Japan is recognized for its cutting-edge technology, as indicated in the global competitiveness of its hybrid and all-electric cars and electric chargers, or R&D intensity (R&D/GDP) and patents/GDP rates. Aside from cars and electronics from Japan, sushi is ubiquitous in the West, emblematic of Japan’s cultural influence—and everyone knows of Japan’s traditional martial arts: judo, karate, sumo, jujutsu, aikido, kenjutsu (swordfighting) and kendo, popularized especially after filming of “The Last Samurai.” I have known a few Westerners who did not like raw fish (leaving more for the rest of us to eat!) but never known anyone who did not enjoy watching a live sumo match.
Far less known are other elements of Japanese culture, such as bunraku (puppet theater) or Japanese modern painting, so-called nihonga. I marvel at the artistry of bunraku, where a skilled puppeteer can make the puppet come alive so that at the end of the theater you feel its humanness, as with Oshichi in Date Musume Koi no Hikanoko, among my favorites. I’ve watched Bunraku in its entirety at the National Theater of Japan in Tokyo and parts of Date Musume Koi no Hikanoko countless times at the Gion Corner in Kyoto.
I wish that some curator would organize a worldwide exhibition of Japanese nihonga, modern art that competes readily on the world stage. In the Meiji era Japanese were enamored with French impressionism (and still are) and Japanese woodblock print artists like Hokusai and Hiroshige were popular in France in the heyday of impressionist art. In this sense, impressionism influenced Japanese art and Japanese artists had an influence on the impressionists.
In nihonga, Japanese modern artists returned to their cultural roots, with artistic themes commonly centered on what Japanese understand best: nature. They painted on traditional Japanese paper (washi) or silk and originally produced their art in hanging scrolls (kakemono) or screens (byobu), although these art forms were introduced much earlier, kakemono in the Heian period (794-1195) and byobu in the Nara period (646-794). Instead of painting in oil nihonga artists used ink pigments derived from minerals, corals, and semi-precious stones.
There are so many things for Japanese to feel proud of. Nihonga is certainly one of them.
All the best,
Warren J. Devalier
©2011 Warren J. Devalier