An overview of the history of Japanese painting

The ancient history of Japan, full of struggles and alliances, is told through legends which were gathered in two important collections: "Kojiki" (712) and "Nihongi" (720).

The prehistoric population of the Land of the Rising Sun most probably belonged to the Malayo-Polynesian group. They first established on one of the four main islands, Kyushu, which together with other smaller islands form Japan, and then spread to the central Japan.

The history of Japanese art and culture is actually a story of the impact of repeated waves of influences that mainly came from China through Korea.

In accepting external stimulus and examples, Japan was never simply "imitative". These stimulus have always been adapted to the Japanese spirit, based mainly on the admiration of the beauty of nature.

The art development of this warrior nation, who originally professed a native Shinto religion (worship of nature and ancestors), begins around the sixth century through adopting the inheritance of the Chinese religion (Buddhism) and culture (writing , paper, painting, sculpture, architecture, clothing, hairstyles, court ceremonies, state organization, calendar, astronomy, etc..).

From the very beginning, the Japanese art is distinguished by its simplicity and purity which are its essential characteristics. Its preference for refined and decorative harmony is especially apparent.

Once introduced in Japan, ideographic or pictographic Chinese writing quickly developed into a cursive Japanese writing - kana. The simplification of kana evolves in the eighth or ninth century, generating hiragana and then in the twelfth century furtherly simplifies, introducing katakana.

As well as Chinese, the Japanese write in vertical columns from top to bottom, concatenating the columns from right to left.

Major periods of Japanese civilization

  • Pre-Buddhist era (until the middle of the sixth century)
  • ASUKA period (552 - 645)
  • NARA period (645 - 794)
  • HEIAN (FUJIWARA) period (794 - 1185)
  • KAMAKURA period (1185 - 1392)
  • MUROMACHI period (1392 - 1573)
  • MOMOYAMA period 1573 - 1615)
  • EDO period (1615 - 1867)
  • NEW JAPAN or TOKYO period (from 1868):
    • Meiji era (1868 - 1912)
    • Taisho era (1912 - 1926)
    • Showa era (od 1926 - 1989)
    • Heisei era (1989 - do danas)


There are 3 major styles of Japanese painting known to the general public:

The painting has a major role in the Japanese art. As for sculpture, the first recognized painters were Chinese and Koreans. It is believed that the first known painter, a Korean monk named Doncho, is the one who introduced the paper making techniques and ink painting in Japan in 610.

Japanese painting, Doncho, Horyuji Kondo, wall paintings, Museum of Horyuji Mural Reproductions
Horyuji Kondo wall paintings
see also: Museum of Horyuji Mural Reproductions


Although the first pictorial examples come from China, the Japanese painting takes its independence very soon. As a result of the declining influence of the Buddhism, the religious art "humanize" itself and appears the profane painting, the most characteristic art of Japan.

It is entirely an expression of the Japanese spirit and is therefore called Yamato-e, "The pure Japanese art". This style began in the middle of the Heian period; although the paintings from this period still depicted religious scenes, the main theme of Yamato-e style were historical scenes, themes of aristocracy, illustrations of literary works, portraits and scenes of everyday life.

The Yamato-e style painting is characterized by refined drawing, light and delicate colors, "Kasumi" (mist), summed forms, black-outlined figures, unreal proportions (a man near a house - bigger than the house) and the substantial absence of shadows and perspective.

Yamato-e style has never completely disappeared. It continued growing in the following centuries, even after the Ukiyo-e style and woodblock prints appeared; moreover, they sometimes mixed together.


Along with the Yamato-e painting, another one, completely opposite, was developing: the monochrome ink painting, SUMI-E or SUIBOKU. It is very similar to the art of the Chinese Song and Yuan dynasties (in Chinese: SUMI - ink), and is therefore called KARA-E or KANGA, "Chinese painting". Both in China and in Japan it developed under the strong influence of Zen Buddhist sect and its particular relationship with nature.

Japanese painting, Sesshu Toyo, landscape, monochrome ink painting, sumi-e, suiboku, kara-e, kanga
Sesshu Toyo

SUMI-E is art of lines and tonal values ​​from fully black to white. It is characterized by perfection and simplicity, moderation, purity and absence of ornament. It often use the shape of the vertical scroll (KAKEMONO) on which normally only a single scene (portrait, landscape or flowers) is painted.

Along with IKEBANA, the vase of artistically arranged flowers, KAKEMONO is usually used to decorate TOKONOMA, a characteristic alcove in Japanese interiors, FUSUMA, fixed or movable walls and BYOBU, folding screens.

Japanese painting, tokonoma alcove, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, ukiyo-e prints
Utagawa Kuniyoshi
A beauty hanging a painting in a tokonoma


The third major Japanese style, whose name means "pictures of the floating world", appeared in the seventeenth century and flourished in the early Edo period. The realistic scenes of everyday life of an ordinary man become the recurring theme. The Ukiyo-e paintings often depict scenes of the entertainment district of the city of Edo (now Tokyo) and their popularity is associated with a strong development of the well known Japanese woodblock prints. These, at first, reproduced Ukiyo-e works in one color, then in two colors and finally in different colors.

Japanese painting, Hokusai, poppies

The eighteenth century brings a strong influence of European oil painting with the arrival of Dutch traders. In 1857 opened the official school of Western art, where European artist such as Charles Wirgman and Antonio Fontanesi) teach. Many young artists go to study in Europe and since 1912 there are two schools of painting: the western and Japanese school.
The artworks of these schools once again attest the ability of Japan to adopt different styles and influences without stifling its individuality.

The current Japanese art gives a new and significant contribution to the world art.


  1. Ciao Mirna,

    un post molto interessante, come tutti gli altri del resto. Complimenti per il blog, è un piacere seguirti!

    Buona domenica
    A presto


    1. Ciao Laura; grazie!
      Certe volte ci si perde nei labirinti della rete; grazie per avermi indicato la strada verso il tuo blog!
      Complimenti anche a te per il tuo blog in cui dai tanti utili consigli e dimostri il tuo amore per l'arte!

    2. grazie a te Mirna, gentilissima!!

  2. What a marvelous summary!
    Good to see you back, Mirna.

    1. Thank you Rosaria.
      I'm glad you liked it. I'm always happy to investigate things that interest me and to share them with others.
      A warm embrace to you!


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