Ancient History & Civilisation


Creative imitation—Music and the dance—“Inro” and “netsuke”—Hidari Jingaro—Lacquer

The outward forms of Japanese art, like almost every external feature of Japanese life, came from China; the inner force and spirit, like everything essential in Japan, came from the people themselves. It is true that the wave of ideas and immigration that brought Buddhism to Japan in the seventh century brought also, from China and Korea, art forms and impulses bound up with that faith, and no more original with China and Korea than with Japan; it is true, even, that cultural elements entered not only from China and India, but from Assyria and Greece—the features of the Kamakura Buddha, for example, are more Greco-Bactrian than Japanese. But such foreign stimuli were used creatively in Japan; its people learned quickly to distinguish beauty from ugliness; its rich men sometimes prized objects of art more than land or gold,* and its artists labored with self-effacing devotion. These men, though arduously trained through a long apprenticeship, seldom received more than an artisan’s wage; if for a moment wealth came to them they gave it away with Bohemian recklessness, and soon relapsed into a natural and comfortable poverty.50 But only the artist-artisans of ancient Egypt and Greece, or of medieval China, could rival their industry, taste and skill.

The very life of the people was instinct with art—in the neatness of their homes, the beauty of their clothing, the refinements of their ornaments, and their spontaneous addiction to song and dance. For music, like life, had come to Japan from the gods themselves; had not Izanagi and Izanami sung in choruses at the creation of the earth? A thousand years later the Emperor Inkyo, we read, played on a wagon (a kind of zither), and his Empress danced, at an imperial banquet given in 419 to signalize the opening of a new palace. When Inkyo died a Korean king sent eighty musicians to attend the funeral; and these players taught the Japanese new instruments and new modes—some from Korea, some from China, some from India. When the Daibutsu was installed in the temple of Todaiji at Nara (752), music from T’ang Chinese masters was played in the ceremony; and the Shoso-in, or Imperial Treasure-house, at Nara still shows the varied instruments used in those ancient days. Singing and recitative, court music and monastic dance music, formed the classical modes, while popular airs were strummed on the biwa—a lute—or the samisen—a three-stringed banjo.51 The Japanese had no great composers, and wrote no books about music; their simple compositions, played in five notes of the harmonic minor scale, had no harmony, and no distinction of major and minor keys; but almost every Japanese could play some one of the twenty instruments which had come over from the continent; and any one of these, when properly played, said the Japanese, would make the very dust on the ceiling dance.52 The dance itself enjoyed “a vogue unparalleled in any other country”53—not so much as an appendage to love as in the service of religious or communal ceremony; sometimes a whole village turned out in costume to celebrate a joyful occasion with a universal dance. Professional dancers entertained great audiences with their skill; and men as well as women, even in the highest circles, gave much time to the art. When Prince Genji, says the Lady Murasaki, danced the “Waves of the Blue Sea” with his friend To no-Chujo, everyone was moved. “Never had the onlookers seen feet tread so delicately, nor heads so exquisitely poised So moving and beautiful was this dance that at the end of it the Emperor’s eyes were wet, and all the princes and great gentlemen wept aloud.”54

Meanwhile all who could afford it adorned their persons not only with fine brocades and painted silks, but with delicate objects characteristic, almost definitive, of the old Japan. Shrinking ladies flirted from behind fans of alluring loveliness, while men flauntednetsuke, inro and expensively carved swords. The inro was a little box attached to the belt by a cord; it was usually composed of several infolding cases carefully carved in ivory or wood, and contained tobacco, coins, writing materials, or other casual necessities. To keep the cord from slipping under the belt, it was bound at the other end to a tiny toggle or netsuke (from ne, end, and tsuke, to fasten), upon whose cramped surface some artist had fashioned, with lavish care, the forms of deities or demons, philosophers or fairies, birds or reptiles, fishes or insects, flowers or leaves, or scenes from the life of the people. Here that impish humor in which Japanese art so far excels all others found free and yet modest play. Only the most careful examination can reveal the full subtlety and significance of these representations; but even a glance at this microcosm of fat women and priests, of agile monkeys and delightful bugs, cut upon less than a cubic inch of ivory or wood, brings home to the student the unique and passionately artistic quality of the Japanese people.*

Hidari (i.e., “left-handed”) Jingaro was the most famous of Japanese sculptors in wood. Legend told how he had lost an arm and gotten a name: when an offended conqueror demanded of Jingaro’s Daimyo the life of his daughter, Jingaro carved a severed head so realistically that the conqueror ordered the artist’s right hand to be cut off as punishment for killing the daughter of his lord.55 It was Jingaro whose chisel formed the elephants and the sleeping cat at the shrine of Iyeyasu at Nikko, and the “Gate of the Imperial Envoy” at the Nishi-Hongwan Temple in Kyoto. On the inner panels of this gate the artist told the story of the Chinese sage who washed his ear because it had been contaminated by a proposal that he should accept the throne of his country, and the austere cowherd who quarreled with the sage for thus defiling the river.56 But Jingaro was merely the most characterful of the now nameless artists who adorned a thousand structures with lovingly carved or lacquered wood. The lacquer tree found in the islands a peculiarly congenial habitat, and was nourished with skilful care. The artisans sometimes covered with successive coats of lacquer, cotton and lacquer a form chiseled in wood; but more often they went to the pains of modeling a statue in clay, making from this a hollow mould, and then pouring into the mould several layers of lacquer, each thicker than before.57 The Japanese carver lifted wood to a full equality with marble as a material for art, and filled shrines, mausolea and palaces with the fairest wood-decoration known in Asia.

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