Japanese Art and Ike No Taiga: Inspired by the culture of China
Japanese Art and Ike No Taiga: Inspired by the culture of China
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
Japanese art is very distinctive and contrasts greatly with classical European art and clearly religious differences, environmental factors, distance, limited social interaction between both poles and other important factors is behind this. Ike No Taiga exemplifies the vast difference in thinking and clearly China was the center of gravity for a major period in the history of Japan.
This article is merely highlighting Ike No Taiga and focusing on the underbelly of culture in Japan and how his life provides glimpses of the reality of Japan in the eighteenth century. After all, the land of the rising sun was clearly influenced by ideas emanating out of China. Therefore, while thinking was influenced before the Nara period in the eighth century, it is clear that the Nara period highlights the interaction of both nations to a much higher degree.
It is often claimed that the Edo period is based on isolation but the life of Ike No Taiga (1723-1776) challenges this oversimplification. The Edo period witnessed a brutal inquisition against Christianity whereby all Christians were killed in this period in Japan if they were captured. However, outside cultural influences still entered this country by several channels which remained open. Also, crypto-Christians survived especially in the Nagasaki area and some Buddhist monasteries protected Christians by allowing them to pray secretly in special sanctuaries.
Therefore, while religious edicts were a reality the isolation of Japan is a different matter because thought patterns emanating from China were still potent. The life of Ike No Taiga is testimony to this and the same applies to many individual scholars and artists who adored Chinese culture in this period of Japanese history.
Ike No Taiga was born into a relatively poor family and his father died when he was very young. However, despite this his mother somehow managed to get her son educated by some of the finest minds in Japan in this period. This also speaks volumes for Japanese culture and society because despite enormous stratification it is clear that remarkable individuals good break the chains. Therefore, just like Japan wasn’t completely isolated the same applies to the rigid aspect of stratification which was still open to “men of letters” and artists.
He was taught classical Japanese and Chinese disciplines during his childhood and the Mampuku-ji Zen temple would remain embedded within his soul. Also, irrespective of Japan’s isolation or not; the classical world of China was still potent within the mindset of Japanese high culture. The same applies to religion and philosophy because much came from China and likewise Korea also influenced many important areas. Given the firm background of Mampuku-ji Zen temple then this reality would shape and influenced Ike No Taiga throughout his life.
At the tender age of 14 Ike No Taiga had become a professional artist and a calligrapher of high esteem. However, the encounter he had with Yanagisawa Kien would influence him greatly. Through Yanagisawa Kien the world of bunjin was introduced to him and this world would shape the life of Ike No Taiga alongside the influence of Mampuku-ji Zen temple. Yanagisawa Kien was a major artistic figure and social thinker and bunjin was potent within high circles in this period of Japanese history.
Anna Beerens comments that “In 8th-century Japan a few hundred individuals, mostly living in the main towns, such as Kyoto, Osaka and Edo, are considered literati (bunjin). In studying this group as an intellectual and social phenomenon one studies an important part of the history of 18th-century Japanese culture and city life. Also, their literati activities and attitudes are an interesting example of acculturation. For whatever our literati may be, they certainly are a collection of consciously sinophile people, writing Chinese, painting in a variety of Chinese styles, drinking their tea the Chinese way, and otherwise assimilating and disseminating Chinese influences, at the same time changing this heritage in all sorts of subtle ways.”
Ike No Taiga, Kan Tenju and Ko Fuyo were deeply influenced by Yanagisawa Kien. In their eyes, and many others, the bunjin world appealed greatly because of the splendor of high culture. However, the social reality of Ike No Taiga meant that the avoidance of commercialism was not possible. After all, if he did not ply his trade then he had no alternative source of income.
Another aspect of bunjin thinking was to set off on important journeys in order to understand the world and to commune with nature. Also, the journeys would expand the cultural awareness of the respective individual and by connecting with nature this would then trigger greater artistic imagination. It is easy to imagine the impact of nature on these individuals who adored high culture. Likewise, the “real world” also must have impacted on them. Therefore, these journeys were very rewarding.
Bunjin concepts did enable Ike No Taiga to expand his knowledge and by travelling he learnt about Rangaku (Dutch learning). Therefore, Noro Genjo will have provided another important worldview but fused with Japanese cultural influences and norms. Once more, this highlights the fact that the Edo period and isolationism did not prevent scholars from studying outside concepts. This reality enabled the thought patterns of high culture in both China and the Netherlands to impact greatly on Ike No Taiga. It also highlights the openness of Ike No Taiga because he was an individual who was always willing to learn new ideas.
Throughout much of the life of Ike No Taiga he would travel and connect with nature by mountain climbing and witnessing culture during his travels. He often was accompanied by fellow bunjin colleagues. Also, collaborations on numerous art projects took place. Therefore, the philosophy of bunjin reached deep within his soul and this created a yearning for knowledge and wisdom.
At all times Ike No Taiga was searching and in time he would also become influenced by Hakuin Ekaku. The personal style of Hakuin Ekaku would add to the vast knowledge of Ike No Taiga and in time he would work with Hakuin’s disciples.
The Japanese government classified some of Ike No Taiga’s work to be National Treasures. This would have pleased him greatly because the man of letters was fully transformed by bunjin thought patterns and other influences. However, the lore of Chinese high culture was the central theme which blessed him greatly.
Ike No Taiga may have resided in so-called isolationist Japan but this did not stop him from benefitting from the high culture of China and the Netherlands. Also, his humble background and stratification in Japan did not hinder him. Therefore, aspects of the life of Ike No Taiga should be studied in order to deconstruct some myths about Japan in the Edo period.
Some Japanese art articles are republished because of the cultural and artistic angle