Japan Prehistoric Arts
It is not right to see in Japanese art – as it has often been done – exclusively a derivation of Chinese art. On the contrary, in the Japanese Empire periods characterized by the influence of the Asian continent alternated with others that were absolutely independent: and schools of both directions subsisted together, proceeding along parallel paths or with reciprocal relationships. Drawing an overall picture of Japanese art within limited space limits is not an easy task, since the happy geographical situation has preserved Japan much more than other countries from the destruction of works of art, and the residents, endowed with an admirable disposition for every branch of art, they have created wonderful things in every time. D ‘
Typical of Japanese art is the multiplicity of various artistic genres, each of which has given birth to innumerable schools. We can only give a very brief idea of lacquers, ceramics, wood carving and the art of decorating swords.
Unlike China, there is no trace of Paleolithic products in Japan. This observation alone is enough to highlight the relatively recent date of its civilization. In Japan, prehistory ends only in the 10th century. V d. C.
According to Harvardshoes, the chronological succession of various styles before this date is still obscure. Everything that can be credibly assigned to the Neolithic age is distinguished by a clear independence from China. Contrary to what has been claimed, there are no stone-age clay pots in all of Japan. The series of artistic products begins with vases (stone weapons have no artistic character). Pottery has an affinity on the one hand with that of Korea, and on the other with that of the Maleo-Polynesian artistic circle: and this could reinforce the hypothesis of anthropologists, according to which the current Japanese are the product of mixing – which already occurred in prehistoric times of an Asian race (which would survive today in the Ainu) with an immigrant race from the south, akin to the Polynesians. The oldest ornamental motifs in ceramics are impressed wicker weaves that are found mainly in the northern regions. Alongside this system of ornamentation there is another, of a distinctly geometric type, in relief. The oldest clay statuettes, which generally represent female figures or grotesque beings, are modeled with a certain naturalism. The vases on which the graffiti technique appears still belong to the Neolithic age, while the human representations degenerate more and more into geometric and abstract forms pushed to their extreme consequences in the so-called tablet idols.
The beginning of the metal age – still totally prehistoric – is characterized by raised cords pottery. This era takes its name from the province of Yamato, which gave it the most conspicuous finds and which is still today one of the centers of Japanese artistic production. Its main legacy consists of mighty dolmens. The most recent of these contained clay funerary figures, of a very special character (haniwa), similar to some primitive Korean statuettes, while in the way of painting the face they recall the Siberian clay masks of Minussinsk. We also find vases, frequent in Korea, with pierced feet; and there is no shortage of those with plastic figures applied on the neck.
The knowledge of metals coincides with the beginning of our era and is undoubtedly of Chinese origin. Chinese mirrors from the Han era were found, but in Japanese imitations the decoration deviates significantly from that of the prototypes. It underlines its linear character, also representing trees and buildings as in the southern regions of the Asian continent. In the dolmens bells with thin walls were also found, the use of which is unknown and whose decoration with geometric or zoomorphic lines can be defined absolutely Japanese. Rich metal decorations of swords were also found in the tombs, often of gilded metal; and also tooth-shaped pendants (magatama), also already known in Korea, made of jade or other semi-precious stones or even glass. Up to now, the plastic products of the province of Yamato have been little studied, of a very primitive type, which are linked to southern products of the regions of Malaysia and Polynesia. In this way, from the very beginning, Japanese art shows currents of various influences alongside indigenous forms.
Although the original form of all the cult buildings of Shintoism – the oldest religion in Japan – must be sought in the most distant prehistoric times, before the Buddhist influence, examples of prehistoric architecture are lacking in Japan. Shinto worships nature spirits (kami) and deified ancestors. But originally these were represented only by symbols, such as mirrors, sabers and stones. The place of worship can be a closed ground to be considered as the dwelling of the ancestors; so that the buildings give us an image of the oldest hut. The passage through the hedge is followed by a door (torii) which is sometimes isolated in the middle of the countryside, and is sometimes repeated several times, in a row. We find it used later by the Buddhist religion and it is undoubtedly akin to pai – lu, the Chinese door. It mainly consists of a roof, often with curved lines, supported by poles, accompanied both in front and behind by supporting boards. Vertical locks complete the character of the whole ensemble. The best known example reproduced on the next page, the Itsukushima red torii, owes its fame to the fact that at high tide it is surrounded by water.
Unlike the toriithe Shinto temple has clear links with Polynesia. Leaning on poles, it develops in width; the dominant feature is the roof covered with straw or reeds or tree bark, never with tiles. Such a fragile and so ancient construction system was protected by the – certainly ritual – prescription which obliged the timber of the temples to be renewed, without making any changes, at a distance of no less than twenty and no more than sixty years. Some details are striking for their singularity, especially the perpendicular rafters on the peak of the sloping roof and the crossed rafters on the forehead, but their symbolic meaning has been lost over the centuries. The most important sanctuaries built in this archaic style are those of Ise and Izumo. The room reserved for actual worship consists of two classrooms (honden) to which is added a prayer room (haiden), located lower down, joined to the first by a diagonal passage. The sacred buildings of secondary importance are arranged around the main building in perfect symmetry.