Japan’s Unique & Traditional Culture

September 26, 2017

18th century woodblock print by Utamaro

WWII tends to dominate the vision that we in the West have of Japan since many of our fathers or grandfathers fought in WWII. But there is much more to be said about Japan and its art, culture, and historical significance in the wider world. Melanie Urban’s newest class is an intriguing exploration into Japan’s history, culture, and national psyche. We visited with her to find out more.



WIH Reporter: What is important to know about your upcoming class?

Urban: In all periods of Japan’s culture, art has played a significant role. As in most cultures, from West to East, art served first as glorification of one or many belief systems. When Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century, art enhanced the religious experience. During the imperial period, patrons prized various forms of art for its own sake – not just painting, but also sculpture, ceramics, lacquer ware, textiles, architecture, and even garden design.

WIH Reporter: What do we need to know about Japanese culture?

Urban: The native belief system survives and holds an equal place with the imported religion of Buddhism in the minds and hearts of Japanese people. Another example is that Japan honors its craftsmen as living treasures, a practice that preserves ancient skills in many art forms.

WIH Reporter: What are more examples and results of this inclusive philosophy?

Urban: An example from the 7th century: the regent promulgated a constitution with 17 articles, among them rules for governing the country as a harmonious whole.  He borrowed directly from both the Buddhist canon and Confucian principles.  Following on that, a subsequent ruler commissioned the largest bronze Buddha in the world during the 8th century.  It stands over 50 feet tall (or should I say “sits”).  And in the 11th century, a lady of the Heian court penned one of the first novels ever written, The Tale of Genji, a wonderful portrait of imperial court culture.

WIH Reporter: What will be the format of your class?

Urban: I lecture using pictures taken mostly from travels, either trips to locations pertinent to the subject or to museums.  My “technical assistant” takes the photographs and organizes my presentations to his own high standard.  I prefer discussion during the presentation when anyone in the audience has questions pertinent to the topic at hand.

WIH Reporter: What do you consider one of the most interesting facts we should know about Japan?

Urban: One of the most interesting facets of Japanese culture is how it fascinated people in the West from at least the 16th century.  As the Europeans discovered and exploited commercial opportunities in Asia, they imported Japanese, Chinese, and South East Asian art objects in increasing quantities.  The evidence of this trade can be seen in many European paintings, which often feature Japanese and Chinese ceramics and lacquer wares.  This fascination extended over centuries, and when Chinese goods were hard to come by, Japanese and South East Asian exports filled the gap.  This notion of imported Japanese art generated a whole new reaction during the late 19th century in France, the era of the Impressionists.  Many of the French painters of the 1880s and 1890s collected Japanese woodblock prints and used the new perspectives and compositional styles reflected in them.

Professor Urban’s class begins on October 19th at 10:00 a.m. For more information, or to register, click here.