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Arts and Culture, Historical Development

Kamakura shogunate, Commodore Matthew Perry, Heian court, Kofun period, Tokugawa period

Cultural imports began to arrive in Japan from continental East Asia around 300 bc, starting with agriculture and the use of metals. These new technologies eventually helped build a more complex Japanese society, whose most remarkable and enduring structures were huge, key-shaped tombs. Named for these tombs, the Kofun period endured from the early 4th to the 6th century ad.

In the middle of the 6th century, Japan embarked on a second phase of extensive cultural borrowing from the Asian continentólargely from China. Among the major imports from China were Buddhism and Confucianism. Buddhism was particularly important, not only as a religion but also as a source of art, especially in the form of temples and statues. Although Buddhism eventually became a major religion of Japan, some evidence indicates that the Japanese initially were drawn more to its architecture and art than to its religious doctrines.

In Japanís first state, the arts were almost exclusively the preserve of the ruling elite, a class of courtiers who served as ministers to the emperor. For most of the 8th century the court was located at Nara, the first capital of Japan, which gave its name to the Nara period (710-794). At the end of the 8th century the capital moved to Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto), and Japan entered its classical age, known as the Heian period (794-1185). By the beginning of the 11th century, the emperorís courtiers had developed a brilliant culture and lifestyle that owed much to China but was still uniquely Japanese. Poetry flourished especially, but important developments also took place in prose literature, architecture (especially residential architecture), music, and painting (both Buddhist and secular).

As the Heian court reached its height of cultural brilliance, however, a class of warriors (samurai) emerged in the provinces. In the late 12th century the first warrior government (known as a shogunate) was established at Kamakura. Japan entered a feudal era of frequent wars and samurai dominance that would last for nearly four centuries, first under the Kamakura and then under the Ashikaga shoguns.

The culture of the Kamakura period (1185-1333) is noteworthy particularly for its poetry, prose, and painting. Although the Kyoto courtiers lost their political power to the samurai, they continued to produce outstanding poetry. Warrior society contributed to the national culture as well. Anonymous war tales were among the major achievements in prose. Painters produced narrative picture scrolls depicting military and religious subjects such as battles, the lives of Buddhist priests, and histories of Buddhist temples and of shrines of Japanís native religion, Shinto.

The Kamakura shogunate ended with a brief attempt to restore imperial rule. Then in 1338 the Ashikaga shoguns established their seat near the emperorís court in the Muromachi district of Kyoto. During the reign of the Ashikaga (known as the Muromachi period), which lasted until 1573, Japan again sent missions to China. This time they brought back the latest teachings of Zen Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism, as well as countless objects of art and craft. Zen Buddhism, which had been introduced to Japan during the Kamakura period, contributed to the development of Muromachi-period artistic forms. Chinese monochrome ink painting became the principal painting style. Dramatists created classical no theater, performed for the upper classes of society. And beginning in the 15th century, the tea ceremony, a gathering of people to drink tea according to prescribed etiquette, evolved. The poetic form of renga, or linked verse, also developed at this time. The linked verse style, in which several poets take turns composing alternate verses of a single long poem, became popular among all classes of society.

In 1603 a third warrior government, the Tokugawa shogunate, established itself in Edo (present-day Tokyo), and Japan entered a long period of peace that historians consider the beginning of the countryís modern age. During this era, known as the Tokugawa period (1603-1867), Japan adopted a policy of national seclusion, closing its borders to almost all foreigners. Domestic commerce thrived, and cities grew larger than they had ever been. In great cities such as Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto, performers and courtesans mingled with rich merchants and idle samurai in the restaurants, wrestling booths, and brothels of the areas known as the pleasure quarters. These so-called chonin, or townsmen, the urban class dominated by merchants, produced a new, bourgeois culture that included 17-syllable haiku poetry, prose literature of the pleasure quarters, the puppet and kabuki theaters, and the art of the wood-block print.

Japanís seclusion policy ended when Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States sailed into Edo Bay in 1853 and established a treaty with Japan the following year. The Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and Japan entered the modern world. During the early years of the new order, known as the Meiji period (1868-1912), Western culture largely overwhelmed Japanís native heritage. Ignoring many of their traditional arts, the Japanese set about adopting Western artistic styles, literary forms, and music. By the end of the Meiji period, however, the Japanese not only had resuscitated many traditional art forms but also were making impressive advances in modern styles of architecture, painting, and the novel.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Japan has moved steadily into the stream of international culture. Japanís influence on that culture has been especially pronounced since the end of World War II (1939-1945). Japanese movies, for example, have received international recognition and acclaim, and Japanese novels have been translated into English and other languages. Meanwhile, traditional Japanese culture has flowed around the world, influencing styles in design, architecture, and various crafts, such as ceramics and textiles.

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