Japanese sculpture

The sculpture of Japan started from the clay figure. Japanese sculpture received the influence of the Silk Road culture in the 5th century, and received a strong influence from Chinese sculpture afterwards. The influence of the Western world was received since the Meiji era. The sculptures were made at local shops, used for sculpting and painting. Most sculptures were found at areas in front of houses and along walls of important buildings.

Tamonten in Tōdai-ji, Wood, Edo period

Most of the Japanese sculptures derived from the idol worship in Buddhism or animistic rites of Shinto deity. In particular, sculpture among all the arts came to be most firmly centered on Buddhism. Materials traditionally used were metal—especially bronze—and, more commonly, wood, often lacquered, gilded, or brightly painted.


Primitive arts

Dogū, or statuette in the late Jōmon period

Interest in primitive arts is seeing a wide ascendancy and spontaneity and seek to produce a similar artless artistry in their own works. In every instance examples of ancient primitive art have been found to possess characteristics identical to modern arts; and the ancient Japanese clay figures known as dogū (土偶) and haniwa (埴輪) are no exceptions to this rule.

No scholar has been able to determine absolutely just when human life moved over into the Japanese archipelago. It was these early inhabitants who eventually evolved the first crude Japanese native art in rough earthenware and in strange clay figures called dogū, which are probably fetishes of some religious nature. Some may have been used in fertility rites, and some in exorcism or other forms of primitive ritual.

The dogū figures are impressive in their grotesque and mysterious symbolism; and there is a crude sense of primitive force and passion in the strongly engraved lines and swirls with which the figures are decorated.

Legend, as recorded in the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan) which is an ancient history of Japan compiled in 720, states that the haniwa was ordered at the time of an empress' death by the emperor who regretted the custom of servants and maids of the deceased following their master in death, and ordered that clay figures be molded and placed around the kofun, burial mound instead of the sacrifice of living beings. This well known story, however, is doubted for authenticity by scholars who contend that plain cylindrical clay pipes were the first haniwa forms. and that they were used in the manner of stakes to hold the earth of the burial mound in place. Later these plain cylindrical haniwa came to be decorated and to take various forms, including the shapes of houses and domestic animals as well as human beings. They have been found arranged in a circle around the mound, lending credence to the scholars' theory. However, the haniwa figures no doubt came to take on some sort of religious symbolism later, aside from their original very practical purpose as stakes.

Asuka and Hakuhō periods

Shakyamuni Triad in Horyuji by Tori Busshi
Guardian Deity (Kongōrikishi) in Horyuji, clay and wood, 711

Japanese emergence from her period of native primitive arts was instigated mainly by the introduction of Buddhism from the mainland Asian continent about the middle of the 6th century. Together with the new religion, skilled artists and craftsman from China came to Japan to build its temples and sculptic idols, and to pass on artistic techniques to native craftsmen.

Earliest examples of Buddhist art may be seen in accumulated splendor at the seventh-century Horyuji temple in Nara, whose buildings themselves, set in a prescribed pattern with main hall, belfy, pagodas, and other buildings enclosed within an encircling roofed corridor, retain an aura of the ancient era, together with the countless art treasures preserved within their halls.

Nara and its vicinity contain the vast majority of the nation's treasures of the early period of Buddhist art, known in art history as the Asuka period. The sculpture of this period shows, as do most all subsequent sculpture, the influence of continental art. Noted Asuka sculptor Tori Busshi followed the style of North Wei sculpture and established what has come to be known as the Tori school of sculpture. Notable examples of Tori works are the Sakyamuni Triad which are the main icons of the Golden Hall of Horyuji temple and the kannon Boddhisatva of Yumedono Hall of the same temple, also known as Guze Kannon.

Some of the most important Buddhist sculptures belong to the ensuing Hakuho art period when the sculpture came to show predominantly Tang influence. The mystic unrealistic air of the earlier Tori style came to be replaced by a soft supple pose and a near sensuous beauty more in the manner of the Maitreya with long narrow slit eyes and gentle effeminate features which in spite of their air of reverie have about them an intimate approachability. The aloofness of the earlier Asuka sculpture is softened into a more native form; and there is to be seen in them a compromise between the divine and the human ideal.

Representative sculptures of this period are the beautiful Sho Kannon of Yakushiji temple, and the Yumatagae Kannon of Horyuji, both showing the fullness of rounded flesh within the conventionalized folds of the garments, reflecting in their artistry features of the Gupta art are transmitted to Japanese through Tang.

Nara period


In 710-793, Japanese sculptors learned high Tang style and produced a style “Tenpyō Sculpture”, which shows realistic face, massive solid volume, natural drapery, and delicate representation of sentiment. Emperor Shōmu ordered the colossal gilt bronze Virocana Buddha in Tōdai-ji temple and completed in 752. Although the statue has been destroyed twice and repaired, the minor original part has survived. Among many original works, the Asura in Kōfukuji temple is attractive, which is a dry lacquer statue and show delicate representation of sentiment. The four guardians in Kaidanin: a division of Tōdai-ji temple are masterpiece, which are clay statues. A national official factory ”Zō Tōdai-ji si” (Office to build Tōdai-ji Temple) produced many Buddhism sculptures by division of the work for Tōdai-ji and other official temples and temples for novelties. Gilt bronze, dry lacquer, clay, terracotta, repousee, stone, and silver sculptures were made in the factory. Generally the sculptors are secular and got official status and salary. Some private ateliers offered Buddhist icons to people, and some monks made it themselves.

Heian period

Amida Buddha Byōdō-in by Jōchō

With the moving of the imperial capital from Nara to Kyoto in 794, big temples didn’t move to Kyoto. Government fed new esoteric Buddhism imported from Tang china. The official factory ”Zo Tōdai-ji SI” was closed in 789. Fired sculptors worked under patronage of big temples in Nara, new temples of esoteric sect, the court, and the novelties. Sculptors got temple clergy status whether or not they were members of the order. Wood became the primary medium. On the style, Heian period was divided two: the early Heian period and the later. In the early Heian period (794- about the mid-10th century), statues of esoteric Buddhism flourished. Kūkai, Saichō and other members of Imperial Japanese embassies to China imported the high to later Tang style. The statue bodies were carved from single blocks of wood and appear imposing, massive, and heavy when compared to Nara period works. Their thick limbs and severe, almost brooding facial features imbue them with a sense of dark mystery and inspire awe in the beholder, in keeping with the secrecy of Esoteric Buddhist rites. Heavily carved draperies, in which rounded folds alternate with sharply cut folds are typical of the period. Among esoteric Buddhism deities, Japanese like Acala and have produced enormous Acala images.

In the later Heian period (the mid-10th century to the 12th century), the sophistication of court culture and popularity of Amida Worship gave rise to a new style: gentle, calm, and refined features with more attenuated proportion. Sculptors Japanized faces of images. Pure Land sect(Amida Worship) leader Genshin and his work Ōjōyōshū influenced many sculpture. The masterpiece is the Amida Buddha in Byōdō-in in Uji by the master Jōchō. He established a canon of Buddhist sculpture. He was called the expert of yosegi zukuri technique: sculptors became working with multiple blocks of wood, too. This technique allowed masters atelier production with apprentices. It led the style more repetitious and mediocre after Jōchō. In school, a grandson of Jōchō established an atlier which worked with the Imperial Court in Kyoto. EN school a discipline of Jōchō, also established Sanjyō-Atlier in Kyoto.

Kamakura period

Nio Guardian Tōdai-ji by Unkei
Amitabha Triad of Jōdo-ji by Kaikei

This Kamakura period is regarded as 'Renaissance era of Japanese sculpture'. Kei school sculptures led this trend, who are descendents of Jōchō. They succeeded the technique "yosegi-zukuri" (Woodblock construction) and represented new sculpture style: Realism, Representation of sentiment, Solidity, and Movement, for which they studied early Nara period masterpieces and Chinese Song dynasty sculptures and paintings. On the other side, Clay, Dry-lacquer, Embossing, Terracotta sculptures didn’t revive. They use mainly wood and sometimes bronze.

Kei school looted in Nara-city, which was former ancient capitol (710-793), and worked in large temples in Nara. In Kamakura period, Kyoto Court and Kamakura shogunate military Government reconstructed large temples fired in late-12th-century wars. Many sculptures were repaired and many architecture were rebuilt or repaired. The "renaissance" character reflects the project.

Among sculptors of Kei-school, Unkei is the most famous. Among his works, a pair of Kongō-rikishi colossal in Tōdai-ji is most famous, and the portraiture-like statues of Indian priests in Kōfuku-ji are elaborated masterpieces. Unkei had six sculptor sons and their work is also imbued with the new humanism. Tankei, the eldest son and a brilliant sculptor became the head of the studio. Kōshō, the 4th son produced a remarkable sculpture of the 10th-century Japanese Buddhist teacher Kuya (903-972). Kaikei was a collaborator of Unkei. He is a devout adherent of Pure Land sect. He worked with priest Chōgen (1121–1206) :the director of Tōdai-ji reconstruction project. Many of his figures are more idealized than Unkei and his sons, and are characterized by a beautifully finished surface, richly decorated with pigments and gold. His works have survived more than 40, many of which are signed by himself. His most important work is Amitabha Triad of Ono Jōdo-ji (1195).

Sculptors also worked for Kamakura shogunate and other military clans. They produced Buddhist sculptures for them and the portrait sculptures. The colossal bronze Amidhaba Buddha in Kamakura Kōtoku-in was made in 1252. All class society popular funds made this bronze colossal. Such patronage raised and sometimes replaced former wealthy and powered men's.

Muromachi period and Sengoku period

Noh Mask

The Buddhist sculptures declined in quantities and qualities. New Zen Buddhism slighted Buddha images. Old sect big temples were depressed under civil wars. Portrait sculpture of Zen master was a new genre at that period. The art of carving masks for Noh (Noh-THEATRE) flourished and improved from 15th to 17th century.

Edo period

Enku, Buddha

The reconstruction of Buddhist temples fired in civil wars required the sculptors. The new sculptures were mostly conservative carved from wood and gilt or polychromed. They mostly lack artistic power. However, some Buddhist monk sculptors produced unpainted, roughly hewn images of wood. Enku (1632–1695) and Mokujiki (1718–1810) are representatives. They traveled through Japan and produced enormous works for missionary and ceremonial purpose. Their archaic and spiritual styles were reevaluated in the 20th century. The art of carving masks for Noh also continued to produce better works in the 17th century.

Modern arts

Introduction of the Western techniques

The stimulus of Western art forms returned sculpture to the Japanese art scene and introduced the plaster cast, outdoor heroic sculpture, and the school of Paris concept of sculpture as an "art form." Such ideas adapted in Japan during the late 19th century, together with the return of state patronage, rejuvenated sculpture. After World War II, sculptors turned away from the figurative French school of Rodin and Maillol toward aggressive modern and avant-garde forms and materials, sometimes on an enormous scale. A profusion of materials and techniques characterized these new experimental sculptures, which also absorbed the ideas of international "op" (optical illusion) and "pop" (popular motif) art. A number of innovative artists were both sculptors and painters or printmakers, their new theories cutting across material boundaries.

1970s onwards

In the 1970s, the ideas of contextual placement of natural objects of stone, wood, bamboo, and paper into relationships with people and their environment were embodied in the mono-ha school. The mono-ha artists emphasized materiality as the most important aspect of art and brought to an end the antiformalism that had dominated the avant-garde in the preceding two decades. This focus on the relationships between objects and people was ubiquitous throughout the arts world and led to a rising appreciation of "Japanese" qualities in the environment and a return to native artistic principles and forms. Among these precepts were a reverence for nature and various Buddhist concepts, which were brought into play by architects to treat time and space problems. Western ideology was carefully reexamined, and much was rejected as artists turned to their own environment—both inward and outward—for sustenance and inspiration. From the late 1970s through the late 1980s, artists began to create a vital new art, which was both contemporary and Asian in sources and expression but still very much a part of the international scene. These artists focused on projecting their own individualism and national styles rather than on adapting or synthesizing Western ideas exclusively.

Outdoor sculpture, which came to the fore with the advent of the Hakone Open-Air Museum in 1969, was widely used in the 1980s. Cities supported enormous outdoor sculptures for parks and plazas, and major architects planned for sculpture in their buildings and urban layouts. Outdoor museums and exhibitions burgeoned, stressing the natural placement of sculpture in the environment. Because hard sculpture stone is not native to Japan, most outdoor pieces were created from stainless steel, plastic, or aluminum for "tension and compression" machine constructions of mirror-surfaced steel or for elegant, polished-aluminum, ultramodern shapes. The strong influence of modern high technology on the artists resulted in experimentation with kinetic, tensile forms, such as flexible arcs and "info-environmental" sculptures using lights. Video components and video art developed rapidly from the late 1970s throughout the 1980s. The new Japanese experimental sculptors could be understood as working with Buddhist ideas of permeability and regeneration in structuring their forms, in contrast to the general Western conception of sculpture as something with finite and permanent contours.

In the 1980s, wood and natural materials were used prominently by many sculptors, who now began to place their works in inner courtyards and enclosed spaces. Also, a Japanese feeling for rhythmic motion, captured in recurring forms as a "systematic gestural motion," was used by both long-established artists like Kyubei Kiyomizu and Hidetoshi Nagasawa and the younger generation led by Shigeo Toya.

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