1. Give a brief geographical/historical perspective of the culture.  – Show a map and/or timeline.

The culture of Japan is largely affected by the geography of the country. Japan is an archipelago of islands that are largely isolated because of this. There are also a large amount of mountains and volcanoes, which explains why it was so easy for them to have many isolationist periods. This explains many aspects of the culture, and why it is so unique.  After a period of isolationism, Japan began to open up and become influenced by other nations and cultures. They were influenced by neighboring country Korea and were introduced to Buddhism. This had a very large influence on Japan and the way their culture developed. The Japanese studied Buddhism, and had many large institutions where the practices were taught. Through this they developed an appreciation for nature and the world around them. Also, although they were blessed with many natural resources, they used them modestly in their early years before their major development as a major world economy.

The history of Japan points to their development in the artistic world over time. The isolation that the Japanese experienced was brought along by themselves during the earlier portion of the 17th century. Japan sought to cut themselves off from the rest of the world because they did not trust foreigners, especially with matters of religion, culture and trade. However, Commodore Matthew Perry, from the United States Navy, went to Japan, requesting that the Japanese establish open trade with the United States. Eventually Japan signed multiple treaties with the West that assumed this purpose. In the late 19th century, Japan established itself as The Empire of Japan, instilling cultural, economic, and political reforms, making Japan a unified and imperial nation. After WWI, fascism overtook Japan, which led to artwork that had propaganda-like qualities. Akin to this, the art in Japan has always been created in correspondence with the cultural and social goings-on of the period.

The first period that saw a series of artistic development and technique was the Asuka period. During this time, Buddhism encroached the country’s borders from China. The next, and one of the most significant periods for art in Japan, was the Nara period. At this point, Buddhism had overtaken the entire country. The Fujiwara period is when art and literature flourished considerably in Japan. During the Kamakura period, Japanese art became more modern and realistic. More popularized forms of art came about, such as calligraphy and samurai art, which are still incredibly popular in Japan today.

A map of Japan






2. What makes the culture visually unique, how are the Design Elements/Principles used? – Show examples.

Before the Japanese adopted the Chinese’s phonetic alphabet, they used pictographic characters to convey meaning through visual stimulus and these characters remained a prominent part of the Japanese visual culture even after the alphabet was used as their dominant form of writing. Resulting from the significance of these characters, the Japanese had a profound attachment to the visual symbolism connected to specifically, plants, animals and objects. Modern day Japanese art has taken the form of anime, videogames, advertisements and the like, highlighting their talents in drawing, painting and sculpting.

Before the 17th-19th centuries, Japanese art did not differ greatly from Chinese art. The change occurred, however, when the Japanese chose to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. Japanese paintings became very abstract, naturalistic, spontaneous, and individualistically-based. Artists from Japan wanted to focus on the individual, moreover the simplicity and beauty of everyday things. Japanese artists often used neutral backgrounds in order to accentuate the portraits or scenes of daily life. Things such as insects, plants, animals, flowers, people and trees are celebrated intensely, which relates back to each of their symbolic significances. Japanese sculpture and architecture put a strong emphasis on form, rather than embellishment. Artists also use asymmetry and stress the importance of space, making everything an extension of a landscape.

Japanese paintings are simple and intimate, which allows painters to gravitate towards effects in color, lighting and an overall, more explicit perspective. With regards to the elements and principles of design, Japanese artists utilize almost every component, especially in their paintings.

The Great Wave

This painting, by Katsushika Hokusai, is considered very un-Japanese in style for the time period it was created. Here, he is emphasizing nature and he unifies man with the natural world. The painting is also an example of the elements of movement, form, color, texture and line. The principles of balance, rhythm, emphasis and unity are also portrayed in this painting. The way the waves are painted convey very distinct movement and tension in the scene of the painting. The lines mark instability, making it increasingly clear that the imbalanced and impeding waves are going to crash destructively. The form is naturalistic and organic, though possibly somewhat distorted because of the intensity of the scene and the waves. The texture of the waves and the water in general is perfectly displayed, making the scene more realistic. The observer’s attention is grabbed by the mountain with the white snow caps in the background of the painting, though the color hardly differs from the peaks of the waves. The powerful contrast in color is seen in the difference between the sky and the ocean. The color of the sky is subtle, further accentuating the scene in the fore and middle ground. All of the components of the painting are working together to grasp the observer’s interest, unifying the piece primarily through movement, balance and rhythm as the eyes flow effortlessly through the action occurring.

Peonies and Canary

This is another print by Hokusai, which demonstrates the Japanese emphasis on animals, specifically, birds, and flowers in their artwork. This piece expresses the brilliant colors that Japanese artists use, as well as the pattern, movement, texture, form, unity, rhythm and emphasis seen in many Japanese works. The pattern in this piece, though discrete, is of Japanese script characters, which communicates the style of painting right off the bat. Hokusai emphasizes the bird in the painting by strategically placing it in the center of the piece and making it a different color (though bland) than everything else. The texture of the flowers is excellently executed, along with the rhythm, which is demonstrated by the observer’s tendency to jump from one flower to the bird to the next flowers. The movement of the flowers and bird are clear, especially with the bird facing downwards, clearly in flight. The piece, overall, is extremely dynamic and organic.


This painting by Kuroda Seiki contains similar elements and principles of designs present in the other paintings, though this painting calls on the Japanese’s individualistic style more than the others. In this painting, the emphasis is placed on the woman, which is evidenced by her placement in the painting, the detail of her whole persona, and the subtle background behind her. However, the background, though subtle, the balance, and the colors emphasize Hokusai’s idea of unifying the individual with nature. The form of this painting is extremely naturalistic and organic and the texture, specifically of her clothing, is beautifully illustrated. Her proportions are realistic and the rhythm is simplistic, which allows the observer to focus on the woman’s beauty and the serene scene around her.




3. What are the visual, social, and perhaps religious qualities of the culture’s design – Include all aspects society – architecture, clothing, art, house wares, etc.  Show at least one to two images per example.


As a result of Chinese influence in Japan, the Japanese people developed two alphabets- one phonetic, the other pictographic. Much of the pictographic alphabet symbolized things associated with nature; animals, vegetation, foliage, etc. This symbolism and importance of nature then injected itself into the design of Japan. Individual portraits, scenes of daily life, studies of plants and animals were done, and these images were handled with spontaneity and individualism. In contrast to the more decorative Chinese aesthetics, Japanese style tends toward a paring down to essentials, an attempt to capture the basic form and characteristics of a specific subject. Japan as an island is limited in regards to space, leads to a greater respect and importance of nature. The limits on space also push for Japanese efficiency when using land. The Japanese fused the worlds of landscape and architecture to present the essence of nature. “The art of landscaping and gardening has developed to a high level of sophistication, in which carefully designed informal arrangements create the illusion of “natural” settings, in which the essence of nature is captured and tamed” (Japan: Historic Background). Each specific object of design is meant to focus on that specific object in respect to the symbolism it holds within the history of the culture. Just as other parts of Japanese culture, Chinese influence seeped into the design of architecture, although there was a push of particular Japanese architecture identity. The Chinese influence comes in the form of timber construction. However, a particular Japanese design developed that focuses on the form of objects rather then the surface. Japanese culture stress efficiency in the use of space resulting in housing designs that are limited to the essentials.

(Examples of Japanese landscape;  http://www.ragemech.com/aHR0cDovL3d3dy5pbmV0b3Vycy5jb20vRW5nbGFuZC9Mb25kb24vcGhvdG9zL0phcGFuZXNlX0xuZHNjcF8wMjE3Lmh0bWw and http://home-and-garden.webshots.com/photo/2549771100047588738NesaWG)


Japanese culture greatly respects nature and aims to present things as natural. There is even depictiosn of nature on the clothing (i.e. kimonos).

(Kimonos depicting nature by Itchiku Kubota’s , http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20081109/news_1a09kimono.html)


The Japanese have a religious tradition of Shintoism. This belief system stresses the past and presents nature as an array of gods. That is to say that each piece of nature is a comprised of a god, such as the son goddess. Under Shintoism, an individual is tied to their past and more importantly the gods through their family bloodline (Japan: Historic Background).  As a practice related to the beleif system of Shintoism, many Shinto temples are demolished and reconstructed. This is an embodiment of  the Shinto principle of purification through renewal (http://www.asianinfo.org/asianinfo/japan/architecture.htm). Just as Chian came to influence in various societal ways, it contributed to the development of religion in Japan. In particular, Buddhism spread from China to Japan. Eventually a Japanese branch of Buddhism was developed known as Zen Buddhism (Japan: Historic Background). This new form of Buddhism depicts life as a path of study and reflection,, but most importantly Zen Buddhism sresses reflection on nature. There is a principle of isolation within Zen Buddhism in order to renew the “self” so that one can go back and be productive. As Buddhism spread, more temples started to be constructed. These temples were made up of seven different buildings- the pagoda, main hall, lecture hall, bell tower, repository for sutras, dormitory, and dining hall (http://www.asianinfo.org/asianinfo/japan/architecture.htm).

(Zen Buddha, Japan: Historic Background)

(Shinto Temple, Japan: Historic Background)


4. What modern day design references can be found in our WESTERN society from that particular culture?  Explain what you found.  Give 3 visual examples…

Japan has had a very strong influence on the design references found in western culture. The traditional Japanese influence is asymmetrical and very abstract. The patterns are largely inspired by the nature and the environment and landscape of Japan. Parts of their environment are largely present in these patterns. You may see when examining these patterns, you can see cherry blossom trees and other elements of nature. These elements of design show up in the western world in many things such as textiles, and rugs and even on lamps and tapestries that show up in houses and design in buildings and offices often.  Although it is not mainstream, the presence of oriental influence in design is becoming more and more prevelant.


The design reference that is shown in Japanese architecture has had a large impact on the architecture that can be seen in the Western world. Again the essence of nature has become apparent in these Japanese architectural designs. Line and space are elements that much emphasis in these designs. “Many of the principles which Wright integrated into his designs stem from Japanese principles such as simplicity, horizontality, asymmetry, and a connection with nature” (Leneweaver). This new idea of these concepts included the use of flowing spaces, unlike the isolated individualized spaces in homes that was seen before this influence had become common.  The use of line in Japanese architecture is one of the most important design elements. This element is seen largely in American architecture as well. The use of space is also very important. In the western designs based on Japanese influence, large positively used spaces hold the design together and provide a flowing natural feeling. Also the use of color is largely impacted by Japanese culture in Wrights’ designs. He uses shades of red, which is an important color in Japanese culture. It is derived from the shades of the sun, and is used as an accent color in many things representing a natural feel. The whole idea of the use of the feeling of nature through the use of color, line and space is derived from the Japanese beliefs of Buddhism and Taoism, both of which stress the emphasis of nature.

This is one of the famous Frank Lloyd Wright residence designs. His use of line as a design element is largely apparent.


Many gardens and landscaping designs in the western world show many aspects of Japanese influences and Japanese design elements. There are many very famous gardens throughout the Unites States, including the New York Botanic Garden, The Chicago Botanic Garden and the Portland Japanese Garden, which have Japanese influence. In these gardens, the design elements of space are very important. Flowers and plants are not crowded together; instead they are left with space around them. Also balance is largely apparent. This is the sense of balance in the sense that “You are always trying to create a ‘large’ landscape even in the smallest of spaces”(Japanese Garden Design).



Works Cited

“Japanese Garden – The Helpful Gardener.” Gardening Tips – The Helpful Gardener. Web. 06 Feb. 2011. <http://www.helpfulgardener.com/japanese/2003/design.html&gt;.