1 Nov 19

Japanese Design: Neolithic to Now

Throughout the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, Japan’s arts, crafts and design have been heralded for their high level of technical skill, sophisticated use of materials and simple design aesthetic. Spanning more than four thousand years, from the Neolithic age to the twenty-first century, Japanese Design presents works that express a human desire to create with a close spiritual affinity to nature.

Shinto beliefs and Neolithic ceramics

As it was geographically isolated from outside influences, Japan developed unique beliefs and spiritualism borne from a deep respect of the land, nature and the changing seasons. This system of nature worship, known as Shinto, is based on the idea that gods embody every aspect of nature – for example, the mountains, trees, rivers, rocks, wind and sun – and therefore by worshiping nature a person becomes intimately connected with the rhythms and spiritual essence of their external surroundings. While the ideas of Shinto were first detailed in the Kojiki (‘Records of Ancient Matters’) and Nihon Shoki (‘Chronicles of Japan’) during the eighth century,1Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan: The Story of a Nation, 3rd edn, Charles E. Tuttle Co, Tokyo, 1981, p. 13. visual depictions of nature occurred before this time and are represented in the motifs on Neolithic ceramics that date from c. 10,000 BCE to 300 BCE.

The earliest Japanese objects to display this type of decoration are Jōmon dōgu (earthenware figures for veneration) and Jōmon doki (vessels for daily use). The term Jōmon (‘rope design’) is closely associated with the American scientist Edward Morse, who spent extended periods in Japan during the 1870s and 1880s. Morse, an avid collector of Japanese pottery, devised the word to describe the twisting rope patterns (representing serpents or mythological beasts)2The exact meaning of these motifs is not known. Some contemporary theories speculate the twisting rope patterns represent serpents, mythological beasts or early depictions of dragons. that feature on Japanese Neolithic ceramic vessels. It was Morse’s work that gave recognition to a previously little-acknowledged period of Japanese history and Jōmon was subsequently used to designate Japanese works of the Neolithic age.

Buddhist sculpture

Originating in India, Buddhism was introduced to Japan during the sixth century AD. Hōryū-ji was the first Buddhist temple founded in Japan near the current-day city of Nara in c. 607. Up until the mid-Heian period (tenth century), Japanese Buddhist sculpture took its lead from Chinese prototypes and adhered to design conventions of cast bronze deities of the Sui Dynasty (581–618) and subsequently bronze or wooden sculptures of the Tang Dynasty (618–907).3Anne Nishimura Morse (ed.), Arts of Japan, MFA Publications, Boston, 2008, pp. 38–9. Characteristically, a Chinese Buddhist figure had pronounced cheeks, full face and a filled-out torso with a rounded chest, stomach, arms and legs. During the twelfth century, however, Japanese Buddhist design experienced significant changes under the guidance of the pioneering sculptor Jōchō, who most famously created the large Amida Buddha and the flying celestial bodhisattvas housed at the celebrated Heian-period temple Byōdō-in, Uji.4Iwasa Mitsuharu, Bosatsu on Clouds, Byōdō -in Temple, Uji, 2010, pp. 64–7.

During a transformative era of Japanese Buddhist sculpture in the late-Heian period (eleventh and twelfth centuries), artists became focused on creating deities featuring Japanese characteristics; that is, softened facial features with long, arched eyebrows extending to a thin nose, downcast eyes and a subtle smile. Heian-period sculptures displayed elegant postures with garments in low relief. During the subsequent Kamakura period (1185–1333), facial features became highly refined with robes also carved into realistic three-dimensional flowing forms.

Negoro furniture

Japanese furniture design is noted for its simplicity of form and functionality. Traditionally never produced to be permanent interior fixtures, pieces of furniture are typically small portable items that can be moved and stored when not in use. Japanese negoro furniture represents simple and elegant forms that were used in Buddhist temples and aristocratic villas during the Japanese medieval ages (1185–1600). Negoro takes its name from the Japanese Buddhist temple Negoro-ji and refers to a style of item crafted from wood and coated with layers of black lacquer followed by layers of cinnabar red lacquer. With use, cracks, wear, damage, texturing and a reduction of the outer red coating gradually reveals the black beneath creating an ever-changing beauty that can only result from continual use and the passage of time. This visual patina of antiquity representing generations of affectionate use, imbues these objects with the spirit of wabi-sabi, the esoteric Japanese spirit of ‘wabi’ (‘the aesthetic of beauty found in imperfection’), and ‘sabi’ (‘an affection for the old and faded’).

Japanese earthenware

The spirit of wabi-sabi manifests from a collaboration between human artistic endeavour and the forces of nature, and is central to the endearing qualities of Japanese earthenware. Contrary to practices in China where, since the Tang Dynasty, the pursuit of perfectly regular surfaces resulted in popular ceramics being produced with high temperature–fired stoneware methods, Japanese ceramics maintained ancient low temperature–fired earthenware techniques.

In Shigaraki and Bizen, two Japanese towns synonymous with the production of ceramics for more than 1000 years, distinct processes have been developed that allow the raw energy of the kiln’s fire, flying ash, ambers and combustible materials to result in the creation of uncontrolled glazing and patination on the work’s surface. In creating Shigaraki’s ceramics small quartz rocks in the clay bubble to the surface during firing resulting in shiny white beads. The flying ash from the burning red pine wood also liquefies to form a dripping green glaze. Bizen’s kiln-firing process results in patina variations determined by areas that are either shaded or exposed to the kiln’s flames. Ash hardens on the vessel’s surface to form a coating, and straw or other combustibles are wrapped around an object to leave shadows when burnt away.

Bamboo objects

The crafting and innovative application of natural resources to produce objects of functionality and beauty is a practice that has become closely associated with the arts and crafts of Japan. One material that historically stands out in this practice is bamboo, used to create woven objects for daily and ceremonial use.

During the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, family and master-to-apprentice lineages have refined and enhanced traditional bamboo-making techniques to design masterful and technically complex woven bamboo items. Today a new generation of bamboo artists with backgrounds and interests as diverse as engineering, semiconductor manufacturing and beachcombing, have become some of the most imaginative practitioners reinterpreting this age-old practice.

Edo-period design

During the Momoyama period (1568–1600) to the early modern era of the Edo period (1568–1868), the aristocratic classes, wealthy Buddhist institutions and leading merchants developed a taste for ostentatious interior decoration and elaborately adorned costumes.

It was common for interiors of castles, temples and villas to be fitted with fusama (large sliding panels) and byōbu (folding screens) decorated with gold or silver leaf. These fixtures served the practical purpose to divide large rooms into smaller personal spaces, reflect external light during the day and candlelight during the night to illuminate dark interiors, as well as decorate indoor ceremonial and living spaces with luxuriant designs of nature settings.

The most innovative studio during the opening decades of the Edo period was that of Tawaraya Sōtatsu. He developed a new visual approach of presenting nature in a highly stylised manner known as Rinpa. In Flowering plants of the four seasons, c. 1630–1640, groups of flowers are depicted with great accuracy graphically composed on a flat gold leaf background.

Ukiyo-e prints
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the burgeoning fortunes of the merchant classes led to a boom in pursuits, such as kabuki theatre, sumo wrestling, travel and patronage of entertainment districts. These themes became the subject of popular paintings and mass-produced prints in a genre known as ukiyo-e (‘pictures of the floating world’).

Techniques in woodblock printing developed rapidly and by the late eighteenth century exquisitely crafted multi-colour prints were being produced for sale at affordable prices to the general public. In the woodblock print by the popular kabuki actor portrait artist Utagawa Yoshitaki, six single sheets joined to form a large work in the format of a traditional hand scroll. One actor appears on each of the six sheets striking an exaggerated mie pose5Mie (pronounced ‘mee-eh’) is a powerful and emotional pose struck by an actor and held for several seconds to indicate a dramatic moment in a performance. that marks a dramatic moment in the play where an actor’s skills are most admired and applauded by adoring fans.

Twentieth-century design

The powerful graphic use of the two-dimensional perspective, flat colours, subtle gradations and bold shapes developed during the Edo period in Japan, established a set of visual conventions and compositional formats for twentieth-century Japanese graphic and fashion designers to reference. This made their work distinctive from their counterparts in Europe, America and Australia.

Leading graphic designers such as Hirokatsu Hijikata, Kazumasa Nagai and Masuteru Aoba applied historic traditions to their practices in several major projects, including the peace and the environment posters designed for the Japan Graphic Designers Association (JAGDA). These posters are now are considered landmark examples of 1980s graphic design. More recently in 2016–17, fashion designer Issey Miyake adapted the imagery of the twentieth-century graphic designer Ikko Tanaka and the eighteenth-century ukiyo-e artist Tōshūsai Sharaku to create accessories, bags and costumes that pay homage to Japanese art and design, past and present.

Japanese Design: Neolithic to Now presents some of the most visually intriguing works from Japan from the NGV Collection acquired over the last 130 years. Presenting a perspective into the originality and ingenuity of some of the country’s most acclaimed artists, alongside the raw power and beauty of works created by anonymous craftspeople, it gives an insight into Japan’s approach to creativity where art, craft and design form a holistic idea that permeates everyday life.



Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan: The Story of a Nation, 3rd edn, Charles E. Tuttle Co, Tokyo, 1981, p. 13.


The exact meaning of these motifs is not known. Some contemporary theories speculate the twisting rope patterns represent serpents, mythological beasts or early depictions of dragons.


Anne Nishimura Morse (ed.), Arts of Japan, MFA Publications, Boston, 2008, pp. 38–9.


Iwasa Mitsuharu, Bosatsu on Clouds, Byōdō -in Temple, Uji, 2010, pp. 64–7.


Mie (pronounced ‘mee-eh’) is a powerful and emotional pose struck by an actor and held for several seconds to indicate a dramatic moment in a performance.