Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan

Celebrating Fifty Years of the Japan Traditional Art Crafts Exhibition

19 July – 21 October 2007    
Room 35          
Admission £5/£4 concessions

Japan has a long tradition of making, using and appreciating beautiful craft objects and this tradition is closely integrated into people’s lives. A respect for the beauty of these objects and the materials and techniques used to create them is embedded in Japanese social attitudes and culture. This exhibition celebrates the best of the last fifty years of the annual ‘Japan Traditional Art Crafts Exhibition’, with each of the 112 works created by a different leading artist, past and present. Many of the artists have been designated by the Japanese government as ‘Living National Treasures’, holders of important craft skills. Their works represent some of the best art crafts, both traditional and ultra-modern, to have been produced in Japan during the last half century, since the annual exhibition began in 1954.  Most of the pieces are loaned by the The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto and Agency for Cultural Affairs, Japan.

The British Museum exhibition will be divided into six sections each featuring a different medium: ceramic; textile; lacquer; metal; wood and bamboo and other crafts (cut gold-leaf, glass, dolls).  In addition, a small display of pre-modern craft objects from the British Museum’s own collections will provide context for the contemporary pieces. 

Japan has one of the oldest ceramic cultures in the world yet identified, dating back to 14,500 BC. Contemporary ceramic expression in Japan is deeply interwoven with local traditions and varies from ‘Genesis’, a highly refined porcelain bowl with vivid, glass-like coloured glazes by Tokuda Yasokichi III to a rugged stoneware rectangular plate in black Bizen style made by Isezaki Jun.

Textile art is perhaps the most compelling of all Japanese art forms and historically has always been at the cutting edge of design - literally, the works are wearable art.  The kimono ‘Melody’ by Matsubara Yoshichi with its pulsating design of fans scattered all over the wearer’s body, is a very modern adaptation of the traditional technique of indigo stencil dyeing. Textiles are the major area in contemporary Japanese craft expression where women artists are gaining a high profile, as seen in the woven silk kimono ‘Path Leading into the Woods’ by Murakami Ryōko.

Lacquer work is the most time consuming and technically difficult of all the arts in East Asia, and is perhaps the most prized of all the craft media. Recently examples of lacquer wares have been discovered in Japan that may date to as early as 7,000 BC. Kuroda Tatsuaki’s compelling ornamental red lacquer box with flowing design is a perfect example of the miraculous visual and textural properties of lacquer ware.

There is currently a growth in new styles of expression in metalwork and this represents some of the most daring decorative arts in Japan today. Examples include Ōsumi Yukie’s vase ‘Sea Breeze’ in hammered silver and Nakagawa Mamoru’s vase with inlaid stripe design in copper and silver alloy.
Wood and bamboo are venerated materials in Japan, closely integrated into daily life. Bamboo in particular has recently gained cult status and is collected widely outside Japan. Katsushiro Sōhō’s basket ‘Shallow Stream’ in split bamboo technique is an exquisite example of a work which is both functional and beautiful. Wood has always been a material of choice for sculptors in Japan and in many cases is worked laboriously by artists polishing, burning or inlaying to produce supreme examples of their craft.  Nakagawa Kiyotsugu has used ancient sacred cedar wood in a complex mosaic inlay technique to decorate his square box.

The exhibition concludes with glass making and dolls. Dolls in Japan have souls and are celebrated each year with their own festival.  ‘Eguchi’ by Hayashi Komao brings a famous courtesan from medieval history vividly to life.  Glass has an ancient but largely unacknowledged history in Japan.  New types of Japanese glass design are at the forefront of innovation, but this is not yet recognised by the Living National Treasure system.  Intriguing works such as Ishida Wataru’s covered container with pate de verre, ‘White Age (Age 99)’ suggest that it surely will be in the future.

The exhibition has been organized with The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. In association with The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Japan Art Crafts Association and The Japan Foundation.  Supported by Agency for Cultural Affairs, Japan. Transportation supported by All Nippon Airways. Project support from The Asahi Shimbun

For further information or images please contact Hannah Boulton on 020 7323 8522 or

Notes to Editors

  • In 1950 the Japanese government created a Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties. The tangible cultural properties to be protected were architecture, painting, sculpture, crafts, and calligraphy, as well as other precious national assets such as historical sites, scenic sites, and special plants and animals.  In addition, certain intangible cultural properties were also protected: theatrical arts, music, craft techniques and others.  Holders of these intangible cultural properties have come to be known popularly as ‘Living National Treasures’ (ningen kokuhō).
  • The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue edited by Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere  published by British Museum Press, priced £25.
  • The Exhibition Shop will be selling ceramics, textiles, glass and jewellery from specially selected Crafts Council GB members.
  • An exciting public programme has been developed to coincide with the exhibition which will include lectures, talks, craft demonstrations by artists, a documentary film series and an important international symposium. For more information contact the press office.
  • The British Museum’s Japanese Galleries have recently undergone a major refurbishment. The new display Japan from prehistory to the present is a sequence of important stories told by fascinating objects. The display is chronological, with modern works occasionally brought back into the historical narrative. Paintings, prints and other light-sensitive works are rotated periodically but the layout of the gallery is permanent.  The displays reconnect the history of Japan with East Asia and, in more recent times, with the wider world. The section ‘Modern Japan’ includes major ceramic pieces made by some of the Living National Treasure artists also represented in Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan.
  • The October Gallery will host an exhibition of new paintings and selected works by the well-known Japanese artist Kenji Yoshida. The exhibition 'Inochi to Heiwa, Life and Peace' will run from 22nd June - 28th July 2007.