The art of Japan received its significant impetus from China, through the acquisition of Chinese culture and writing, the introduction of Buddhism, and also from Korea. The initial imitation was followed by the emergence of specifically Japanese forms and techniques from all areas of artistic creation. Different styles emerged as a result of conjunction with Buddhism, Zen and Shinto religions.
Japanese early history begins in the 7th millennium B.C. Pottery finds from this period indicate linear decor. Stylized clay figures and masks have been also discovered from this period.
The Yayoi period lasted from the 3rd century B.C. until the 3rd century A.D. and took its name from the archaeological site of bronze mirrors, bronze weapons and bronze bells with geometric and figural ornamentation.
Kofun (3rd - 6th century)
Rediscovered grave goods, bronze objects, ceramics, jewelry made of jasper, gold and silver demonstrate the artistic creations of that time.
Asuka and Hukaho Period (552 – 710)
With the official acceptance of Buddhism, Chinese and Korean influence on the art of Japan increased. However, the Shinto architecture preserved its prehistoric building styles in the shrines and wooden pile-structures. The Buddhist sculptures of that time were strongly influenced by Korea and China.
Nara Period (710 – 794)
The art of that period that was achieved with a great deal of effort continued to follow Chinese models. Only the floor plan and about 200 sculptures have been preserved from the imperial palace. Huge, 16-meter-high bronze casting of the "giant Buddha" of Todaiji is impressive. New materials, dry lacquer and clay made it possible to depict both monumental and dramatically moving figures. Later, the Chinese influence waned; the sculptures were blocky, the garments had wave-like folds.
Heian Period (794 – 1185)
Named after the newly built capital of Heian-kyo, present-day Kyoto. The sculptors mainly presented new forms of ,all Buddha' in wooden sculptures of massive weight. The second half of the epoch continued the Japanisation of the art. Sculptural works acquired more graceful elegance and emotion. The painting of this period was preserved almost exclusively through the famous Byodoin Phoenix Hall. The paintings show delicate colors and a penchant for soft beauty and rounding of lines. Calligraphy gained great importance, which was valued higher than painting in East Asia.
Kamakura Period (1185 – 1336)
With the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate, a new cultural center was built. Hardness and warlike spirit determined this golden age of Japanese chivalry. The sculptor Kokai and his descendants created sculptures with deep cuts, strong body and inlaid, naturalistically crafted crystal eyes. The introduction of Zen Buddhism had an impact initially only on architecture, but later on painting as well. The handicrafts created paint equipment, writing implements, toilet boxes, glazed earthenware and ceramic. The art of weapons, the manufacturing of armor and blades for swords experienced their high bloom.
Muromachi Period (1336 – 1573)
It is named after the district of Kyoto, where the Ashikaga shogunate had its residence. The profane architecture took over the Shoin style of Zen temples, that resulted in the basic style of Japanese house today. Teahouse and refined garden art were also developed under the Zen influence. Zen monks cultivated the Japanese ink painting. The magnificent landscape paintings by Sesshu are artistic highlights of that time.
Momoyama Period ( 1573 – 1603)
It is named after the palace of the commander Toyotomi Hideyoshi on the Momoyama Hill near Kyoto. This time, marked by luxury and pomposity, is characterized by the art that was freed from religious ties and served for pure representation purposes. The pompous castles were destroyed except for a few. But the luxury there is reflected in rich wood carvings and metal fittings. The castles were decorated with magnificent paintings in delicate colors on a gold leaf background, the metal art was highly developed.
Edo Period (1603 – 1848)
The Edo era is the 250 year period of peace when bourgeois art and culture developed. Villas and tea houses were built with sophisticated and simple taste. The decorative painting experienced a new upswing. The technique of hand-colored plates was further developed by the addition of 2 color plates for four-color printing. The ceramics detached from the Sino-Korean influence and developed a characteristic Japanese style. The porcelain art was enriched by charming printings with enamel colours. The finest and best quality porcelain, which in contrast to the Imari porcelain was not intended for export, was supplied by the furnaces of Okochi. The new art of netsuke carving appeared, which men wore as a counterweight to Inro (medicine tin) or tobacco pouch on a belt. The era ended with the forced opening of the country by the Americans and the transfer of governmental power to the emperor.
Meiji Period (1868 – 1912)
It was the era of westernisation in all areas of life. The painting developed using European models, but returned to old traditions over time. The Tokyo School of Fine Arts took on the role of promoting the Japanese painting. However, the sculpture continued to follow the European model until the time of the School, that carried on developing the traditional art of woodcarving.