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Gallery offers insights into Japanese culture

by Hiro Ishimaru, A&E editor

Many Japanese works of art presents one of four clearly defined seasons, typical of the seasons of a year, and artists often depict nature motifs in various ways. In the Japan Gallery at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, viewers will have an enjoyable experience browsing an abundance of images that reflect the changing seasons.


Japanese arts are fruits of a long and cultivated tradition that has adopted historical trends and themes from legends, anecdotes, fantasy, and real life that bring together both modern and traditional ideas. According to Charlene Aldinger, the director of public relations at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, Japanese art is one of the best known Now-European art forms in the United States.

The gallery shows the Japanese artistic heritage from tomb sculptures, called haniwa, of the Jomon period, around 2500 B.C., to paintings of elegant ladies of the Showa period of the 20th century. Mainly, the various arts are divided according to several principles of aesthetics. Some of the finest examples of these are based on the tea ceremony, which features austere refinement and quiet simplicity.

Tea first came to Japan from China in the Heian period around the ninth century, but it did not become popular until a Zen Buddhist priest reintroduced it as part of a tea ceremony near the end of the Heian period, around the 12th century. The tea ceremony became popular among Buddhists during meditation periods, when it was used to help these meditating to stay awake ( for the Study of Tea Ceremony).

The full flourishing of the tea ceremony, called chanoyu, occurred in the Momoyama period (1573-1615) under the auspices of the renowned tea master Sen no Rikyu. Rikyu perfected a style of tea drinking known as wabicha. This style of tea grew out of a medieval aesthetic concept which embraced qualities such as authority, simplicity, and irregularity in tea utensils.

These qualities are embodied in the tea bowls and other utensils displayed at the gallery.

As chanoyu culture matured, many artists designed various patterns on the chanoyu utensils. Today, the Academy possesses many valuable chanoyu objects, many donated by Martin Foulds and Mary Louise O’Brien, whose collections, both included Shibata Zeshin’s work.
Undoubtedly a genius, Zeshin (1807-1891), who loved nature, especially its orientations and details, was a superlative craftsman whose talent touched on many aspects of Japanese tradition but whose art fully expresses his own individuality.

Zeshin depicted nature on the chanoyu utensils in affectionate detail. His favorite forms were persimmons, grapes, ferns, chrysanthemums, grasshoppers, birds, fishes, and shells, according to Foulds and Louise O’Brien in their book, The Art of Shibata Zeshin.

The Zeshin collection stands out even in the distinguished ensemble of Japanese art at the Academy. The Japan Gallery is a permanent exhibit at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. If you haven’t seen the gallery yet, take a look!



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