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Japanese pottery and the Tea Ceremony: 13th - 16th c.

Zen priests are linked with two very characteristic elements of Japanese culture: the exquisite simplicity of Japanese ceramics; and the polite formalities of the Tea Ceremony for which much of the pottery is designed.

In 1223 a Zen monk takes a Japanese potter, Kato Shirozaemon, to China to study the manufacture of ceramics. This is a period, in the Song dynasty, when the Chinese potters have achieved a perfection of simplicity. The Japanese, in the same vein, will evolve their own styles to rival this perfection.

The Japanese potter, returning home, establishes himself at Seto. This rapidly becomes a centre for the manufacture of pottery, with as many as 200 kilns in the district. Seto has retained ever since the status of the classical pottery region of Japan.

Much of the early Seto output is temmoku - stoneware cups and bowls with a black or iron-brown glaze, in direct imitation of the contemporary Chinese style. This becomes much in demand with the increasing popularity in the samurai class of the Tea Ceremony, in which a mood of rustic simplicity is required. But the most famous Japanese simplicity, that of raku, is the result of Korean rather than Chinese influence.

The Mongols and kamikaze: 1274-1281

Kublai Khan, already in control of much of China and overlord of Korea, casts an eye on the rich islands on the other side of the Korea Strait. In 1274 a Mongol army, carried in Korean ships, sails for Japan.

Individual samurai, gallant though they are, prove no match for the disciplined lines of Mongol cavalry, armed with lances, javelins and bows and arrows as well as swords. Victory for the Mongols seems inevitable, when a great storm blows up and destroys much of their fleet. Stranded in a very hostile place, they suffer massive losses.

Seven years later Kublai Khan, by now the emperor of China, launches another great expedition against Japan, sailing from both China and Korea. With protective sea walls in place, and better organized troops, the Japanese are this time able to hold the Mongols at bay for several months until the onset of the typhoon season.

Once again much of the Mongol fleet is destroyed by the forces of nature. The Japanese coin a name for the storms which twice have saved them - kamikaze, 'divine wind'. A similarly dramatic human version of intervention from the heavens is attempted, with blind courage, in World War II.

Ashikaga shogunate: 1338-1573

The shoguns at Kamakura retain power for only a couple of generations after the Mongol invasions. A civil war results in one of their vassals, Takauji, winning power in 1338. He moves the bakufu, or military headquarters, to Kyoto - already the residence of the imperial family.

Takauji is a member of the Ashikaga family, so the new administration at Kyoto is known as the Ashikaga shogunate. It lasts from 1338 to 1573. In describing Japanese culture the era is more commonly called Muromachi, from the district of Kyoto in which the Ashikaga establish their government.

The Ashikaga shoguns are never as firmly in control of Japan as their predecessors in Kamakura. From 1467 the country is in an almost permanent state of civil war, until their shogunate is brought to an end in 1573. But the Ashikaga make a great contribution to the cultural life of Japan.

They create Zen temples and gardens, with areas specially designed for the Tea Ceremony. The famous Golden Pavilion in Kyoto is built in 1397 by the shogun Yoshimitsu as a villa for his own retirement (it is adapted after his death to become a Buddhist temple). Theatre is another Ashikaga passion. A key moment in the story of No drama is a performance by the 11-year-old Zeami for Yoshimitsu in 1374.

Noh theatre: from the 14th century

A father and his 11-year-old son, Kanami and Zeami Motokiyo, perform in 1374 before the shogun, Yoshimitsu, at the Imakumano shrine in Kyoto. Kanami has made innovations in a traditional form of theatre, deriving originally from China and known as sarugaku-noh. The shogun likes what he sees, and particularly likes the performance of the talented young Zeami. He takes the family into his service.

With the name reduced to the more simple noh, this is the beginning of the Noh theatre of Japan - and the beginning of some five centuries of patronage by the shoguns of this most refined of theatrical styles.

The style of Noh production and performance, and almost the entire repertoire of Noh plays, is established within a few decades of that day in 1374. Kanami is the author of the first plays in the new style; Zeami writes the bulk of those which survive; a few more are the work of Zeami's son-in-law, Zenchiku. Only a small number of Noh plays have been written since Zenchiku's death in the 15th century.

In Noh the all-male actors, accompanied by a small chorus and orchestra, sing and dance scenes from legend with an immense slowness and solemnity which can nevertheless imply great passion. The dimensions of the cypress-wood stage, and the placing of certain scenic props, are invariable.

This is a form of art so exquisite that it almost seems to begin life as a classic, a rare national treasure. In fact, in its first two or three centuries, it does reach a reasonably wide audience. But then, in the 17th century, an offshoot of Noh adopts a more popular style.

Known as kabuki, this new departure soon becomes the vigorous mainstream of Japanese theatre. The earlier form of Noh, fossilized in its perfection, is henceforth the preserve of the court and nobility.

Christians in Japan: 1543-1550

The first European arrival in Japan is an accident. A Portuguese merchant vessel, bound for China, is blown in a storm to the southern tip of Kyushu. The strangers are welcomed. Particular interest is shown in the muskets which they have on board, soon to be successfully copied in Japan.

This accidental visit brings other Europeans for purposes of trade and, in 1549, for evangelization. In that year a Chinese junk brings Francis Xavier together with Anjiro, his Japanese convert, to the island of Kyushu. Anjiro takes the Jesuit to his home town of Kagoshima and introduces him to the important people of the district.

There turns out to be a natural affinity between the Japanese ruling class and the Jesuits. Loyola's new order is in essence, and in its recruitment policy, an aristocratic elite - intensely hierarchical, valuing obedience and honour, and applying to spiritual campaigns the ideals of a warrior caste. The Japanese recognize much that they can admire.

The Jesuits are lucky also in that their early years in Japan coincide with the rise to power of a warlord, Oda Nobunaga, who resents the local influence of Buddhism. When Xavier sails away from Japan, after a year, he leaves behind about 1000 converts to Christianity. His success is only the beginning of a much stronger trend of Christian success in Japan.


Tanaka Chojiro, one of a family of Korean potters living in Japan, is making bowls of a very recognizable kind. They are moulded by hand rather than thrown on a wheel, so their shape is uneven. They have a thick lead glaze, usually dark in tone but sometimes dappled or enlivened with a flash of colour. They seem primitive, but their apparently accidental beauty is of a kind to excite a connoisseur. They are perfect for the Tea Ceremony.

One such bowl is shown in 1588 to the influential Tea Master of the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The Tea Master awards its makers a gold seal inscribed with the single word raku ('felicity'). The bowls have found their name. And the Tea Ceremony has its best-known ware.

Kakiemon porcelain: 17th century

In the following century Japan makes another major contribution to the history of ceramics. In about 1644 Sakada Kakiemon, a member of a family of potters with kilns at Arita in northwest Kyushu, introduces to Japan the Chinese system of overglaze painting. In the 1670s his two sons, known as Kakiemon II and Kakiemon III, are producing exquisite wares of milky white porcelain, often square or hexagonal in shape, decorated with elegant and brightly coloured motifs of plants and birds. The decoration, covering relatively little of the surface, stands out with a special intensity against the white background.

This happens to be exactly the period when the Dutch are beginning to import Japanese wares to Europe, where the Kakiemon style becomes highly influential

Indian and Japanese castles: 16th - 17th century

By a coincidence of history some of the most spectacular castles of the world date from the same period in India and Japan. These buildings of the 16th and 17th century are fortified palaces, with superbly decorated pavilions rising above secure walls.

The Indian tradition develops from the example of Hindu princes and is brought to a peak by the Moghul emperors. The Japanese castles evolve from the small fortresses of local feudal chieftains, which are a practical necessity during the civil wars of the Ashikaga shogunate.

The greatest of the Japanese castles are created in the late 16th century by the warlords Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, who restore unified rule over Japan after the anarchy of the previous period. The splendour of their castles, richly decorated with carved and painted ornament, reflects their power.

The most impressive surviving castle of this period is at Himeji, rebuilt on earlier foundations for Hideyoshi. Five storeys of pavilions, forming a pyramid of white walls and elegant oriental roofs, seem concerned only with the pleasures of peace - until one notices the height of the sturdy walls on which they perch.

Rise of Togukawa Ieyasu: 1573-1603

Nearly two centuries of civil war and chaos in Japan is brought to an end by a succession of three warlords, working in conjunction in the late 16th century.

The first is Oda Nobunaga, who builds up his forces from a relatively small power base until he is able to take Kyoto. He rules for a few years through the Ashikaga shogun but then banishes him, in 1573, and takes control into his own hands. He ruthlessly reduces the great power of the Buddhists, destroying - it has been estimated - several thousand temples. To the same end, it suits his purpose to encourage the newly arrived Jesuits.

Nobunaga is followed, as the strong man of Japan, by two of his own generals. The first is Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who makes his headquarters at Osaka - building there in 1583 a castle on a great elevated terrace.

Hideyoshi's chief ally is a slightly younger man, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who has also been a supporter of Nobunaga. In 1590 Hideyoshi gives him the castle at Edo. Here, in what is now Tokyo, Ieyasu makes his base. Here he becomes powerful enough to defeat all other rivals after Hideyoshi's death in 1598.

The battle in which Tokugawa Ieyasu forcefully asserts his supremacy is at Sekigahara in 1600. Thereafter he achieves the status which has eluded his two predecessors. In 1603 the emperor accords him the title of shogun.

The appointment begins the long period of the Tokugawa shogunate, lasting until 1867. For more than two and half centuries the all-powerful office of shogun descends within one family, while the largely ceremonial role of emperor descends in another. It is a compromise which has already prevailed in Japan since 1192. But now the system becomes rigidly formalized, in the highly controlled social structure created by the Tokugawa shoguns.

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