Jomon art: Japan’s prehistoric charm

by Jeff Michael Hammond

Contributing Writer

Fertile periods of artistic endeavor are not hard to come by in Japanese history. Many would cite, for example, the Edo (1603-1868), Muromachi (1392-1573), or Heian (794-1185) periods. Few, however, would mention the ancient Jomon Period (10,000-200 B.C. )in the same breath.

The Tokyo National Museum aims to change that with its “Jomon: 10,000 Years of Prehistoric Art in Japan” exhibition, which has rounded up more than 200 items — everything from ancient jars to masks.

Jomon artifacts have been discovered across the country, from as far north as Hokkaido down to Kyushu. The Jomon Period — which is actually divided into a series of smaller periods — lasted from roughly 10,000 to 200 B.C., although this exhibition also includes items from the Yayoi Period (200 B.C.-A.D. 250) that followed it.

Aside from sheer length, another distinctive feature of the period was its environmental and social stability. Coming out of a long ice age, the people of Jomon were blessed with a warm climate, and plenty of fish, game and wild fruit and vegetables. This meant they could continue with their hunter-gatherer way of life with no need to develop or adopt agriculture, or to go to war for resources.

They did, however, require food storage containers and utensils to eat with, and this exhibition begins with examples of the jars, bowls and other kinds of everyday objects they used. Many of these objects are decorated with the “cord marks” that give the period its name Jomon, meaning “rope patterned.” This technique of creating texture by pressing cords or ropes into wet clay before firing was particularly prevalent in early Jomon pottery, but continued throughout the period. Sometimes, a keen aesthetic sensibility is evident where the maker highlights a contrast between roughly textured sections and other undecorated areas that have been polished smooth.

In later items, relief is created by adding strips of clay vessels to make protruding ridges. This can be seen on the many examples of large pots that have either vibrant flame-like additions their four corners, or wave-like lines running along the length of the rim — or both.

There is a keen sense of visual playfulness in the design of many of the objects, such as crooked noses or triangular or heart-shaped heads in various decorative dogū (clay figurines). The artistic qualities of Jomon culture, though, went largely unrecognized until just after World War II, when some artists, notably Taro Okamoto, revived interest in the art of the period.

It was not until even later in 1995 that the first Jomon artifact was designated a National Treasure. Since then, several other examples have been similarly honored, or made Important Cultural Properties, some of which are on display in a small section titled “The Zenith of Jomon Art,” housed in a room painted a dramatic deep red. These exhibits include the voluptuous “Jomon Venus” and the intriguing “Jomon Goddess” dogū. The latter has flared legs featuring serrated lines and protuberances that suggest both shoulders blades and breasts.

The exhibition’s largest section is left to near last and looks at the religious or spiritual dimension of Jomon culture. Here, figures of animals can be seen, perhaps used to pray for a good hunt, or perhaps made out of a sense of awe at the animals’ strength. Other objects are described as connected to fertility, or represent women giving birth, and some show people in unusual poses that we don’t recognize today. With an understated sound design playing as a backdrop, this is perhaps the show’s most atmospheric room.

The exhibition is rounded off with a brief look at how 20th-century artists responded to these works — for example the replicas of Jomon wares made under the direction of master potter Shoji Hamada for educational purposes, and the special case that Muneyoshi Yanagi (also known as Soetsu Yanagi), pioneer of the mingei Japanese folk arts and craft movement, had made to house a prize piece of Jomon wonder.

“Jomon: 10,000 Years of Prehistoric Art in Japan” at the Heiseikan, Tokyo National Museum runs until Sept. 2; ¥1,600. For more information, visit www.tnm.jp/?lang=en.