Japanese Artforms

Essential Question

What are the artforms of Japan's ninth and tenth centuries’ golden age of literature, art, and drama?


Miniature model of Heian-kyō, the capital during the Heian period

The Capital at Heian

In 794 the emperor and empress of Japan moved to Heian (HAY-ahn), a city now called Kyoto. Many nobles, followed their rulers to the new city to win their favor by living close to him. These nobles loved art and beauty, and they tried to make their new home a beautiful place. In Heian, the group of nobles who lived near the emperor to serve and advise him was called the imperial court.

Members of the noble court had little to do with the common people of Heian. They lived apart from poorer citizens and seldom left the city. These nobles enjoyed their lives of ease and privilege. In fact, their lives were so easy and so removed from the rest of Japan that many nobles called themselves "dwellers among the clouds."

The nobles of this court loved beauty and elegance. Because of this love, many nobles were great supporters of the arts. As a result, the court at Heian became a great center of culture and learning. In fact, the. period between 794 and 1185 was a golden age of the arts in Japan.

Activity 1: Japanese Art Forms Notes

Today you are going to read about the Japanese arts, literature, and drama of Japan's Golden age. You need to make a tree map to classify the differeny Japanese art forms. As you go through the lesson take notes on the various art forms. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Japanese Art Forms Map.pdf

Japanese Literature

Japanese nobles took great care with how they spoke and wrote. Writing was very popular among the nobles, especially among the women. Many women wrote diaries and journals about their lives at court. In their diaries, these women carefully chose their words to make their writing beautiful.

Unlike men, who usually wrote in Chinese, noblewomen wrote in the Japanese language. As a result, many of the greatest works of early Japanese literature were written by women.

One of the greatest writers in early Japanese history was Lady Murasaki Shikibu(moohr-ah-sahk-ee shee-kee-boo). Around 1000, she wrote The Tale of Genji. Many historians consider this book to be the world's first full-length novel. Many readers also consider it one of the best.

The Tale of Genji is the story of a prince named Genji and his long quest for love. During his search, he meets women from many different social classes.

Many people consider The Tale of Genji one of Japan's greatest novels. The characters it describes are very colorful and seem real. In addition, Lady Murasaki's writing is clear and simple but graceful at the same time. She describes court life in Japan in great detail. Historians also used The Tale of Genji to understand what life was like in Heian.

Activity 2: Tale of Genji

Read the background section and then read the excerpts from the Tale of Genji. Match the excerpts to the commentary sentences. Some of the letters will be used twice.


Japanese Poetry

While most early Japanese prose was written by women, but both men and women wrote poetry. Nobles loved to read and write poems. Some nobles held parties at which they took turns writing poetry and reading their poems aloud to each other.

Poems from this time followed a specific structure that outlined how many syllables each line could include. Most were about love or nature, but some described everyday events. One of the most famous types of Japanese poems was the haiku. Below are examples of haikus.

Activity 3: Haiku

Watch the video on how to write a haiku and write a haiku. Below the video are examples of haikus.

Japanese Art

Besides literature, Japan's nobles also loved the visual arts. The most popular art forms of the period were painting, calligraphy, and architecture.

In their paintings, the nobles of Heian liked bright, bold colors. They also liked paintings that illustrated stories. In fact, many of the greatest paintings from this period illustrate scenes from literature, such as The Tale of Genji. Other paintings show scenes from nature or from court life. Many artists painted on doors and furniture rather than on paper.

Illustrated section of the Lotus Sutra, from the Heike Nōkyō collection of texts, 1167

Section of a handscroll depicting a scene from "the Bamboo River" chapter of the Tale of Genji, circa 1130

A scene of the illustrated scroll of the Tale of Genji made in about ca. 1130 ACE.

Another popular form of art in Heian was calligraphy or decorative writing. Calligraphers spent hours carefully copying poems. They wanted the poems to look as beautiful as they sounded.

Japanese Architecture

The nobles of Heian worked to make their city beautiful. They greatly admired Chinese architecture and modeled Heian after the Chinese capital, Chang' an. They copied Chinese building styles, especially in the many temples they built. These styles featured buildings with wooden frames that curved slightly upward at the ends. The wooden frames were often left unpainted to look more natural. Thatched roofs also added to the natural feel.

For other buildings, the nobles liked simple, airy designs. Most buildings were made of wood with tiled roofs and large, open spaces inside. To add to the beauty of these buildings, the nobles surrounded them with elegant gardens and ponds. Similar gardens are still popular in] a pan.

Byōdō-in ("Phoenix Hall"), built in the 11th century (Uji, Kyoto)

Danjō-garan on Mount Kōya, a sacred center of Shingon Buddhism

Noh Drama

The performing arts were also popular in Japan during the Heian period. The roots of later Japanese drama can be traced back to this time. People often gathered to watch performances by musicians, jugglers, and acrobats. These performances were wild and fun. Especially popular were the plays in which actors skillfully mimicked other people.

In later centuries, these types of performances developed into a more serious form of drama called Noh. Created in the 1300s, Noh plays combine music, speaking, and dance. These plays often tell about great heroes or figures from Japan's past.

Discussion Questions

  • What was the main influence on the arts of Japan?

  • How did Noh dramas reinforce Japanese religious beliefs?

  • What is the significance of the Tale of Genji?

Extension Activities