The Japan Cultural Expo is a comprehensive introduction to something that has evolved over the expanse of time between the Jomon Period (14,000–350 BCE) and the present day: the Japanese aesthetic. Naturally, this includes Japanese arts and crafts—items such as folding screens, scrolls, haniwa clay images, Buddhist statues, pottery, and ceramics. It also includes performing arts, such as noh, kabuki, and bugaku. This sense of aesthetics is passed on through these traditional forms, but it can also be seen in present-day art forms such as contemporary art, theater, and media art. Beyond this, fashion, home aesthetics, and even washoku—recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage—are other examples of present-day incarnations. A sense of this traditional aesthetic is also evident in traditional holidays such as Hinamatsuri (Girls' Day), in regional and local festivals, and even in people's daily lives. The Japan Cultural Expo examines the theme of Aesthetics and Culture from multiple angles.
“Humanity and Nature in Japan” is the overarching theme for the Japan Cultural Expo
But what is the uniting, supporting factor behind this sense of aesthetics, embodied in so many artistic expressions? Arguably, it is the land, and a deep respect for the natural environment—in other words, the Japanese view of nature. The opening of Sei Shonagon's masterpiece, The Pillow Book, highlights the most beautiful time of day in each of Japan’s four seasons: "In spring, it is the dawn... in summer, the night... in autumn, the evening... and in winter, the early morning."
This view of nature is not only found in the pages of literature. It can be seen in paintings portraying the rich natural splendor of the seasons—from snowy winter landscapes to colorful flowers, grasses, and wild birds. There are countless masterful examples of this Japanese tradition of kachoga (paintings of flowers and birds), The shiki kosaku-zu (paintings of farm work in the four seasons), meanwhile, depict the joy, and other emotions, found in activities such as farm work and the harvest. Both forms of art, while distinct, reveal the pervasive influence of nature in Japan.
From spring blossoms to the changing leaves of autumn, flowers and trees take center-stage in kachoga. An engaging portrayal of seasonal nanakusa herbs offers another example of the wonderfully diverse array of subjects that are depicted in glorious color. In contrast, we have the suiboku-ga (ink painting) tradition, which presents nature using only black ink. This form also displays an essential facet of Japanese art.
One exceptional example of suiboku-ga is Sesshu's famous scroll, Sansui Chokan, also called Landscape of Four Seasons. As the name suggests, the work shows the gentle seasonal transition from spring, to summer, to autumn, and to winter through mountain and valley scenery painted with exacting brushwork.
Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints had a profound influence on impressionists such as Monet. An examination of this art form brings the Japanese relationship with nature yet more clearly into view. Utagawa Hiroshige's late-life work, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, includes pieces such as Plum Park in Kameido and Fireworks by Ryogoku Bridge, which depict lively gathering places; in other words, landmarks. However, when Hiroshige's publisher posthumously released these works, they were grouped by season, rather than by location. And indeed, each of these landmarks is intrinsically tied to the uniquely seasonal scenery portrayed in the art.
Ryogoku's fireworks display is a popular event today, drawing crowds of spectators, but in the past, it was held to "open" the river during the summer season. It represented a wish to wash away bad luck and evil spirits in the river. The Japanese aesthetic, which disdains impurity and cherishes purity, comes from this appreciation for nature.
For Japanese people, rivers and mountains are revered, as respected and even holy presences. At Kasuga Taisha Shrine in Nara, Mt. Mikasa—part of the Kasugayama Mountain Range—is regarded as the embodiment of a deity. The oldest shrine in Japan, Omiwa Shrine, honors Mt. Miwa.
Hokusai's Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji introduced this symbol of Japan to the rest of the world, but countless other Japanese artists have also depicted the mountain in their work. Mt. Fuji also serves as a popular motif in clothing and crafts. This is not simply because of its visual beauty, but because of its value as a sacred and spiritual location for the Japanese people. Inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Mt. Fuji is now treasured around the world. Its cultural value derives from its identity as an object of faith, and as inspiration for art.
At the Japan Cultural Expo, you will see that an appreciation for nature is at the heart of the Japanese aesthetic as reflected in every aspect of Japanese culture.