Map 1. World Exploration, 1271-1611. (Sayre, 2013)
In this discussion we will review the indigenous people of Japan, their courtly refinement and their rivalries over whether Buddhism should be introduced into the country. Japanese culture can be defined by the three periods, Heian, Kamakura, and Muromachi, before Japan started closing itself off to Western influence in 1587 during the Azuchi-Monoyama era.
Around 550 CE Japanese culture was comprised of three clans, the Soga, Mononobe, and Nakatomi, with each clan having ties to the imperial family through royal marriages. Each clan preformed a specific duty. The Mononobe clan was responsible for maintaining the emperor’s military, while the Nakatomi were responsible for Shinto rituals – Shinto is the indigenous spirituality practiced by the people of Japan, not necessarily a faith but more of a way of life – with both clans opposing the practice of Buddhism in Japan. However, the Soga clan was responsible for managing the emperor’s trade and estate with Korea and China and would eventually help introduce Buddhism to the island. Through the Soga contact with these two other cultures the people were introduced to Buddhism and were intensely attracted to the Buddhist way of life. For this reason, the emperor allowed the Soga clan to practice the Buddhist faith.
In map 2 the relative isolation Japan has from the Asian mainland is highlighted. Due to this isolation Japan was slow to develop and was also more susceptible to the influence of more advanced cultures.
Map 2. Japan. (Sayre, 2013)
Even though the initial reaction to the infusion of Buddhism into Japanese culture was not welcomed, by the early 7th century the ideologies of Buddhism and Shintoism were influencing one another. The two ways of life eventually intertwined so much so that “the Great Buddha of Nara became identified with the Shinto goddess Amaterasu, and Buddhist ceremonies were incorporated into Shinto court rituals.” (Sayre, 2013) Due to the close relationship between Buddhism and Shintoism sometime between 784 – 794 the capital was moved to Heiankyo. Records indicated “the move occurred because the secular court needed to distance itself from the religious influence of the Buddhist monks at Nara.” (Sayre, 2013)
Fig. 1 Great Buddha of Nara. (Japan-guide.com, 2013)
The move of the capital may have created a fracture within the religious and secular communities but the arts were able to flourish in the Heian Period. Japanese court life was determined by gender. The lives of men were public, while women lived concealed, private lives. Women rarely ventured into public life; if they did it was usually to a Buddhist temple. For the most part, women lived lives out of the public domain but at the same time Japanese women were highly educated. The one except to Japanese women entering into public life was during gathering at court for poetry reading, where “poems were generally composed for a single recipient – a friend or lover – and a reply was expected”. (Sayre, 2013) Much of the daily activities of court life were captured in nikki, or diaries. Such diaries give us an idea of what Heian court life was like.
If the Heian Period is considered the time in which the Japanese people witnessed courtly refinement then it was during the Kamakura Period that intense rivalry and warfare was witnessed. “As war spread across the country, many Japanese felt that it announced the coming of Mappo, the so-called Third Age of Buddha, often translated as the ‘age of Dharma Decline’.” (Sayre, 2013) It was also during this time that no enlightenment could be obtained, and for this reason Pure Land Buddhist artists emerged because they “seemed to offer a way out.” (Sayre, 2013) This form of art was especially attractive to the Japanese people due to the chanting phrase of Namu Amida Bustu (“Hail to the Buddha Amida”), see fig. 2. In the chant the faithful believed they “would be reborn into the Western Pure Land paradise…where enlightenment…might finally be attained.” (Sayre, 2013)
Fig. 2 Kuya Preaching, Kamakura period, before 1270. (Sayre, 2013)
However, it was during the Muromachi Period that the Japanese people re-instituted their indigenous cultural patronage of Zen Gardens. The influence of Zen Gardens became a way for Japanese artists to express long held traditions of water features, along with other features. Many of the Zen Gardens “taken as a whole” are “best…viewed as a narrative, perhaps a metaphor for the passage of time, or even the passage of a Zen Buddhist philosopher from the relative complexity and confusion of early life to the expansive simplicity and enlightenment.”
Fig. 3 Garden of the Daisen of Daitokuji, Kyoto. Muromachi period, ca. 1510-25. (Sayre, 2013)
By the end of the Kamakura and the early part of the 16th century, during the Muromachi period, “tea contests to discern different teas and regions in which they were grown had become popular.” (Sayre, 2013) These contests became such an integral part of Muromachi court life that masters of ceremony would create and design specific rooms for holding the contest. Main times the rooms would be decorated with “calligraphy on hanging scrolls or screens, the guest was to leave the concerns of the daily world behind and enter a timeless world of ease harmony, and mutual respect.” (Sayre, 2013)
The last major period of foreign influence was seen in the Azuchi-Monoyama Period. Even though the country was culturally thriving, civil war was ripping the country apart. It was only after the one of the Azuchi-Monoyama leaders, Nobunaga, was introduced to gunpowder by Portuguese traders that the warring ended. Once the warring died down the foreign trades, mainly Dutch and Portuguese, were used as inspiration in Japanese paintings, with a new genera of painting known as namban or “southern barbarian”. The term namban was used to refer to the Westerns. In many of the images the ships crews are seen unloading goods with the priests in the images being Japanese converts to Christianity.
Fig. 4 Namban six-panel screen from the School of Kano, ca. 1593-1600. (Sayre, 2013)
The Namban, fig. 4, image showcases the meeting of two cultures and the high hopes of trade. These cultural encounter scenes were not used in ordinary households but instead for the palaces and castles. “Traditional Japanese interiors consisted of mostly open rooms with little or no furniture” but these large screens could be used to soften and divide the large open rooms. (Sayre, 2013)
However, no matter what experience Nobunaga had with Western people his successor, Hideyoshi, would become very suspicious of Christianity. Around 1587 Hideyoshi would disallow the practice of the Christian faith within Japan, and in 1597 he had 26 Spanish and Japanese Jesuits executed. Later rulers would forbid Japanese to travel in 1635 and by 1641 and there was limited trade between Japan and the Dutch. Japan would remain sealed off from the Western world until 1854 after being urged by the President of the United States to receive American sailors. (Sayre, 2013)
Japanese culture can be defined by the three periods of Heian, Kamakura, and Muromachi before Japan started closing itself off to Western influence again in 1587 during the Azuchi-Monoyama, which would end abruptly in 1635. In the early formation of Japanese culture, it was comprised of three clans, the Soga, Mononobe, and Nakatomi, with each clan having ties to the imperial family through royal marriages and preforming specific duty. This period is known as the Heian Period and it witnessed the influx of Buddhism into Japan from China. It was during the Muromachi Period that the Japanese people re-instituted their indigenous cultural patronage of Zen Gardens and the formality of tea ceremonies.
The last major period of foreign influence was seen in the Azuchi-Monoyama Period. The Japanese culture was thriving but civil war was ripping the country apart. This period is recorded as the time in Japanese history when gunpowder was introduced by Portuguese traders. After warring between clans died down the Dutch and Portuguese were able to begin trading with the Japanese. Due to these trading encounters a new genera of painting known as namban or “southern barbarian” was created.
However, this trade would come to an end under the reign of Hideyoshi and his suspicious about Christianity. Later rulers would forbid Japanese to travel in 1635 and by 1641 and limited trade. Japan would remain sealed off from the Western world until 1854 after being urged by the President of the United States to receive American sailors. (Sayre, 2013)
Japan-guide.com. (2013). Todaiji temple. Retrieved from http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e4100.html.
Sayre, H. M. (2013). Discovering the Humanities. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Pearson.
——-, H. M. (2008). The humanities: Culture, continuity & change. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Prentice Hall.