A Comprehensive Guide to the Art Culture of Japan (Podcast Recap! S1E10)

Published January 15th, 2021

If you love art, you’d love this episode where we talked about the rich art culture of Japan. Art is one of the best windows into the character of a nation and culture, and Japan has one of the richest artistic traditions in the world. It’s here that probably the most famous image in the world was created: Hokusai’s The Great Wave. But in this episode, we looked at more than just the big names — we explored some of the most significant styles of art styles that were cultivated in the courtly halls and artisanal workshops of this unique island nation. We focused on four iconic Japanese arts that shaped the Japanese aesthetic tradition the most: ukiyo-e woodblock prints, shodo calligraphy, shikki lacquerware, and ikebana flower arrangement.

Ukiyo-e - Woodblock Prints

Image Credit: Katsushika Hokusai, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We started the episode off talking about ukiyo-e, which is an art style hugely popular in the Edo Era that involves the use of woodblock printing for mass production of paintings. The word Ukiyo itself actually means “floating world”: a term used to describe the pleasure-seeking life of Japan’s medieval urbanites. Ukiyo-e started off as simple as it could get: black and white prints used for illustration inserts found in books. It wasn’t until the mid-Edo Era when the people demanded for more that coloured woodblock printing became a thing. In those days they were most often made to advertise beauty products or kabuki shows! And they were introduced to the West as...wrapping papers! We talked a bit about the evolution of ukiyo-e and the process of woodblock printing in detail in the episode, so give it a listen for the full rundown. But here’s a basic overview of how it goes: there are publishers who commission the prints to artists, who then give their painted pictures to woodcarvers, who then give their craft to printers. As we said, it’s a method of mass production — so why are some prints more valued than most? Listen to the episode to find out! What I can tell you is that Hokusai broke away from the tradition of printing beautiful women or kabuki actors, and started painting religious figures and landscapes instead. Ukiyo-e has travelled a long way since its early days — from being just a quick, simple piece of mass entertainment for the locals to inspiring the best Western artists of their generations.

Shodo - Calligraphy

Image Credit: Ángel Medinilla

The next Japanese art we looked at has been around since the early 5th century — Shodo calligraphy. It has its own set of philosophies: to connect the mind and body through art. Even though skill and practice is important in Japanese calligraphy, artists have to also master mushin (無心), a state of mental rest and zero thoughts when your heart is free of any disturbances. This is a concept lifted straight out of Zen meditation. We talked a bit about how calligraphy came to Japan in the first place and how it became a hot new fad at the time — but I won’t go into it in this summary article; you’d have to listen to the episode! Anyway, we also looked at the various styles of shodo, with each style reflecting the trends of the time it was created, or even just of the ruling ruler of the time. The first one is kaisho, the most basic style of shodo, and it translates to the “square style” that became the standard style of Japanese calligraphy. These brushstrokes are the closest to the original style of Chinese calligraphy but it’s also the easiest to read because of the clear-cut, box-ey aesthetics. Gyōsho is where cursiveness comes more into play. The strokes aren’t as clearly defined and deviate quite a bit from the standard printed characters, This “moving style” is like the calligrapher’s style of how writers write on paper: without lifting the pen, or brush in this case. The last one, sōsho, takes the extreme end of cursive and resembles the wind-blown grass — this style looks pretty abstract to say the least. Sōsho’s technique is to convey the smooth and flowy sensation of writing, with each character integrating with the next. There’s a bit more elaboration in the episode, and we emphasize how shodo is more of getting into the right state of mind. Whether you’re a master painter, or your handwriting looks like a toddler’s scrawl, this ancient Japanese art can be a lot of fun to practice.

Shikki - Lacquerware

Image Credit: Dennis Amith

We then went on talking about shikki, Japanese lacquerware. These are covered with layer upon layer of sap from poison oak trees used to make the lacquer. Shikki has quite a history; it’s probably the oldest Japanese art on this list. Long story short (the long story being in the podcast episode), it goes back to the Jomon period (14,000-300BC) and crimson red and black were the most common historical colours. Each prefecture has their own unique method of production, and because you can’t get that kind of lacquerware anywhere else except there, these pieces became the perfect souvenir. How is one prefecture different from the other? We highlighted a few areas in the episode! Anyway, back in the olden days, getting the materials for this art required some real creativity. Red lacquer was created with refined tree sap and red pigments, while the black lacquer is from the soot of burnt pines, canola oil and sesame oil. The Heian period saw a shift in shikki technique — a new style called Makie to make gold or silver lacquerware. It was regarded highly back in the day and today it’s a prized artifact. How is it done? Episode 10, people! One thing’s for sure, though — it sounds like an intense process that requires truckloads of patience, but without a doubt, the results are more than impressive — Japanese lacquerware is said to be able to endure the harshest of conditions and last for decades of constant use. The 1998 Winter Olympic medals even used shikki techniques!

Ikebana - Flower Arrangement

Image Credit: Robyn Jay

This last Japanese art is my personal favourite: ikebana is the traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement. The name is a combination of the Japanese word ikiru (生きる, to live) and hana () for flower. Ikebana is just as beautiful on the outside as it is on the inside — ikebana compositions are more than throwing a few stems into a bowl and calling it a day— they’re tied to the ideas of reflection and inner peace. Ikebana is practiced in silence, allowing the ikebanaists to concentrate fully and only on the nature in front of them. What’s the history? It's tied to religious practices, both Buddhism and Shinto. So, if you’re interested, go check the episode out for the full backstory! What I will tell you here are the different ikebana styles. It all began with Rikka, which translates to “standing flowers”. This is the orthodox style — very orderly, with the tallest flowers in the centre. The Nageire style is a bit more like punk than classical, and the name literally means to “throw in”. This was an extension of Zen Buddhism; more particularly the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi, in which imperfection is considered beautiful. The Moribana style came after, and has stuck as the most popular one of them all. There are three elements in a Moribana composition and they can represent one of three things: heaven, man and Earth. What’s consistent throughout all ikebana styles is the importance of seasonality and the flowers’ symbolism. Pick a size too small and it completely disrupts the flow of the whole composition.

Vocab Recap

Here’s our list of vocabulary words from the episode: E (絵) — painted pictures, sketches, and book illustrations Hanmoto (版元) / Shuppansha (出版社) — publisher Eshi (絵師) / Gaka (画家) — artist Bijin (美人) — beautiful woman Haiyuu (俳優) / Yakusha (役者) — actor Kaku (書く) — to write Bungaku (文学) — literature Egaku (描く) — to paint Kami (紙) — paper Washi (和紙) —Japanese handmade paper Fude (筆) — writing brush Efude (絵筆) — paintbrush Shokki (食器) — tableware Chawan (茶碗) — rice bowl Hashi (箸) — chopsticks Omiyage (お土産) — Souvenir Washoku (和食) —traditional Japanese cuisine Kin (金) — Gold Gin (銀) —silver Ikiru (生きる) — to live Hana (花) — flower Kabin (花瓶) — vase Kudamono (果物) — fruit Wabi sabi (侘び寂び) — the Japanese aesthetic basically meaning “perfect imperfection” Saizu (ザイズ) — size Iro (色) — colour


We can always learn something new from history — like taking away a thing or two from the ikebana art to construct the perfect bouquet, and match it with a handwritten letter using the techniques of shodo calligraphy. There’s so much we can take away from Japanese art no matter your level, so why not dip your toe into it by listening to Nihongo Master Podcast episode 10?