[Travel] Japan Cultural Heritage and Contemporary Art at Tokyo National Museum

24 June 2011


The Tokyo National Museum (東京国立博物館 Tōkyō Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan), Honkan (本館, Japanese Gallery)


Japan is shrouded in mystery and mysticism, like many Asian countries. History intertwine with the age of Gods and stories/records by the reigns of powerful clans and sovereigns as written in Kojiki (古事記) and the Nihon Shoki (日本書紀).

Many speculate that once upon a time, Japan islands are connected with the continent of Asia. Thus, people from Asia can cross and settle on these pre-islands lands from 30.000 years ago.

The northern part of Japan, there were the Okhotsk culture with the Satsumon and the Ainu (アィヌ).


Boat model from Ainu in Hokkaido


Ainu coat made of Attushi (Bast fiber).


The quiver is made of flat board and carved semi circular and attached together with wooden pegs. The wooden arrows with bone tips.


The most southern of Japan is Ryukyu kingdom that suggested a different culture trading with China, Korea and South East Asia.

In Prehistoric, known as Jōmon period (縄文時代 Jōmon jidai) or Joumon (period 14,000–300 BC), people are nomadic hunters and fishers. Their tools and primary gears are made of stone such as knifes, blade, hand aces, bow and arrows




Japan is one of the oldest country that produced vessels made of clay. They use rope to create pattern and it’s unique and different from the rest of the world. Clay is earthy element and important as the manifestation of their life with magic and superstition.


Joumon people are describe as folk people wearing ornaments like bracelets, earrings, necklace, Magatama (勾玉) beads made of clay, stone, bones, shell etc. Tattoos also decorated their body imbued with rituals and magic.

By the late Joumon period, clay is also made into small figurines  in humanoid or animals forms called Dogū (土偶) mostly found in west Japan.


Clay Figurine Excavated in Kamegaoka, Kizukuri, Tsugaru-city, Aomori Prefecture. Joumon period/1000-400 BC. This female figure is to be believed as a manifestation of a goddess for fertility, feminism and shamanism.

China and Korea introduce the concept of a settlement society that start to cultivate food and develop irrigation system for rice fields. Next period is known as Yayoi period (弥生時代 Yayoi jidai) around Protohistoric (300 BC – 250 AD) as the earliest agriculture settlements.

Yayoi pottery are rounder with the use of spinning wheel, while in Joumon period, the people shape the clay by hand.


The rituals are more elaborated with ceremonial knifes, swords, mirror and bells like the one bellow called Dōtaku bells (銅鐸) bronze with patterns representing animals and nature.


Here’s where it gets dicey. Japan is described as the Kingdom of Wa (倭) by the Chinese records, with scattering tribes communities/clans that are different than the description from the Nihon Shoki, which dates the unified country at 660 BC.

A spiritual leader emerge as a Priestess and a Queen called Queen Pimiko or Himiko (卑弥呼), combining religious and political power, as a ruler of Yamatai (Yémǎtái 邪馬臺). Their contact to China is recorded in Records of Wèi (魏志), a part of the Records of the Three Kingdoms (三國志), and to Kingdom of Silla as recorded in the 1145 Samguk Sagi (三國史記 “Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms”).

The Queen Himiko’s reign is (probably) between late Yayoi period and early Kofun period by the burial mound in the shape of a key hole for the Queen’s tomb described in China and the characteristic of the Kofun period (古墳時代 Kofun jidai) (250–538).


The burial mound can be as large as 27 meters high and over 335 meters long. On the sloping sides, pottery workers set up unglazed clay cylinders of a reddish brown colour terracotta known as Haniwa made to be seen by worshipers and passerby. The Haniwa (埴輪) can be up to 1.5 meters high with fences moulded at the top of the ‘house’. Some time later, there are horses or animals on a row, like a parade for the dead’s send off, decorated these mounds. The terracotta figurines are believed to be the home of the dead.


On the middle period of Kofun, the shapes become a representation of the people with their various occupation, often aristocrats or military. The burial included items such as sword or precious items or ceremonial, and sometimes mystics items.


Beads, sacred stones or magatama believed to have mystic power or house a soul and use for the tombs, shamanism and ceremony become more sophisticated and polished from precious minerals.


With the exchange of culture and immigrants from Korean Peninsula and the unification of the North and South Chinese Kingdoms (Song Dynasty); Yamato Court adopts the system and style and develops centralise imperial administration and command.


Influence from China and Korea, the people expand their accessories for military and aristocrats alike, from gilded weapons to the fashionable headdress.


Gilt Bronze Crown. From Funayama Tumulus, Nagomi-machi, Kumamoto. Kofun Period 5th-6th century.


Bronze…shoes? ouch! Gilt Bronze Shoes. From Funayama Tumulus, Nagomi-machi, Kumamoto. Kofun Period 5th-6th century.

The Silk Road opened long-distance, political and economic interactions, between countries abroad and the people in the islands. Trade in Asuka Period (飛鳥時代 Asuka jidai) (538–710) introduce Buddha and Buddhist art. Taoism and Buddhism heavily influence the local pottery, bronze and stone-ware and ceramics and smaller and simplify kofun.

The political savvy clans in Yamato Court established themselves in Asuka and exercise power over clans in Kyushu and Honshu, adopting Confucian ideas in terms of land division, government and officials, trade, art and literature. Political power and money will play poker (or dice?) from this point on. Hah.

This is also the first time the word Nihon (日本) or Dai Nippon (大日本, “Great Japan”) described Japan to their (friendly?) neighbours.

Art and literature leap with Buddhist, Shinto, Taoism and Confucius. It’s important to note that with the adaptation of the Chinese characters and now known as Kanji, inspire writings and calligraphy in the forms of songs and poems called Waka (和歌, “Japanese song”).

The Nara period (奈良時代 Nara jidai) (710–794) written in Kojiki (古事記, “Records of Ancient Matters” or “An Account of Ancient Matters”) and Nihon Shoki (日本書紀, “The Chronicles of Japan” or sometimes is called Nihongi (日本紀 lit. Japanese Chronicles), give the Imperial families its divine origins and lineage.

Adapting the Tang dynasty administration system, a new law called Ritsuryō-sei (律令制 Ritsuryō-sei), centralising the command system in Nara, with lands divide in provinces and connected politically through the system and religiously through the temples as shown bellow.


In the next period, the capital is moved to Heian-kyō (now Kyouto京都), known as the Heian period (平安時代 Heian jidai) (794–1185), the highest point of Classical Japan in their art and literature… and the raise of elite warrior/military class (Samurai) into positions of power. They dwelled in politics and owned lands, as ‘rewards’ from service to the crown (which will bite them back in centuries to come).

The ideals of the bushi (warrior) and samurai (one who serves) become part of the clans and family administration.

The development of Japanese writing system also flourish in this era, with the simplifying Chinese characters into three types of writing; Kanji, Hiragana (平仮名, ひらがな) and Katakana (片仮名, カタカナ). Novelisation of Romance by female writers also emerge in this era. For example: the The Tale of Genji (源氏物語 Genji monogatari) by  Murasaki Shikibu (紫 式部, Lady Murasaki).

Cabinet for the Volumes of the Tale of Genji. Scene from the Tale of Genji in maki-e lacquer

Japanese style painting or Yamato-e (大和絵) flourish with its rich colours inspired by the Tang Dynasty about the life in the Imperial families, military for the glory of the crown, paintings depicting poems of the seasons, temples and religious drawings and so on.

The Kamakura period (鎌倉時代 Kamakura jidai) (1185–1333) began with the rise of Military power Bakufu (幕府, tent government), the military commander or General is called a Shogun (将軍) by mandate of the Emperor.

A shogun by the name of Minamoto no Yoritomo (源 頼朝) seizes the country and diminishing the Imperial control, thus began the feudal period where the Military have more control in administration and government house. The power doesn’t stay long however, with people fighting over lands with brute force, from the Hōjō Regency with Hōjō Tokimasa (北条 時政) and Mongol invasion by Kublai Khan.

The invasion drains the economy and causes unrest. Even the Imperial court try to wrestle into power again with Kenmu Restoration (建武の新政 Kenmu no shinsei), but they fail.

During Ashikaga era in The Muromachi period (室町時代 Muromachi jidai) (1336–1573) unrest between the Daimyō (大名) are stronger and cause Civil War.

The Sengoku period (戦国時代 Sengoku jidai) with famous powerful Japanese warlords (Daimyo) such as Oda Nobunaga (織田 信長), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣 秀吉), and Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康) are some of the leaders fighting for the unification of Japan.

Under Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, also known as The Azuchi–Momoyama period (安土桃山時代 Azuchi-Momoyama jidai) (1568–1600) see the increasing trade with foreigners from China, Korean and western countries and the raise of merchant class.


New businesses bring wealth and they wealthy merchants are tax by the government for their source of main income. The use of ‘money’ become universal and the monetary system develop further.

After the battle of Sekigahara (Shinjitai: 関ヶ原の戦い; Kyūjitai: 關ヶ原の戰い Sekigahara no Tatakai), Tokugawa Ieyasu becomes the ruler of Japan and was given the title Shogun by the re-established Imperial Court in Kyoto. The Tokugawa Shogunate (徳川幕府, Tokugawa Bakufu) later  build their government in Edo (now Tokyo), and become known as Edo Period (江戸時代 Edo jidai) (1603–1868).

The growing economic gives the people leisure time to involve in art, craft, literature and stage play. Although Noh ( ), or Nogaku (能楽 Nōgaku) – Skill/Talent – appears in the 8th century from China’s form of stage play, Noh becomes popular during this period. Sometimes the stage play is perform by the aristocrats class, and even the Daimyo and Shogun.

Demon masks: Shikami, Tobide and Beshimi, wide-sleeved gold brocade coats called happi and gold brocade hakama trousers known ashangire.

Noh is about magic, good vs. evil, gods and demons, humans and life. Tradition is emphasise in costumes, masks, props, dance and music. Noh is a high form of art with highly trained actors, mostly men (at least until the 1940’s), whom can sing, dance and convey the story and emotion through exaggerate movements. By Edo period, the stage play and costume are lavishly luxurious, stylise and mostly played by women in the form of ‘Kabuki‘ (歌舞伎) – The Art of Singing and Dancing.


Next we have the decorative art in Lacquerer. The type Maki-e (蒔絵) develop in Heian period but become popular during the Edo Period.


It is initially used by the nobles and imperial court; using silver, gold and various metal powder to render decorative illustrations in sharp relief and details.

  • Togidaishi maki-e: burnished design beneath the surface coat and revealed by polishing.
  • Hira maki-e: flat design rendered over lacquered surface
  • Taka maki-e: design in high relief
  • Shishiai Togidashi maki-e: polished relief maki-e. Surfaces combine the burnished and raised maki-e
  • Tsukegaki: linear detail. The fine lines in Hira maki-e over underlying design
  • Kakiwari: blank outlines and detail preserved in the ground colour
  • Hyomon: metal inlay by using thick metal sheeting
  • Raden: mother-of-pearl inlay by using flakes of shell (can see this too from my trip to Vietnam)
  • Kanakai: appliance of metal foil
  • Kirikane: Cuts of gold leaf or metal foil use to form geometric shape
  • Nashiji (Pearskin) ground: uses large and thin metallic flakes and translucent red lacquer
  • Ikakeji ground: use sprinkles of gold flakes thickly

Strong ties between Shintoism and Buddhist with the combination of technique from China and Korea interwoven geometric shapes motifs into seasonal design and elegant form of expression for religious use, daily utensil, art and decorative weapon.



Tiered box with cover. Camellia, pine, bamboo and plum design in over glazed enamel

The art of Lacquerer use metal and alloys like gold, silver, bronze, white copper and iron in casting and forging, then decorated with gold and silver gilding, engraving and chasing, inlay and Cloisonné.

Speaking of religious items, mirrors are important in ceremonial use.

On the somewhat peaceful era, the samurai class decline but the spirit of Bushido still remains and practice ceremonial with a complete military garb.

In the Edo period, Japanese sword known as Shin-to (new sword) is forged with vivid tempered patterns on the blade and less cursive.


Sword guards from the Edo Period


Fuchigashira Cap and collar of sword hilt. Lion and Peony design by Omori Teruhide.


Set of sword fittings, Menuki, Kogai, Kozuka and Fuchigashira by Goto Mitsumasa

The Japanese Archery or Yabusame (流鏑馬), a military training exercise, become a method of personal development and sometimes an artistic performance for ritual and ceremonies rather than military training in Edo period.

Bow, Arrow and Lacquered quiver.


Yabusame is performed while riding a horse. The riders must shoot successively three arrows from the long bow at three wooden targets. As previously mention, the lacquer designs and pattern also translate into decorative motive for the horse’ accessories like the saddle and/or the armor.

Armor in Gusoku type with two-piece cuirass. White lacing left and bear fur on the right.


Entertaining Pilgrims at Itsukushima Shrine. Color on Gold paper. Edo period. 17th Century.

The Meiji period (明治時代 Meiji-jidai) mark with the conflict between the shogunate, the samurai class, western influence and Japanese intellectuals. The restoration of the Imperial rule form of government with the imperial court as figure head and the appointed Ministers as the central government.

Focus on Western studies called Rangaku (Kyūjitai: 蘭學/Shinjitai: 蘭学, “Dutch Learning”, and by extension “Western Learning”) from books and learnings included geography, medicine, natural sciences, astronomy, art, languages and physical science, promoting industrial growth, change in politic and position of power as the first modernise country based on western model in Asia.

 Other buildings we pass along the way:


Steam locomotive in front of the National Museum of Nature and Science.


The National Museum of Nature and Science (国立科学博物館 Kokuritsu Kagaku Hakubutsukan)


Hyōkeikan (表慶館)


Tōyōkan (東洋館, Asian Gallery)


The Tokyo Bunka Kaikan (東京文化会館). Concert hall for music and art performance.


Auguste Rodin: La porte de l’enfer (The Gates of Hell) at The National Museum of Western Art (国立西洋美術館 Kokuritsu Seiyō Bijutsukan)

Found some interesting people and their pets. Ueno is a very friendly zone for these men’s best friends. They are kind and let other people pet them.


After the whole day perusing the museum and walking around a small part of the park, Ueno park also has its perk in a delicious and cold treat like this ice cream truck. Hmmmm Love the mango ice cream.

Japan Trip 2011:


Buddha – The Story in Manga and Art at Tokyo National Museum

Japan Cultural Heritage and Contemporary Art at Tokyo National Museum

The Pleasure of Tokyo Streets


Pilgrimage at Kamakura


Relax, Soak, Eat at Hakone


A Thousand Steps to Discover Kyoto


Oh deer! Nara anyone?


Above the Cloud, Yokohama 

 Source: Wikipedia.org, The Tokyo National Museum website


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