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Colour is often used to convey messages in Japanese design. The wearing of certain colours, or the use of particular colours in the home, could indicate a person's beliefs. The Buddhist philosophy emphasized that to reach enlightenment and escape from earthly desires one must lead a simple, frugal life. At various times the shogunate also issued dictates on which colours could be used by different social classes on particular occasions, in order to limit ostentatious display in everyday life and the home.


Line is used to make all-over decorative pattern and for borders. Objects display a striking variety of patterns made up of straight lines used as: straight lines of different thicknesses; straight lines separated by gaps of varying width; horizontal, vertical or diagonal lines crossing; straight lines crossing to make rectangles; straight lines crossing to make zigzags. A thick outline is often combined with thinner internal lines when depicting people in prints, and flower motifs on objects. This separates the subject from the background and gives solidity and definition to the shape.

Shape and Balance

Lidded vase, Japan, about 1880-1890. Museum no. 266-1903, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Lidded vase, Namikawa Yasuyuki, Japan, about 1880-1890. Museum no. 266-1903, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. C

Shape is an important element of Japanese style and decoration. The most obvious forms are those based on the square and rectangle, which are used for lacquer boxes, chests, screens and some ceramics. Rectangles, which represent an artificial form not often found in nature, are used to create the T-shaped outline of the kimono. Curved and circular shapes arc thought to suggest intuition and inspiration

Many objects contain elements of both forms. For example, though lacquer boxes, screens and kimono are rectangular in shape, they may be decorated with curving, fluid patterns using natural motifs. Samurai costume consists of both angular and curved elements; samurai were meant to have insight as well as strength. Unornamented surfaces are an essential part of the Japanese decorative repertoire. Plain surfaces are valued as highly as patterned, just as the silences in classical Japanese music are thought to be as important as the notes played. 'Quiet' space provides a balance to 'noisy' ornament. This can most easily be seen on regular forms. You will find ceramics decorated with a small picture and a large amount of background, prints with plain backgrounds or with a high proportion of unprinted paper, and decorated lacquer boxes and screens that display large areas of black unadorned lacquer.

Japanese decoration often divides a surface diagonally, balancing a design with space across a diagonal plane. This breaks up the regular geometry of a polygon giving an impression of asymmetry.

'Sudden Shower at Ohashi Bridge', Utagawa Hiroshige, Japan, 1856-58. Museum no. E. 3882B-1886, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

'Sudden Shower at Ohashi Bridge', Utagawa Hiroshige, Japan, 1856-58. Museum no. E.3882B-1886

Pictorial narrative

Traditional Japanese pictorial decoration is conceptual rather than realistic, and reads from right to left. One picture may illustrate a sequence of events that occurred at different times. Western perspective systems are not always used and the size of buildings and figures sometimes indicates relative importance rather than suggesting foreground and background.

Japanese woodblock prints were made in vast quantities from the end of the eighteenth century onwards to meet growing popular demand. Subjects included the city, views of the Japanese regions, and historical and mythical subjects. Ukiyo-e ('the floating world') prints show the delightful and ever-changing world of urban life in which people engaged in leisure activities like going to plays, visiting restaurants, gathering fireflies and visiting the pleasure districts.

Woodblock prints were made by printing the separate areas of colour individually and with painstaking accuracy. The images concentrate on the use of line rather than attempting to show depth and there is often little differentiation between foreground and background. Another convention is that the edge of the picture is cropped in unexpected places, so that the subject seems to loom out of the frame in an energetic and dynastic way. When artists like Whistler and Toulouse-Lautrec began to study Japanese prints at the end of the nineteenth century, they found these ideas quite new and stunningly effective, and adopted similar approaches in their own work.

Basket and box, Japan, 19th century. Museum no. 283-1854, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Basket and box, Japan, 19th century. Museum no. 283-1854, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Many artefacts in the Japanese collections are made from easily distinguished materials. Items may be decorated, but the decoration only partially covers the surface, leaving much of the base material visible. This way of making things according to the Buddhist principle of being true to materials is called wabi-sabi. A complex aesthetic, it is a combination of rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness (wabi), together with the beauty and serenity of age, where an object acquires a patina or repairs due to prolonged use (sabi).

Natural materials are seen as the essence of objects, which even though they have been made by humans, still show their origins. Objects that do this are considered humble, not attempting to be more important than they actually are.

The principles of wabi are linked to those of shihui and ideas of refined austerity, all of which aspire to the ideal of creating simple objects free of unnecessary distraction. Evidence of how the material was worked is a way of showing the 'hand of the maker' and imperfections and irregularities are welcomed as a link between the natural and human worlds, as perfection is rarely found in nature.

It was desirable for artefacts to be simple enough for their function to be obvious, and for the function of an object to suggest its form. Basketware is a good example: the bamboo from which it is made is easily identified, and close to its natural state; the technique of weaving is also obvious. A lacquer container would be placed inside such flower baskets to hold water. The baskets are practical objects adapted from larger, coarser items used in fishing and farming.

The making process is also evident in some textiles such as kimono and lengths of hemp and cotton fabric made by the kasuri process, where the yarns are resist-dyed before being woven, which gives the patterns on the fabric their characteristic fuzzy edge. Artefacts made according to wabi principles were also valued highly in the tea ceremony from the sixteenth century onwards.

Though craftspeople today explore new forms, they often adapt the old techniques. Contemporary basketwork uses the materials and weaving methods of the past, but the baskets are seen as sculptural works rather than functional containers. The basket-maker focuses on the internal space and the spaces between the woven bamboo, rather than looking at what it can hold.

Modern ceramics may borrow the shape, colour and surface texture of older pieces to use them in different ways. Though many pieces are loosely based on the form of a vessel, they are in fact pieces of sculpture.

Motifs & symbols: animals, insects & birds

Many Japanese art and crafts have decoration or shapes based on the natural world, reflecting the Shinto belief in the importance of the seasonal succession of seed time and harvest. Buddhism too teaches that people should try to achieve harmony with nature.

Motifs & symbols: natural features

The natural world - mountains, clouds, rivers, the sea - are often depicted in Japanese art. Clouds represent elegance and high status. In Buddhism, clouds signify the ‘Western Paradise’ beyond earth; and in Shintoism, the spirits of the dead. Mountains represent the unyielding, or unmoving. Water, or waves, signify power and resilience. Waves constantly ebb and flow and so symbolize great tactical ability.

Motifs & symbols: plants & flowers

Images used to decorate Japanese artefacts are often wonderfully simple and effective communicators of meaning. The images are usually not meant to be realistic, and may not even be in lifelike colours: flowers may be reduced to bare essentials, maybe as little as five petal shapes joined to a central circle.

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