Japanese painting is one of the oldest and most highly refined of the Japanese visual arts, encompassing a wide variety of genres and styles. As with the history of Japanese arts in general, the long history of Japanese painting exhibits synthesis and competition between native Japanese aesthetics and adaptation of imported ideas.
Ancient Japan and Asuka period (until 710)
The origins of painting in Japan date well back into Japan’s prehistoric period. Simple figural representations, as well as botanical, architectural, and geometric designs are found on Jōmon period pottery and Yayoi period (300 BC – 300 AD)dotaku bronze bells. Mural paintings with both geometric and figural designs have been found in numerous tumuli dating to the Kofun period and Asuka period (300-700 AD).
Along with the introduction of the Chinese writing system (kanji), Chinese modes of governmental administration, and Buddhism in the Asuka period, many art works were imported into Japan from China and local copies in similar styles began to be produced.
Nara period (710-794)
With the further establishment of Buddhism in sixth and seventh century Japan, religious painting flourished and was used to adorn numerous temples erected by the aristocracy. However, Nara period Japan is recognized more for important contributions in the art of sculpture than painting.
The earliest surviving paintings from this period include the murals on the interior walls of the Kondō at the temple Hōryūji in Ikaruga, Nara Prefecture. These mural paintings, as well as painted images on the important Tamamushi Shrine include narratives such as jataka, episodes from the life of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, in addition to iconic images of buddhas,bodhisattvas, and various minor deities. The style is reminiscent of Chinese painting from the Sui dynasty or the late Sixteen Kingdoms period. However, by the mid-Nara period, paintings in the style of the Tang dynasty became very popular. These also include the wall murals in the Takamatsuzuka Tomb, dating from around 700 AD. This style evolved into the (Kara-e) genre, which remained popular through the earlyHeian period.
As most of the paintings in the Nara period are religious in nature, the vast majority are by anonymous artists. A large collection of Nara period art, Japanese as well as Chinese Tang Dynasty is preserved at the Shosoin, an eighth-century repository formerly owned by Todai-ji and currently administered by the Imperial Household Agency.
Heian period (794-1185)
With the development of the Esoteric Buddhist sects of Shingon and Tendai, painting of the 8th and 9th centuries is characterized by religious imagery, most notably painted Mandala. Numerous versions of mandala, most famously the Diamond Realm Mandala and Womb Realm Mandala at Tōji in Kyoto, were created as hanging scrolls, and also as murals on the walls of temples. A noted early example is at the five-story pagoda of Daigo-ji, a temple south of Kyoto.
With the rising importance of Pure Land sects of Japanese Buddhism in the tenth century, new image-types were developed to satisfy the devotional needs of these sects. These include raigozu , which depict Amida Buddha along with attendant bodhisattvas Kannon and Seishi arriving to welcome the souls of the faithful departed to Amida’s Western Paradise. A noted early example dating from 1053 are painted on the interior of the Phoenix Hall of the Byodo-in, a temple in Uji, Kyoto. This is also considered an early example of so-called Yamato-e, or “Japanese-style painting,” insofar as it includes landscape elements such as soft rolling hills that seem to reflect something of the actual appearance of the landscape of western Japan. Stylistically, however, this type of painting continues to be informed by Tang Dynasty Chinese “blue and green style” landscape painting traditions. “Yamato-e” is an imprecise term that continues to be debated among historians of Japanese art.
The mid-Heian period is seen as the golden age of Yamato-e, which were initially used primarily for sliding doors (fusuma) and folding screens (byōbu). However, new painting formats also came to the fore, especially towards the end of the Heian period, including emakimono, or long illustrated handscrolls. Varieties of emakimono encompass illustrated novels, such as the Genji Monogatari , historical works, such as the Ban Dainagon Ekotoba , and religious works. In some cases, emaki artists employed pictorial narrative conventions that had been used in Buddhist art since ancient times, while at other times they devised new narrative modes that are believed to convey visually the emotional content of the underlying narrative. Genji Monogtari is organized into discreet episodes, whereas the more lively Ban Dainagon Ekotoba uses a continuous narrative mode in order to emphasize the narrative’s forward motion. These two emaki differ stylistically as well, with the rapid brush strokes and light coloring of Ban Dainagon contrasting starkly to the abstracted forms and vibrant mineral pigments of the Genji scrolls. The Siege of the Sanjō Palace is another famous example of this type of painting.
E-maki also serve as some of the earliest and greatest examples of the otoko-e (Men’s pictures) and onna-e (Women’s pictures) styles of painting. There are many fine differences in the two styles. Although the terms seem to suggest the aesthetic preferences of each gender, historians of Japanese art have long debated the actual meaning of these terms, and they remain unclear. Perhaps most easily noticeable are the differences in subject matter. Onna-e, epitomized by the Tale of Genji handscroll, typically deals with court life and courtly romance while otoko-e, often deal with historical and/or semi-legendary events, particularly battles.