What comes to mind when you think of art? Maybe you recall a famous masterpiece, like the Mona Lisa, hanging in the Louvre. Or perhaps you think of your very first sculpture, made with love from modeling clay, and still on display in your dad’s office.
The word “art” means something different to everyone. People across the world have been putting their own spin on this term for thousands of years. Many countries (and cultures) have their own artistic style that holds special meaning for their people.
Throughout history, Japan has been both connected to and isolated from other civilizations. This trend is often reflected in Japanese art. Famous for sushi, breathtaking natural wonders, and futuristic technology, you may be surprised to learn there’s also a creative side to this island nation.
We often think of a piece of paper as a blank canvas, so what if you could turn that canvas into a three-dimensional work of art? Origami is the Japanese art of folding paper into fun designs, including animals, flowers, and food. If you can imagine it, you can probably create it!
Paper folding originated for ceremonial purposes, but became more popular in the 1600s with the mass production of paper. In 1797, Akisato Rito published Thousand Crane Folding, an instructional guide to art of origami. Everyone jumped on the origami bandwagon, and it quickly crossed the Pacific reaching new audiences around the globe. Check out these origami projects on YouTube and try it for yourself!
Unlike origami, ukiyo-e is a two-dimensional art form. Ukiyo-e started in a city called Edo, which later became Tokyo. It is also called “woodblock painting” because of the method used to create the art. Ukiyo-e works just like a giant stamp. A picture is carved into a large block of wood and different colored inks are spread over it to color in the picture. Then, the block is pressed down onto a piece of paper. Once lifted, it leaves behind a beautifully detailed design.
Ukiyo-e paintings are famous for having many intricate details. Frequently they portray soothing landscapes or bustling cities. They were not expensive, so anyone could enjoy this activity. The most famous ukiyo-e painting is called Under the Wave off Kanagawa, created by an artist named Katsushika Hokusai between 1830 and 1832. This great painting has traveled the world, sharing the art of ukiyo-e with millions.
In Japan, animated films first came to theaters following World War II. Shortly thereafter, they developed their own style of animation, referred to as anime. Anime features a variety of themes, storylines, and designs. One of the most famous styles comes from Studio Ghibli, a film studio that created some of Japan’s most iconic movies.
An animator named Hayao Miyazaki founded the company. His animation style is whimsical, using imaginative stories to move people of all ages. His films often include fantastical creatures based on Japanese legends and are beloved by people around the world. Some of Miyazaki’s most famous films include My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. There are even plans to open a Studio Ghibli theme park so that people can experience these amazing stories with all five senses.
Have you ever seen a cake too beautiful to eat? Many countries create edible works of art and Japan is no exception. One of the prettiest is a sweet called wagashi. Wagashi is a Japanese confection that goes way back and are enjoyed most often with green tea. They are made from rice flour, beans, and fruit—each one carefully crafted and decorated. Sometimes shaped like flowers, fish, or stars, the design can depend on the season. While wagashi are available for purchase at supermarkets and specialty sweets stores, they can also be enjoyed in more traditional venues where green tea is served, like cafes, temples, and gardens.
Have a story of your own to share? Check out our Storyteller’s Spotlight