The periods of Japanese art history like Kamakura or Muromachi are mostly named after the places, where the seat of the government was located.
The earliest settlers according to archaeologists were a tribal people, the Ainu. By and by the Ainu people and their culture were forced to the Northern parts of Japan by the Jomon people (circa 11,000 - ca. 300 BC).
Around 660 BC, according to old legends and Chinese chronicles, Jimmu became the first emperor of Japan. Circa 350 BC the Yayoi people invaded Japan. Remnants from this period are pottery vessels and clay figures. Copper and bronze was used for weapons and religious artefacts like bells.
The Kofun period is also called the Tumulus period or Haniwa culture. Haniwa is the name for a typical kind of clay sculptures found on tombs. Other known artifacts from this period are bronze mirrors. In 363 Empress Jingo conquered a part of Korea.
In 552 at the beginning of the Asuka period Buddhism was brought from China to Japan. This had a decisive impact on the development of Japanese arts. It brought the influence of the advanced Chinese culture and new techniques in arts and architecture to Japan.
In 604 the first Japanese constitution was introduced. It reflected the idea of the centralized rule exercised in China. By the 7th century Buddhism was fully established in Japan
In 710 the city of Nara in the province of Yamato became the capital of Japan. During the Nara period - under the influence of Buddhism - Japan assimilated the style of the Chinese Tang dynasty. Many Buddhist temples were constructed - focused around the area of Nara.
In 794 the capital was moved to Heiankyo (now Kyoto). During the Heian period a more distinctive Japanese art culture developed. Around 1005 Lady Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Akiko, wrote the tale of Genji Monogatari. It is believed to be the first novel in the world. It deals with the life and love adventures of Prince Genji, a kind of medieval womanizer.
In the 9th century the emperors began to retire from the business of governing the country. The Fujiwara family rose to power. During their rule, also called the Fujiwara period, Japanese arts and literature flourished.
In 1180 a fierce war broke out between the powerful clans of the Minamato and the Taira. After achieving final victory in the naval battle of Dannoura, the Minamato established a new government in Kamakura. In 1192 Yoritomo became the first shogun. The Kamakura shogunate represented the real power in the country until the resignation of the last shogun in 1867. The imperial court in Kyoto was downgraded to a purely titular power. The shift of power from the nobility to the class of the samurai warriors had its influence on Japanese arts. During the Kamakura period more realistic and popularized art forms emerged. The Japanese calligraphy and the Japanese tea ceremony were initiated.
In 1252 the Great Kamakura Buddha was constructed. The huge statue was part of the Kotokuin Temple of the Jodo sect. The Kamakura Buddha was originally housed in a great hall that was destroyed by a storm in 1369.
The Muromachi period is also called the Ashikaga period after the military clan that took control of the shogunate. The residence was moved back to Kyoto, to the Muromachi district of the city. The history of Japanese art was marked by a move backwards to a more aristocratic character. Zen Buddhism achieved popularity in Japan and influenced Japanese artists and artisans. Many orders were placed for the construction and decoration of Zen temples.
The third shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, built the Kinkakuji temple (called the Golden Pavilion) and its gardens. During the Muromachi period, the art of intricate gardening and ikebana reached a high level of refinement in the history of Japanese arts.
The Kinkakuji temple was put on the UNESCO's World Heritage List together with 17 other temples in Kyoto. In 1950 the pavilion was burned down by an insane guardian and was completely rebuilt.
Painting reached high artistic levels. The best-known painters are two monks, Shubun and Sesshu. Buddhist monasteries were very wealthy and powerful during this period.
Around 1543 the Portuguese Mendez Pinto came to Japan as the first European.
Author: Dieter Wanczura