The Art of Ancient Japan
In this Art Quest, you will be able to take an in-depth look at the art
of ancient Japan. You will study the Jomon Period, Yayoi Period, Kofun
or Tummulus Period, Asuka Period, and Hakuho Period. While exploring the
art of ancient Japan, you will have the opportunity to visit several museums,
including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The Metropolitan Museum
of Art, to see examples of these time periods.
The earliest period of Japanese history, the Jomon period,
lasted for thousands of years. It was during this time that people began
to create pottery vessels and small figures. This pottery was decorated
by pressing objects—often ropes—into clay and by carving into
clay. A plant called hemp was also important during this time period;
it was used to weave ropes, baskets, and clothing.
The pottery often looks like it is made of ropes. How do you think the
lugs (a lug is a projecting piece by which something is connected, supported,
or lifted) were used by the Japanese during the Jomon period? Look at
the following examples to help you answer this question.
Early Japanese pots like these—made four to five thousand years
ago—were made with coils of clay.
Japanese people were also making little figures called dogus during this
period, which can be seen in the examples below. They have been found
all over Japan, and although there are many speculations for why they
were made, no one really knows.
Why do you think they made them? Were they dolls? Spacemen? Gods? Good
luck charms? How many ideas can you come up with?
Yayoi Period (300 B.C. – 260 A.D.)
During this time period, people from Korea began to migrate to Japan,
bringing their pottery and craft traditions with them. This influenced
early Japanese pottery-making. They began to use clays that were finer
in texture so that the walls of their coil-built pottery could be thinner
and the shapes more refined. Look at the examples below to discover the
Dotaku or Bronze Bells
Bell-shaped bronze artworks from this time period have also been found.
Some experts believe that these were symbols of authority. Others believe
that these bells were used as spiritual objects. They have never been
found in tombs, as other artifacts have. These bronze bells are called
The religion of this time was Shinto. “Shinto, which means ‘Way
of the Gods,’ began as a simple form of nature worship.” [New
Standard Encyclopedia, Volume 15, Standard Educational Corporation, Chicago,
How do you think the dotaku might have been used?
Kofun or Tumulus Period (300 A.D. to 550 A.D.)
Tumulus, Keyhole-Shaped Tombs
The Kofun, or Tumulus, period is named for the tombs of the heads of the
villages. When a village had a good leader, the villagers prospered. Even
when he died, the villagers hoped or believed that the spirit of the leader
would keep the village safe.
This is what the tombs looked like:
All sorts of things were put inside the tombs, from jewelry to pottery
to farm implements.
The tombs were topped or bordered by Haniwa—large ceramic cylinder
shapes topped with figures of people, animals, or even inanimate objects
such as architecture or boats. How many different kinds can you find?
Influenced by people of China and Korea, the potter’s wheel began
to be used to create ceramics. The shapes became rounder and the ceramic
pottery thinner as a result.
This pottery, known as Sueki or Sue ware, was technically more advanced
than the pottery that came before it. Sue ware continued to be made for
hundreds of years. The clay of the sue ware pots was usually gray and
the glaze was greenish.
Why do you think that using a potter’s wheel rather than building
by hand makes a difference in the shape and thickness of a pot?
Asuka and Hakuho Periods (552 A.D. – 710 A.D.)
Temples and Statues of Buddha
The religion of Buddhism, which spread from China to Japan, was a strong
influence on the art of this period. Many temples and carved wooden or
cast bronze images of Buddha began to be made.
Try These Activities
- Look at the images of the ceramic pottery of the Jomon period. Think
about how you might use ropes and lugs to carry your water and other
heavy things around. Do some drawings of pots that you could use for
this purpose, and then make such a pot.
- Research the ancient religions of Japan—Shinto and Buddhism—and
do a presentation on them.
- Choose one of the time periods and write a paper explaining how the
art of the time reflected the society of the time.
- Go back to some of the links about the Haniwa. Why were they made?
If you were to make some Haniwa for a noble person or community leader
today, what would you make? Do some sketches of them.