) that were not highly regarded in Japan. But domestic art fans reacted favorably to his collection when it was exhibited in Japan six years ago. "In [Ernest Francisco] Fenollosa's time, Japan and the United States had vastly different national power," Kuchiki said, adding that the transfer of art reflects social change and is an interesting phenomenon. "During this era there was also an anti-Buddhist movement [leading to the destruction of Buddhist temples and abandonment of Buddhist statues right after the Meiji restoration].”

Art Restoration in Japan

Oko Studio in Kyoto is the world's premier facility for restoring Asian art. Using techniques and tools that have changed little over the centuries, skilled restorers painstakingly repair hand rolls, screens and hanging scrolls with artificially-aged silk patches that are carefully cut, glued and shaved in place. [Source: Carol Simons, Smithsonian magazine]

It takes anywhere from a few months to a few years to restore a work. But sometimes it can take longer. One hand scroll with 4,331 Buddhist sutras took 26 years to restore. Most restorers spend 10 years learning their craft and 20 years to become a master.

"Today, we may mix traditional with the new, but there's very little change in the basic way we do things," Restorer Iwataro Oka told Smithsonian magazine. "Most of tolls are from Edo times [1600-1868]. So are most our techniques. No matter what scrolls we're working, the methods we use are pretty much the same."

Art Restoration Methods in Japan

Usually works of art are first carefully studied for months before restoration work begins. Light tables, x-rays, microscopes, infrared cameras, video cameras and computer are all used to examine the works and figure the best strategy for restoring them.

The restorers work on $40,000 cypress wood tables that are periodically planed to get rid of nicks and marks. Before restoration work begins the works are usually cleaned with water and special absorbent paper. The works are never repainted. The colors of the silk patches are usually "common denominator" shade of brown or tan aged with radiation to match the silk in the work of art.

One of the most difficult tasks is removing old patches and lining without doing any damage. To do this, a thin paper facing with gel made from seaweed is attached to hold the work in place the old patches and lining are removed cotton swabs and small tweezers. Then the thin paper facing is easily removed.

Today replicas of delicate fusama-e paintings are made using digital technology on special washi paper with advanced ink-jet printers.

Image Sources: Onmark Productions, Tokyo National Museum, British Museum, Ray Kinnane

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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