Japanese art and the natural world

Even today people in Japan maintain sharp distinctions between the seasons, for which certain clothes and activities are considered appropriate. This feeling of a closeness to nature might be traced back to a prehistoric hunting and gathering existence, and to later rice-growing practices that involved the whole community. Already in the eighth-century Manyōshū poetry anthology, references to the seasons have strong emotional connotations. During the Heian period (AD 794-1180), courtly taste in painting favoured seasonal themes as one of the most important elements distinguishing Japanese Yamato-e painting from Chinese kara-e. A vocabulary of symbolic motifs gradually developed, including animals and plants in their seasonal settings. They have continued to be used by artists and craftsmen to the present day working in traditional styles.

A popular subject was 'Flowers and Grasses of the Four Seasons'. Similar plants always appear, such as the 'Seven Plants of Autumn', which includes thoroughwort (fuji-bakama, literally 'purple trousers'). Many of them have poetic significance, perhaps reminding the viewer of a touching episode from literature: thoroughwort flowers signify Yūgiri's wooing of Tamakazura with a bunch of fujibakama blooms in the eleventh-century Genji monogatari ('Tale of Genji'). A bird and flower could be systematically paired to produce an appropriate seasonal feeling, as with bush warbler and plum blossom, also mentioned frequently in haiku verse to signify early spring. Other groupings, such as the 'Three Gentlemen of Winter' (pine, bamboo and plum), were symbols of longevity, while the turtle paired with the crane represent long life and good fortune.

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