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岡倉覚三 Okakura Kakuzō (1862-1913)
(also known as 岡倉天心 Okakura Tenshin)



Okakura Kakuzo - Életrajzi vázlat
Írta: Elise Crilli

Fordította: Nemes Ágnes
Terebess Kiadó, Budapest, 2003

The Book of Tea
first published in 1906 by Fox, Duffield & Company

History of Japanese Art


The Ideals of the East (London: J. Murray, 1903)

The Awakening of Japan (New York: Century, 1904)

Okakura-Kakuzo, 1862-1913
Museum of Fine Arts Bulletin, Vol. 11, No. 67, Dec., 1913


History of Japanese Art
Lecture at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, 1890 to 1892
by Okakura Kakuzo (Tenshin)


This is the end of my lecture on the history of Japanese arts. My lecture is so incomplete that you should not be satisfied with this. If you want a complete history of Japanese arts, you must wait for another twenty or thirty years. It is you that are in charge of that work.

As I told you at the beginning, the history of Japanese arts started with the reign of Empress Suiko. There must have been a kind of Japanese arts before, but today we do not have surviving works of the times for discussion.

The 1,300 years from the era of Empress Suiko to the present day can be divided into the three major periods, or seven, fourteen or eighteen periods. However, I believe the following table shows a complete periodization of the history of Japanese arts.

Nara Period

Time around Empress Suiko


Time around Emperor Tenji


Time around the Tenpyo Era


Fujiwara Period (Heian)

Time around the Konin Era


Time of the Fujiwara Family

Time around the Engi Era
Time of the Genji-Heike Conflicts

Time of the Kamakura Shogunate


Ashikaga Period

Time of the Higashiyama Culture


Time of the Toyotomi Hideyoshi


Time of the Tokugawa Shogunate

Time around the Kan'ei Era
Time around the Kansei Era

The time of the upper antiquity is called the Nara period. The middle antiquity is called the Fujiwara period. The early modern period is called the Ashikaga period. Between them, there is a time called the Kamakura period, which is related with the Fujiwara period in one aspect but shows a sign of the Ashikaga period in another. Therefore, this period is put between the two.

Around the reign of Empress Suiko, as the first stage of the Nara period, Chinese arts in the Han, Wei and early Six Dynasties were imported to this country in addition to the arts of Japanese origin. They developed with the Buddhist culture to form a style of art. Such sculptors as Tori Busshi and Yamaguchi-no Oguchi Atai were artists of this period.

Around the reign of Emperor Tenji, when the arts in the Suiko style made a progress, there was a conflict between the south and the north in the late Six Dynasties in China. In particular, the Northern Dynasties of China communicated with the Central Asia, Persia and India and imported arts from the Western Regions. They were also imported to Japan through Korea or China. Such arts, which were entirely different from those of the Han, Wei and Six Dynasties, formed another type of arts. The mural painting of the Horyuji Temple is based on this style.

The arts of the Nara period reached the prime around the Tenpyo Era. However, the extremity of the prime is decay. Therefore, it was in the late Tenji or the early Tenpyo that the true arts of the Nara period were created, I believe. Around the Tenpyo Era, the arts in the reign of Emperor Shomu were in the prime. They started to decay in the reign of Empress Koken and fell in the reign of Emperor Konin.

The Fujiwara period, which started with the transfer of the capital to Heian-kyo, can be called the Heian period. The late Tenpyo of Japan falls on the Tang Dynasty in China, but the arts imported this time were in the style of the late Six Dynasties. The arts of typical Tang style were formed around forty or fifty years after the death of Emperor Xuanzong. Therefore, they were imported to Japan around the time of the monk Kukai introducing the esoteric Buddhism. Such are the arts around the Konin Era, including the Mandala of the Jingoji Temple in Takaosan in Kyoto.

Around the Engi Era, despite the prior influence of the Tang style, the arts became authentically Japanese. There was such a famous painter as Kose-no Kanaoka, whose influence remained even in the Genji-Heike times or the Kamakura period.

Under the inertia of the prior trends, the arts were both virile and graceful, but in a time the artists emphasized the gracefulness, ignoring the charm of fortitude. From such artists as Fujiwara Motomitsu and the monk Eshin (Genshin), the gracefulness prevailed and reached the extremity in the works by Fujiwara Takayoshi or Fujiwara Takachika.

In the early years of the Genji-Heike conflicts, the virile elements of the Japanese arts had a chance to arise. There was a monk painter named Toba Sojo (Kakuyu), who was a predecessor of Tokiwa Mitsunaga and Keion.

The Kamakura period was divided into two. In the first period, there were lots of reconstructions of Buddhist temples, which were destroyed through the battles of the Genji and the Heike and other disasters. This brought a great chance to artists, including the sculptor Unkei, and such master painters as Tokiwa Mitsunaga, Keion and Fujiwara Nobuzane. The second period was a time of decline.

In the Ashikaga period, there were black-and-white aquarelles [Sumi-e] created for the first time. Previously in the second period of Kamakura, some Chinese monks came to Japan from China under the Song or Yuan Dynasties to bring a seed of that art. Works by such Sumi-e artists as Tensho Shubun and Li Xiuwen (Ri Shubun) were so popular among the Japanese and followed by the famous artists such as Sesshu, Sesson or Kano Masanobu, who formed the time of the Higashiyama Culture, the prime time of the Ashikaga period.

In the time Toyotomi ruled Japan, the nation was finally reunited after the long time of provincial wars. Powerful lords of samurai built a lot of mansions. Arts were influenced by foreign arts through the invasion to Korea by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Such movements resulted in a luxurious and magnificent style of art, which broke the tradition of the Ashikaga style. Kano Eitoku and Kano Sanraku represent this period.

In the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Japanese arts returned to the style of the Higashiyama period. Around the Kan'ei Era, Kano Koi and Kano Tanyu created their own style. The school led by Ogata Korin brought a revolutionary change to the Tosa School. The school of Hanabusa Iccho made an innovative change of the style of the Kano School. In a time, however, such revolutions went to the extreme, resulting in the abuses and reactions in the time around the Kansei Era.

Around the Kansei Era, influenced by Chinese study, which was very popular at that time, and by the rising of the realist school, the art of the Kano School began to change. That was the dawn of the situation we see today.

Those are descriptions of the vicissitudes of the Japanese arts. To conclude this, as lessons to be learned for the future, I am going to point out several issues.

Firstly, we must note that the intense spirituality and the valuing of ideas are the basis of the rising of arts; while, on the contrary, the mere pursuits of forms will necessarily result in decadence.

Arts flourished in the early Nara period when they had a spirit, but decayed when satisfied with it and wishing for forms. Arts in the era of Konin pursued for the spirit. Such attitude, then in harmony with forms, led them to the prime in the Engi Era, but in the years of conflicts between the Genji and the Heike the arts decayed in pursuit of forms. In the Kamakura period, the keen spirit of the Engi School led their arts to the prime, but they already decayed in the second period when their forms were completed. Also in Higashiyama period, like Shubun or Josetsu, their spirit was so keen though their forms were not complete. In the time of Kano Motonobu and Soami, their arts reached the Higashiyama style or the Muqi Fachang style, showing signs of decline. Under the rule of Tokugawa Shogunate, Kano Tanyu, the greatest master of the time, had a wish to synthesize the arts of Higashiyama period. Even he was no match for Sesshu, but was mimicked by his descendants, resulting in worsening of decay. Maruyama Okyo was talented enough to be a good match for Tanyu. When the followers learned his way, his school also declined. The present situation is that the exquisiteness of the Kano School has been dead for a hundred years while the Shijo-Maruyama School is just breathing feebly.

The rises and falls of the Japanese arts are illustrated in the previous table. Arts rise when the prevailing spirit is strong and keen. They fall when they pursue forms and are bound by them. Through all the historical periods, you can say the arts of Japan reached the summits in Tenpyo, Engi, Kamakura and Higashiyama periods. In the periods in between, excellent art works were really scarce. Once reaching the peak, suddenly the arts fell. As for the sculptural arts, they reached the top in Tenpyo period. Works by Jocho were second to them. Those by Unkei were next.

Secondly, arts follow their lineage for development and leave their lineage when falling.

Arts are not isolated. The forms of the arts that make an epoch cannot be without their predecessors. Japanese arts, which had been developing from the time of Empress Suiko to that of Emperor Tenji, completed around the Tenpyo Era, but such completion was not done by the Tenpyo masters alone. The basis of the prime was already made by somebody in the previous times. Giving other examples, it is like the monk Kukai as a predecessor to Kose-no Kanaoka; the monk Toba Sojo (Kakuyu) as a predecessor to Tokiwa Mitsunaga or Sumiyoshi Keinin (Keion); Li Xiuwen (Shubun) and Tensho Shubun as predecessors to the monk Sesshu; Kano Motonobu (Kohogen) as a predecessor to Kano Eitoku. As you see the case of Kano Tanyu, who followed Kano Koi, or the case of Maruyama Okyo, who followed Watanabe Shiko and Ishida Yutei, no artist can be a great master if he is isolated. It was not unreasonable that Soga Shohaku, who stood aloof from any lineage, did not have a great influence over the society of that time. It is really like that. You cannot expect anything to be completed in a time. Try to follow the lineage of your ideas so that yours will be able to make a step toward completeness. When you stop such efforts once, then forms prevail over ideas, resulting in decline of arts. In study of the history of arts, therefore, I believe it is more important to study the predecessors than the great masters who followed them.

Thirdly, arts are excellent in representing the spirit of the age, most remarkably able to show the thought of the time.

Arts decline in the time of social disorders. Evidently, they are closely related with the life of the nation. Also, it is the arts of our country that most remarkably represent our spirit. Our literature or religious culture should be respected, to be sure, but they are concerned with the domestic matters only, not good enough to move the whole world. It is only the arts that represent Japan to the world. In the scale of power or influence, our literature or religious culture is no match for our arts.

Fourthly, the arts of Japan are rich in variety.

Judging from their spirit, the Japanese arts were idealist in the Nara period, were sentimental in the Heian period, and were subjective in the Ashikaga period. If discussed on representation of their forms, the Japanese arts experienced three major changes. They were magnificent in the Nara period, were graceful in the Heian period, and then were freehearted in spirit in Ashikaga. There is no other example in the world like the Japanese, who have such three properties in one race. This should prove that the Japanese nation is rich in the artistic ideas. Egyptian art in ancient Egypt did not change at all. Neither did Assyrian art. In ancient Greece, art appeared as idealist, but they did not produce sentimental art before its decline. There you cannot see any subjective art. Italian art is one of the richest in variety, but just sentimental, not showing an idealist or subjective spirit. It is also true in the modern French art. The fact that only our race has such three varieties should prove the excellence of our capacities, allowing us to boast in the world. I cannot predict what kind of changes the Japanese art will experience in the future. It really is your responsibility.

Fifthly, the Japanese arts are highly absorptive.

Arts in the Nara period were based on the influence of Chinese arts in the Han, Wei and Six Dynasties. The Heian Japan adopted the culture of the Tang Dynasty, but digested it to create the arts in the Engi period. The Higashiyama culture was an assimilation of the Song and Yuan cultures into Japanese. In the same way, the Korean culture was assimilated into Japanese in the Toyotomi period. The original nature of such foreign cultures was completely digested so that you cannot see its vestiges. Some consider this proves the Japanese talent of mimicking, but I disagree with such views. For survival, all living things digest materials with no lives, but it is they, not such materials, that make their own body. Animals or plants grow on the nutrition they digested. The development of a nation is also based on its capacity to digest what various things it has absorbed. Such various things one absorbed may contain evil elements. In the history of arts, there have been many cases of importing such evils. For example, in the Tokugawa period, blundering arts of sculpture was imported from the Ming Dynasty, confusing the Japanese sculptural arts. From the Kansei era, the painting of Southern Chinese style was becoming very popular and it seems such fashions swept away the tastes of gracefulness. Therefore, you must never forget to choose with a greatest care when you import foreign things. In the ancient times, when there was little communication with foreign nations, it was possible to take such a long time as a hundred or fifty years for digesting the virtues adopted from foreign cultures. However, you cannot ignore the conditions have changed today, since you are competing with foreign nations. That is also a point you must pay attention to.

Sixthly, the Japanese arts are so based on the Buddhist philosophy that they tend to be spiritualist, going beyond the realism, to find the beauty in other things than the real.

In spite of the said richness in variety, the Japanese arts have never attached importance to realist ideas. This quality is the basis of the spiritual supremacy of the Japanese arts in the world. Greek art was focused on the mimesis of the real things from its arising. In Italy, they considered the best paintings are something like a reflection of the mirror. Even in recent years, they are still like that. In the Nara or Heian Japan, even though trying to make realistic representation, they were not really focus on it. They sought for beauty mostly in other things than the reality. In the Higashiyama period, the black and white of aquarelle prevailed over realistic representation. Even Maruyama Okyo, famous for his school of realistic art, avoided a mere realistic representation in the painting, knowing that the taste consists in the outside of the form. In this way, the presence of beauty other than the mimesis of the real is a great discovery of Eastern arts. They fully study the real, but do not merely rely on it. Among factors that may cause this, it is the Buddhist philosophy that seems to have led the arts of Japan toward the spiritualism and away from the materialism. From the Nara period to the Ashikaga period, the Buddhist thought was undoubtedly predominant over the arts. However, it may mislead the arts to entire elimination of realistic representation, which is a great mistake even from the Buddhist point of view, as it is like differentiation of mind from materials. Mind and materials should be coexisting as one thing. I believe this is the goal of our arts in the future. Japanese literature was deviated by the Buddhism, but the arts of Japan have been benefited from it.

The Seventh character of Japanese art is its gracefulness.

In the Fujiwara period, Japanese art marked the zenith of gracefulness, which means the cultural independence of Japanese art of that time. In my views, most of the arts of Japan have a character of gracefulness. When the Fujiwara family was dominant and our nation was out of any foreign influences, the Japanese art revealed its true nature and reached the extremity of gracefulness. In this way, if the Japanese are freed from any kind of yokes that hinder their spontaneous developments, it will necessarily result in such points. The art in the Higashiyama period shows the spirit of fortitude and virility, but compared with the works by Chinese painters such as Baen (Ma Yuan) or Kakei (Xia Gui), those by Japanese such as Sesshu or Masanobu are tinged with graceful tastes, like a precious gemstone with warm colors. This is a very important quality from the artistic point of view. This may be caused by the nature of the Japanese blood or may be formed in the beautiful landscapes of the country, but you cannot tell it exactly yet. However, evidently it is a nature of Japanese art, which at the same time keeps a nature of fortitude. The gracefulness embracing the fortitude is the most remarkable charm of Japanese art. Toward the end of their school, the Kano artists emphasized nothing but virility, which did not go well with the Japanese sentiments, ending up in unpopularity. This resulted in the prosperity of the Shijo School. Therefore, you can say the virility without gracefulness is in disharmony with the true mind of the Japanese.

The art of Japan experienced the three major changes in these small, isolated islands. We do not really know what sort of changes it will see in the future. At the time of the Meiji Restoration, it was impossible to go against the trend of destruction. The vandalism was such as they burned lacquer wares and paintings to get a little gold from the ash. In this way, the arts suffered so much misery that I myself was overwhelmed by feeling of pity. When the painting of Southern Chinese style was in fashion among all people, there was such a trend as if all Japanese wares were going to be abandoned. Around 1872 to 1873, when the Japanese longed for Western culture, lots of the Japanese artists turned to the Western style. At that point, authentic Japanese art disappeared. On the occasion of participating in the international exposition in Austria in 1873, Japan finally rediscovered the importance of the arts of her own. Art craft arose first. Then the world of Japanese painting was awakened and formed an association named Kaiga Kyoshinkai in 1881. At that time, even great masters representing Japanese art had to make a living by designing for potteries. Their names were unknown to people. The trend was not beyond the restoration of the fallen arts. Someone won a silver medal by copying an ancient picture. The new picture was exhibited with the original for reference, but people did not question such exhibits. Today, the artists have finally restored their spirit of independence, which is an incomparable progress from that time, but there still is a question. What is your goal? What are you aiming at? The soul of the Kano family has been dead for a hundred years. The Shijo and Maruyama Schools have fallen, too. Then, how is it possible to reform our arts? Improvement of the subject patterns is one thing. Subjects of the artworks are limited in certain conventional patterns, such as “foxes,” “raccoon dogs,” “hares,” “carps” and “autumn leaves.” They should not be regarded to represent the art of our nation. I believe that more and more artists should choose such subjects as human figures, history or genres in the future. Manner of brushwork is another question. When you shade a drawing, you should not necessarily focus on the shade or not necessarily ignore the light. When you color, you may be told to darken it, but it is just because the present fashion is too light. Paintings by you students may tend to be in the same fashion or manner as it may make a style of Art School, but I hope you will try hard to avoid that. There must be many other questions to explore.

I am presenting the following words for encouraging you. Merely to mimic old masters will lead you to decay. History proves this. You must keep your lineage, study your predecessors but try hard to make a step beyond them. You should learn from the Western arts. However, it does not mean you should follow them. You need to make a progress, focusing on the art of your own.

This brief history of Japanese art may not be enough to satisfy your desire to learn. In the next year, you should supplement the insufficiency with the lecture on artistic archeology.