Japan: Living with the Elements

Destruction Hope Promise Spirit Power Supernatural



In this section, the enagagement of the Japanese people with earthquakes is explored through the eyes of Manly P. Hall, who was in Japan in 1923, just after the Great Kanto earthquake on 1923. He also acquired a set of rare prints which relate back to an earlier earthquake and its political ramifications.

EARTHQUAKE  (View Slideshow)

The Japanese archipelago is located in an area where several continental and oceanic plates meet. This is the cause of frequent earthquakes and the presence of many volcanoes and hot springs across Japan. If earthquakes occur below or close to the ocean, they may trigger tidal waves (tsunami).
In the last one hundred years, there have been over 30 earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or above.

The Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 devastated Tokyo, the port city of Yokohama, surrounding prefectures of Chiba, Kanagawa, and Shizuoka. An index of the power of this earthquake was the fact that the 93-ton Great Buddha statue at Kamakura slid forward almost two feet. Manly Hall visited Japan just after this earthquake.

Catfish Prints (NAMAZU-E)  (View Slideshow)

A large namazu or catfish flailing about in the ocean is popularly held to be the cause of earthquakes in Japan. Shortly following Commodore Perry’s second arrival in Edo (1854) and the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa opening Japanese ports to American trade, the city was struck by three earthquakes of magnitude 7-8.4 Richter in quick succession (the Ansei-Tokai and Ansei-Nankai earthquakes in December 1854 and the Ansei-Edo earthquake of November 1855). This was accompanied by tsunamis and fires. There were over 20,000 casualties. Following this, a number of woodblock prints depicting namazu were produced. Coming in the wake of the perceived failure of the Tokugawa military administration to defend Japanese honor, these prints carried covert social and political messages (earthquakes were often considered world-rectifying events) and were banned by the government in early 1856. Namazu paintings were also considered as talismans protecting against future earthquakes.



In spite of the destruction wrought by natural or man-made calamities, the human spirit asserts itself through the power of hope. In this section, we present hopeful

visions of the new year through surimono [more on Suromono], a kind of full-color woodblock print (nishki-e) [more on Nishiki-e] that served as new year cards and prints pertaining to the new year lion dance to ward off evil. Several surimono are attributed to Katsushika Hokusai [more on Hokusai] and his students, famous among whom was Hokkei [more on Hokkei].

ZODIAC  (View Slideshow)

The Japanese zodiac was adopted from the Chinese and divides time and direction in a 12-year cycle, relating each year and direction to an animal with its attributes. Unlike the western zodiac, these animals are not related to the constellations but they correspond to four of the five traditional Chinese elements – water, wood, fire and metal. The zodiac follows the sequence: rat (water), ox (water), tiger (wood), rabbit (wood), dragon (wood), snake (fire), horse (fire), goat (fire), monkey (metal), rooster (metal), dog (metal), pig (water).


LION DANCE  (View Slideshow)

The lion dance or shishi-mai was introduced to Japan from the Asian mainland around the 8th c. and was adopted as part of the courtly dance of bugaku. Later, around the14th c., it entered the popular canon of sarugaku and dengaku (harvest ceremony) dances, the forms in which it is known today. Lion dances have various ritual or symbolic functions, including the display of force to ward off evil, prayers for the protection of agriculture or for rain, harvest celebrations, and memorial services for wild animals. They can be broadly divided into two-man and one-man varieties. The one-man variety can be seen most often in eastern Japan. Shishi-mai have also been included in the classic performing art of no, as well as in kabuki, where such dances make up a group of plays known as shakkyomono.



An aspiration full of promise has been the human response to the aftermath of destruction. This is represented in this section through prints of the late 19th c., featuring treasure ships or takarabune.

Treasure Ships (TAKARABUNE)  (View Slideshow)

Takara (treasure) bune (ship) or treasure ships were uncolored woodblock prints sold on the streets of Edo (Tokyo) by roving vendors from the early 18c till the 1890s. They may have originated in the Muromachi period (1336-1573) but were very popular during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) when it became a custom to place takarabune pictures under one's pillow on the second night of the New Year to induce auspicious dreams and resulting good fortune. In the event of a bad dream, one custom was to set the painting adrift in the river or sea to forestall bad luck. This selection includes a print by the artist Yokoyama Taikan, famous for reintroducing Japan-style (nihonga) paintings in the early 20th c.



Mahayana Buddhism with its pantheon of Bodhisattvas gave the Japanese people the power to relate to a transcendent personal God and enter into close relation and even identity with the spiritual foundation of the world. In this section we present artworks related to three varieties of Buddhism popular in Japan.

WESTERN PURE LAND  (View Slideshow)

The Western Pure Land is a sect of Mahayana Buddhism which developed in northwest India and Central Asia. After establishing itself in Tibet and China, it moved to Japan in the 10th c. Today, it is one of the most prominent sects of Buddhism in Japan. Amitabha was a king who became a bodhisattva and took a series of vows to save all sentient beings from suffering and ignorance. Through his great merit, he created a realm named Sukhāvatī (“Ultimate Bliss”). In Chinese translation, Sukhāvatī came later to be known as the Pure Land. This is a universe presided over by Amitabha (Amida) with two other bodhisattvas, Avalokiteśvara (Kannon), who is seated to his right, and Mahāsthāmaprāpta (Seishi), who is seated to the left. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, there are many buddhas, and each buddha has his own pure land. Amitābha’s pure land of Sukhāvatī is understood to be in the western direction and is the most popular. This is a perfect Buddha world, in which all residents are enlightened. The goal of Western Pure Land Buddhism is to dwell in this world or be reborn in it after death. Souls born into this world are taught by Amitabha and numerous bodhisattvas until full and complete enlightenment is reached. They then have the choice of returning as a bodhisattva to any of the six realms of existence in order to help all sentient beings in saṃsāra, or to reach Buddhahood, and subsequently deliver beings to the shore of liberation.

Followers of Western Pure Land Buddhism hope to be reborn in Amida’s heaven after death. In Japan, this hope is facilitated by images showing the active intervention of Amida along with bodhisattvas and other denizens of his world, missioning the departing soul into his world. This genre of paintings are known as raigo-zu.

SHINGON  (View Slideshow)

Shingon Buddhism is a sect of esoteric Buddhism based on the teachings of Vajrayana. The word "Shingon" is the Japanese reading of Chinese Zhenyán (True Words), which in turn is the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word "mantra." Shingon Buddhist doctrine arose during the Heian period (794-1185) after a Buddhist monk named Kukai traveled to China to study Vajrayana practices in the city of Xi'an under Huiguo, a favorite student of the legendary Amoghavajra. Shingon followers usually refer to Kukai as Kobo-Daishi. Central to Shingon is meditation on two mandalas, the vajradhatu (thunderbolt realm) mandala or Kongo Kai and the garbhadhatu (womb realm) mandala or Taizo Kai.

The Taizo Kai or Mandala of the Womb Realm is one of two associated mystic diagrams followed by esoteric Buddhism (Shingon, Vajrayana) [more on Taizo Kai]. The Kongo Kai or Mandala of the Diamond Realm is the other mystic diagram in the esoteric Buddhist system called the Mandalas of the Two Realms [more on Kongo Kai].

KANNON  (View Slideshow)

Kannon is the Japanese pronunciation of Guanyin, the Chinese form of Avalokiteshwara, an Indian Bodhisattva. According to the Lotus Sutra, popular in China from the 7th c., Avalokiteshwara has 33 manifesatations, of which 7 are female. Though Avalokiteshwara is depicted as male in India, and earlier versions in China were also male, later versions of Guanyin/Kannon are depicted as female, a bodhisattva of Compassion. Kannon occupies an important place in a number of Japanese Buddhist sects, for example, in the Western Pure Land and in Shingon. She is one of the very few deities given prominence in Zen Buddhism, and is depicted following the seated image painted by Chinese Chan artist Mu Qi in the 13th c.



Hope, promise and prayer are ways of coping with calamity using the power of the spirit. But the valorization of heroism, the ideal of conquest over human limitations through the embodiment of supernatural properties is also part of the human response, more dynamic in its possibilities. Here we present the Japanese ideal of power embodied in the “way of the warrior” and in cultural retellings of the deeds of heroic characters. Our selection includes works on this theme by great artists in the genre of full-color woodblock prints (nishiki-e) [more on Nishiki-e]

BUSHIDO  (View Slideshow)

Bushido or “the way of the warrior” was a unique philosophy of life and conduct based on Zen Buddhism and Shinto, that was embraced by the samurai from the Muromachi period (14th – 16th c). It stresses frugality, loyalty, mastery in martial arts, and honor unto death. One of the subtler aspects associated with it included an openness to animism, a “becoming-other” leading to supernatural powers. This is represented through historical legends involving samurai, often enacted in kabuki plays and depicted in paintings. Images depicting famous warriors in legendary historical situations formed a common theme in surinomo [more on Surimono], since they were mainly patronized by samurai. Our selection includes works on this theme by great artists, such as Katshusita Hokusai (1760-1849) who is one of the most famous woodblock (ukiyo-e) painters of the 18th and 19th c. Along with Ando Hiroshige, Hokusai is best known for these themes. [more on Hokusai]


KABUKI  (View Slideshow)

Kabuki is a form of popular dance-drama marked by stylization, elaborate make-up and exaggerated, melodramatic expressions and movements. It is thought of as “bizarre theater” since the word kabuki is believed to derive from kabuku, a verb meaning “to be out of the ordinary.” Kabuki became popular in the yoshiwara (red light) district of Edo (old Tokyo) from the 17th c. From the mid-17th c., the government banned women and children acting in kabuki and all roles were acted by adult males. Kabuki soon stood at the forefront of Japanese pop culture, its actors treated as superstars and their costumes inaugurating new fashions. Folk and historical legends, often involving samurai and their superhuman feats, were common themes in kabuki. Our selection includes works on this theme by great artists, such as Utagawa Kunisada who was the most popular, prolific and financially successful ukiyo-e painter of the 19th c. [more on Kunisada], and Utagawa Kuniyoshi who was one of the great masters of 19th c. ukiyo-e. He worked in all genres, including kabuki actors, geishas, landscapes, animals, supernatural and mythological themes. [more on Kuniyoshi]



Mediating between the elements of nature and human beings is the world of supernatural spirits (kami). Japanese folklore abounds with the dealings between supernatural beings and humans. Our selection includes works on this theme by a number of great artists, such as Totoya Hokkei, a prime student of Hokusai, who specialized in surimono.

YAMA UBA AND KINTARO  (View Slideshow)

Yama-uba is a mountain spirit (yokai) who has the appearance of a disheveled hag and lures travelers to their doom as her prey. However, as with other things of nature, she is marked by a certain ambiguity, demonstrating a softer and maternal side on occasion.

This is particularly exemplified in the case of Kintaro, an orphan boy lost in Mount Ashigara, who was found and raised by Yama-uba. Kintaro, often translated as “golden boy” was a child of supernatural powers of whom there are many legends. He played and wrestled with wild animals and defeated monsters and demons. As an adult, Kintaro is said to have changed his name to Sakata no Kintoki and become one of the hero warriors of 10th c. samurai, Minamoto Yorimitsu.



These include Rochisin Uprooting a Willow Tree, Shoki the Demon Queller, the Goddess of the Moon and Goddess Benten. Surinomo are inscribed with a class of poems termed Kyoka written in Edo and often self-consciously presenting a humorous sensibility characteristic of a developing urban space, in contrast with the classically inflected poetry of Kyoto [more on Kyoka].

The giant Rochinsin (Chinese: Lu Chih-shen) was one of the 108 heroes of the classic Chinese novel, The Water Mark. He was also known by his nickname Ka Osho or the ‘Cherry Blossom Bonze” because of the cherry blossom tatoo on his back and shoulders. Here he is depicted uprooting a tree. This surimono belongs to Hokkei’s series The Five Elements which are wood, fire, earth, metal and water. The element represented here is wood.


TRIPTYCHS  (View Slideshow)


Grander mythological and supernatural themes were often depicted using a larger format, that of the triptych. Our selection includes three important prints of this genre – Nitta Shiro Tadatsune Encounters the Spirit of Mount Fuji [more on the Spirit of Mount Fuji], The Emergence of Amaterasu from the Cave [more on Amaterasu] and Abe no Yasunari and the Fox Lady Tamamo no Mae.



Surimono were woodblock prints privately commissioned by wealthy merchants and poetry societies in the 18th and 19th c. The typical surimono were made almost square in a size of about 8”x9”. These very limited edition prints were exchanged within elite circles for special occasions such as the New Year. Surimono blended illustration and poetry and were printed on a thick paper with a lavish use of technical embellishments including silver, gold, bronze powder, lacquer and embossing. The poem accompanying the illustration was usually a short comic verse of 31 syllables called kyoka. Several surimono are attributed to Katsushika Hokusai and his students, famous among whom was Hokkei.

Sometime in the 1880’s publishers took the earlier surimono designs and printed them in a number of small edition sets. They were mostly sold to the early Western traveler to Japan and like the original surimono, were exquisitely printed with embellishments.

Since surimono were produced as New Year gifts, they often contained references to the designation of the year in the Chinese zodiac. In some cases, the prints featured the zodiac animal of the year, but more often the animal was inconspicuously woven into the illustration. In some cases, two animals are depicted signifying the year just ended and the year beginning. Some surimono featured kabuki actors in samurai roles and some dealt with legendary or historic events featuring samurai.

Full color woodblock (nishiki-E) process

  • The artist produced a master line drawing in ink, indicating patterns and colors.
  • An assistant (hikko) made a tracing (hanshita) of the master
  • Craftsmen glued the hanshita face-down to a block of wood and cut away the blank areas leaving a relief print on the block.
  • The block was inked and printed, making ink copies of the drawing.
  • A test copy (kyogo-zuri), was given to the artist for approval.
  • As man prints as colors were made and each glued, face-down, to blocks. The blocks were cut so that each represented one color in relief.
  • The resulting set of woodblocks were inked in different colors and impressed onto paper to arrive at the multi-color print. 

Hokusai and Surimono

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is one of the most famous woodblock (ukiyo-e) painters of the 18th and 19th c. Hokusai started as an apprentice printmaker, going on to make paintings of kabuki actors and geishas, the traditional subjects of 18th c. ukiyo-e. On being expelled from his teacher’s studio after his death, Hokusai changed his subject matter to landscapes and genre scenes, becoming the first ukiyo-e artist to do so. Along with Ando Hiroshige, Hokusai is best known for these themes. At this time, he painted a number of surimono as part of the Tawaraya school. Later, he left this school to become independent and gradually collected a group of his own students. A number of these students are known mainly for their surimono. Perhaps the best known of these are Totoya Hokkei and Yanagawa Shigenobu.

Totoya Hokkei (1780-1850)

Hokkei was the best-known follower of Hokusai and continued his master's tradition of making poetic surimono, which were characterized by luxurious printing. Here the deeply embossed lines of the cock's feathers suggest their texture and three-dimensionality.

The admonishing drum was hung in front of the Imperial Palace, where those who wished to protest against the government could strike it. The image of the cock resting on the drum symbolizes good government and peace, and it alludes to a poem that states:

[Let] the admonishing drum [grow] deep in moss,
Do not wake the cock.

Taizo Kai

The Taizo Kai or Mandala of the Womb Realm is one of two associated mystic diagrams followed by esoteric Buddhism (Shingon, Vajrayana). These mandalas embody a transcendental organization of the cosmos and are used for meditation leading to cosmic experience. The womb realm or feminine matrix of the cosmos is based on the Mahavairochana Tantra and embodies the aspect of Compassion. At its center is the Transcendental Buddha beyond space and time, surrounded by four main and four subsidiary directional Buddhas. These are surrounded by concentric zones of phenomenal existence presided over by specific emanations of the Buddha.

Kongo Kai

The Kongo Kai or Mandala of the Diamond Realm is the other mystic diagram in the esoteric Buddhist system called the Mandalas of the Two Realms. These mandalas are used in meditation and in a variety of rituals, including initiation rituals in which the aspirant is blindfolded and asked to fling a flower on the mandala. The deity it lands on decides the central practice. The diamond mandala or male transcendental idea of the cosmos is based on the Vajrasekhara Sutra and embodies the aspect of Knowledge. It is made of up nine mandalas embodying various realms of reality, each presided over by an organization of Buddhas.

Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III) (1786-1865)

Kunisada was the most popular, prolific and financially successful ukiyo-e painter of the 19th c. But through most of the 20th c., he has been overshadowed by the popularity of Hiroshige, Hokusai, Kuniyoshi and Utamaro, especially among collectors and critics of Europe and the U.S. Since the 1990s, there has been a re-evalutation of his importance and at present he is considered one of the great ukiyo-e masters of all time. Kunisada’s works a re marked by their dramatic compositions and expressions.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861)

Kuniyoshi was one of the great masters of 19th c. ukiyo-e. He worked in all genres, including kabuki actors, geishas, landscapes, animals, supernatural and mythological themes. His paintings are characterized by bold composition and exuberant design. He also often displays a streak of humor, most clearly seen in his cleverly disguised political satires against the Tokugawa shogunate.


Kyoka are 31 syllable (5-7-5-7-7) humorous poems associated with surimono. They came to prominence in Edo as “anti-poems” or “throw-away poems” satirizing the classical culture of Kyoto-based waka poetry.

The surimono featuring Benten by Gakutei has 2 kyoka poems by Fukunoya Uchinari, whose real name was Fujii Kanjiro. He was a Kyoka poet of the late Edo period. He published a book of kyoka poems, "Kyoka Setsugekka" in 1830.

Asahi sasu
niwa no shooji no
ryuu no kagemiru
hitoeda no ume, Rokujyuen

On the paper screen in the morning light, / the shadow of a branch from a plum tree in the yard,/ It looks like a dragon flying in the sky among the clouds.

Ume ga e no
katachidani dete
ryuu ni niru
to yoni tsukamitaru
aratama no haru

Celebrate the New Year,
With a branch of plum,
It resembles a dragon,
climbing the sky with a jewel in its paw.

(Decipherment: Prof. Toshiharu Kawachi, Chairman, Graduate School of Literature, Professor of Calligraphy at Daito Bunka University. Translation: Prof. Ritsuko Hirai Toner, Chairman, Japanese Language Studies, Pasadena City College.)

Nitta Shiro Tadatsune Encounters the Spirit OF Mount Fuji

On a hunting trip on Mount Fuji with the first of the shoguns Minamoto Yoritomo, the 12th c. samurai Nitta Tadatsune and his band of warriors discovered an intriguing cave. The cave led them through dark and fearful caverns with interior waterfalls. In the depth of these caverns Tadatsune encountered a female spirit, whom Shinto identifies as the spirit of Mount Fuji and the Buddhists as Kannon. Many of Tadatsune’s men died in these treacherous regions. Tadatsune was gifted by the siprit and commended for his courage.

The Emergence of Amaterasu From the Cave

Amaterasu is the goddess of the sun in Shinto. Following a dispute with her brother, Susanoo, the storm of summer, and the latter’s consequent act of rage, Amaterasu is said to have hid herself in a cave, throwing the world in darkness for a long time. All the gods and goddesses strove to coax Amaterasu out of the cave, but she refused to be drawn. Finally, the kami of merriment, Ame-no-Uzume, placed a large bronze mirror on a tree, facing Amaterasu's cave. Then, Uzume clothed herself in flowers and leaves, overturned a washtub and began to dance on it, drumming the tub with her feet. Amaterasu peeked out of curiosity, and a ray of "dawn" light escaped from the cave. Amaterasu beheld her reflection in the mirror was dazzled by the beautiful goddess she saw. The god Ameno-Tajikarawo pulled her from the cave and the gods sealed it shut so she could not return. Surrounded by merriment, Amaterasu's depression disappeared and she agreed to return her light to the world. Uzume was from then on known as the kami of dawn as well as mirth.