The History and Development of Japanese Sculpture

Updated on April 5, 2014
Haniwa | Source


In Japan, sculptures may be found among the oldest archaeological remains of the Jomon period (3d–1st millennium). These earliest sculptures, made of clay, take the form of female fertility images with large insect eyes and stylized bodies in which the thighs and breasts are emphasized. During the Grave Mound period (about 200–600 A.D.), hollow clay figures known as haniwa were produced in large quantities.

Unlike the Chinese grave figures, on which they were probably based, they were not placed in the tombs but in a circle around the grave mounds and were thought of as substitutes for the human sacrifices performed in ancient times. Their forms are simple and highly abstract, with an emphasis on cylindrical shape that makes them very appealing to modern taste. Although most of the haniwa represent humans, others take the form of animals, houses, or boats, which gives them a historical as well as a purely aesthetic interest.

Asuka and Nara

The historical era of Japanese art begins with the Asuka period (552–650), when Buddhism and Buddhist art were introduced from the mainland. Based on Korean and Chinese models, the works of the Asuka period, especially those at Horyu-ji temple in Nara, are among the masterpieces of Japanese sculpture. The preferred artistic media were bronze, wood, and clay. Stone, which had played such a major role in India and China, was hardly used in Japan.


The images produced in the subsequent Nara period (650–794) were even more accomplished and were largely based on T'ang Chinese prototypes. The most famous of these images is the giant bronze Buddha at Todai-ji temple in Nara. Unfortunately this image was badly damaged in later times. Particularly fine examples of sculpture of this period are also the lacquer statues representing celebrated Buddhist teachers as well as the Buddhist deities and the dramatic clay figures of the various guardian deities.


With the Heian period (794–1185), sculpture developed a more indigenous, typically Japanese style, no longer following continental models. The preferred medium was wood, and the forms, softer and warmer, were in keeping with the refinement and elegance of the times. Although the subjects treated were still largely Buddhist, Shinto deities were also represented. Prominent also among Heian sculptures were the masks used in the bugaku dance.



The last great period of Japanese sculpture was the Kamakura period (1185–1392). One of the most famous statues of this time is the enormous Buddha of Kamakura, which is some 42 feet (13 meters) high. Also well known are the great guardian figures, carved by the famous sculptor Unkei, which are at the entrance gate to the Todai-ji temple in Nara. Outstanding for their realism and their sense of drama, these statues are among the best ever made in Japan.

14th–19th Century

With the 14th century and the decline of traditional Buddhism, sculpture ceased to play a major role in Japanese art. The only original creations of the later centuries are the No masks, which originated during the 15th century in the Muromachi period and continue to be made to the present day, and the small netsuke carvings, representing all kinds of legendary and folk figures, which served as toggles of the medicine cases and tobacco pouches worn by the Japanese men of the Edo period (1603–1867) Although often charming and interesting for their subjects, these miniature carvings are hardly a major form of artistic expression. Only the folk carvings of this period preserve some of the expressive power of earlier sculptures.


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