Japanese art can look pretty alien from a Western aesthetic standpoint, and appreciating their value can sometimes be tricky. But all you need is to know 3 simple keywords that will give you the right perspective to comprehend the artist’s intent and the Japanese sense of beauty the artwork demonstrates. Enrich your next museum experience!

Show host Kyota Ko explains the 3 keywords along with practical examples. 

Flipping through this art book as you listen to this podcast will involve many Aha moments: Nihon no bi – Bijutsu x Design (Beauty of Japanese Art and Design)


Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese, bringing you a podcast today that will help you to double or triple the joy of going to an art exhibit of Japanese paintings. So if you are planning to go to, say the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno, listen to this podcast before you go, and you’ll get more than your money’s worth and have a culturally rich experience. My name is Kyota Ko.

And all you gotta do is remember 3 simple keywords and then you’ll have the right perspectives to see the value, or the lack of value of any Japanese painting. You’ll be able to tell why this painting is considered valuable and why this other painting is not so much. 

Having these 3 keywords in mind will help you understand what part of the Japanese concept of beauty the painter successfully materialized. You’ll be able to communicate with the painter across hundreds of years, through looking at their artwork. It’s almost like you understand a foreign language.

By the time you finish listening to this podcast, you’ll understand that language like magic.

So if you’ve bought into my pitch, let’s get started. The 3 keywords are, they’re really simple. Nature, Design, and Imagination. Nature, Design and Imagination. 

Japanese paintings come in a few different forms like ink paintings, oil paintings and block prints, and they may be drawn on paper, doors, screens or handheld fans, but these 3 keywords work for any kind of painting. 

So let me explain how each keyword gives you a useful perspective. 

Japanese art keyword No.1 – Nature 

So the first keyword is Nature. Nature is an integral part of Japanese culture and one of the biggest purposes of Japanese art is to appreciate nature by creating something that represents the artist’s emotional responses to different seasons. For example many poems and paintings are about the feeling of anticipation Japanese people feel towards the warm spring or the feeling of longing they feel towards the lively and exciting summertime that has just passed. 

Parts of life that have to do with starting something new, like birth and love are often associated with spring because that’s when cherry blossoms bloom all over Japan, and these flowers signal the beginning of another year. The end of love is associated with autumn because the temperature grows colder and leaves change colors from energetic green to sentimental brown and wine red, and they eventually fall off their trees. Good bye. 

So more often than not, Japanese paintings depict a scene from a particular season. Now unlike Western paintings in which there is often a clear main subject matter, the focal point of a Japanese painting can be much less obvious. It’s because the subject matter is not a particular person or thing. In many Japanese paintings, the subject matter is nature, or a natural phenomenon, like a scenery with a river flowing and trees swaying in the wind, or crowds  of people living their everyday lives in the city – human beings seem to be considered a part of nature in Japanese culture. 

And one of the most unique traits of many Japanese paintings is that they are not still images. And you might be thinking “what are you talking about, paintings cannot move like a video.” But that is exactly what Japanese painters – the skilled ones at least – tried to do. They tried to draw not a particular moment but a particular natural phenomenon, like a river flowing, a waterfall falling, clouds drifting, which are all characterized by constant change.

Take a look at Ukiyo-e paintings of tsunami waves by KATSUSHIKA Hokusai. You cannot help but see the movement of waves that are roaring high in the sky because of the way Hokusai drew the waves. You can imagine what the wave was doing in the last few seconds and what it will do in the next few seconds. 

Japanese paintings take parts of nature as the subject, and nature is ever-changing. It’s never still. Therefore, good Japanese paintings feature movement. You should be able to imagine what the next second would look like. 

If you as an observer cannot anticipate what will probably happen to the subjects in the paintings next, you can, in a way, say that it’s not a great piece of art. If you’re looking at what’s considered a Japanese masterpiece, you should be able to feel the flow of time. Because again, nature is ever-flowing, ever-changing.

Now if you go to a Japanese art exhibit you may come across horizontally long art pieces in the form of either scrolls, decorative sliding doors, or decorative folding screens. What the hell is a folding screen. Folding screens are basically, partitions. Partitions or folding screens are not very sexy translations unfortunately. It’s called 屏風 in Japanese, and that sounds pretty artsy to Japanese people.

People would put up folding screens in their rooms to for example change clothes behind them, but folding screens with art work drawn on were devices that allowed people to bring the outdoors to the indoors. Again, the subject of most Japanese paintings is some part of nature, so you can place a representation of the greatness or beauty of nature in the room anywhere you put up decorative folding screens. Artwork done on sliding doors are the same deal, they are ways to bring nature to the indoors.

These folding screens, sliding doors, and scrolls can be a few meters wide. Now what’s interesting about these horizontal canvases is that painters can paint not only the flow of water or air but a bigger unit of change, which is the change of seasons. 

You’re supposed to look at a decorative folding screen from right to left – always right to left. And in some folding screen paintings, if the right hand side is a depiction of let’s say spring, as you move your eyes towards the left, the painting gradually transforms into a depiction of summer. Very subtly like a gradient.

This concept is a bit more difficult to see for yourself because you need to have a certain amount of knowledge about plants and animals, namely in which seasons you see what plant or animal – I certainly don’t know enough – but if you do know that for example pink or white Japanese plum flowers bloom in early spring and blue-violet water irises bloom in early summer, you can see that the season is shifting from the right to left of a folding screen painting because plum flowers would be drawn towards the right and water irises would be drawn on the left.

For example at Kyoto National Museum, there is a golden folding screen painted by a 19th century artist called SAKAI Hoitsu which is titled Flowers and Birds of the Four Seasons. This is a good first art piece to see if you want to grasp this concept instantly, because the change of seasons is drawn very clearly. 

This artwork consists of four screens and a plum tree is drawn on the first screen – the most right hand screen, and plants covered in snow are drawn on the fourth screen – the most left hand screen. So it’s quite obvious, and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about – the flow of the four seasons is depicted in one big painting. 

Now I know most people don’t go all the way to Kyoto just to see one painting, so I’ve put a link to an art collection book that has a photo of this particular painting by SAKAI Hoitsu so that you can see this distinct trait of Japanese paintings – the flow of seasons drawn in one artwork. It’s a great photo book that shows you all sorts of art that will help you to see the fundamentals of the Japanese sense of beauty and design. The writings in it are in Japanese and English, and if you flip through this book as you listen to this podcast, you will get a really good understanding of Japanese art and design. You won’t have to read thirteen other books to get the same effect. So I really recommend it. Check out the link in this podcast description. 

So that was the first keyword – Nature.

Japanese art keyword No. 2 – Design 

The next keyword word is Design. As I mentioned earlier, in Japan, paintings were a means to bring nature into the indoors. Which means Japanese paintings and interior design have some overlaps. 

I’m not an expert in classical Western paintings in any way, but it seems like everything drawn on the canvas is conclusive in itself. In many paintings the painter draws the subject and the background, so it’s like a hand-drawn photo. Pictures are often defined in the forefront and blurry in the background, just like how we see things through our eyes or a camera. Perspective paintings tend to depict a 3D image on a 2D surface, which is really cool magic. So a Western painting in a frame is like a window to a different world. 

Meanwhile, Japanese paintings tend to be 2D images on 2D canvases. And the 2D canvases were often the surfaces of furniture. Furniture is, of course, 3D objects laid out in a 3D space. Now Japanese people in the past probably thought, well, the outdoors are so beautiful, maybe having drawings of nature on our furniture, namely their slide doors and folding screens will enrich their lives indoors. So they did and drew trees and flowers, but drawing a whole background and filling up all the space within the canvas was a little too much. The painting wouldn’t blend well with the room. 

This is partly why there is a lot of empty space in Japanese paintings. So there may be a tree on the far right and flowers drawn towards the left, but nothing or very little drawn in-between. Now I need to say the word “empty” in quotations because this “empty” space is a very important part of Japanese art. We need to think about interior design. 

Do we want stuff taking up every inch of your room? No, you won’t feel comfortable in a crammed space. That’d be a storage space. 

Japanese wall paintings, like slide doors and folding screens needed to compliment the room with representations of nature, not occupy the room, so that they would make people’s lives richer. 

Now on the topic of desgin, there’s also a lot of thought put into the composition of the painting. Objects are asymmetrically aligned in a way that makes the painting look beautiful. Now there are these Japanese artists who are grouped together to be called the Rimpa school, and these artists specialized in decorative asymmetrical pattern design. 

When you hear “pattern design” you may picture geometric shapes repeated endlessly, but the Rimpa school took a very unique approach. 

They created much less obvious patterns by laying out objects like plants and flowers swaying in the wind, mountains covered in clouds, flocks of cranes flying, sometimes handheld fans floating in the air, but the motifs were mostly nature’s creations, and they were placed and spaced with each other aesthetically wisely, usually on gold canvases.

So the notion of “pattern” for the Rimpa school is a little different from how many of us understand it, Looking at their paintings, I feel they saw patterns in how things in nature behave, like how plants behave when they are being struck by wind, or how flocks of cranes take off into the sky one after another. These behaviors can be considered as symbols of particular seasons. For example you only see rice stalks when autumn is in the air. If you see a picture of them swaying in the wind, you immediately imagine a nice and cool breeze of fall. 

Cranes used to migrate to Japan every year around October and stayed in marshes until the end of winter, then flew off back North where they came from. So images of cranes often come with images of snow, and they really never fly alone, so a flock of flying cranes can be seen as a symbol of winter. 

Cranes used to be seen everywhere in Japan until the country started industrializing in the late 19th century and now, unfortunately, there are less marshes they could spend the winter in, and therefore there is just one family of cranes that live in Hokkaido, and they have stopped migrating. They just stay there all year. But there is a big flock of cranes that come to a town called Izumi-shi in Kagoshima prefecture every winter all the way from Amur River in mainland China. Izumi-shi has become the town of cranes so there is still hope to see some in Japan.

Anyway, what the Rimpa school of artists did was, they identified these symbols of seasons and laid them out on their canvases beautifully, kinda like how Japanese gardens are made. They are of course a work of a man, but they look organic. They are interpretations and representations of mother nature, laid out in well-thought out compositions. I think this contextual patterning is a unique feature of Japanese art and design. 

There is a very blurry line between Japanese art and Japanese design. This definitely has to do with the fact that art has beenentertainment for the general public instead of just the upper class since as early as the 12th century. Art was appreciated by the masses. 

In those early times around the 12th century, Buddhist monks drew imageries of epic myths to help people to understand how great and credible their temples were. 

In the 17th century, artists who didn’t have patrons started painting on much smaller canvases so that ordinary people could buy them and take them home. At first these paintings for the masses were hand-drawn one by one, but enter block print technology where painters collaborated with wood-block craftspersons and realized mass production of paintings. These are what we call Ukiyo-e paintings. 

Now these Ukiyo-e paintings were sold for a low price and they were meant to generate profit through selling hundreds and thousands. And there were several Ukiyo-e painters competing with each other for sales and fame. So each painting had to be impactful at first sight. Each new painting had to look new and different, kinda like box-theater movies nowadays. So through time, Ukiyo-e painters came up with the most dynamic compositions, for example they zoomed into the motif so that it’d look bigger and more impactful. 

So Rimpa artists like OGATA Korin and SAKAI Hoitsu were designer-like artists who served more for the upper class mainly, and Ukiyo-e painters like KATSUSHIKA Hokusai and UTAGAWA Hiroshige were artist-like designers who served for the middle class. 

Japanese art and the concept of design cannot be thought apart from each other. Try looking at Japanese paintings as if to see a masterpiece on Instagram. Rimpa paintings and Ukiyo-e paintings both feature very Instagramable compositions, because those painters always had design in mind. I think you’ll get more Likes if you apply their composition techniques and creativity into your own photos on Instagram. I should do that too.

Japanese art keyword No. 3 – Imagination

So finally we move on to our third keyword, Imagination. Imagination is of course a key component of any creative activity, and it’s really fun to see how Japanese painters used theirs in their paintings.

There is a sub-genre of folding-screen paintings called 洛中洛外図 – which refers to paintings of sceneries of Kyoto when it was still the capital city of Japan until the late 19th century. These paintings seem as if the painter drew what he saw from a drone in the air, it’s a bird’s eye view from diagonally above, and there are usually tens and hundreds of people drawn everywhere in the painting, kinda like the puzzle book “Where’s Wally?” 

How does imagination come in play here? Well, there were of course no drones back when these paintings were painted. So these artists imagined “what if I put my eyes in that part of the sky and looked down at the city?” The distances between buildings are quite accurate in these paintings actually, and 洛中洛外図 are considered pretty reliable sources for historians to see what the old city of Kyoto looked like. 

Of course painters in other parts of the world drew imaginary scenes too, like Renaissance and Baroque artists took motifs from religious or historical events. Western paintings seem to always be drawn from the side. But for some reason Japanese artists liked putting their eyes in the air, and drawing landscapes from diagonally above is seen in many Japanese paintings. 

Perhaps it was because until Western art was introduced in the late 19th century, all Japanese paintings were in 2D so to express space, it was rational to draw from a perspective in the sky. 

Ukiyo-e artists took advantage of their imagination to the max. One of the most popular Ukiyio-e artworks of all time is a series of Ukiyo-e paintings by UTAGAWA Hiroshige, it’s called 東海道五十三次絵 which is a group of pictures of scenery of the 53 stopover locations within this long road connecting Tokyo and Kyoto – the road is called Tokaido. In those days, Japanese people travelled between these cities on foot, and Hiroshige’s paintings served as sort of like a travel guide. People dreamed of traveling on Tokaido one day, and Hiroshige’s Ukiyo-e paintings gave food to their dreams. 

Now you’d think Hiroshige must have travelled along this Tokaido road himself to draw all the stopover locations. But some of these pictures have room for doubting if he had actually been there in person. 

For example there is a painting of the mountains and a lake of Hakone, which is a tourist magnet now – it’s only an hour-long train ride West from Tokyo. Hiroshige drew a mountain that towers over the lake at an 80 degree angle. Basically a cliff. But there isn’t and never was a cliff in Hakone. 

Another doubtful painting in this series is a picture of a bridge in Kyoto, a bridge called Sanjo-Ohashi, and the bridge is depicted as a wooden bridge. But the bridge had been renovated,  and the wooden bridge columns had been replaced with stone columns 200 years before Hiroshige drew the picture. So it’s highly unlikely that Hiroshige ever travelled westward beyond Hakone and it’s highly likely that his Ukiyo-e series was almost entirely a product of his imagination. But these paintings sold like crazy. Everyone bought them. 

Why did people buy pictures of suspicious accuracy? It’s because the creative value overrode the value of accuracy. The composition of his Ukiyo-e paintings is genius. He placed half-imaginary objects like mountains, bridges, water and people in just the right places. When you look at his paintings, it just feels right. He is a designer. He always gets the layout right. Google UTAGAWA Hiroshige and you’ll see a bunch of his paintings, and you’ll see what I mean. If you see a postcard of his paintings at a museum, you will be tempted to buy them. 

If Hiroshige had travelled along Tokaido road, he may not have been able to employ as much imagination to create these masterpieces. They might have become mere guidebooks, not works of art. 

I mentioned KATSUSHIKA Hokusai earlier. He lived at the same time as Hiroshige, so they are always compared with each other. Hiroshige’s Ukiyo-e are chill, but Hokusai’s Ukiyo-e are vigorous. Especially his paintings of the sea. Now if you google Hokusai, you’ll see a bunch of paintings of gigantic waves. They also look like monsters with tentacles, they look fearsome. But if you stop and think for a minute, you know, waves don’t have tentacles. Why did Hokusai’s waves end up looking like monsters? 

It’s because Hokusai, like most other Japanese painters in the past and present, was not looking to achieve accuracy or realism. He was looking to achieve representations of his imagination. 

He imagined what a gigantic tidal wave would look like if he represented it just with lines. I think this activity is a combination of abstraction and translation, by abstraction I mean interpreting a tidal wave as a general idea or experience in your mind, and by translation, I mean representing the abstract idea or experience that’s in your mind by expressing it in a language that your hand can speak and ordinary people can see. 

The language is called drawing. Lines are the alphabets of drawings. And this activity of abstraction and translation is seen in many Japanese art forms especially nowadays in manga. I mean, look at the eyes of manga characters. Who has eyes that big? No one. But they make sense in the manga world, because the world of manga is an imaginary world where imaginary characters have superpowers and great willpower. If you let great willpower go through abstraction and translation, you get those big eyes. 

Good manga would make it to the global market, and in those good manga, the looks of the characters speak of their personalities. You can see what kind of personality Luffy or Vegita has just by looking at them. It’s really obvious. You don’t even have to know the story to see what kind of people they are. If they had been drawn in a more realism-oriented style like Marvel comics with all body parts drawn proportionately to their body size and muscles drawn proportionately to their strengths, they would all look like bodybuilders with a serious personality. So Japanese art, whether it be an ink painting, Ukiyo-e or manga, involves a lot of free imagination. 

So I hope you remember all the three keywords. They are Nature, Design, and Imagination. Nature, Design, and Imagination. Try looking at Japanese paintings from these perspectives the next time you have a chance to go to a Japanese art exhibit. 

I hope you enjoyed this episode. それでは、またお会いしましょう。