Culture and materials info page
Chinese and other Asian objects;
It is probably no exaggeration to say that nowhere outside China there is more appreciation and knowledge of Chinese art than in Japan as the relations between China and Japan have a long history.
Not only adopted Japan in the seventh and eighth century the continental culture and many diplomatic missions to Tang and Song dynasty China were send to study there.
In the early thirteenth century renewed contact introduced to Japan Zen Buddhism that had a deep influence on Japanese aesthetics.
After the turmoil of the wars that ended with the peace of the Edo period Confucianism was adopted as State ideology.
In the late seventeenth century a Chinese trading post was established in Nagasaki and cultural objects (porcelain, books, paintings, bronzes) was an important component of the trade.
The end of Japans voluntary isolation in 1854 and the following modernization of Meiji-Japan made it possible that Japanese could visit Late Qing dynasty China and that Chinese students could study in Japan.
It was only after the beginning of the 20th century that written classical Chinese ceased to enjoy in Japan the same position as Latin once had in Europe.
Although Japanese attitude towards contemporary China went from bad to worse during the militarization of the early Showa years there was still much respect among many Japanese for China’s ancient culture and many Chinese objects found their way to Japan.
Though most Chinese art is now in museums or private collections or is out of reach for the average collector in today’s very competitive market for Chinese antiques.
Nevertheless van Hier tot Tokio is able to offer an eclectic choice of relatively moderately priced good Chinese (or other Asian) objects of today and yesterday that we discovered during our purchase trips in Japan.
Samurai armor and artefacts;
The Japanese suit-of-armour got its basic form at the end of the Heian period when the warrior class from the countryside took over the power of the ineffectual aristocracy of the court in the capital.
This suit of armor is characterized by the use of small metal or leather 5-7 cm long plates (kozane) and metal strips (kanagumawari) laced with colored silk cords to make it flexible.
The ōyoroi of these mounted warriors had broad shoulder- and four-parts abdomen protection as these warriors fought on horse with bow and arrow.
Foot soldiers were clad in the lighter cuirass.
The ethics and attitude to life of the warrior class (buke) were glorified at the beginning of the Kamakura period in the great novel The Tale of the Heike.
The devastating wars of the late Muromachi period let to the tōsei gusoku: a lightweight yoroi with a facial mask, arm guards, hip protection and greaves.
The battle of Sekigahara in October 1600 in which the Tokugawa clan with their allies were victorious ended a century of unrest and near-constant military conflict (the Sengoku period).
The Tokugawa shogunate kept the many feudal fiefs under strict control.
Feudal lords (daimyō) and their relatives were obligated to stay in turn at the capital Edo.
New during the Edo period was the bucket-shaped cuirass (okegawadō) while the arrival of Portugese in Japan let to an inflexible metal cuirass (nanbandō). The peace of this period allowed the yore to become more decorative in appearance and ashigaru-foot-soldiers used thin lacquered samurai hats (jingasa). The civil war of 1866-1869 and the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 showed that modern armies with guns made the use of yore an anachronism.
Pre-Edo suit-of-armour are relative rare and expensive, especially if in good condition and many yoroi consist of parts assembled from other yoroi.
Although no longer used yoroi are still made for historic festivals, as props in historic movies or just for display.
Lacquer is a resin derived from the in East Asia indigenous Lacquer Tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum, urushi in Japanese). This (very poisonous) resin contains urushiol which produces after oxidation and polymerization under humid and warm conditions a very hard and durable layer resistant to water, acid and alkali that is complete harmless. The use of lacquer resin was already discovered in prehistoric times both in China and Japan: the oldest lacquer objects come from the Chinese Hemudu culture (5000-4500 B.C.) while the famous red lacquered camellia wooden comb found in the Torihama shell-midden in Fukui Province dates from around 3500 B.C. (Jomon Period).
To raw lacquer can be added small amounts of metal oxides to obtain colored paints. Even clays can be used as pigments. In the past mercury sulfide (cinnabar) was often used to get a bright orange colored lacquer. Advanced techniques using gold and silver powders and flakes used with wet lacquer resin on an already finished lacquered ground known as makie-painting elevates otherwise ordinary utensils to real works of art.
In Japan lacquer is applied in very different areas: on coat-of-armor (yoroi), on chests (tansu) and (low) tables to make them durable and as decoration but also on high quality utensils as bowls, tea caddies, trays and plates. A special category are document boxes (bunko), writing boxes (suzuribako) and large stationary boxes (ryoshibako) used for writing letters and poetry or practicing calligraphy which are often decorated with the best of makie-techniques and mother-of-pearl inlay work.
Various places in Japan are known for their special lacquer-ware of which Wakasa, Tsugaru (both specialize in an irregular mixture of red, brown and green, to which in Wakasa are added small pieces mother-of-pearl), Wajima on Noro Peninsula, Echizen (both gold makie-designs on shining black lacquer) and Kamakura (with its carved lacquer, kamakurabori) are best known.
When prince and regent Shōtoku Taishi, (574-622) molded the institutions of the Japanese state after the example of China he also made Buddhism, that had recently arrived in the island by way of Korea, its religion. Since emperor Ashoka (304–232 BCE) in India had adopted the religion of the followers of Siddharta Gautema, a prince from a small kingdom in today Nepal who became a wandering monk and later Buddha Sakyamuni, Buddhism had seen a remarkable development in its literature, philosophy and art. After Buddhism had come to China its ever growing literature had been collected and accurately translated. The visualization of the Buddha and its deities developed, based on the examples of the art of Mathura and Sarnath (North India) and Graeco-Roman influenced Gandhara (Pakistan and Afghanistan). The Indian stupa, a hemispherical structure containing “relics” changed into a Chinese pagoda.
In the early Heian period the monks Kūkai (774–835) (Shingon school) and Saichō (767-822) (Tendai school) introduced an esoteric form of (Chinese) Buddhism that received the ardent support of the court. As the concept of various levels of truth of Buddhism made it possible to adopt local creeds the Shinto-gods of Japan were seen as manifestations of Buddhist deities.
With the rise of military clans in the Kamakura period the idea gained ground of mappō, the decline of the Teaching (dharma), in which only faith in the merciful Buddha Amida or in the bodhisattva Kannon and Jizō was left. Some monks went again to China and came back with Zen-Buddhism that emphasize meditation practice. Zen gave also a new stimulus to the spread of Chinese culture in Japan. In the Edo period the Tokugawa regime favored Confucianism but the strong support of ordinary people of Buddhism saw a flourishing of smaller forms of sculpture for private devotion.
Ancient Japanese woodwork was done with coniferous woods, mainly cryptomeria and cypress. In the Edo period furniture making underwent a technological revolution, deciduous woods became used and various types of Japanese chest came to exist: clothing chests (ishodansu); utility chests (yodansu); ledger chests (chōdansu)); tea-chests (chadanshu) and kitchen chests (mizuya) to mention the main types. For every room of the house there is a special chest.
It should be remembered that Japanese people used to sit on the floor and that therefore traditional Japanese chests do not have legs. Clear straight lines dominate in tansu although tea chests sometimes might show an occasional curved line connecting shelves. Most chests are designed for easy transportation and larger chest often consists of two parts as it was necessary to be able to evacuate quickly as Japanese cities used to suffer from numerous fires. Metal fittings are used to strengthen the chest and pole hangers enable transportation but ornate lock plates and other fittings are pure decorative.
The main woods employed in chest making are paulownia (especially for storage furniture as clothing-tansu), zelkova, Japanese cypress and mulberry (small chests and tea chests) although also cryptomeria, chestnut and in southern Japan camphor is used.
Often the face of the chest is of different wood than the interior e.i. zelkova fronts with Japanese cypress (hinoki) drawers.
Wood can be transparent lacquered with raw lacquer or with shunkei-lacquer (yellow with perilla oil or red with ferric oxide) or in opaque black, red or brown.
Rift sawn wood (masame, radially sawing: the boards are cut in right angles to the tree’s growth rings) though a less economical way of cutting, is regarded ideal: as the grain is running straight up and down it looks beautiful and presents a greater sheen than plainsawn wood (itame). Paulownia wood with its fine grain is especially fitted for rift sawing. Wood with figuring (moku, burls and other deformities caused by insects, weather etc.) occur mainly in deciduous wood and especially zelkova and mulberry wood often show a very clear and beautiful figuring.
Traditional Japanese furniture shows a combination of clear and clean design with ornate metal work on beautiful wood.
Japan is very much a country of ceramics and many small towns or villages have a kiln lead by a well-known potter. This ceramics tradition was originally limited to stoneware and some pottery for daily use. The Tea Masters enjoyed the use of simple or rustic stoneware often in rather dull colours as tea bowls and other pieces for the tea ceremony. These older kilns favored by earlier generations of collectors are known as Karatsu, Shigaraki, Tanba, Bizen, Hagi, Shigaraki, Oribe to name but a few. In recent years Raku-ware enjoyed some interest by western potters.
Porcelain was first made in Japan after the discovery of porcelain-stone in Kyushû at the beginning of the Edo period. Earlier Japan had imported porcelain from China. Imari porcelain was made for the domestic market but also for export to Europe (till around 1750 when China began to make “Chinese Imari”). Traditionally Imari is used for polychrome porcelain and Arita blue-and-white though both come from the same area. The origin of porcelain in China was still noticeable in the use of Chinese marks as bottom mark: Imari marks are with very few exceptions pure decorative. A special kind of porcelain was Kakiemon produced on a much smaller scale with bright, clear enamels on a pure white ground. Nabeshima was only made in the private kiln of the Lord of Nabeshima. The production of Nabeshima bowl-like plates on a foot-ring was always limited although it seems that around 1740 it was also made for the market. It is rare and the absolute top in Japanese porcelain and shows the greatest inventiveness in design and the greatest care with which it was produced.
Recent years saw a drop of interest by the general public in old Japanese porcelain and van Hier tot Tokio tries to bring more modern Japanese porcelain and stoneware to its attention. Many potters work in modern styles with new glazes or have rediscovered demanding ancient Chinese glazes and it is not exaggerated to stay that perhaps the best porcelain ever made from a technical as well as artistic point of view is made today. We could mention Tokuda Yasokichi who invented a very beautiful Kutani glaze running from deep to lighter blue to green and bright yellow, Fujii Shumei known for his blue-and-white vases with careful painted landscapes or Miura Heiji, a more traditional potter known for his outstanding celadon.
Screens and scrolls;
The art of painting in Japan was practiced very much under influence of Chinese painting, both with regard to technique as in a lesser degree to painting styles. Art painting was done with vegetable or mineral pigments or ink (made from sooth or pine-tree charcoal) mixed with animal glue on sized paper or thin silk. Paintings were made for vertical hanging scrolls (kakejiku, an other term still prevalent in the West is kakemono). For a hanging scroll the painting is mounted on a scroll (with a special plant-based glue), often surrounded by a cadre of brocade. Japanese scrolls often show above the painting two vertical loose hanging brocade strips (or painted lines): this mounting style originated in the Chinese Song dynasty where it later came in disuse. Japanese preferred to keep their paintings “clean”: while in China inscriptions or seals of later owners were added to the original inscription in Japan this was very seldom done and often a Japanese painting has no inscription at all.
In a traditional Japanese house the place for a hanging scroll is the tokonoma, a special defined part of a wall with a slightly raised floor were the painting is often displayed together with a flower arrangement appropriate for the season and sometimes one or two other pieces of art. With the change of seasons other paintings were used and on New Year’s Day the tokonoma is reserved for a special painting.
Hand-scrolls (makimono) and album (jô) are both for smaller paintings for personal enjoyment: the last contained often paintings by acquaintances.
The byobu-screen is a special way of presenting large paintings that is unknown in China. Byobu-screens often come in sets of two screens with each screen showing two, (rarely) four, or six panels placed directly on the floor and mounted with paintings or calligraphies. As people in Japan sat on the floor these screens are nowadays best placed on an elevation or hung on a wall to get a better view. For a special effect byobu paintings were often done directly on a gold- or silver leaf ground. Byobu painting are often used only on special occasions and later stored.
Tea articles and Ikebana;
The tea ceremony (chanoyu) is a well-known Japanese traditional pastime with spiritual overtones. Though originating with the Tea Masters of the sixteenth and seventeenth century were Zen inspired but it can also be appreciated without any inclination towards Zen Buddhism. Chanoyu, first for feudal Lords, Imperial Abbots and court nobles but later for everybody, is not only about drinking tea but stresses simplicity, restrain, harmony and strict etiquette. Wabi (quiet taste) and sabi (patina, elegant simplicity) are its esthetic ideals.
Chanoyu takes usually place in a special tea-room (sukiya) provided with a horizontal oriented hanging scroll, an ikebana-flower arrangement and of course the implements for the ceremony itself: tea-bowls (chawan), water-container (mizusashi) with ladle, a tea caddy (chaire), a furnace (furo) sunk in the floor for an iron water kettle (tetsubin), eventually an incense burner (kōro) with an incense box (kōgo) and a few other objects. Most important are the tea-bowls. Even a plain looking simple tea bowl by a well-known Tea master accompanied by papers proving its pedigree can be forbiddingly expensive.
Ikebana is in itself an independent art form originating in presenting flowers at the Buddhist altar. One type of bronze flower vase is the usubata-vase used for a large sometimes up to two meters high arrangements. In the twentieth century bronze casters specialized in smaller vases often for single flower arrangements that are especially appropriate for the tearoom as are wickerwork baskets and bamboo vases.
An in the West less familiar way of drinking tea is sencha which became popular in the 19th century first among literati but later more general use of tea. It is basically an informal way of drinking tea among acquaintances by drinking tea from small cups in which tea from whole tealeaves brewed in a small teapot is diluted with some water from a small bowl. The nun Rengetsu and her former pupil the painter Tessai were famous for their sencha-sets inscribed with their poems and sometimes drawings.