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The Role of Shintoism in Art During Edo Period Japan

Simran Singh is a student at Griffith University studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing and art history.

Read on to learn about Shintoism and its role in the art of Japan's Edo period.

Read on to learn about Shintoism and its role in the art of Japan's Edo period.

Nature in Shintoism

The role of nature in the indigenous religion of Shintoism significantly influenced the art of Edo Period Japan. Beliefs of Shintoism were ingrained in superstitions and teachings of the kami.

Katsushika Hokusai’s Sudden Wind on a Clear Day and Mt. Fuji by Tani Bunchō highlighted the importance of mountains as pure manifestations of kami. Stone of Three Lights: Sun, Moon and Star by Keisai Eisen presented stones, sun and moon as retaining their own spirits, demonstrating the religious influence Shintoism had on art. Autumn Maple Trees by Tawaraya Sōri connected the role of nature in Shintoism by focalising trees.

Ultimately, Shintoism’s respect for nature dominated the Edo era's art, highlighting how art snapshotted societal beliefs.

The Edo Period (1603 to 1867)

The Edo period was the era of traditional Japanese culture, society and government before the downfall of the Tokugawa shoguns during the Meiji Restoration. Shintoism primarily focused on nature worship, utilizing religious elements such as rituals and institutions while remaining devoid of doctrine.

Historian Tsuda Sokichi deduced from early Japanese literature that Shintoism grew from indigenous customs passed down in Japan such as superstitions, the activity and teachings of the kami, the moral or political norm of the kami and Shinto's sectarian splintering in new religions.

The kami were gods, spirits (tama) and phenomena assuming forms such as landscapes, forces of nature and animals. Historically, art has encapsulated and embodied the beliefs of the society in which it was created, which was no exception within the artworks of the Edo period.

Shintoism Embodied in Art

As depicted in artworks, Shintoism conceptualized mountains as deeply venerated spiritual locations where kami dwell. Mt. Fuji, as depicted in the works Sudden Wind on a Clear Day and Mt. Fuji, was believed to contain the guardian kami of Yamato Province who controlled human destiny.

The embodiment of Shintoism in these artworks becomes clearer through analysis. For instance, both works depict Mt. Fuji in its grandeur, dominating the works' physical space with its triangular form, alluding to the beauty, wonder and awe which came along with the mountain being an icon for Japan.

Tani Bunchō, Mt. Fuji, 1802. Hanging scroll; ink on paper, 94 × 170.6 cm.

Tani Bunchō, Mt. Fuji, 1802. Hanging scroll; ink on paper, 94 × 170.6 cm.

Mt. Fuji by Tani Bunchō

In Mt. Fuji, the heavy use of white around the peak from snow and clouds symbolizes sacredness. In fact, it was such a sacred site that pilgrims travelled to the peak in summer to achieve immortality.

Katsushika Hokusai, Sudden Wind on a Clear Day, I760 – 1849. Woodblock print; ink and colour on paper, 24.4 x 35.6 cm.

Katsushika Hokusai, Sudden Wind on a Clear Day, I760 – 1849. Woodblock print; ink and colour on paper, 24.4 x 35.6 cm.

Sudden Wind on a Clear Day by Katsushika Hokusai

In contrast to the calm mood of Mt. Fuji, the work Sudden Wind on a Clear Day uses dramatic reds, blacks and the iconic use of blue and white which was popular in Japanese export art.

The calm of the summer sky juxtaposes the red mountain along with the storm brewing below Fuji’s cone. The use of red suggests dawn, showcasing how shifting moods, seasons, weather conditions and times of day are captured in artworks out of respect for the different faces of nature.

Hence, Mt. Fuji's high value in Shintoism and art demonstrates the profound respect the Japanese people of the Edo period had for nature.

Keisai Eisen, Stone of Three Lights: Sun, Moon and Star, 19th Century. Woodblock print (surimono); ink and colour on paper, 19.5 x 18.1 cm.

Keisai Eisen, Stone of Three Lights: Sun, Moon and Star, 19th Century. Woodblock print (surimono); ink and colour on paper, 19.5 x 18.1 cm.

Stone of Three Lights: Sun, Moon and Star by Keisai Eisen

Nature played a prominent role within Shintoism as indicated by the heavy personification of objects and celestial bodies within Japanese art. The Stone of Three Lights: Sun, Moon and Star depicts the prominent symbols of stones, sun and moon within Shintoism.

The stone held the light of the moon, sun and stars, accentuating heavenly nature and how stones were vessels for the kami. Stones were worshiped and believed to be phallic kami, kami of birth and marriage, and guardian kami of children, while assisting humanity in beliefs such as Jizo.

The sacredness of the stone is portrayed by how the cloth carefully cushions the stone. The cloth was decorated with strong colours and elaborate patterns, which, according to historian Edward Barrington Fonblanque, were characteristics of Edo art. Additionally, the sun expressed the divinity of the universe as tied to the myth where Amaerasu Omikami (the sun goddess) brought light to the world then disappeared into a rock cave at night.

This gave way to the darkness as controlled by the moon kami Tsukiyomi- no-Mikoto. While moon worship was uncommon, the artwork captured the importance of the moon in the cycles of nature through its presence and by how it was the same size as the presented sun. Thus, the role of the stone, sun and moon depicted how the role of nature influenced the artistic expression of art in Shintoism.

Tawaraya Sōri, Autumn Maple Trees, 18th century. Six-panel folding screen; ink, colour, and gold-leaf on paper, 68.7 × 211.2 cm.

Tawaraya Sōri, Autumn Maple Trees, 18th century. Six-panel folding screen; ink, colour, and gold-leaf on paper, 68.7 × 211.2 cm.

Autumn Maple Trees by Tawaraya Sōri

The role of nature within Shintoism gave way to artistic expressions such as the symbolism of trees. Autumn Maple Trees portrays robust trees like the trees worshipped in Shintoism.

Their size alluded to the way trees of great age and size were believed to possess kami such as Kukumuchi-Kami (the kami of trees). Some trees were chosen as himorogi (seats of the kami, honoured places of worship), while overall, trees of great age and stature were worshiped all over Japan.

Overall, this artwork was painted in a rinpa style that held connotations of courtly elegance while emphasizing the importance of these trees. The abstract shapes of the leaves showed the simplicity of the rinpa style, along with delicate brushwork and avoidance of outline.

As in the presentation of Mt. Fuji, different seasonal phases affecting the trees are presented in this piece through the representation of autumn: vivid red and green leaves on a gold-leaf gilded paper screen. Accordingly, the role of nature embedded in Shintoism gave way to the artistic expression of the trees within Autumn Maple Trees.

Nature Continues to Inspire Artists

Nature in Shintoism was a prevalent influence over the artistic expression of the Edo period. Nature's centrality in Shintoism resulted in the belief of the kami, superstitions, rituals, as well as political and moral norms.

Highly respected locations such as Mt. Fuji spotlighted the role mountains played within Shintoism along with its symbolic influence on works like Sudden Wind on a Clear Day and Mt. Fuji.

These works present the influence beliefs such as animism had over the artistic portrayal of stones, the sun and the moon. Trees were also believed to hold kami depending on their size and age, two aspects celebrated within Autumn Maple Trees.

Ultimately, as depicted throughout history, from the Romantic period through artists like Claude Monet, nature continually inspires artists with its pure grandeur and beauty.

Bibliography

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Simran Singh