Ike No Taiga and Japan Art: Rich Legacy of China and Shattering the Myths of the Edo Period

Ike No Taiga and Japan Art: Rich Legacy of China and Shattering the Myths of the Edo Period

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times


Japanese art is very distinctive and contrasts greatly with classical European art. This notably applies to religious differences, environmental factors, culture, limited social interaction between both artistic poles – and other important realities. Ike No Taiga exemplifies this vast difference in thinking and this equally applies to the finished artistic touch. At the same time, the rich historical and cultural reality of China meant that Japan was swayed by this artistic gravity.

Indeed, China played a powerful role in the rise of Japanese high culture that really took off during the Nara period in the eighth century. Of course, cultural interaction and the flow of Buddhism naturally reached Japan through both China and Korea. Also, powerful religious scholars from Japan reached the “Middle Kingdom” of China in order to learn and to espouse new philosophical concepts. Therefore, this period of history witnessed the natural regional dynamics of China, Japan and Korea.


Ike No Taiga (1723-1776) also highlights the complex reality of the Edo Period because clearly the outside world wasn’t fully closed to the people of Japan. Yes, the West was viewed with suspicion and this can be seen by the utter oppression of Christianity in Japan in this period. However, it is true to say that religious differences in the Christian and Muslim world in this period also led to internal inquisitions and the these fault-lines continue to exist. After all, al-Shabaab, ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda and nations like Saudi Arabia continue to enforce their own Islamist inquisitions in the twenty-first century.

Therefore, while religious edicts were a reality during the Edo Period, it is equally true to say that complete isolation is a different issue. Ike No Taiga is testimony to this because he was influenced greatly by the rich cultural, artistic and philosophical legacy of China.

Ike No Taiga was born into a relatively poor family and sadly 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. Therefore, this also shatters some myths in relation to stratification in this period of Japan because channels were open, even if Ike No Taiga is a rare reality.


Given this reality, the heavy-handed stratification of society was not completely rigid during the Edo Period. Thankfully, this meant that individuals like Ike No Taiga were accepted based on being people of letters and having rich artistic skills.

Ike No Taiga was taught classical Japanese and Chinese disciplines during his childhood. Of notable importance, the Buddhist Mampuku-ji Zen temple would remain embedded within his soul. Therefore, irrespective of Japan’s isolation or not; the classical world of China was still potent within the mindset of Japanese high culture. Of course, this equally applies to religious and philosophical thinking that emanated within the Buddhist Mampuku-ji Zen temple that shaped and influenced Ike No Taiga greatly.

At the tender age of fourteen years of age Ike No Taiga had become a professional artist and a calligrapher of high esteem.  However, the encounter he had with Yanagisawa Kien would greatly impact on Ike No Taiga.

Yanagisawa Kien would open-up the world of bunjin to Ike No Taiga and this cultural area would always stay with him. Indeed, Yanagisawa Kien was a major artistic figure and social thinker during this period in Japan. On top of this, bunjin was potent within high circles in this period of Japanese history and clearly Ike No Taiga gained from this reality.


Anna Beerens comments: “In 18th-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 because the bunjin world appealed greatly based on the richness of high culture within this mindset. 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 connect with nature.  Also, the journeys would expand the cultural awareness of the individual and trigger greater artistic imagination.


Bunjin concepts did enable Ike No Taiga to expand his knowledge and by travelling he learnt about Rangaku (Dutch learning) and Noro Genjo. These fusions provided important international worldviews, even if limited in scope. Like usual, these cultural traits would be assimilated within Japanese cultural norms.

Again, the Edo Period and isolationism did not prevent scholars from studying outside concepts.  Therefore, the thought patterns of high culture in both China and the Netherlands would impact on Ike No Taiga. On top of this, Ike No Taiga was always searching therefore in time he would become influenced by Hakuin Ekaku.

The Japanese government classified some of Ike No Taiga’s work and deemed them National Treasures. This would have pleased him greatly because the man of letters was fully transformed by bunjin thought patterns. Therefore, he would have been honored to maintain this rich reality within modern Japanese high culture.

Ike No Taiga may have resided in so-called isolationist Japan. However, this did not stop him from learning from the high culture of China and the Netherlands.  Also, his humble background and stratification in Japan did not hinder him. This reality means the life of Ike No Taiga should be studied in order to deconstruct some myths about Japan during the Edo Period.



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