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Japanese art and Kawanabe Kyosai: the power of folklore and culture

Japanese art and Kawanabe Kyosai: the power of folklore and culture

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The Japanese artist Kawanabe Kyosai is extremely fascinating because of his individualistic spirit and this is witnessed in his art. Kyosai, just like the mysterious Tengu, belonged to two worlds and this applies to the old Edo period and the modernization of Japan which began in 1868. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 was truly dynamic and revolutionary. Also, the center and periphery relations altered the status quo of the Edo period which relied heavily on stratification.

The Tengu also belongs to two very different traditions and highlights the power of Shintoism and the mysteriousness of this religion. Not only this, the Shinto impact on Buddhist thought patterns and traditions emanating in China were completely turned on its head. Therefore, the Tengu becomes part of the richness of nature within the Shinto faith rather than the dark demons of Buddhism and other faiths which highlight the power of evil. This fact also shows the power of Japanese culture and the indigenous faith of Shinto which could absorb different thinking and traditions.

Kyosai was born in 1831 and died in 1889 and the rapid changes in society clearly impacted on him. He was an individual who was independent in mind and thought and Kyosai expresses this through his art.

Kusumi Kawanabe, Director of the Kawanabe Kyosai Memorial Museum, comments that “This great artist has grown in stature as we have been able the better to get the Meiji period into perspective. He studied at an early age under Kuniyoshi and later under Kano masters, but eventually he went his own independent way. Essentially a nationalistic painter, he was nonetheless fully aware of Western art – indeed, he dealt with it quite broadmindedly in his book “Kyosai Gadan” published in 1887 – but he was robust enough not to succumb, as so many of his contemporaries did, to the blandishments of foreign styles, and was one of the last great painters in the truly Japanese tradition.”

The main focus in this article is to highlight aspects of Kyosai and link this with the Tengu and the underworld of Japan where mysterious creatures, spirits, and ghosts played a powerful role within the culture of this fascinating country. Also, it is clear that the outside influence of China and Korea impacted greatly on Japan. However, despite this the indigenous faith of Shintoism and other powerful aspects of culture would transform many of these new thought patterns and create a truly Japanese identity.

The yokai represent aspects of the mystery of folklore in Japan and the transformation of Tengu is also fascinating within the changing thought patterns of Japan. The yokai are creatures with supernatural powers and the Tengu are one of the most widely known monster-spirits in the land of the rising sun.

The Tengu have constantly gone through transformations in Japanese folklore and while early artists depicted the Tengu with beaks this changed in time and now the most distinctive feature is their long nose.

Within Buddhist thought patterns the Tengu were demons and it was believed that they were harbingers of bad times and this applies to war and other calamities.  However, within Shintoism the Tengu were sometimes worshipped as revered spirits (Shinto kami) which had magical powers.  Therefore, the Tengu also witnessed the fusion of aspects of Buddhism and Shintoism because in time their image changed into a more protective force.

However, despite this transformation the Tengu still had dark and dangerous powers and people in the mountains and forests had to tread carefully because of the several natures of the Tengu. This meant that local people couldn’t take the Tengu for granted and great respect was needed during visits to special shrines which highlight this mysterious folklore creature.

Kyosai certainly depicts the power of the Tengu and the mysterious features and nature of various types ofyokai.  Therefore, Kyosai is showing images of the old world despite the new reality of the Meiji period.

In Japanese history the Tengu went from demonic creatures into positive aspects providing care was taken and nature was at peace with the underworld.  For example if we apply this to children then in early Japanese history the Tengu were believed to abduct children. However, in later history this all changed because the Tengu became enlisted in searching for children who were scared and needed help quickly.

Another positive side of the Tengu is that their shape-shifting power applies to animal and human form and this meant that their attributes were powerful. Therefore, the Tengu used this in order to play tricks on arrogant Buddhist priests or people who abused their power.

In this sense, while the Tengu belong to Japanese folklore it could be said that Kyosai shared some characteristics and this applies to attacking political elites.  After all, Kyosai was known for being a political caricaturist and he often got in trouble with the law and the dominant political power of his day.

Kyosai was a free thinker who highlighted the richness of the spirit world in his art and Japanese folklore.

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Posted by on January 22, 2012 in Japan


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Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Japanese art: Images of tranquility and landscapes

Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Japanese art: Images of tranquility and landscapes

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

Utagawa Kuniyoshi depicted many images and covered various different subject matters. Therefore, the art of this stylish ukiyo-e artist in this article provides only a glimpse into the real Kuniyoshi.

Kuniyoshi was born in 1797 and died in 1861 and throughout this period many developments erupted in Japan. This applies to traditional rule in the earlier part of his life to rapid changes from the middle of the 1850s and onwards until the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Ando Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai are the most famous ukiyo-e artists internationally but Kuniyoshi was also a crème de la crème artist along with many others. Also, the broad spectrum of many ukiyo-e artists is truly amazing and this also applies to the art of Kuniyoshi. Therefore, the art work of this wonderful artist is complex and depends on various different circumstances.

This article focuses only on the tranquil nature of his art and elegant landscapes which appealed to many Japanese people. However, it would be wrong to believe that these lovely landscapes and scenes of serenity provide the real Kuniyoshi because this would be false.

Despite this, for people who know the art work of Kuniyoshi the opposite could be said because all too often this angle of his artwork is neglected. Yet clearly Kuniyoshi’s landscape images match that of any ukiyo-e artist irrespective of people’s own preferred artist.

The Edo Period was succumbing to outside forces during the lifetime of Kuniyoshi and this must have infringed heavily on this stylish artist. However, when one door closes another opens up and this certainly applied to the later stages of his life. Therefore, new techniques, different thinking, growing outside influences, evolution within the Japanese art world, and others factors, impacted greatly on Kuniyoshi.

Images in this article by Kuniyoshi are a reminder of a world which was mainly un-spoilt before the economic, social, and political revolution which took hold in Japan and culminated with the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

In an earlier article I commented that “Kuniyoshi and other famous ukiyo-e artists also take you back to a different Japan in all its confusion.  Therefore, Kuniyoshi designed prints which covered a vast spectrum and this applies to landscapes, women, kabuki, humor, nature, satire, shunga, cats, surimono and other areas.”  

“It is apparent that Hokusai (1760-1849) had much more political and sexual freedom and this notably applies to Hokusai’s shunga which is very powerful and erotic.  However, the Tenpo reforms of the early 1840s introduced measures which banned prints of erotic women and actors who belonged to the kabuki scene.  This meant that Kuniyoshi had to focus more on warriors and legends but his historical depictions were under close scrutiny. Therefore the popular satire of shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi and other prints led to an official reprimand and many prints were confiscated and destroyed.”

Kuniyoshi also opened up the past and this applies to the depiction of historical figures in Japanese history, brave samurai warriors, events in Japanese history, famous legends and other related areas which nurtured each new generation.  

Famous art pieces produced by Kuniyoshi include The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden All Told, At The Shore of the Sumida River, Mt. Fuji from Sumida and Pilgrims in the Waterfall. Of course you have many other famous collections and art pieces by Kuniyoshi and preferences will vary with each individual.

Pilgrims in the Waterfall is extremely beautiful because it shows and highlights important aspects of Japanese culture when it applies to religion and nature coming together.  This notably applies to Shintoism which is “the real heart of Japan” despite the influence of Buddhism within the Japanese psyche. Also, in this stunning art piece it is abundantly clear that space is very important and this applies to religion, Japanese gardens, meditation and other aspects of Japanese culture.

The serenity which can be felt by the Pilgrims in the Waterfall connects humanity, nature and religion together.  Therefore, Kuniyoshi is highlighting a powerful reality which belonged to his world.  

Kuniyoshi’s ukiyo-e is very varied and images in this article are limited to landscapes and internal tranquility in Japan.  – Fantastic website and just click onto the section you are interested in.

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Posted by on November 23, 2011 in Japan


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Japanese Green Tea Ceremony and culture

Japanese Green Tea Ceremony and culture

James Jomo and Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The Japanese green tea ceremony dates back to the ninth century but modifications and reasons behind its popularity have changed.  Matcha, powdered green tea, is served based on certain rites and the ritual nature is a vital element alongside simplicity, silence, and a spiritual feel.  The spiritual angle comes from Zen Buddhism which influenced the tea ceremony.

Otemae is the performance name for this ritual and today it is a popular pastime where many individuals learn the skills of ritual, elegance and to perfect the way of this cultural aspect of Japanese culture.  The ceremony itself is called chanoyu or chado (also pronounced sado) and in the early period Zen Buddhism would have enabled a strong inner feeling while enjoying the taste.

Chakai and chaji are the two different classifications for tea gatherings. Chakai is more common because it is used for hospitality and some Japanese gardens perform this for visitors.  For example, in Rikugien Garden in Komagome in Tokyo you have a small resting place by the pond and tourists and visitors to the garden can enjoy Chakai.

The green tea in Rikugien Garden in Komagome tastes delicious and a small Japanese sweet is served with the green tea. However, because of the splendid nature of this garden you can feel the spiritual connection and this simplistic pleasure fuses well with the senses. 

Chaji is very different and can take around four hours or more because this is based on kaiseki which is a full –course meal. If you have never experienced this then it is well worth it because the mixture of elegance, food preparation, motion, taste, thick tea, thin tea, and the ethical side of this all fuses together. 

In Chinzan-so, located in Tokyo, this majestic garden also highlights not only the beauty of this stunning and sophisticated garden but the religious angle is also very important.  Within this garden you have many places to enjoy scrumptious food and you can also experience kaiseki at its very best.

This applies to nature, food, culture, ritual, and a stunning backdrop because of the scenery coming together. “Kinsui” is a traditional restaurant and is located in a delightful area and the kaiseki cuisine is sure to please alongside other genuine and delicious Japanese dishes.  Also, you have a casual dining area located in “Kinsui” called “Hanaguruma” and this restaurant is also a great place to eat and relax.

Ledia Runnels comments that “In the 9th century, Chinese author Lu Yu wrote The Classic of Tea, that focused on the cultivation and preparation of tea. Lu Yu’s life was influenced by the Zen Buddhism school of Zen–Chán. Needless to say, his ideas had a strong influence in the development of the Japanese tea ceremony.”

“In the 9th century, tea was brought to Japan by the Buddhist monk Eichū, who had visited China and brought tea seeds back with him…..It was near the 12th century when the style of tea preparation called “tencha” became popular. In this ceremony, matcha was placed in a bowl with hot water poured over it. The water and ground tea were then whipped together.”

“By the 13th century, the Kamakura Shogunate, the ruling class of samurai warriors, used tea as a kind of status symbol…..During the Muromachi Period, that centered around the gorgeous cultural world of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the formation of what was to become the traditional Japanese culture of today came to be, where the Japanese tea ceremony evolves to aesthetic practice of “Wabi-sabi.” “Wabi” represents the inner, or spiritual, experiences. “Sabi” represents the outer, or material of life. By the 16th century, tea drinking had spread to all levels of society in Japan.”

Therefore, today in modern Japan the tea ceremony is used for a variety of situations but the old deeper meaning still exists within special environments.  Also, just like the Kamakura period the tea ceremony does belong within high culture. This applies to special settings where the inner values of the tea ceremony and the ritual nature of this are still very powerful.

The simplistic form of chakai is more common and tourists to Japan will often experience this. In special places in Tokyo, like Rikugien Garden in Komagome, even chakai feels spiritual and cultural because of the scenery in this exquisite garden.

Please visit Mysterious Japan at  and read fascinating articles by Ledia Runnels (please visit)



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Posted by on September 2, 2011 in Japan


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Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Tranquil art and natural beauty! Part One

Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Tranquil art and natural beauty!  Part One

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times


Utagawa Kuniyoshi is amongst the crème de la crème of ukiyo-e because his art work was truly amazing and so powerful.  Kuniyoshi, just like other famous Japanese artists like Ando Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai, was very diverse and the window of the new Japan was on its way.

This article is based on three tranquil art pieces by Kuniyoshi. However, just like life these three glimpses into Kuniyoshi and his style are misleading. Nevertheless, given the amount of art that Kuniyoshi produced then a more tranquil based article suits the introduction for lay people who only know snippets about this talented artist.

Also, human nature is complex and the outside persona and internal reality is often very different.  Therefore, by providing a glimpse into the natural aspect of Kuniyoshi’s art I hope to relate this with the calm before the storm.

After all, Kuniyoshi was born in 1798 and died in 1861 and he belonged to a world of continuity during the Edo Period but when his life was nearing the end, the Edo Period was also succumbing to outside forces and internal power issues.

By showing only three art pieces of Kuniyoshi I hope to transform these three images into a different meaning.  This applies to the safety of the past irrespective if our recollections of our early years are often clouded by nostalgia and a yearning of the dead souls which have become mere memories.

Kuniyoshi and other famous ukiyo-e artists also take you back to a different Japan in all its confusion.  Therefore, Kuniyoshi designed prints which covered a vast spectrum and this applies to landscapes, women, kabuki, humor, nature, satire, shunga, cats, surimono and other areas.  

His legacy and style especially applies to depicting historical figures, warriors, events in history and legends which helped to inspire and open-up the viewer to the past.

It is apparent that Hokusai (1760-1849) had much more political and sexual freedom and this notably applies to Hokusai’s shunga which is very powerful and erotic.  However, the Tenpo reforms of the early 1840s introduced measures which banned prints of erotic women and actors who belonged to the kabuki scene.  This meant that Kuniyoshi had to focus more on warriors and legends but his historical depictions were under close scrutiny. Therefore the popular satire of shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi and other prints led to an official reprimand and many prints were confiscated and destroyed.

Kuniyoshi was influenced to some extent by Katsukawa Shuntei (1770-1820) and this applies to warrior prints that he produced and not to other areas of his artwork. However, the early period for Kuniyoshi was not easy and it wasn’t until 1827 that he made a major breakthrough.  This applies to The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden All Told.

The three art pieces in this article depict a natural and cultural aspect of Japan.  At The Shore of the Sumida River shows the power of nature and the reality of everyday life.  The only individual face that you can see is in a natural state and he looks worn out and battling against the elements and fatigue. 

However, the Mt. Fuji from Sumida shows a breathtaking landscape and two people are in awe of the stunning beauty and another individual is walking blissfully alone.  The image also shows you a child who is enjoying life with his mother and playing. Also, unlike the older individuals the child is in a dream world because of natural joy and the energy of childhood can be seen.

The serenity of the image and exquisite color scheme alongside the backdrop of Mount Fuji is a beautiful illustration of Kuniyoshi’s art. 

Pilgrims in the Waterfall depicts the unity of faith and nature and while Buddhism was powerful in this period in Japan the indigenous faith of Shinto is “the real faith of Japan.” This applies to the power of ancestors, the spirit world, nature and humanity being in co-existence and other aspects that run through the veins of Japan’s history.

It would not really matter if the image was a pilgrimage to Buddhism or Shintoism because the natural image of nature and the power of the waterfall could only connect you with Shintoism.  Therefore, despite the power of Buddhism in this period in Japan the old world survived and this applies to the world of Shintoism and the mystery of gods within nature.

These three images depict a natural Japan and show a world which was far from the political intrigues of the day.  The serenity which can be felt by the Pilgrims in the Waterfall is a stunning image which connects humanity with nature but in a natural and simplistic way.  Therefore, no religious building is needed and instead the pilgrimage at its heart is interwoven with the power of nature. 

Similarly, Mt. Fuji from Sumida shows the stunning beauty of Japan and the scene highlights natural beauty and everyday life and thought patterns.  Older individuals are in awe while the child is blissfully happy irrespective of the stunning background.

Therefore, the three images of Kuniyoshi in this article are focused on only one side of his art work but Kuniyoshi was very diverse and during the reforms of the early 1840s he did not remain placid.  – Fantastic website and just click onto the section you are interested in.  please visit

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Posted by on July 4, 2011 in Japan


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Ike No Taiga: Japanese artist and a glimpse into the history of Japan

Ike No Taiga: Japanese artist and a glimpse into the history of Japan

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

Japanese art is very distinctive and contrasts greatly with classical European art and clearly religious differences, environmental factors, distance, limited social interaction between both poles and other important factors is behind this. Ike No Taiga exemplifies the vast difference in thinking and clearly China was the central of gravity for a major period in the history of Japan.

This article is merely highlighting Ike No Taiga and focusing on the underbelly of culture in Japan and how his life provides glimpses of the reality of Japan in the 18th century. After all, the land of the rising sun was clearly influenced by ideas emanating out of China. Therefore, while thinking was influenced before the Nara period in the 8th century it is clear that the Nara period highlights the interaction of both nations.

It is often claimed that the Edo period is based on isolation but the life of Ike No Taiga (1723-1776) challenges this oversimplification.  The Edo period witnessed the Buddhist inquisition against Christianity whereby all Christians were killed in this period in Japan but outside cultural influence still entered this country.

Therefore, while religious edicts were a reality the isolation of Japan is a different matter because thought patterns emanating from China were still potent.  Therefore, the life of Ike No Taiga is fascinating because of many factors.

Ike No Taiga was born into a relatively poor family and his father died when he was very young.  However, despite this his mother somehow managed to get her son educated by some of the finest minds in Japan in this period.

This in itself shows you that the heavy handed stratification of society was not completely rigid and Ike No Taiga was accepted because he was a man of letters and an artist who provides glimpses of Japan in this period. 

Ike No Taiga was taught classical Japanese and Chinese disciplines during his childhood and the Mampuku-ji Zen temple would remain embedded within his soul. Therefore, irrespective of Japan’s isolation or not; the classical world of China was still potent within the mindset of Japanese high culture and religious thinking from Mampuku-ji Zen temple shaped and influenced Ike No Taiga greatly.

At the tender age of 14 Ike No Taiga had become a professional artist and a calligrapher of high esteem.  However, the encounter he had with Yanagisawa Kien would impact on him greatly. 

Through Yanagisawa Kien the world of bunjin was introduced to him and this world would shape the life of Ike No Taiga.  Yanagisawa Kien was a major artistic figure and social thinker and bunjin was potent within high circles in this period of Japanese history.

Anna Beerens comments that “In 8th-century Japan a few hundred individuals, mostly living in the main towns, such as Kyoto, Osaka and Edo, are considered literati (bunjin). In studying this group as an intellectual and social phenomenon one studies an important part of the history of 18th-century Japanese culture and city life. Also, their literati activities and attitudes are an interesting example of acculturation. For whatever our literati may be, they certainly are a collection of consciously sinophile people, writing Chinese, painting in a variety of Chinese styles, drinking their tea the Chinese way, and otherwise assimilating and disseminating Chinese influences, at the same time changing this heritage in all sorts of subtle ways.”

Ike No Taiga, Kan Tenju and Ko Fuyo were deeply influenced by Yanagisawa Kien and the bunjin world appealed greatly because of the high culture that it provided. However, the social reality of Ike No Taiga meant that the avoidance of commercialism was not possible because if he did not ply his trade then he had no alternative source of income.

Another aspect of bunjin thinking was to set off on important journeys in order to understand the world and to commune with nature.  Also, the journeys would expand the cultural awareness of the individual and by connecting with nature this would then trigger greater artistic imagination. 

Bunjin concepts did enable Ike No Taiga to expand his knowledge and by travelling he learnt about Rangaku (Dutch learning) and Noro Genjo will have provided another important worldview but fused with Japanese cultural influences.

Again, the Edo period and isolationism did not prevent scholars from studying outside concepts.  Therefore, the thought patterns of high culture in both China and the Netherlands would impact on Ike No Taiga.

Throughout much of the life of Ike No Taiga he would travel and connect with nature by mountain climbing and witnessing culture during his travels.  He often was accompanied by fellow bunjin colleagues and collaboration on art projects took place.  Therefore, the philosophy of bunjin reached deep into his soul.

At all times Ike No Taiga was searching and in time he would also become influenced by Hakuin Ekaku.  Therefore, the personal style of Hakuin Ekaku would add to the vast knowledge of Ike No Taiga and he would work with Hakuin’s disciples.

The Japanese government classified some of Ike No Taiga’s work to be National Treasures and this would have pleased him greatly because the man of letters was fully transformed by bunjin thought patterns.

Ike No Taiga may have resided in so-called isolationist Japan but this did not stop him from benefitting from the high culture of China and the Netherlands.  Also, his humble background and stratification in Japan did not hinder him and aspects of the life of Ike No Taiga should be studied in order to deconstruct some myths about Japan in the Edo period. (please visit)

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Posted by on June 30, 2011 in Japan


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