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Shogunate Japan: Arts & Crafts

A resource guide for the Year 8 History Samurai assignment

Night Rain at the Double-Shelf Stand, from the series Eight Parlor Views (Zashiki hakkei), Suzuki Harunobu (Japanese, 1725–1770), Woodblock print (first edition); ink and colors on paper, medium-sized print (chuban), Japan

Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The arts have always had an important role in Japanese period, particularly during the shogunate era.The Edo period in particular ushered Japan into an era of wealth and relative peace, during which the arts flourished. This included printmaking, painting, theatre, literature, music, poetry, ceramics and fashion. Read through the resources below to learn more about the arts and crafts in shogunate Japan.

Large Bowl with Floral Design

This bowl is an interesting example of the early Imari style of porcelain. Early Imari was the first porcelain produced in Japan, and was typically made in the blue-and-white style, in which designs would be painted on the white surface in cobalt and then covered with a transparent glaze. This bowl, however, was covered with a celadon glaze, giving the vessel a soft green colour. The shape of the bowl is reminiscent of a flower, and there are floral designs painted beneath the glaze.

Dish Depicting Lady with a Parasol

Porcelain painted with cobalt blue under and coloured enamels over transparent glaze.

Robe (Kosode) with Cherry Blossoms and Cypress Fence

The design on this rare kosode (garment with small sleeve openings), with its pattern of cherry blossoms, a fence, and carriage wheels, is an example of the bold, largely diagonal compositions that appeared beginning in the mid-seventeenth century. The donation of precious garments to Buddhist temples has been a common practice throughout much of Japanese history, and these gifts of clothing were often transformed into Buddhist altar cloths (uchishiki) and vestments (kesa). This kosode’s past is unknown, but it has been remade, and its slightly incomplete form suggests that it may once have been an altar cloth.

Dish in Shape of Japanese Court Woman

The court women of the Heian period (794–1185), characterized by their long flowing hair and multilayered clothing with elaborate and brilliantly juxtaposed patterns, play an important role in Japanese visual arts. Many were writers and poets. Plates such as this can be understood to refer to these famous women as well as to an ideal type.

Noh Costume (Karaori) with Cherry Blossoms and Fretwork

An intense chromatic effect is achieved in this robe, with its cherry blossoms in a range of colors scattered over bands of red and green. Fallen within moments after their full flowering, the blossoms poignantly evoke the transience of human life, a central theme in Noh drama. The inclusion of red places this costume in the category of robes "with color" (iroiri), making it appropriate for the role of a young woman.

Among the formal and technical characteristics that point to an eighteenth-century date for the robe are the absence of metallic threads, the allover patterning, and the length and softness of the textile's floating silk pattern wefts.

Noh Robe (Nuihaku) with Butterflies, Chrysanthemums, Maple Leaves, and Miscanthus Grass

The term nuihaku is a compound word made up of two textile techniques: embroidery (nui) and application of metallic leaf (haku). Elegant costumes like this one were mainly used for roles of young female protagonists in Noh plays. In the Edo period, landscapes and autumn grasses associated with poetry and classical literature became popular motifs for this type of robe. On this example combining spring and autumn imagery, playful butterflies fly over colorful chrysanthemum flowers, scattered maple leaves, and curving miscanthus grass. The waist area is left undecorated—in the seventeenth century these garments were used as outer robes and were often worn turned down at the waist. The style of the design and the embroidery recall Momoyama-period (1573–1615) robes, as well as folding screens and Kōdaiji maki-e lacquers with similar compositions.

Surcoat (Jinbaori)

Samurai jinbaori were frequently made from expensive and flamboyant imported textiles like this Chinese silk velvet, which has a reddish pile pattern on a once vivid yellow background. The European-style “pomegranate” design features bilateral symmetry (mirror-imaged along a vertical axis) and a single direction of orientation. Patterns of this type—rare in Japan—frequently appear in European textiles of the sixteenth to seventeenth century. An exquisite Chinese silk damask lines the jinbaori, but its pattern is asymmetrical and features multiple orientations—traits more common in East Asian textiles. Both fabrics demonstrate the versatility of Chinese textile makers and the Japanese elite’s enthusiasm for such imports.


The term suzu refers to two Japanese instruments associated with Shinto ritual: (1) a single large crotal bell similar in shape to a sleigh bell and having a slit on one side; and (2) a handheld bell-tree with small crotal bells strung in three levels on a spiraling wire. The larger form may be hung from a rafter in front of a Shinto shrine and sounded by a robe or ribbons that hang within reach of the worshipper. The smaller suzu seen here is supported atop a handle and is held by female shrine attendants (miko) costumed in traditional robes, white-powdered faces, and wearing Heian-period coiffure during performances of kagura dance. Kagura (music for the gods) is a term encompassing Shinto instrumental music, songs, and dances performed at shrines and at court. It was formalized as early as 773, when it appeared in the palace repertoire. These small bells, ritual implements of great antiquity, may also be grouped together in bundles for folk and ceremonial performances.

The Museum's rare seventeenth-century suzu contains twelve barrel-shaped crotal bells whose slits terminate at its ends with a heart-shaped cutout. A five-lobed metal hand guard with flower motifs and openwork hearts bears a hidden inscription on its underside. It reveals the history and use of the instrument, stating that this Shinto instrument was used by priestess Kuriyama Kamiko for the worship of the Miwa Miyojin deity at Miwa, a town in Soe County, Nara Prefecture. It also bears a date of 1699.

Young Women Playing Kitsune-ken (Fox Game)

The spaciousness of the interior in this print extends to the exterior space of the veranda and the blossoming cherry trees beyond the railing, creating a pleasant atmosphere. The joyous mood is echoed by two figures in the foreground playing the fox game (kitsune-ken). Another young woman, with a three-stringed samisen in her left hand, watches their game. On the floor between the contestants are a kettle and a stand holding a sake cup.

The basic idea of kitsune-ken is that three hand gestures symbolize a village chief, a gun, and a fox. Each has a different potential: the chief is superior to the gun since he employs it, the gun to the fox because it can kill the fox, and the fox to the chief because it can bewitch him. The use of the hands (ken means "fist") leads to a number of combinations. In this print, the player on the right who makes a gesture of shooting a rifle defeats her opponent at the left, whose limp-wristed gesture signifies a fox. The game continues until one player wins three times in succession.

The loser in this print will have to drink a cup of sake.