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Articles Blog

Japanese Art

Karyn Planett

A Study of the Sublime 

A small, smooth hand mimics the refined yet tired movements of his elder. With an almost awkward attempt at precision, the student emulates the master drawing from him the wisdom of the ages. From one generation to the next passes a technique, a style, a craft, an art that has been coveted since times past by Japanese society.

Throughout the land, in airy studios and drafty workshops, wise artists nurture their talented pupils. Each senses an urgency to keep alive that glorious culture that defines Japan as a living treasury. 

Who Are These Artists? 

Governments around the world are faced with bottom lines and budget cuts yet Japan is one nation that still recognizes the need to nurture its traditional art forms. “Holders of Important Intangible Cultural Properties” are artists identified as living national treasures and provided for so they may focus their energies exclusively on their masterpieces.           

The concept of caring for those artists who perpetuate the traditional arts is reputed to have been the scheme of General Douglas MacArthur, the American five-star general who commanded the post-war operation in Japan. This military man recognized the tragic loss of fine examples of many art forms through the indiscriminate hands of war. It is said that MacArthur encouraged Japanese authorities to recognize, reward, and subsidize those artists who were the masters of their varied crafts, from drama to doll making. 

The Living Arts 

Kabuki is one of a handful of Japanese dramatic presentations. Unlike No (or Noh) performances that are often tragic, Kabuki is more musical and lively. Both, however, feature only male actors known as onnatgata. For more than 300 years, women were forbidden to portray Kabuki characters as the government had grown weary of jealous fans who aggressively vied for these actresses’ affection. The Treasury of Loyal Retainers is a popular Kabuki play. 

Tattooing is an ancient Japanese art form as well, but it uses the human body as a canvas. Many of these figures are reminiscent of ancient woodcuts. As early as the third century B.C., both Japanese men and women were tattooed on their faces as well as their bodies for decoration and for tribal identification. In recent times, this practice has been associated with the yakuza—the Japanese underworld—and people sporting tattoos are often denied entry into public places.

Fabrics and Dolls 

Throughout time, Japanese kimonos remained virtually unchanged. What did evolve, however, were the colors and patterns used in these garments. Some 1,200 years ago, weavers were already employing batik, tie-dye and stencils to decorate their fabrics. Gold and silver threads later enhanced these designs. The obi sashes became increasingly more elaborate. Some master weavers, even today, use only their sculpted fingernails to weave the delicate silk threads of these sashes. These artists are known as “fingernail weavers.” Samples of these delicate fabrics can be found on traditional Japanese dolls sculpted from kiri wood. 

Fashioned With Fire 

An expert swordsmith huddles before a blazing fire. With temperatures reaching a blistering 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, he creates a highly polished and richly decorated sword that would serve a samurai admirably. His craft evolved from that of Chinese swordsmiths of 2,000 years ago. 

Meanwhile, while squatting on an earthen floor, an iron molder creates magic where once there was none. From rough, unpolished iron his powerful hands fabricate such pieces as jewelry, dotaku bells, and traditional tea kettles that are used during formal tea ceremonies. 

And Japanese yaki porcelains and ceramics, as fragile as egg shells, are glorious in their exquisite simplicity.  

Flowers and Tea 

Ikebana is the Japanese art of floral arranging. Originally, only rulers enjoyed these colorful and delicate masterpieces. Slowly, over time, this art form was introduced into the quiet corners of small Japanese homes, as were bonsai’s. Though these diminutive trees can live for hundreds of years, they seldom grow taller than two feet for they have been expertly pruned throughout their long life. 

Japan’s tea ceremony is rich with pageantry and protocol. One must study for some time to master the discreet nuances of this ritual including the placement of the guests, the appropriate topics of conversation, and the acceptable manners for all involved. Tea masters provide this instruction at certain schools throughout the land. 

Fellow nations would be wise to examine Japan’s rich cultural heritage and the country’s desire to preserve it as well as its celebrated masters. A lost art is an irreversible tragedy.