Japanese Scroll Painting
Japanese Scroll Painting - Kakemono

The art of Japanese painting is full of mesmerizing Asian charm when you look at it from a purely decorative view. But it is also a subject that can be a bit confusing for novices when you want to learn more about it. Different painting schools and styles, a variety of different media, the deep roots in Zen Buddhism and the use of specific terms from the Japanese language make this art form not always easily accessible for Westerners.

To understand Japanese painting, one should know that it has always been torn between three mainstreams movements - Chinese, Japanese and Western.

First Publication: August 2003
Latest Update: May 2013

History of Japanese Painting

As nearly all forms of art, early painting had been under the influence of the Chinese culture. By and by, new and specifically Japanese styles were developed and painting schools were established. Each school practized their own style. But the Chinese influence remained strong until the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1867). There is a general term to describe painting in Japanese style - yamato-e.

After the opening of Japan to the West under the Meiji period (1868-1912), the early years were marked by an exaggerated embracing of Western art. The newly founded universities established departments for Western art, called Western academic artists into the country as teachers and sent out students to study art in Europe - mainly in France and Italy.

Hand in hand with a rising nationalism, the pendulum soon went back into the other direction. The public opinion began to recognize the richness of the old tradition and even condemned Western art.

The twentieth century was marked by cooperation. Art colleges offer departments for both Japanese and Western painting styles.

Painting Schools and Styles

  • Suibokuga is the term for painting in black ink. It was adopted from China and strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism. During the 15th century ink painting gained a more Japanese style of its own.

  • Kano Masanobu (1453-1490) and his son Kano Motonobu (1476-1559) established the Kano painting school. It began as a protest against the Chinese ink painting technique in black. The Kano school used bright colors and introduced daring compositions with large flat areas that later should dominate the ukiyo-e designs. The Kano school split into several branches over the time, but remained dominant during the Edo period. Many ukiyo-e artists were trained as Kano painters.

  • Tosa-ha was a painting school specialized on small miniature formats in book illustrations. The founder was Tosa Yukihiro in the 14th century. The Tosa school became something like the official art school of the imperial court in Kyoto. The imperial court was a secluded world of its own, politically powerless, but well equipped with funds by the governing shoguns to dedicate themselves to fine arts.

  • The nanga painting style was strong at the beginning of the 19th century during the bunka and bunsai era. The advocates of this style painted idealized landscapes and natural subjects like birds and flowers for a cultural elite. The style was rather Chinese.

  • The shijo school was a split in the 18th century from the official Kano school. The shijo style is characterized by subjects taken from people's everyday life. A kind of realism with sometimes satirical elements.


Japanese Painting
Japanese Painting - Two Quails in Autumn
Two Quails in Autumn

Japanese painters used a wide variety of media over the centuries. The only one you will not find until the late nineteenth century, is the Western media of the framed canvas.

The mainstream media used by traditional Japanese painters were:

  • Horizontal scrolls called emakimono. The word means literally translated "image (e) of a rolled (maki) thing (mono)". Emakimono were created by pasting single sheets together to form a long roll. The images were viewed from right to left. Emakimono are among the oldest forms of paintings. Instead of emakimono you can find the words makimono or emaki. It means the same.

  • Vertical scrolls called kakemono. It is the "thing" that you hang on a wall. A kakemono is mounted on a roller on both ends. The roller on top has a string attached so that you can hang the scroll vertically. The roller on bottom is meant to straighten the image out by its weight. Vertical scrolls became popular during the Edo period. It comes closest to the Western framed canvas painting and was the ideal form of decorating a wall for the small Japanese houses.

  • Another painting media were folding screens, called byobu in Japanese. They had come from China to Japan in the 7th century and were used as room separators, mostly with 4 or 6 panels. Due to their sizes, the use was limited to temples and palaces. Screens became a major medium for lush and elaborate paintings. With the rise of the merchant class, the demand for screens moved to the rich towns people during the Edo period. The subjects on screens were similar to those on ukiyo-e (Japanese prints).

  • Sliding doors, called fusuma were another media for Japanese painting.

  • During the Muromachi (1333-1573) and Momoyama period (1573-1603) powerful feudal lords built castles and commissioned painters to decorate interior walls with paintings. The Japanese term is shoheiga.

  • Also fans - uchiwa - were a popular medium to paint on.


Japanese paintings may evoke an association with landscapes and natural scenes drawn with a few genial brush strokes. The impression may come from the majority of the scroll paintings that are to be found in galleries and museums. But it is only a part of the story.

Painting subjects were as diverse as we know it from Japanese prints. And of course each of the media used had its own preferred main focus. Some rather popular subjects were:

  • shiki-e - Landscapes during the four seasons.
  • meisho-e - Views of famous places.
  • monogatari-e - Scenes from the life at the imperial court in Kyoto.
  • nanban-byobu - Images of Westerners on screens from the time of the landing of Portuguese and Dutch ships in the Southern parts of Japan.
  • rakuchu-rakugai-zu - Views from Kyoto.
  • kabuki-e - Images from the kabuki theater.
  • bijinga - Images of beautiful women, usually women from the pleasure quarters.

Japanese Painting Glossary

  • byobu - Japanese folding screens, usually made of 4 or 6 parts.
  • e - The character "e" means "picture" or "painting" in the Japanese language.
  • emakimono - Horizontal picture scrolls.
  • fusuma - Japanese sliding paper doors.
  • fuzokuga - genre pictures of manners and customs.
  • hakubyo - Black and white ink painting.
  • kano - Name of a painting school, named after its founder, Kano Masanobu (1453-1490).
  • kara-e - Chinese style painting.
  • kakemono - Vertical scrolls.
  • meisho-e - Pictures of famous places.
  • nanban-byobu - Screens with pictures of Westerners from the late 17th and early 18th century.
  • nanga - Painting school from the early 19th century depicting mountains and valleys in Chinese style.
  • rakuchu-rakugai-zu - Views of Kyoto.
  • rin-pa - Painting school that practiced a decorative, lush style.
  • sansuiga - Landscape painting.
  • shijo-ha - Painting School in Kyoto.
  • shira-e - Image painted in black ink without or only minimal colors.
  • shoheiga - Paintings on walls.
  • suibokuga - Paintings in black ink of landscapes in Zen manner.
  • uchiwa - Japanese fans in round shape.
  • yamato-e - Japanese style painting.

Other Pages Related to Japanese Painting

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Dieter WanczuraAuthor: Dieter Wanczura

Sources used for this article

  • Friedrich B. Schwan, "Handbuch Japanischer Holzschnitt", 2003, IUDICIUM Verlag, Postfach 701067, D-81310 M√ľnchen, ISBN 3-89129-749-1

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