Early Period (to 897 AD)
A neolithic culture (called Jomon) existed in Japan as early as 3000 B.C. From about the first century A.D., the Japanese were producing replicas of objects from many parts of Asia, including replicas of bronze mirrors from China, grey pottery (called sue) from Korea and bell-shaped bronzes (called dotaku) from Annam (now Vietnam).
One specifically Japanese object was the haniwa – a sculpted pottery tube, the upper part of which was usually modelled in the form of a person or horse. These were placed around burial mounds.
Early in the Asoka period, in 552 A.D., Buddhism arrived in Japan from Korea. The Japanese imitated the Chinese Buddhist style, but with greater gentleness and restraint.
At the beginning of the Nara period (645 A.D.) the influence of the Chinese Tang Dynasty reached Japan. Until about 900 A.D., the Japanese followed the Chinese model in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature and even etiquette.
Fujiwara Period ((897 – 1195 AD)
Relations between Japan and China began to deteriorate during the late 9th century. By the end of the century all contact had ceased.
During the Fujiwara period, the artists of Japan began to create their own styles. Scenes were painted from an elevation with the ground sharply tilted. Human figures appear as if made of stiff layers of contrasting fabrics. Faces were drawn with a single brushstroke for each eye, one for the nose and another for the mouth, The paintings, called Yamato-e, were produced for the sophisticated taste of the Fujiwara nobility whose court practices were refined to the point of precocity.
Kamakura Period (1185 – 1392)
A series of civil wars led to the downfall of the decadent Fujiwara rulers in 1185. The new rulers established their capital at Kamakura.
In a reaction against the effeteness of the Fujiwara style, Kamakura art emphasised strength and realism.
In line the emphasis on realism in painting, Kamakura sculptors carefully reproduced every variation in the folds of drapery and used crystals for the eyes of their figures.
Momoyama Period (1573 – 1888)
From 1573 to 1615, three dictators imposed peace on the Japanese. They constructed huge fortress palaces which contained sliding doors and large screen covered with gold leaf on which were painted romantic and historical scenes in striking colours.
In 1615, Tokugawa, the last of the Momoyama rulers consolidated his power at Edo (now Tokyo). The Edo shoguns maintained a stratified society.
The heroes of the common people were the stars of the kubiki theatre and the courtesans of the teahouses. These provided the objects for a new art form called Ukiyo-e. By the end of the 17th century, the predominant medium for this art was the woodblock print.