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Scene from The Tale of Genji by Tosa Mitsuoki, from the 17th century Tosa school revival of the style Ch5 wakamurasaki.jpg
Scene from The Tale of Genji by Tosa Mitsuoki, from the 17th century Tosa school revival of the style

Yamato-e(大和絵) is a style of Japanese painting inspired by Tang dynasty paintings and fully developed by the late Heian period. It is considered the classical Japanese style. From the Muromachi period (15th century), the term Yamato-e has been used to distinguish work from contemporary Chinese-style paintings (kara-e唐絵), which were inspired by Chinese Song and Yuan-era ink wash paintings.

Japanese painting

Japanese painting is one of the oldest and most highly refined of the Japanese visual arts, encompassing a wide variety of genres and styles. As with the history of Japanese arts in general, the long history of Japanese painting exhibits synthesis and competition between native Japanese aesthetics and the adaptation of imported ideas, mainly from Chinese painting which was especially influential at a number of points; significant Western influence only comes from the later 16th century onwards, beginning at the same time as Japanese art was influencing that of the West.

Tang dynasty painting

During the Tang dynasty, as a golden age in Chinese civilization, Chinese painting developed dramatically, both in subject matter and technique. The advancements in technique and style that characterized Tang painting had a lasting influence in the art of other countries, especially in East Asia and central Asia.

Heian period last major division of classical Japanese history (794 to 1185), named after the capital city of Heian-kyō, or modern Kyōto

The Heian period is the last division of classical Japanese history, running from 794 to 1185. The period is named after the capital city of Heian-kyō, or modern Kyōto. It is the period in Japanese history when Buddhism, Taoism and other Chinese influences were at their height. The Heian period is also considered the peak of the Japanese imperial court and noted for its art, especially poetry and literature. Although the Imperial House of Japan had power on the surface, the real power was in the hands of the Fujiwara clan, a powerful aristocratic family who had intermarried with the imperial family. Many emperors actually had mothers from the Fujiwara family. Heian (平安) means "peace" in Japanese.


Characteristic features of Yamato-e include many small figures and careful depictions of details of buildings and other objects, the selection of only some elements of a scene to be fully depicted, the rest either being ignored or covered by a "floating cloud", an oblique view from above showing interiors of buildings as though through a cutaway roof, and very stylised depiction of landscape.

Yamato-e very often depict narrative stories, with or without accompanying text, but also show the beauty of nature, with famous places (meisho-e名所絵) or the four seasons (shiki-e四季絵). The pictures are often on scrolls that can be hung on a wall ( kakemono 掛け物), handscrolls ( emakimono ) that are read from right to left, or on a folding screen ( byōbu 屏風) or panel (shōji障子). Although they received their name from the Yamato period (大和), no Yamato-e paintings from this period survive, nor from several centuries afterwards. Yamato-e pictures rather stand for a style and are not restricted to a particular period.


A kakemono, more commonly referred to as a kakejiku, is a Japanese scroll painting or calligraphy mounted usually with silk fabric edges on a flexible backing, so that it can be rolled for storage.

<i>Emakimono</i> Japanese narrative handscroll

Emakimono, often simply called emaki (絵巻), is a horizontal, illustrated narrative form created during the 11th to 16th centuries in Japan. Emakimono combines both text and pictures, and is drawn, painted, or stamped on a handscroll. They depict battles, romance, religion, folk tales, and stories of the supernatural world.

<i>Byōbu</i> Japanese folding screen

Byōbu are Japanese folding screens made from several joined panels, bearing decorative painting and calligraphy, used to separate interiors and enclose private spaces, among other uses.

There was a revival of the Yamato-e style in the 15th century by the Tosa school, including a return to narrative subjects, and although the rival Kanō school grew out of the alternative tradition of Chinese-style works, the style it developed from the late 16th century for large paintings decorating Japanese castles included some elements of the Yamato-e style. In the 17th century, the simplified and stylised depiction of landscape backgrounds in Yamato-e was revived as a style for large landscape works by the Rinpa school (琳派). Later the narrative element of Yamato-e, the interest in the depiction of everyday life, and the choice of oblique and partial views in a composition heavily influenced the ukiyo-e (浮世絵) style, as well as the Nihonga (日本画).

Tosa school Japanese art movement

The Tosa school of Japanese painting was founded in the early Muromachi period, and was devoted to yamato-e, paintings specializing in subject matter and techniques derived from ancient Japanese art, as opposed to schools influenced by Chinese art, notably the Kanō school (狩野派). Tosa school paintings are characterised by "areas of flat opaque colour enclosed by simple outlines, where drawing is precise and conventional", with many narrative subjects from Japanese literature and history. However, by the 17th century both Tosa and Kanō artists broadened their range, and the distinction between these and other schools became less clear.

Kanō school school of Japanese painting, 15th till 19th Century

The Kanō school is one of the most famous schools of Japanese painting. The Kanō school of painting was the dominant style of painting from the late 15th century until the Meiji period which began in 1868, by which time the school had divided into many different branches. The Kanō family itself produced a string of major artists over several generations, to which large numbers of unrelated artists trained in workshops of the school can be added. Some artists married into the family and changed their names, and others were adopted. According to the historian of Japanese art Robert Treat Paine, "another family which in direct blood line produced so many men of genius ... would be hard to find".

Japanese castle fortresses constructed primarily of wood and stone

Japanese castles were fortresses constructed primarily of wood and stone. They evolved from the wooden stockades of earlier centuries, and came into their best-known form in the 16th century. Castles in Japan were built to guard important or strategic sites, such as ports, river crossings, or crossroads, and almost always incorporated the landscape into their defenses.

Rinpa school version of Yamato-e landscape style on a pair of screens by Tawaraya Sotatsu, 17th century Soutatsu Matsushima.jpg
Rinpa school version of Yamato-e landscape style on a pair of screens by Tawaraya Sōtatsu, 17th century


Scene from the Genji Monogatari Emaki Emaki, 12th century, Tokugawa Art Museum Genji emaki sekiya.jpg
Scene from the Genji Monogatari Emaki Emaki, 12th century, Tokugawa Art Museum
"Eastern House Chapter", another scene from the Genji Monogatari Emaki illustrated handscroll of The Tale of Genji Genji emaki azumaya.jpg
"Eastern House Chapter", another scene from the Genji Monogatari Emaki illustrated handscroll of The Tale of Genji
Shigisan-engi , the "flying storehouse" scene, 12th century Sigisanengi tobikura.jpg
Shigisan-engi , the "flying storehouse" scene, 12th century
Uji Bridge Screen, an example of later Yamato-e from the 17th century Japanischer Maler 001.jpg
Uji Bridge Screen, an example of later Yamato-e from the 17th century

The term Yamato-e is found in Heian texts, although the precise range of works it covered then, and also in subsequent periods, is a much debated topic. There are also references showing a distinction within Yamato-e between "women's painting" and "men's painting". This distinction is also much debated but the typical assumptions as to its meaning can be illustrated by works from each group discussed in the next two sections; both are famous masterpieces and National Treasures of Japan.

National Treasure (Japan) most precious of Japans Tangible Cultural Properties, as determined and designated by the Agency for Cultural Affairs

A National Treasure is the most precious of Japan's Tangible Cultural Properties, as determined and designated by the Agency for Cultural Affairs. A Tangible Cultural Property is considered to be of historic or artistic value, classified either as "buildings and structures" or as "fine arts and crafts." Each National Treasure must show outstanding workmanship, a high value for world cultural history, or exceptional value for scholarship.

The range of works discussed below, all usually considered to be embraced by the term Yamato-e, is considerable, but most are narrative handscrolls with many small figures. There were evidently also many screens and works in other formats in the various styles, of which few traces remain. The Yamato-e style is apparent in the landscape background of some of the Buddhist paintings which are the most numerous survivals of Heian painting.

The Genji Monogatari Emaki

The oldest Yamato-e works to survive are four famous 12th century handscrolls of parts of The Tale of Genji , three in the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya, with another from the same set in the Gotoh Museum in Tokyo; together they are known as the Genji Monogatari Emaki . Only a small proportion, about 15%, of the original survives, assuming this was complete. The original scrolls would have totalled about 450 feet long, in 20 rolls which alternate text with images, containing over 100 paintings, with over 300 sections of calligraphy. The surviving scrolls consist of only 19 paintings, 65 sheets of text, and 9 pages of fragments. [1]

<i>The Tale of Genji</i> classic work of Japanese literature

The Tale of Genji is a classic work of Japanese literature written by the noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu in the early years of the 11th century. The original manuscript no longer exists. It was made in "concertina" or "orihon" style: several sheets of paper pasted together and folded alternately in one direction then the other, around the peak of the Heian period. The work is a unique depiction of the lifestyles of high courtiers during the Heian period, written in archaic language and a poetic and confusing style that make it unreadable to the average Japanese without dedicated study. It was not until the early 20th century that Genji was translated into modern Japanese, by the poet Akiko Yosano. The first English translation was attempted in 1882, but was of poor quality and incomplete.

Tokugawa Art Museum Art museum in Nagoya City, Japan

The Tokugawa Art Museum is a private art museum, located on the former Ōzone Shimoyashiki compound in Nagoya, central Japan. Its collection contains more than 12,000 items, including swords, armor, Noh costumes and masks, lacquer furniture, Chinese and Japanese ceramics, calligraphy, and paintings from the Chinese Song and Yuan dynasties (960-1368).

Nagoya Designated city in Chūbu, Japan

Nagoya (名古屋) is the largest city in the Chūbu region of Japan. It is Japan's fourth-largest incorporated city and the third-most-populous urban area. It is located on the Pacific coast on central Honshu. It is the capital of Aichi Prefecture and is one of Japan's major ports along with those of Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, Yokohama, Chiba, and Kitakyushu. It is also the center of Japan's third-largest metropolitan region, known as the Chūkyō metropolitan area. As of 2015, 2.28 million people lived in the city, part of Chūkyō Metropolitan Area's 10.11 million people. It is also one of the 50 largest urban areas in the world.

The paintings show an already mature tradition that has developed a considerable way from its Chinese origins. Conventions include the angled view from above into roofless rooms, and very simplified facial details, allowing minimal expressiveness. The colours are fresh and bright, built up in a technique called tsukuri-e ("make-up") where a first outline is covered by several layers of pigment, with final lines added on top. Only one example survives from so early comparable to the painted fusuma screens shown at the rear in the interior scene illustrated. [2] As female figures, mostly shown in a state of elegant lassitude, far outnumber the men, this is taken as an exemplar of "women's painting".

Pigment material that changes the color of reflected or transmitted light

A pigment is a material that changes the color of reflected or transmitted light as the result of wavelength-selective absorption. This physical process differs from fluorescence, phosphorescence, and other forms of luminescence, in which a material emits light. Most materials selectively absorb certain wavelengths of light. Materials that humans have chosen and developed for use as pigments usually have special properties that make them useful for coloring other materials. A pigment must have a high tinting strength relative to the materials it colors. It must be stable in solid form at ambient temperatures.

<i>Fusuma</i> vertical rectangular panels that slide from side to side to redefine spaces within a room or act as doors; typically 90 cm wide, 180 cm tall, 2–3 cm thick; made of a wooden lattice and a layer of paper or cloth on both sides

In Japanese architecture, fusuma are vertical rectangular panels which can slide from side to side to redefine spaces within a room, or act as doors. They typically measure about 90 centimetres (3.0 ft) wide by 180 centimetres (5.9 ft) tall, the same size as a tatami mat, and are two or three centimeters thick. The heights of fusuma have increased in recent years due to an increase in average height of the Japanese population, and a 190 centimetres (6.2 ft) height is now common. In older constructions, they are as small as 170 cm high. They consist of a lattice-like wooden understructure covered in cardboard and a layer of paper or cloth on both sides. They typically have a black lacquer border and a round finger catch.

The Legend of Mount Shigi

The Shigisan-engi or "Legend of Mount Shigi" tells the story of the 9th century Shingon monk Myoren, founder of the Chogosonshi-ji temple. Like contemporary Western hagiographies, the narrative contains miracles, including a famous episode of the "flying storehouse" (illustrated). The story takes place mostly among ordinary country people, and is shown as one continuous picture about 30 feet long, with the same characters recurring in different scenes which are connected by a continuous background (something also found in medieval Western art). The images are done in a very different technique, with ink drawing lightly coloured by washes. Most figures are men, and when women are shown, as in another scene where the missing rice returns, they are shown in a very different way to the figures in the Genji Monogatari Emaki. Facial features are shown in far more detail than in the Genji Monogatari Emaki, and a wide range of expressions are expertly depicted. This is an example of one version of what "men's painting" is taken to refer to.

Other works

The Murasaki Shikibu Diary Emaki is a now incomplete illustrated version of The Diary of Lady Murasaki (紫式部日記,Murasaki Shikibu Nikki), the author of The Tale of Genjii, today surviving in four sections, with images of court ceremonies.

An early military and political work is the Ban Dainagon Ekotoba (伴大納言絵詞 The Tale of Great Minister Ban), a late 12th century emakimono (handscroll painting) depicting the events of the Ōtenmon Conspiracy, an event of Japan's early Heian period. The painting, attributed to Tokiwa Mitsunaga, is over 20m long and about 31.5 cm tall.

The Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga represents a very different style within Yamato-e, with very lively pen drawings of men and anthropomorphic animals in a number of scenes.

Rather more examples survive from the following Kamakura period (1185-1333), including many showing scenes of life among the ordinary people, and also stories of wars from Japanese history. The Mōko Shūrai Ekotoba (蒙古襲来絵詞 Illustrated Account of the Mongol Invasion) are a pair of illustrated handscrolls from between 1275 and 1293. They were commissioned by the samurai Takezaki Suenaga in order to record his battlefield valour and deeds during the Mongol invasions of Japan.

From near the end of the first period of works in the style, the Yūki Kassen Ekotoba is a handscroll nearly 3 metres long, with a single wide battle scene after a text section, illustrating the suicide of Ashikaga Mochiuji after his rebellion in 1439. [3]

Yamato-e artists

Famous artists include:


  1. Okudaira, 109
  2. Paine, 133–135; the one screen from this period shows a panoramic landscape and small figures; image
  3. Shihon Chakushoku Yūki Kassen Ekotoba, Cultural Heritage Online (in Japanese) accessed on July 26, 2012

See also

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Murasaki Shikibu Japanese novelist and poet

Murasaki Shikibu was a Japanese novelist, poet and lady-in-waiting at the Imperial court during the Heian period. She is best known as the author of The Tale of Genji, written in Japanese between about 1000 and 1012. Murasaki Shikibu is a descriptive name; her personal name is unknown, but she may have been Fujiwara no Kaoruko, who was mentioned in a 1007 court diary as an imperial lady-in-waiting.

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<i>The Diary of Lady Murasaki</i> diary written by Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji.

The Diary of Lady Murasaki is the title of a collection of diary fragments written by the 11th-century Japanese Heian era lady-in-waiting and writer Murasaki Shikibu. It is written in kana, then a newly developed writing system for vernacular Japanese, more common among women, who were generally unschooled in Chinese. Unlike modern diaries or journals, 10th-century Heian diaries tend to emphasize important events more than ordinary day-to-day life and do not follow a strict chronological order. The work includes vignettes, waka poems, and an epistolary section written in the form of a long letter.

Tosa Mitsuoki painter

Tosa Mitsuoki was a Japanese painter.

Ban Dainagon Ekotoba is a late 12th-century emakimono depicting the events of the Ōtemmon Conspiracy, an event of Japan's early Heian period. The painting, attributed to Tokiwa Mitsunaga, is over 20 m (66 ft) long and about 31.5 cm (12.4 in) tall.

Poetic diary

Poetic diary or Nikki bungaku (日記文学) is a Japanese literary genre, dating back to Ki no Tsurayuki's Tosa Nikki, compiled in roughly 935. Nikki bungaku is a genre including prominent works such as the Tosa Nikki, Kagerō Nikki, and Murasaki Shikibu Nikki. While diaries began as records imitating daily logs kept by Chinese government officials, private and literary diaries emerged and flourished during the Heian period.

<i>Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga</i> emakimono

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Shigisan-engi is an emakimono or painted handscroll made in the second half of the 12th century. The story details miracles which were attributed to the monk Myōren, who lived on Mount Shigi near Nara in Japan in the latter part of the 9th century.

Gotoh Museum Art museum in Kaminoge Setagaya Tokyo Japan

The Gotoh Museum is a private museum in the Kaminoge district of Setagaya on the southwest periphery of Tokyo. It was opened in 1960, displaying the private collection of Keita Gotō, chairman of the Tokyu Group. Today's collection is centered on the original selection of classical Japanese and Chinese art such as paintings, writings, crafts and archaeological objects completed by a small selection of Korean arts. It features several objects designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties. The exhibition changes several times per year with special openings in spring and fall. A garden with a tea house, ponds and small Buddhist statues is attached to the museum.

Buddhist art in Japan

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Genji Monogatari Emaki emakimono by Fujiwara no Takayoshi

The Genji Monogatari Emaki (源氏物語絵巻), also called The Tale of Genji Scroll, is a famous illustrated hand scroll of the Japanese literature classic The Tale of Genji is from the 12th century, perhaps c. 1120–1140. The surviving sections, now broken up and mounted for conservation reasons, represent only a small proportion of the original work and are now divided between two museums in Japan, Tokugawa Art Museum and the Gotoh Museum, where they are only briefly exhibited, again for conservation reasons. Both groups are National Treasures of Japan. It is the earliest text of the work and the earliest surviving work in the Yamato-e tradition of narrative illustrated scrolls, which has continued to impact Japanese art, arguably up to the present day. The painted images in the scroll show a tradition and distinctive conventions that are already well developed, and may well have been several centuries in the making.

Mōko Shūrai Ekotoba Illustrated Account of the Mongol Invasion

Mōko Shūrai Ekotoba is a set of two Japanese illustrated handscrolls (emakimono) composed between 1275 and 1293. They were commissioned by the samurai Takezaki Suenaga in order to record his battlefield valor and deeds during the Mongol invasions of Japan.

<i>Murasaki Shikibu Diary Emaki</i> mid-13th century emaki, a Japanese picture scroll, inspired by the diary of Murasaki Shikibu

The Murasaki Shikibu Diary Emaki is a mid-13th century emaki, a Japanese picture scroll, inspired by the private diary (nikki) of Murasaki Shikibu, lady-in-waiting at the 10th/11th centuries Heian court and author of The Tale of Genji. This emaki belongs to the classical style of Japanese painting known as yamato-e and revives the iconography of the Heian period.

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<i>Sumiyoshi Monogatari Emaki</i> late 10th century Japanese story

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