Beginnings of Nihonga

Early History of Japanese Painting

A scene from the <i>Genji Monogatari Emaki</i> (c. 1130), in the <i>yamato-e</i> style, depicts an aerial perspective of an interior scene at court.

Japanese painting emerged in the mid-seventh century during the Nara Period (710-794). It was largely influenced by the arrival of Chinese sumi ink painting and inspired by work of the Tang dynasty. In the subsequent Heian Period, yamato-e, or Japanese style painting, developed in emaki-mono, or works on long hand scrolls. This became known as the classic Japanese style. The most famous example was the Genji Monogatari Emaki (c. 1130), which portrayed scenes from the first novel ever written, a classic of Japanese culture called Tale of the Genji (before 1021).

In the Edo Period (1603-1868), while the country was under rule by the Tokugawa shogunate another style evolved from yamato-o called ukiyo-e, which also consisted of works on scrolls and mainly depicted the pleasure centers of Japan and its leisurely lifestyle of the time. The principle difference was a departure from the more classical painting techniques and the proliferation of woodblock prints, which were largely popular and more commercially accessible to the masses. Simultaneously, the Nanga movement was a form of Japanese painting that was viewed as highly intellectual and drew inspiration solely from Chinese culture. There were many different schools, which taught and proliferated these major forms of art.

Commodore Perry and the Forced Opening of Japan

This 1854 <i>ukiyo-e</i>, or woodblock print, by an unknown artist depicts Commodore Perry's black ship, the Commodore portrayed as its masthead.

In 1853, Commodore Perry of the United States Navy arrived with U.S. warships in Japan with the sole purpose of forcing open trade agreements between the countries. His "black ships," as the Japanese called them, opened fire in Edo Bay and the Japanese were forced by the superior firepower and technology to succumb to outside trade and influence. In the previous two centuries, Japan had been essentially closed to outside contact. With the arrival of the West, Japanese art became caught in the tension between indigenous painting styles and Western painting.

The Meiji Period

The Meiji Restoration Government came to power formally in 1868 with the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the ascension of Emperor Meiji. Emperor Meiji's ambition was to modernize Japan and become a peer to the West in all areas of thought and culture. He said, "Knowledge shall be sought all over the world, and thereby the foundations of imperial rule shall be strengthened."

The opening of trade with the West sparked an artistic exchange between countries. Ukiyo-e prints were exported to Europe and launched Japonisme; a French term reflecting a craze for all things Japanese in art and design. Simultaneously, many Japanese artists became inspired by Western artworks and knowledge of Western techniques and styles began to influence Japanese art. The Meiji government actively promoted the study of Western art by establishing art schools and inviting distinguished Western teachers and artists to teach in those schools. These modern art schools replaced the traditional Japanese schools established by noted masters who had taught subsequent generations of artists.

Ernest F. Fenollosa

This <i>Boston Globe</i> photograph shows Edward S. Morse, Okakura Kakuzō, Ernest F. Fenollosa, and William Sturgis Bigelow, from left to right. Morse was a zoologist but both he and Bigelow were noted collectors of Japanese art.

A new movement Nihonga, meaning "Japanese painting," originated during this time. It was driven by the theories and advocacy of Ernest F. Fenollosa, a Harvard graduate who was invited to teach Western philosophy at the Imperial University in Tokyo. He first used the term in 1882 in his "The New Theory of Art" lecture, given at the Dragon Pond Society in Japan. While favoring the efforts to modernize Japan, he also had a deep appreciation for historical Japanese culture and art and felt that, while Japanese artists could learn from Western techniques, they should do so only to enrich their own traditions. Fenollosa's lecture advocated for traditional Japanese painting and defined its elements as: using outlines, a reduced color palette, not having shadows, and not aspiring to realism but rather emphasizing simple expression. Nihonga emphasized using mineral based pigments and nikawa, a binding agent, and painting on scrolls and screens, to portray subjects like landscapes, kacho-ga (bird and flower paintings), bijin-ga (paintings of beautiful women), and scenes from Japanese culture and history.

Okakura Kakuzō, a brilliant student who became Fenollosa's assistant and then collaborator, became a leading Nihonga theorist. The two men both worked to create opportunities for Nihonga artists, first by starting the Kangakai, or Painting Appreciation Society, then launching the Tokyo Art Institute in 1889.

The artists Kanō Hōgai and Hashimoto Gahō, both of whom had previously been masters of the Kanō School of Japanese painting, became the first artistic leaders of the movement which first developed in Tokyo and then quickly spread to Kyoto where Takuichi Seiho became another noted leader of the movement.

Nihonga's advocacy for traditional Japanese artistic techniques, materials, and styles was in direct opposition to Yōga, an art movement that had risen six years earlier which was favored by the Japanese government in its promotion of Western artistic styles and techniques, largely oil painting. Yet, Fenollosa also advocated that Nihonga painters learn from Western techniques, adopting some elements, in order to create an art that exemplified Japanese art while also establishing such art on an equal footing with the West.

The Technique of Nihonga

Nihonga employed the traditional style of Japanese painting or yamato-e, to create works that had a matte finish resembling watercolor, where brushstrokes were not apparent, and line, created by sumi ink, was emphasized. Nihonga was viewed as a spontaneous art form, revealing the artist's mind in a particular moment, rather than creating a realistic image.

Nihonga employed only the traditional materials of Japanese painting. The image would first be sketched on paper or silk, then outlined in sumi ink, made by mixing nikawa, an animal-derived gelatin or glue, with lampblack. Kofun (chalk) would then be used to cover the surface and then background color applied. Once the background dried, other colors would be added to complete the image. Artists used traditional fude and hake brushes of many variations, their bristles made of animal hair. All the materials were selected or processed with great care; for instance, paper was made from different species of trees to obtain a particular surface, and the silk used was different from that used for clothing.

The water-soluble pigments were derived from various sources, primarily minerals that were ground in varying degrees of fineness to create varying intensities of color, but also vegetable materials, and sometimes raw earth or clay. The color white (Gofun) was made from pulverized seashells, particularly oyster shells. Some artists and schools would use only a particular type of shell, knowledge of which was a closely guarded secret. Regardless of the source of the pigment, nikawa was used as a binding agent, and sumi ink could also be saikobu, or colored, by adding pigments.

To achieve different decorative effects, finely beaten gold, platinum, and silver were often used as metallic leaf for backgrounds, and, in those cases, would be applied to the supporting silk. The metals, ground into fine dust, were also used for final touches. All of these elements of craft were considered to be part of the artistic process of painting.

Okakura Kakuzō

A pre-1905 photograph of Okakura Kakuzō shows him wearing the traditional clothing of a Japanese literati or scholar.

Okakura Kakuzō's writing was to have a great influence on the development of Nihonga and upon Japanese aesthetics. His concept that all Asian art had an essential unity was expressed in his book The Ideals of the East with Special Reference to the Art of Japan (1903). In it, he wrote, "Asia is one." He identified Asian, for all of its differences between various cultures, as sharing a "broad expanse of love for the Ultimate and Universal," in contrast to the West, which he characterized as pursuing "the particular" and valuing "means without thought of an end." The Awakening of Japan (1904) further developed his ideas that "the glory of the West is the humiliation of Asia" and emphasized a need to preserve Japanese culture, wedded to Asia, from domination by Western ideas. His theories became the foundation for Nihonga, and were felt internationally, influencing writers like the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore and the American modernist Ezra Pound, as well as the philosopher Martin Heidegger, and the art patron Isabella Stewart Gardner.

The Painting Appreciation Society (1884)

Kanô Hôgai's painting <i>fukuryû rakan zu</i> (<i>Diving Dragon and Arhat</i>) (1885) in the Kanô School style depicts an <i>arhat</i>, a person who has attained enlightenment in the religious life, holding a dragon that coils around him.

In 1884, Fenollosa launched the Kangakai, the Painting Appreciation Society. Such societies were important hubs of advocacy for artistic styles and the promotion of their artists' work. Kangakai's annual art competition became the leading venue for work by artists like Hôgai, whose painting fukuryû rakan zu (Diving Dragon and Arhat) (1885) won a prize in the first competition sponsored by the Society. Hôgai was a well-known painter, but in the early Meiji period, like many traditional artists, he fell on hard times and took up metal working and running a small shop to make ends meet. Winning an award in the subsequent year's competition as well, Hôgai became an acknowledged leader of the Nihonga movement, as did his former students Hashimoto Gahô and Yokoyama Taikan.


In 1889 Okakura Kakuzō, along with newspaper editor Takahashi Kenzō and an unnamed wealthy art patron, founded the magazine Kokka: An Illustrated Monthly Journal of the Fine and Applied Arts of Japan and Other Asian Countries. The first Japanese art magazine Kokka meant "flower of the nation," and included scholarly articles, images of artworks, and an original woodcut print in each issue. The magazine became a prominent advocate for Japanese art and is still being published today. English editions started circulating in the early 1900s, reaching an international audience. At its inception, the magazine promoted Nihonga alongside other Asian art styles.

The City of Kyoto and Takuichi Seiho

Okyo Maruyama's <i>Peacocks and Peonies</i> (1768) showing the founder of the Maruyama School's masterful inclusion of Naturalism, influenced by the West, within the decorative design and traditional “birds and flowers” genre of Japan.

The artists of the Kyoto region were primarily associated with the Maruyama and Shijo schools, which promoted realistic drawing, as shown by the Okyo Maruyama's Peacocks and Peonies (1768). The art critic Robert Reed has described Maruyama's work as offering a fresh alternative. He said, "His new style of painting was based on a practice that was quite uncommon at the time: sketching directly from nature." This emphasis on naturalistic observation distinguished the work of Kyoto Nihonga.

Takuichi Seihō's <i>Cockfighting</i> (1926) depicts the dynamic encounter between two fighting roosters, flying up into the empty space around them, their talons reaching toward one another in a vivid display of movement.

Kyoto became a noted center of Nihonga, sometimes engaging in friendly rivalry with Nihonga artists in Tokyo. However, it was primarily the artist Takuichi Seihō who became the leader of the movement. Seihō's work drew upon the Murayama School of painting, but as he was inexhaustibly innovative, he also drew upon 15th century Chinese painting and Japanese yamato-e art, as well as European artists. Because Kyoto artists also incorporated other traditions like Nanga, which was a style of painting closely allied with calligraphy and derived from the ink painting of the Chinese Song Dynasty, more styles were brought under the umbrella of Nihonga painting. This combination of individual artistic styles, traditional Japanese techniques and subjects, and Western influences marked Nihonga as one the country's major modern art movements of the time.

Russo-Japanese War

Takehisha Yumeji's <i>The Sorrow of Victory</i> (1905), like many images critical of the war, appeared in <i>Heimin Shimbun</i>, a socialist and anarchist Japanese newspaper, published from 1904-1905 before being shut down by the government.

In 1904 Japan went to war with Russia in a fight for imperial dominance over China. The Battle of Mukden, the largest battle fought prior to World War I, raged for over two weeks between 600,000 combatants along a 50 mile front. Though the Japanese were victorious, both sides sustained heavy casualties. With the following naval Battle of Tashima, the Japanese won the war, destroying two thirds of the Russian ships. The defeat marked the first time a Western country had been defeated by an Asian country, making Japan an acknowledged world power.

While a number of artists decried the war, often in woodblock prints that reached a large audience, like Takehisha Yumeji's The Sorrow of Victory (1905); the Meiji government saw the victory as a global validation of Japanese identity.

The Bunten

Because the arts were a vital part of establishing identity both in Japan and abroad, the government instituted an official annual Fine Arts Exhibition, called the Bunten, in 1907. Launched by the Ministry of Education, the Bunten was modeled after the Paris Salon, with the aim of presenting a unified image of Japanese art as world class. From 1907-1912, the exhibition showed works in three categories: Nihonga, Yōga, and sculpture. The intent was to dissolve the rivalry between Nihonga and Yoga painting and to create a framework where both were presented as viable alternatives for Japanese excellence in the arts.

Many Nihonga artists became well known to the public through the Bunten, as attendance increased each year. For instance, in 1916 over 250,000 people attended in Tokyo, at a time when the city's population was a little over three million. Nonetheless, as the Ministry of Education presided over the selection of the exhibition's works and judges, rivalry and factionalism among artists of both Western and Japanese style painting only increased. Despite these divisions between Nihonga and Yōga artists, they were often united in their criticism of the Bunten as being both too political and conservative.

Tokyo and Yokoyama Taikan

Following the death of Okakura Kakuzō, Yokoyama Taikan, who was mentored by Kakuzō, became the artistic leader of Nihonga in Tokyo. He was an equally important teacher and led the revival of the Japan Fine Art Academy. Launched again in 1914, the school taught a new generation of Nihonga artists including Hishida Shunso, Shiokawa Bunrin, Kōno Bairei, Tomioka Tessai, and Shimomura Kanzan.

Yokoyama Taikan's <i>Holy peaks of Chichibu at spring dawn</i> (1928) displays his monochromatic mastery of landscape that made him the acknowledged master of Tokyo Nihonga.

The Rinpa School primarily influenced Taikan's work, though he also explored Western techniques. Acknowledging Taikan's primacy in Tokyo Nihonga and Seihō's in Kyoto, there was a popular saying among Nihonga painters, "Taikan in the east, Seihō in the west." The two men greatly respected each other and often collaborated, as seen in their work Sho-chiku-bai (Pine, Bamboo, Plum), for which the artist Gyokudo Kawai joined them in creating a group of three scrolls.

In 1914, reflecting the increased politicization of art, Taikan was expelled from the Bunten jury. He subsequently, founded the Inten, a separate exhibition that was to show both Nihonga and Yoga works at its inception. The Inten became an important venue for Nihonga artists and continues to this day.

The Rise of Nihonga Collectives

From 1910-1920 over twenty different alternative groups, in both Western and Japanese style painting, were formed in protest of the Bunten's conservatism and favoritism. As a result, the Japanese art world was, as art historian John Szostak described, less a clear division between two groups, than a "mosaic composed of myriad shifting cultural components, some of which were imported from the West, others of which were contributed by Japan's own cultural legacy."

In Kyoto, Tuschida Bakusen played a leading role in forming new groups, beginning with the formation of the artists' collective Chat Noir in 1910. In 1911, when the group's planned exhibition fell through, Bakusen along with artists Arai Kinya, Tanaka Kisaku, and Kurado resumed the collective under the name The Masque. They held a critically acclaimed show where oil paintings and Nihonga work were both exhibited.

The Society of the Creation of Japanese Painting, 1918

Bakusen and other Nihonga artists continued to create new venues with the intent of creating modern Nihonga. The most important was the Kokuga Sosaku Kyokai, The Society of the Creation of Japanese Painting, formed in Kyoto in 1918. The Society launched its own annual exhibition called the Kokuten and invited artists in any style to exhibit. Bakusen saw Nihonga as a movement with international potential and felt that Western techniques could inspire new approaches to Nihonga. The Society encouraged collaboration, and also promoted artistic travel abroad so that Nihonga painters could draw inspiration from new sources. The Society was to have a great influence on subsequent Nihonga artists.

Post-World War II

Following World War II and Japan's defeat and subsequent occupation, the Nihonga metsubō-ron ("theory on the death of Nihonga") ensued. Nihonga was seen as being too provincial, and its emphasis on Japanese culture was connected to the nationalism that had led to the war. The style continued to be taught in noted art schools but became increasingly identified with conservative taste, as seen in the popularity of Kaii Higashiyama's landscapes like A Path Between the Rice Fields (1950). At the same time, many leading Japanese artists, while sometimes trained in Nihonga, abandoned it for exploration into international contemporary art movements.

Nihonga: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

Historical Themes

Seison Maeda's <i>Yorimoto in a Cave</i> (1929) was a noted example of Nihonga historical painting.

One genre of Nihonga was historical painting, which often included portraiture and focused on important historical events or heroes that had become part of Japanese culture. Seison Maeda was a noted leader of this style who used mineral watercolor pigment in works like his Yoritomo in a Cave (1929). The work depicts a noted samurai, Minamoto no Yoritomo, with seven of his men as, after defeat by another clan, they took refuge in a cave. The work won the 1930 Asahi Prize, and the story has retained its importance in modern Japan as seen in the image being used for a postage stamp in 1982. While this genre was important, some of the second generation of Nihonga artists felt that the emphasis upon historical references was not enough to set Nihonga apart as a distinctive genre, independent of, but equal to Western art.


Shunsō Hishida's <i>Autumn Landscape with Colored Leaves</i> (1899) exemplified his early work in Mōrōtai.

Members of the Japan Fine Arts Academy in Tokyo, Yokoyama Taikan and Shunsō Hishida, developed a new style to convey atmosphere, light, and increased modeling of form. In order to achieve stronger naturalistic effects, the artists emphasized color gradations and moved away from the traditional emphasis on line. Mōrōtai (vague, or indistinct) was a negative term coined by Japanese critics of this style who thought the resulting works were, as one wrote, "far removed from the sense of clarity that has been the defining feature of Japanese painting." However, some scholars felt morotai drew upon the atmospheric landscapes of early Japanese ink painting or the gold infused skies of earlier artists Kanō Hôgai and Hashimoto Gahō. Impressionism is also credited as an influence upon the development of morotai. Just as the Impressionists painted brushstrokes of pure color on the canvas, Taikan and Hashida began painting washes of color directly onto a chalk prepared surface, leaving out the linear underpainting of sumi ink. Contours and forms were thus built up by variations of color, and the colors fluidly transitioned into one another without sharp edges or lines.

Detail of Hishida's <i>Black Cat</i> (1910), combining a strong line with color gradations, is an example of his later style that came to typify Nihonga as distinct from other more conservative Japanese styles.

Feeling that the technique worked well only for early morning and evening scenes, Hishida returned to employing a strong line, combining it with color gradation, resulting in what came to be considered as the identifiable Nihonga style, as seen in his Black Cat (1910). Though both Hishida and Taikan abandoned mōrōtai, a few artists among the next generation like Tsuchida Bakusen explored the style.

1980s Revival of Nihonga

In the 1980s artists like Tokyo University of the Arts' students Kawashima Junji, Saito Norihiko, and Keizaburo Okamura became part of a new generation that revived Nihonga. The movement was contemporanious with new painting movements in Europe, which were connected with a return to figurative and traditional techniques often with a geographical and nationalistic focus.

The revival was equally inspired by historical art such as the work of 17th century Japanese artist Tawaraya Sotatsu and contemporary new mediums like the use of graphics to create a folk art effect. The theories of art historians Kitazawa Noriaki and Sato Dashin played an important role in the revival as the two men argued that Nihonga, while originating in traditional Japanese art, was without a confining definition or conscribed idea. Subsequent artists like Mise Natsunosuke and Yamamoto Toro were drawn to Nihonga's expansion toward creating an individual aesthetic, reflecting the artist's own preoccupations.


Hisashi Tenmyouya coined the term "Neo-Nihonga" in 2001 to convey his work's synchronism between Nihonga and contemporary globalization. This is seen in works like his RS-78-2 Kabuki-mono (2005), in which he portrayed a large robot in samurai gear, wrapped round by a dragon, as he aims an automatic weapon. Kabuki-mono refers to samurai, without a master, who were known for their eccentric style of dress and exaggerated weaponry. The robot, instantly recognizable to a global pop culture audience, is also intrinsically Japanese, as shown in the tattoo on its shoulders of Katsushika Hokusai's iconic The Great Wave (c.1830-1832). Tenmyouya's post-modern approach intends to honor the spirit of Japanese art by consciously positing it as a vital part of contemporary global culture.

Later Developments - After Nihonga

Nihonga, routinely taught in various art schools in Japan, has been viewed as rigid and conservative by a number of contemporary artists. For instance, the internationally known Takashi Murakami was trained in Nihonga but subsequently rejected it in favor of his own style that is now internationally recognized as Superflat.

At the same time, Nihonga continues to attract new generations of artists, who, while continuing to employ traditional techniques, do so in new combinations with Western styles and materials. Tenmyouya for instance has incorporated the use of acrylic paint into his images painted on gold foil to depict contemporary subjects. Fuyuko Matsui in her searing psychological images employs a Western use of perspective combined with sources drawn from earlier periods of Japanese art.

The generation of artists who were part of the 1980s revival of Nihonga continues to work in the form. For example, in the installations of Keizaburo Okamura, he uses cedar panels, then shaves, incises, and burns the surface before painting with mineral pigments, ground shells, glass, and sand in depicting subjects derived from early Japanese styles. Another artist, Nobuya Hoki, combines Nihonga with manga subjects. In many cases, contemporary Nihonga artists have expanded the media and subject matter, as seen in Hoki's work utilizing the rubbing prints of Jakuchu, an 18th century Japanese artist.

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Nihonga Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 08 Mar 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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