Japanese art spans a wide range of media and styles including ancient pottery, wood and bronze sculptures, silk and paper calligraphy, ink painting and performing arts (Nobutaka 52). Japan has historically been subjected to invasions by new and alien cultures, ideas and religions. As the Japanese assimilated and imitated the foreign cultural and religious elements, their forms of art also took a shape influenced by the changes (Tsutsui 104). Although a majority of Japanese people are not exclusively identified as adherents of a certain religion, the strongest indigenous religion is Shinto (Sokyo 89). Buddhism and Confucianism strongly influenced prehistoric Japanese art. It was a representation of nature in a spiritual perspective unlike the secular perspective of scientific realism (Abe 64).
Shinto, a form of nature worship has existed from ancient Japan (Sokyo 89). It means the way of the gods. A kami is a Shinto deity (Sokyo 90). Through Shintoism, the Japanese worshipped spirits thought to inhabit in natural phenomena like waterfalls, rocks and mountains. The kami were not initially represented symbolically, but rather, their perceived habitats were demarcated. However, with the adoption of the developed Buddhism and Confucianism styles of art, the Japanese people were prompted to introduce art into Shintoism, creating Shinto sculptures and paintings (Sokyo 101). They also created artifacts used in worship that symbolized kami. These were mostly in the form of protective items and amulets. The protective items and amulets used in the ancient Shinto religion were also a form of art (Sokyo 101). They used small wooden plaques called Ema to write and draw pictures of their wishes and placed them in shrine grounds for the wishes to be fulfilled by the deities (Abe 55). Ofuda were religious talismans curved out of wood or formed from paper and metal, with names of kami inscribed on them for delivery of good luck. Paper modeling may also be traced back to daruma, which are paper doll representations of Bodhidharma, an Indian monk (Sokyo 101). The Shinto faithful used them to forward wishes to the kami. Another form of paper modeling is the inuhariko, a paper dog used to pray for good births. The Shinto also molded earthenware bells in the form of zodiacal animals called dorei, for use in prayers for good fortune. In Shinto architecture, the earliest shrines constructed to house ancestral spirits are a suggestion of the outline of single dwelling homes in ancient Japan. Similar to the ancient Japanese domestic homes, the shrines were entirely wooden (Sokyo 102). Japan’s relationship with Korea and China paved the way for the infiltration of artistic techniques and styles (Tsutsui 111). As Buddhism moved from Korea to Japan with it came artistic influences such as Buddhist texts, architecture and icons (Sugimoto 230). Art and craft specialists also migrated to Japan from China and Korea and participated in creating the new arts. With the introduction of Buddhism in the mid 6th century, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines began to incorporate the same architectural designs. The structure of the Shinto shrines got more elaborate under the Chinese and Korean influence (Sugimoto 230). Since shrines also reflected family dignity, the designs were commissioned by noble families and many more structures were built in Nara and Kyoto cities (Sugimoto 231). Buddhist art in Japan is categorized into periods or eras. It shaped Japanese art from the 6th to the 16th century (Tsutsui 109). The Amida sect of Buddhism laid the foundation of Buddhist art in Japan. Prince Shotoku encouraged Buddhist art in the Suiko period while Emperor Shomu encouraged it in the Nara period of 645 to 784. In these eras, indigenous Shinto arts were taking the shapes of Buddhist arts and architecture, and the demand for Buddhist paintings increased among the wealthy Japanese