Japan from prehistory to the present

The Japanese Galleries reopen at the British Museum

18 October 2006

Rooms 92-94

Admission free

The British Museum’s collections of Japanese materials are the most comprehensive in Europe, including fine and decorative arts, antiquities, ethnographic and historical items dating from ancient prehistory to the present day.  The collections embody the dynamic relationship between art, artefact and history in Japanese culture.  Perhaps uniquely outside Japan, these objects can tell many of the significant stories in the unfolding of that country’s past, encouraging us to enjoy a deeper engagement with its present and future.

The Museum’s Japanese Galleries, which opened in 1990, have recently undergone their first major refurbishment as part of an ongoing programme of gallery renewal. This has completely renovated the major air-conditioning system, replaced the case linings, carpet and lighting and redesigned the approaches to the galleries. This refurbishment has also given the Museum the chance to present the collection in a new way. Japan from prehistory to the present is a sequence of important stories told by fascinating objects.  Particular emphasis is given to continuities, although sometimes the often unbroken threads of ancient cultural forms collide with the modern in surprising ways. The display is chronological, with modern works occasionally brought back into the historical narrative. Paintings, prints and other light-sensitive works will be rotated periodically but the layout of the gallery will be permanent.  The displays reconnect the history of Japan with East Asia and, in more recent times, with the wider world.

The galleries open with the statue of a Buddhist saviour deity, Kudara Kannon, an actual-size replica of the famous National Treasure of the AD 600s, made for the British Museum about 1930.  A time line of Japanese history is signalled by an impressive Samurai lord's clock on a lacquer and mother-of-pearl stand.  The Urasenke tea house, used for regular demonstrations of the Way of Tea is complemented with a small display of tea wares.

The first room looks at Ancient Japan (before 1200) and includes works from the prehistoric Jōmon, Yayoi and Tomb (Kofun) cultures of the Japanese archipelago – including enigmatic dogū figurines, bronze ritual dōtaku bells and highly expressive haniwa tomb figures.  A profound change occurs with the arrival of the Buddhist religion from China and Korea in the AD 500s. A second section presents the religious traditions of the medieval period (1200 - 1600): schools of Buddhism such as Tantric, Pure Land and Zen, native kami worship (Shinto) and the introduction of Christianity in the mid-1500s.

The second room, Edo period Japan (1600-1868), examines the relations between samurai rulers, the imperial court and ordinary townspeople.  Samurai armour and swords are displayed alongside luxurious screen paintings and decorative arts made for the ruling elites.  These are contrasted with the popular colour prints of the floating world and the exquisite miniature arts of inrō medicine-cases and netsuke toggles made for wealthy townspeople.  Four gateways to the outside world looks at state relations between Edo Japan and its neighbours Joseon Korea and the Ryūkyū Kingdom; also trade relations with China and Holland through the port of Nagasaki; and relations with the Ainu people in the north.

The final room focuses on Modern Japan (1853 to present), exploring the major themes of nation-building and empire, city and country, and freeing the self.  After reopening to the outside world in the mid-1800s, Japan rapidly modernised and embarked on an overseas empire in East Asia that brought it into conflict with other powers, leading to war, defeat and reconstruction in the mid-1900s.  Prints, books, photos, ephemera and works of decorative art are used to present the modern development of Tokyo and other cities of western Japan (Kansai). Personal stories are told and varied modern identities are explored through intimate portraits and expressive works of abstract art.  Themes of performance, images of women, images of men and manga show the progressive exploration of the self in modern Japan.  Contemporary ceramic works by artists designated ‘Living National Treasures’ exemplify how tradition is dynamically developed in the modern world.

For more information or images please contact Hannah Boulton on 020 7323 8522 or hboulton@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk

Notes to Editors:

History of the collections. The British Museum’s founding collections of 1753 included a significant group of objects and manuscripts brought back by Engelbert Kaempfer from Nagasaki in the 1692, subsequently acquired by Sir Hans Sloane.  Collecting began again in earnest after Japan reopened in the mid-1800s, and has continued ever since.  Particular highlights and the collectors who assembled them include: ceramics (A.W. Franks), paintings (William Anderson), archaeological materials (William Gowland), ukiyo-e prints (Arthur Morrison), swords (R.W. Lloyd), netsuke (Anne and John Hull Grundy), Hizen ceramics (Yūko and Akihiko Shibata), illustrated books (Jack Hillier), modern prints (Robert Vergez).

Major new acquisitions for the gallery include: Tigers crossing a river, about 1781-2, a six-fold screen painting by Maruyama Ōkyo and pupils purchased with support from the Art Fund. Two dogūfigurines from the prehistoric Jōmon culture, about 2500 BC and 1000 BC. Eruption of Mount Sakurajima, a painting by Kawabata Ryūshi, about 1960s, given by Jōji Hattori in honour of Sir John Boyd Galaxy, a ceramic bottle by Living National Treasure artist Tokuda Yasokichi III, made and given specially for the reopening of the Galleries

The Way of Tea

Free public demonstrations ‘The Way of Tea’ will be presented in the Urasenke Teahouse in the Japanese Galleries on 10 November and 8 December 2006, at 1pm and 3pm on both days.