DISCOVERING THE ARTS OF JAPAN: A historical overview, by Tsuneko S. Sadao and Stephanie Wada. Kodansha International, 2003, 284 pp., 3,000 yen (cloth).

According to this new publication from Kodansha International, “The insular culture of Japan can best be understood as a process whereby successive waves of imported ideas and artifacts were assimilated and synthesized into a new interpretation.” This wonderfully laid out book by Tsuneko S. Sadao and Stephanie Wada follows these waves methodically, and in a way that helps the reader work out for himself how the various art forms of Japan developed.

Starting off with the Jomon Period (circa 10,000-circa 300 B.C.) and continuing in chronological order, to finish with the Meiji Era (1868-1912), each time period begins with a list of important events, followed by the relevant history, politics and religion. The readers are then given coverage of the traditional arts of architecture, sculpture, painting, calligraphy, lacquerware, metalwork and textiles.

Looking at the political and religious activity of each time period provides the reader with a clear background to the arts of that time. For example, the establishment of the capital in Edo (now Tokyo) by Tokugawa Ieyasu 400 years ago brought stability to Japan nationwide and provided a safe environment for art forms such as kabuki and ukiyo-e to flourish. When time periods are examined from the perspective of their past and future, a more in-depth insight into the reasons behind art world developments is revealed. Invariably, there is a strong link among numerous facets of history, making the reader realize that looking at just one piece of the culture puzzle gives an incomplete view of a time period, not to mention a genre of art. This format of “Discovering the Arts of Japan” makes it easy for beginners to the art or history of Japan, as well as seasoned veterans, to gain invaluable insights.

Just as impressive as the unique format of this book is the collection of nearly 250 photographs that were carefully selected from sources in Japan and abroad, including temples and museums. It is rare to see such an extensive assembly of photos, each with a detailed explanation attached. From the very beginning of the book, color photographs entice the reader to delve further. One such color photograph shows an Edo Period folding screen that depicts “The God of Wind” rushing through smokelike storm clouds. Later photos are of a multitude of artifacts ranging from a gilt bronze statue of Buddha dating back to the Asuka Period (593-710), through yoroi (armor) constructed of iron, leather, lacquer and silk from the late 13th century, to hanging scrolls written in the early 16th century.

The authors are the first people to admit that “in a survey of this nature it is impossible to examine any subject in detail, let alone identify all of the sociopolitical factors, spiritual beliefs or cultural developments in the visual arts.” However, reading this well thought-out and beautifully presented book can be a first big step in discovering the fantastic world of Japanese arts.

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