Education and the Arts

Japan Table of Contents

JAPANESE CULTURAL VALUES are deeply imbedded in the country's richly varied, ancient past. Rooted in the native religion of Shinto (Way of the Gods), these values are also heavily indebted to the continental influences of Buddhism and Confucianism. In Shinto, gods permeate the universe and are perceived as embodied in specific places, such as sacred Mount Fuji and the Nachi Falls, or as tutelary spirits of rocks and trees. Therefore, a reverence for nature and admiration for particular scenic places are pervasive in Japanese art, echoed in literary descriptions and expressed in architectural concepts that remove walls to allow the outside in and in avant-garde smoke sculptures, which recreate mists. Shinto concepts of ritual cleanliness, purification, and renewal have played a role in preserving the forms of ancient shrines like that at Ise and have nurtured handicrafts. They also have shaped some funereal practices, for example, the clay sculptures or haniwa in the Kofun period (ca. A.D. 250-CA. 600), which provided the first real likeness of the ancient Japanese.

Buddhist thought was fundamental to the formulation of most of Japan's arts, blending and absorbing elements from the protohistoric Shinto. Basic to Buddhist thought is the comprehension of the universe as in constant flux, which results in emphasis on the idea that all living things perish or are transformed in the chain of existence. From this view comes a feeling for "the poignancy of things" (mono no aware), a frequent element in literature beginning in the Heian period (A.D. 794-1185). Cherry blossoms are appreciated for their short-lived beauty, which symbolizes the samurai ideal of a brilliant life with a sudden, dramatic end. Zen Buddhism affirms the values of rustic simplicity and finding pleasure in the ordinary or minimal; it stresses austerity, simplicity, and brevity in all things and a life of solitude and contemplation, ideas that, together with Zen teaching devices, found expression in the tea ceremony, short poems, spontaneous ink paintings, and meditation gardens.

Chinese artistic forms and philosophical concepts have been variously integrated and modified over the centuries by the Japanese. Confucianism glorifies the cultivation of wisdom: the scholarly life is its ideal, as are the virtues of ethical behavior, sincerity, and a desire for social harmony. All these elements were embodied in the gentleman-scholar and his successors, the teacher-scholar and the artist-writer, whose proficiency in language and use of the brush made literature and calligraphy the most admired art forms.

Japanese children are taught a reverence for learning and are trained in the traditional arts both within the school system and outside. Instruction in music, calligraphy, flower arrangement, and the tea ritual may begin at home, but soon the child studies with a skilled practitioner. Only the martial arts, such as judo or Japanese fencing (kendo), are generally limited to men. Men often practice the other arts as well. Such early introduction to, and widespread participation in, different expressions of Japanese heritage lead to support for traditional cultural values and the appreciation throughout society of artistic qualities.


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Source: U.S. Library of Congress