Calligraphy as Visual Art

Bokujinkai and Avant-Garde Abstract Art

Franz Kline, Painting Number 2, 1954, The Museum of Modern Art

I watched a Metropolitan Museum’s event recorded in 2013. There were two lectures about the exhibited objects of medieval artwork which contain calligraphy, one by Tomoko Sakomura and the other by John Carpenter. These talks were followed by a calligraphy demonstration by a zen monk, Harada Rōshi.

Sakomura introduced several Japanese colourful portraits of poets with 31 syllable poetry (waka) in the form of black ink calligraphy. The selected poems were cited at social gatherings at the imperial court in medieval time. Elites learnt and memorised poems in collections such as Kokin-shū.  Beautifully stroked poems were not only offering textual meaning, but some, with a ‘scattered style’ (chirashi-gaki) had a visual quality. Sakomura next showed folding screens depicting two well-known rivers: Yoshino with cherry blossoms and Tatsuta with autumn leaves. The rivers were not only showed trees full of cherry blossoms and maple leaves, but were also decorated with slips of paper (tanzaku) containing poems. Matching and showing part of poems entertained elites. Elites shared both visual as well as textual content.

Ogata Kenzan, ‘Fourth Month’ from Fujiwara no Teika’s ‘Birds and Flowers of the Twelve Months’, 1743, The Metropolitan Museum

Carpenter showed zen artwork with calligraphy texts from medieval Japan.  More formal texts were readable, but others showed dynamic strokes according to the individual calligrapher’s taste.  Here again, written texts readable or unreadable, convey messages in textual as well as visual forms.  At the end of the event, Harada Rōshi, in his demonstration (or performance) impressed the American audience by combining the beauty of dynamic monochrome calligraphy with zen philosophy.

Therefore, it is clear that calligraphy conveyed both visual and textual meaning in medieval Japanese artworks.

Next I read part of Eugenia Bogdanova-Kummer’s latest book titled ‘Bokujinkai Japanese Calligraphy and the Postwar Avantgarde‘.

Shortly after the end of World War II in 1948, there was a movement in Japan of a group of calligraphers called ‘People of the Ink’.  The group was led by Morita Shiryū who attempted to internationalise Japanese calligraphy by introducing it to a foreign audience. ‘Like a Rainbow’(niji) was the symbol of his outreach activities, bridging between the East and the West.  Morita and his Bokujinkai ‘People of the Ink’ calligraphers started to send out their journals called ‘Bokubi’ with works of black ink brushworks to artists in Europe and America.

They received an overwhelming response from avantgarde abstract artists with no knowledge of Chinese and Japanese characters, such as Franz Klein in New York and Pierre Soulages in Paris. Those Western avantgarde artists were inspired by Japanese calligrapher/black-ink artists’ monochrome images, their movement and speed, and the metaphysical and East Asian philosophical system. Soon they started to explore this newly acquainted style in black and white visual and theoretical art. This encounter made Japanese calligrapher artists aware of the concept of blank space (yohaku) and the performing element of black ink art and calligraphy. They also discovered ‘line’s human dimention (ningensei); its expressivity (hyōgensei), and temporal characteristics (jikansei) in the European tradition.

Both groups of artists from Japan and Europe-American avantgarde artists were also resonating with each other and with another avantgarde experimental artist group from Japan, the Gutai Art Group. 

In conclusion, Japanese calligraphy coveys both aesthetic and textual values. In  encounter with the European avantgarde abstract artists, the two strongly influenced each other.

Question: How was the ‘People of the Ink’ perceived by Japanese audience, especially the idea of utilising calligraphy and transforming the traditional way of writing method into a form of abstract art?


Sunday at the Met: Brush Writing in the Arts of Japan, September 2013

  • ‘Brushing Waka: Japanese Court Poetry in Text and Image’ by Tomoko Sakomura, Associate Professor of Art History and Chair, Department of Art, Swarthmore College
  • ‘Poetry in Ink: Japanese Calligraphy and Decorated Writing Paper’ by John T Carpenter, Curator of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum
  • Zen Calligraphy Demonstration by Shōdō Harada Rōshi, Head Abbot of Sōgenji Zen Monastery, Okayama, Japan and Abbot of Tahoma Zen Monastery, Washington State

E.Bogdaonva-Kummer ‘Morita’s Rainbow: Line and Space in Calligraphy and Abstract Painting’ in ‘Bokujinkai: Japanese Calligraphy and the Postwar Avantgarde’ (Brill: 2020)

UNESCO World Heritage

Case Study: Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities)

Heian-jingu Shrine in Kyoto

As part of my MA course assignment, I have read some part of papers by Akagawa and Loo and took a look at the website of the UNESCO World Heritage Japanese sites. For my case study, I have selected a historic and cultural city, Kyoto, because of my familiality as well as being one of the most popular tourists’ destinations in the world.

As many are aware, Kyoto was the old capital of Japan between 794 and 1868. The plan was based on ancient China with a grid system.

As a capital for over 1000 years, Kyoto remained as the centre of the Japanese culture. It is rich in religious buildings for both Shinto and Buddhism together with Japanese gardens (*There is one non-religious property which is the Nijō-jō Castle). 

Most of the 198 wooden buildings and 12 gardens make up the 17 component parts of the properties. Those properties were built or designed between 10th and 17th centuries.


  • Most buildings and gardens have not survived fully intact as the original, however, they retain high levels of authenticity.
  • Wooden building have been rigorously restored and reconstructed with the traditional methods materials in order to retain the original form and decoration.  The repair work has been restricted as minimum and only if necessary.   
  • The Ancient Shrines and Temples Preservation Law, enacted in 1897, has reinforced for preservation of authenticity by careful historical and scientific investigations, traditional craftmanship, and use of the authentic materials.
  • Most 198 properties and 12 gardens have retained a high standard of authenticity in form, design, materials, traditions, techniques, location and setting.


  • Individual buildings, complexes and gardens illustrate the general historical development of Japanese architecture and gardens, despite representing various periods of history across 1000 years.
  • The integrity of each property is ensured in both its wholeness and intactness. All the 17 properties together give a clear and comprehensive understanding of the ancient Japanese capital’s history and culture over a long period of time.
  • Each of the 17 properties are seen in a high level of individual integrity.
  • Because the properties are scattered within an urban context, there is a threat of uncontrolled development to the inscribed properties’ visual integrity.

Shinkansen Kyoto Station


UNESCO World Heritage Site: Kyoto

Akagawa, N. 2015. Heritage conservation in Japan’s cultural diplomacy. Chapter 3. ‘The Japanese heritage conservation approach and authenticity’. 

Loo, T.M. 2020. The politics of Japan’s use of World Heritage: from ratifying the World Heritage Convention to the Mozu-Furuichi Tumulus clusters. In Rots, A. and Teeuwen, M. (eds.) Sacred Heritage in Japan, chapter 2.

Trading of Porcelains during the Medieval and Early Modern Japan

Review: ‘Vessels of Influence’ by Nicole Rousmaniere

Dish of Design of Hare, Shoki Imari style, Hizen ware. Arita kilns, c. 1630s. Porcelain with underglaze cobalt blue oxcide. D. 20.6 cm. British Museum 1959, 0418.1.

As the assignment I have had to read part of ‘Vessels of Influence’ by Nicole Rousmaniere. The book covers the material culture with regards to porcelain in medieval and early modern Japan, the birth and development of Japanese porcelain production, history, politics, international relations including trading network, and quality and authenticity.  It also refers to today’s research topics on porcelain around the east Asian countries.

Chinese Ming porcelain was highly praised and first collected by Ashikaga Yoshimasa in Japan during the fifteenth century by strictly controlled international trading. As the ceramic trade market was expanded, more high-rank samurai worriers as well as wealthy merchants and townsmen started to collect it as a luxury item. Archaeological excavations and written documents indicate that obtaining Chinese porcelains was a sign of wealth for the privileged. Their porcelain collections were used for entertaining guests and to demonstrate their power and wealth.

The origin of Japanese porcelain goes back to the beginning of seventeenth century, around 1610, shortly after Tokugawa took power after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. 

When the supply of Chinese porcelain became short due to the collapse of the Chinese Ming Dynasty, the lord (daimyō) of Hizen (northern Kyushu, current Saga Prefecture) found a big gap in the ceramic market.    

Later Nabeshima Naoshige was appointed as the lord of Saga as well as a Nagasaki Magistrate where international trading was practised.  His domain first reorganised the pottery industry in the Arita into two areas, one for controlled for top quality products for the shogun and high ranking elites, and the other for the rest of the market.  Building guard houses and enclosing the kilns, they implemented licensing, tax collection, and a record keeping system to control production and distribution.  It is notable that Arita wares were also marked as ‘Made in China’ for marketing.

The Arita ware (or called Imari wares, with the port name) porcelain were sold very well, not only in Japan but also around South East Asia.  It is likely that Japanese porcelain replaced Chinese porcelain in the domestic market by 1650s. Originally the Dutch were not interested in trading Japanese porcelain but they showed a great interest in trading it by 1670-70s. As recorded by a Dutch merchant, Japanese porcelain exceeded the original Chinese porcelain in quality. 

Early Imari ware produced by Chinese and Korean potters in Arita were marked as ‘Made in China’. This could be controversial but people seemed to accepted it. 

Today the area of Arita is thriving with visitors from around the world. This industry was created, developed and supported by local government up to this time.  

There have been international conferences in Kyushu where archaeologists, art historians and researchers from other disciplines from Japan, China and Korea, have come together. The researchers found some challenges including language barriers, different research methodologies, priority gaps between countries (China and Korea tend to excavate older kiln sites rather than early modern), and different interpretations of the word porcelain (tōki and jiki).  However, we can look forward to further research and international collaborations.   

Points for Discussion:

  • Spurious reign marked ‘Made in China’ Japanese made wares: Can this be regarded as authentic and/or acceptable to customers.
  • Porcelain means significance.  Ownership of porcelain meant sign of wealth and power.  Art is strongly related to politics, international relations, society and economy.
  • Regarding art as local industry, Lord Nabeshima clan’s innovative mind, planning, management, strategic and marketing skills to establish and develop a local industry.  Porcelain production in Saga Prefecture is still well supported by the local authorities up to date. 


Rousmaniere, N. (2012). Vessels of Influence: China and the Birth of Porcelain in Medieval and Early Modern Japan, Bristol Classical Press, 105-120; 128-154.

Kyushu Ceramic Museum:

The Reception of Japanese Pottery in the Early Cold War United States

Hamada Shōji and Kitaōji Rosanjin

The Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art. Photo from the Museum Website

As part of my Art History assignment, I read Meghen Jones’ ‘Hamada Shōji, Kitaōji Rosanjin, and the Reception of Japanese Pottery in the Early Cold War United States,’ Design and Culture.

After World War II, American people held a negative sentiment towards Japan, which was difficult to restore. Therefore, a new cultural diplomacy between the two countries was needed.

Japan was long regarded by Americans as a ‘paradise for potters’. Eighty per cent of the American everyday-pottery market was imports from Japan because of their low price.  American potters during the post-war time were rather characterised as intellectual ‘artist-craftsman’.

In order to promote Japanese art, Yanagi Sōetsu (1889-1961), a philosopher, critic and mingei (folk craft) promoter was selected by the US-Japan Education Committee to give lectures at various locations in the US.  Yanagi’s talk based on his essay ‘The Responsibility of the Craftsman’ was well received by Americans who were in search of new ideas.

Through his mingei movement, Yanagi valued materials for ordinary people’s daily use, made by ‘unknown craftsman’.  Those craftsmen were unburdened by the need to create something ‘beautiful’ or ‘artistic’. 

As part of the project, there was good support by the US-Japan Education Committee as well as universities, institutions and private sponsors such as D Rockerfeller.  Thanks to good support, Yanagi travelled extensively with prominent mingei potters Hamada Shōji (1894-1978) and Bernard Leach (1887-1979) to give talks and ceramic demonstrations.  Hamada had set up a studio in St Ives in the UK jointly with a British migei fellow potter Bernard Leach.   

Hamada Shōji, Cornish Pitcher, 1950c, Stoneware, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, England

Hamada was invited by various venues in the US. He was a quiet and humble potter. He mostly used local materials and didn’t leave his artist’s mark as he saw himself as a craftsman, corresponding to Yanagi’s concept. American people were fascinated by Hamada’s personality and the style of his work as ‘primitive’, simple, spontaneous as well as timeless and eternal.  To them, Hamada looked as if he was the enlightened Buddha. Many potters since made the pilgrimage to his studio in Mahisko in Japan for an apprenticeship or study. 

Kitaōji Rosanjin, Shigaraki-style Jar, 1953, Stoneware, H.8.5 inches. Alfred Ceramic Art Museum

There was another prominent potter from Japan, Kitaōji Rosanjin.  Rosanjin, who was also known to be a calligrapher and a medallist, too, held exhibitions in the US around the same period. Rosanjin was thought to be somewhat temperamental, however, his ‘primitive’, crude and spontaneous style with some extra element such as deliberate chipping, was well received.

Rosanjin visited Alfred University in 1954 with support of the Japan Society. He praised the American people’s intuitive sense for responding well to his past exhibition. Rosanjin also emphasised Nature as being important for ceramics.

Rosanjin’s work reminded people of zen philosophy: ‘Time flows and everything changes’. His work approached the standard of excellence established three hundred years ago.

In conclusion, American and Japan’s alliance was affirmed by two nations’ cultural diplomacy. The American people’s sentiment towards Japan was successfully transformed by Japan’s soft-power of ‘primitive’, humble and simple pottery. The Mingei philosopher Yanagi Sōetsu’s appreciation of unknown craftsman’s work, the potters such as Hamada Shōji and Kitaōji Rosanjin’s ‘primitiveness’, and` the simplicity, modesty and zen-like aesthetics of their work, was well received in early Cold War America.  


1.Until Americans encounter Yanagi, Hamada and Rosanjin, what sort of ceramics were made and appreciated?  I would like to see some example of works by American ‘artist-craftsman characterised as intellectual’?

2. Relating to my previous question, as for the reference to the term ‘Primitive’, were Americans reminded of Picasso who was once working in in Africa, when they saw Hamada and Rosanjin’s works?

3. Are Hamada and Rosanjin still appreciated in the US?  Or people have moved on and dismissed the style. 


Meghen Jones (2017) Hamada Shōji, Kitaōji Rosanjin, and the Reception of Japanese Pottery in the Early Cold War United States, Design and Culture, 9:2, 187-205, DOI: 10.1080/17547075.2017.1329263

Tsuji, N. and N. C. Rousmaniere (2019) History of art in Japan’. New York, Columbia University Press.

Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art, Japan.

Photography of Indigenous People

History of Taiwan and Meiji Imperial Japan


Having read the papers by Ka F. Wong and Paul Barclay as well as listened to a Barclay’s podcast regarding photography of indigenous people in Taiwan.  I would like to discuss the following questions:

  • What is the relationship between anthropology, photography and colonialism in Taiwan? 
  • How did anthropology serve the agenda of Imperial Japan?
  • Why did Japanese state need anthropology?

Torii Ryūzō with had no formal education and worked for the prominent anthropologist Tsuboi Shōgorō at Tokyo Imperial University (currently the University of Tokyo).  Being interested in the roots of Japanese people, Torii was striving to establish his research using Western methods instead of the conventional method with Chinese books.

Torii seized opportunities in 1896 and 1897 to record indigenous people of Taiwan, Japan’s new colony, using the new technology of photography. The island had not been studied by Western countries, such as Holland but was dismissed as ‘too primitive’.  Torii’s ethnographic records are, no doubt, regarded as valuable today.  However, recent scholars suggests that he was looking at those tribal people through a colonial lens; people photographed by him were rather ‘dehumanised’ and seen merely as objects of his research mission.   

Taiwan, formerly known as Formosa, fell under Japanese government’s rule in 1897 after the First Sino-Japan War (1894-1895).  The island was habituated by sino(han) descendants around the coast and by a number of tribes, some practising cannibalism, within the mountainous interior.

Photography was not only introduced for research by individual anthropologists but also by Imperial Japan as a tool in the context of colonisation.  It was essential that ‘animal-like’, ’savage’, ‘barbaric’, ‘primitive’, ‘subhumans’ with no recognizable government be ruled.  (*These people were referred as seiban).

The ultimate purpose of Imperial Japan was administering taxation to entire populations and enhancing capitalism by plantation (in this case, camphor, sugar and rice).  The state also promoted intermarriage and hiring of tribal men for support and security.  To achieve this, photography was used. 

Taking photographs was symbolic and controversial.  Some indigenous men were invited to a photo studio in a town to pose with a gun showing his subjugation to the new system and women were forced to dress traditionally to create authentic and exotic ‘race cards’ to encourage merchandise and tourism.  The photographs of an Atayan woman named Paazeh Nahuch taken by Mori Ushinosuke were presented by the curator Inō Kanori at the Osaka International Exposition in 1903 and the Tokyo Industrial Exposition in 1907.  The original intention was to educate Japanese people about the newly acquired exotic colony, however, producing ‘race cards’ as well as displaying photographs resulted in huge commercial success.  As in today’s media, such photos of a dehumanised ‘savage’ woman of Taiwan with no appropriate identification spread all over Pacific countries.  This phenomena also lead to tourism to the region.

In conclusion, anthropological research through photography was applied by Imperial Japan in order to advance colonisation and to be accepted by the Western countries as an international civilised country. 


Ka F. Wong (2004) Entanglements of ethnographic images: Torii Ryūzō’s photographic record of Taiwan aborigines (1896–1900), Japanese Studies, 24:3, 283-299, DOI: 10.1080/10371390412331331546.

Barclay, D. Paul, ‘Playing the Race Card in Japanese-Governed Taiwan Or, Anthropometric Photographs as ‘Shape-Shifting Jokers’, published in The Affect of Difference: Representations of in East Asian Empire. Ed. by Christopher P. Hanscom and Dennis Washburn, University of Hawaii Press, 2016.

Barclay, Paul, Podcast ‘Meiji at 150’  Episode 109

Video: ‘Don’t Follow the Wind’ by Chim↑Pom

Case Study of Regional Arts: Fukushima and Okinawa

Photo: The New York Times

Prior to Dr Eriko Tomizawa-Kay’s lecture, we watched the Chim↑Pom’s video of a group of young amateur artists’ activities.  The group started to visit Fukushima in 2011 shortly after the Great Tohoku Earthquake which triggered a massive tsunami that subsequently destroyed the nuclear power plant. The activities of this art group were highly controversial.  They entered the hazardous zone (with permission) to put up a flag that was a mixture of a Japanese flag and a red trident, went in to deserted houses to put up photo frames, and placed a cube object which resembles the nuclear reactor. 

My impression was how irresponsible and childish those young people were to recklessly enter such a dangerous zone in the name of art; I was reminded of people entering Syria only to get captured by IS and executed.  I thought those artists were only trying to satisfy their own curiosity and drawing people’s attention for fun. 

Then I read Dr Tomizawa-Kay’s paper on Okinawan Art in ‘Reinventing Localisms, Tradition, and Identity’.  We hardly hear about Okinawa from major media sources.  With no prior knowledge of Okinawa art, I even wondered why we were studying Okinawa art rather than the ‘mainstream’ art history. 

Okinawa Photo: MSeimori

The paper explains Okinawa’s sad history and hardships suffered by the people which was closely reflected in it art.  The islanders were feeling sorrow, turmoil and despair through Ryūkyū Kingdom’s subjugation to Imperial Japan which resulted in it  becoming a bloody battlefield in an effort to  shield the main islands of Japan.  Consequently, Okinawa was governed by the U.S. during the post-war period until 1972.  Mainland Japanese people would not know how much about how the Okinawan have suffered.  Yet, we don’t hear their voice. 

Okinawa art was never valued having been moulded into the Japanese Imperial art style, for nihonga and yōga, with a perception of colonialism.  A celebrated painter Fujita Tsuguharu, Arts and Crafts philosopher Yanagi Muneyoshi and the folklorist Yanagita Kunio all praised Okinawa’s beauty and exoticism through a colonial perspective merely as part of Japan.

Reading Dr Tomizawa-Kay’s paper further, I learnt how younger Okinawan artists started to express people’s anger and their subdued emotion arising from a sense of emptiness, through a style of Modernism to make the nation and the whole world aware.  I was touched by the new generation of artists’ activities.  Pen is mighty, so is art!

I watched the Chim↑Pom’s video again. The artists were conveying Fukushima people’s anger, sorrow and despair on behalf of abandoned and forgotten people, in order to make the world aware that people cannot return to their homes and there are people working at the power plant.  When I listened to the artists, I could feel they were genuinely doing their mission as artists, by speaking on behalf of the people who are in despair and angry with a corrupt government, as well as passing their message to the future.  They are indeed heroic.

This study made me realise how regions and their identities are disregarded in this centralised society.  We tend to think Japan is homogenous and everyone does and appreciates the same things.  It is dangerous to generalise.

At the same time, I was alerted that Japanese people are manipulated by the government’s censorship and over-dominating media from Tokyo and other major cities.  People’s opportunities to appreciate regional qualities and problems are diminished.  More than ever, we need to appreciate regional values and problems objectively and challenge the problems vigorously and proactively.  This topic is well-related to the U.K. during the coronavirus pandemic.  

Artists outside the region don’t always see and understand.  Local people may not necessarily welcome artists from outside to speak on behalf of local people. 

In conclusion, I think that we must treat regional people and identities fairly and with respect.  This is, after all, what every human being deserves.

Reference: Eriko Tomizawa-Kay, ‘Reinventing Localisms, Tradition, and Identity’ edited by Tomizawa-Kay and Watanabe, East Asian Art History in a Transnational Context, 2019, pp.102-125

Video: ‘Radioactive Art in Fukushima: Don’t follow the Wind’ by Chim↑Pom

‘Japanese Garden: To Whom Do They Belong’

By Professor Toshio Watanabe, The Third Ishibashi Lecture in 2016

Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto. Photo from Wikipedia

How the West interacted with Japanese Gardens from mid-19th century to the present day.  How did West and Japan inspire each other?  The talk covered four themes.

  1. How Westerners encountered Japanese Gardens for the first time in Edo (Tokyo) and at the numerous international exhibitions across the world.
  2. How the information on Japanese Gardens conveyed to the West in English language publications.
  3. How was the new canon of Japanese Gardens created during the first half of the 20th century through complex interactions between Japanese and Westerners?
  4. A vast number of Japanese gardens created in the West including Eastern Europe.

According to ‘Daimyō Garden’ by Shirahata Yōzaburō (1997), the Tokugawa shōgun’s castle in Edo was surrounded by possibly 1000 residences of peripheral daimyo rulers that had gardens’,.

Rutherford Alcock wrote ‘Capital of the Tycoon’ (1863), but after the Meiji Restoration, Japan started to be introduced to Western countries, often by showing a Japanese garden at an exposition.  The Vienna Expo (1873) Japanese garden was created by the Meiji government as the first official Japanese garden, and was visited by the Emperor and the Empress. It proved to be  a huge success.  Japanese gardens became so popular that they became major attractions in the world between 1860 and 1960.  They were considered to be aesthetic and exotic and so appreciated by millions of people of all classes.

‘Landscape Gardens in Japan‘ by Josiah Conder was published with recommendations for creating aesthetic gardens, however, it was missing the Katsura Rikyū (Detatched) Garden and Ryōanji Temple garden with their historic and cultural elements.

Harada Jirō’s ‘The Garden of Japan’ (1928) remarkably introduced Japanese gardens through physical, mental and spiritual spectrums.  Christopher Tunnard wrote ‘Gardens in the Modern Landscape’ (1938), which proved practical but too Westerner focussed.

Katsura Rikyu Detached Garden in Kyoto. Photo from Wikipedia

In Japan there were two dominating scholars, Mori Osamu and Shigemori Mirei, who analysed Japanese Gardens and dismissed mid-Edo Period gardens.  Mori emphasised the philosophical aspect and claimed Katsura Rikyū court garden as the best example, with Shigemori concentrating on zen spirituality praising the 14th century Ryōanji temple garden.

Westerners started to intervene radically and the descriptions of Japanese gardens are re-written thereafter. 

E. Kuck published a series of books on Japanese gardens. Kishida Hideto analysed architectures in a contemporary manner in 1929 and proposed the historical and cultural doctrine of modernism. Yamada Shōji published his book ‘Shots in the Dark Japan: Zen and the West’. Ryōanji was first seen as strange, however, the essence of zen became gradually accepted.  The 1957 Kuck’s catalogue shows Ryōanji.

As Japanese aggression grew in early 20th century some political issues emerged as seen in the San Francisco 1904 Expo and Manzanar garden built in the Japanese-Americans internment camp.  Meanwhile, pro-Japanese Hawaiian Queen Lili’uokalani opened a Japanese garden designed for tourism in Hilo. 

Isamu Noguchi’s sunken garden at Chase Manhattan Park ‘My Ryoanji’ (1964). Photo from

In the second half of the 20th century Japanese-American architect Isamu Noguchi, who frequently visited Japan, was not originally interested in zen gardens but was persuaded by Suzuki’s book on zen to create his sunken rock garden called ‘My Garden Rryōanji’ at the Chase Manhattan Park in New York (1964).

Today there are Japanese gardens all over the world, thanks to twinning and private or business supporters. There are astonishingly over one hundred in Eastern Europe.  Japanese gardens are appreciated more than ever for conveying their beauty and Japanese culture.

My questions:

1.Hadn’t Western people been somewhat familiar with Japan and Japanese sceneries via woodblock prints already? 

– Possibly some people had already known, and these were already being talked about.  There could have been a big expectation when the Vienna Expo made possible of viewing in reality. 

2. There was no Western style garden mentioned in the talk.  What are they like?

-Western gardens are more human-centred, controlled, empowering, geometric, structured, dominated by stone buildings and statues (as seen in European history painting).    

3.What makes Japanese garden special compared to the Western people?  How ‘Japanese-styled garden’ are defined; Katsura Rikyū and Ryoanji themselves are completely different but they are both categorised as Japanese and loved by people.  -They are different but both still classed as Japanese.  Definition of Japanese gardens are set by elements of nature and seasons, peacefulness, harmony, types of plants and moss planted (although these depend on climate) and water features are arranged in harmony, wooden architecture such as a tea house and a shrine building, and equal balance between nature and human, with some techniques such as shakkei borrowing landscape.

Recorded Video: The Third Ishibashi Lecture Series (2016) at Kyoto University for Art and Design, organised by Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures

Comparative Study: Museum v Commercial Art Gallery

Pure Wind (Seifu) by Kobayakawa Shusei, 1920-40 (presented by Simon Pilling East Asian Art & Interiors at the Asian Art in London)

I have looked at two websites one from the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) Japanese Collections and another the annual auction by Asian Art in London. The  V&A boasts a wide collection of Japanese-related materials, being particularly specialised in textiles and visual materials. 

These two websites were distinctively different.  Having taken a course of Museology in Japan and being involved with UK-Japan museum exchanges, museums’ main missions, I have learnt, are maintaining objects in an appropriate atmosphere, restoration, recording, researching, inspiring and educating both children and adults in the society.  Today’s museums are serving a wider audience than ever, not only foreign visitors but online visitors from anywhere in the world. The current pandemic has demonstrated the importance of an online presence with multimedia platforms combined with social media.

The V&A is not an exception. It is for everyone. Its website offers video tours and curator talks together with high quality photographs of individual items.  The historical background, materials and usage, etc. are well explained by dedicated curators and scholars of the field.  Further information including resources for teachers are also provided.  Many British museums charge low entrance fees or are free, and concessions are offered to disadvantaged individuals. Related-talks, study days and various events are also frequently held for different age groups to enjoy the exhibitions.

Asian Art in London, on the other hand, is highly commercialised.  The purpose is to sell. The virtual viewing experience was enjoyable, however, there weren’t any real photographic images; no real costly installation work for this temporary event can be involved in order to maximise the profit.  Furthermore, description of each object is minimal.  Potential buyers may be interested in investment, not necessarily because they are interested in the object itself.  However, such a commercial place could give opportunities for contemporary, young artists as well as to satisfy an individual’s desire of ‘ownership’.    

Although it was not easy to select artworks from each collection, I have chosen the following items: Japanese Palanquin from V&A’s and Pure Wind by Kobayaiawa Shusei from Asian Art in London.

1. Japanese Palanquin (V&A) 

The video shows this black and gold lacquered palanquin norimono with a mannequin in kimono being placed in the Toshiba Gallery next to male samurai worriers’ armours and swords.  This palanquin was used by Tokugawa and Hosokawa families during the Edo Period to carry a bride into a groom’s family. As this palanquin is made mainly with wood with metal parts.  The wooden part is coated with black lacquer with gold using the makie technique.  Some Japanese paper, washi, is pasted on the sliding door and window.  In contrast to the exterior, the interior is decorated colourfully with cranes, birds and flowers to please the bride during her ‘journey’.  The museum explains the historical background, materials used, its purpose, as well as the restoration process.  I thought this real object which depicts external masculinity with family crests and a delicate feminine interior used for very special but political occasions, …happy or not.    

2.Pure Wind (Seifu) by Kobayakawa Shusei (Asian Art in London)

This is a black ink painting from early 20th century.  It shows reeds being blown in the wind with a waterfowl swimming away. This monochromatic painting depicts peace and tranquillity.  I thought this painting showed a strong contrast with the luxurious palanquin used for a very important event of transporting a bride in a ‘cage’ from one place to another.   

V&A Video (Japanese Palanquin):

Painting Edo: Early Modern Masterworks from the Feinberg Collection

Talk by Dr Rachel Saunders, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Curator at the Harvard Art Museum, 27 October 2020

Tani Bunchō, Grasses and Moon © Photography: John Tsantes and Neil Greentree © Robert Feinberg

I attended Dr Saunders’ online talk which was organised by the Japan Society in the US.  This talk was about the exhibition of Japanese artworks by Robert and Betsy Feinberg.  The exhibition originally launched in February, however, was forced to close due to the corona pandemic.

The talk started with Tani Bunchō’s moon-viewing festival at the entrance. It is an very atmospheric painting at the entrance with a pale coloured full moon with black ink brushwork of grasses. It is presented as a poem in a combination of visual and written word which is very common in Japan. Without a human subject in the picture made us feel as if we were there looking at the moon on a tranquil evening.

The purpose of the exhibition is to see the Edo Period art works differently and re-examine the labels by categorising into nine sections. 

  • Floating Worlds
  • School of Kōrin
  • Eccentricity
  • Pictorial Cultivation
  • Expansion of Pictorial Culture
  • Professional Amateurism
  • Remembering Edo
  • Orthodoxy
  • Fan Paintings

Some sections were talked about.  First, ‘Floating Worlds’ paintings and prints called ukiyoe depicted the urban fantasy of the pleasure quarter with theatres, brothels, celebrities and courtesans in Edo, current Tokyo.  There is one intriguing work by Utamaro, with a beautiful courtesan, writing a poem for her secret lover, in spreading kimono, on which a carp is depicted that seems to being spying on her.

There were paintings of landscapes and nature, both in black and white and in colour pigments.  There was an eccentric black ink painting of a poet who had to borrow a farmer’s outfit in a storm and a beautiful Kōrin’s screen painting of maple trees on gilded background.  There were ‘professional amateurs’ who didn’t belong to a school or ryūha but just enjoyed painting for occasional income in a free style.

Maruyama Ōkyo, Peacock and Peonies © Photography: John Tsantes and Neil Greentree © Robert Feinberg

This exhibition was ‘custom-made’.  The designer was taken to Japan to gain a deep appreciation of Japanese culture in order to create the exhibition space. 

At this university art museum, students were involved with the project, researching the collection, drafting the catalogue, making animations for the website and helping with the fan exhibition.  I particularly liked the idea of displaying the fan paintings in a format to look as if they were floating on a river at a fan-floating event, ōgi-nagashi.

Fan-floating or ōgi-nagashi event styled installation of fan paintings. Screenshot from the curator’s online talk organised by the Japan Society

Although the closure of the exhibition was a sad event, there was a silver lining.  The curators took an opportunity to contemplate on the Edo Period society with multiple epidemics, earthquakes, famines and poor governance.  During the lock-down video tours of each section as well as a behind the scene video of the five-week installation process were available to view.  They hope to hold an online symposium with Japanese scholars.  The museum’s online presence attracts audiences from around the world. The lock-down also helped to foster a collaboration between the museum and the Arnold Arboretum on an exhibition called ‘Painting Edo at: Hydrangeas’.  Curators from both sides looked through multiple perspectives of artworks and plants together and shared ideas. 


Review: Centre and Periphery in Japanese Historical Studies

By Michael Lewis

For one of Research in Japan sessions with Dr Nadine Willems, I have read this chapter 24 and thought about the three questions.

1.What is the main argument of the chapter?  What questions does it raise? 

Until recently it has been thought in Japanese history that the society was rather a binary ‘centre-periphery’ model of hierarchy, with the central ruler above subordinates.  However, in recent years more scholars, Japanese and non-Japanese, have argued that the society could have been more complicated and loose than the ‘centre-periphery’ structure.  Officially with a powerful central government ruling the nation’s peripheries, there were often regional manipulations taking place within closely related political, economical, geographical and social factors.

2.Does this reading change your understanding about what you know about Japan and Japanese history? Give examples. 

First, I would like to express my astonishment to see a number of historians’ unconventional views.  My understanding of Japanese history until recently was based on school history education with textbooks which were ‘carefully censored and approved’ by the Japanese Ministry of Education.  I realise that scholars recently have more freedom to express their opinions or even challenge without hesitation. 

Coming to the main topic, the Yamato Kingdom is believed to be the first powerful state and introduced strict ‘ritsuryō’ law and tax systems from China.  However, through the unsettled medieval time, as Amino Yoshihiko mentioned, the ‘margins’ played an important role in shaping the social and economic history of the medieval order.’  Amino wrote about the diversity of the premodern economy based on regional resources and occupational groups, as well as the varieties of trading within Asia, that was far more diverse than monochromatic uniformity of an emperor-centred rice-based economy.  Furthermore, after the borders were closed by the Tokugawa bakufu’s authority, foreign diplomacy with Asia and later European countries, was indeed conducted strictly by the bakufu.  However, it seems that there were always activities around the peripheries.  Luke Roberts added independent economic activities through new bonds between samurai and merchants.  During the Meiji period, although again a powerful imperial nation was built, it was not straight forward to rule the country, as conflicts and defiance between central government and peripheries were seen.  Carol Gluck observed this as a ‘continuing ideological diversity and disunity beneath the appearance of unity.’  Herman Ooms also wrote about self-regulated villages contesting outside authority, that shows that shogunal regime was less centralised.  In conclusion, Japan was not united by the ‘absolutist’ but peripheries played a remarkable role. 

3.How can we use this chapter to think about Japan’s northern regions. 

Hokkaidō and northern Honshū was originally inhabited by the indigenous Ainu, independently from the states until the sixteenth century.  While gradually pushed further back north, with their own language and cultures, the Ainu kept their own trading networks with Russia and China.  As Brett Walker wrote in his analysis of the Ainu from 1590 to 1800, the Ainu became subject and dependent on the central bakufu’s powerful regional trading post. Tessa Morris-Suzuki comments this resembles the colonisation of Asian countries such as Taiwan and Korea, while the Ainu was not actually a colony.     

Source: Companion to Japanese Historical Studies, edited by William M. Tsutsui, John Wiley & Sons, 2007

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