Islamic Art in Tokyo: 14 Dynasties

Fuad Honda Kouichi calligrapy islamic art tokyo

The Olympic Games may be over in August, but the spirit of international collaboration is alive with an exhibition of Islamic art at the Tokyo National Museum, which runs until January 2022. Japan is the perfect destination for travelling exhibitions. The Japanese are among the most enthusiastic museum goers in the world, with a legendary liking of Impressionists and the ‘best of the West’. Before China became what it is now, Japanese exhibitions pulled in the biggest crowds around the world. They still have four in the top 20 of 2019’s most visited shows. Last year was, of course, a write-off almost everywhere.

The Islamic Arts Museum Malayasia

Less apparent is Japan’s commitment to Islamic art. The Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) was recently among the first to send a complete survey exhibition to a premier institution, the Tokyo National Museum (TNM). This coincided with the opening of the Olympic Games, which could have been a distraction if there had been more local sports lovers welcomed at the stadia. Still, the TNM is the most visited museum in Japan’s capital city, and is the largest and oldest in the country.

The title of the exhibition is 14 Dynasties and a Region: The History and Culture of the Muslim World, which is as comprehensive an overview of the subject as most audiences anywhere would have seen. Japan does have a longer history of interest in the subject than might be expected. Until the 20th century, it was art collectors and historians to the west and east of the Islamic world who were most immersed in the subject. Japan was especially fascinated by what travelled to their end of the rather ambiguous trade network known as the Silk Road.

The harvest of Islamic wares in Japan is meagre compared with what the IAMM has brought over. The profile of Islam around the world has risen hugely over recent decades, while Japan has had little hands-on experience of this phenomenon. It remains one of the most homogeneous nations in the world, with a very small number of home-grown Muslims. Curiosity is rampant, though.

Looking into the past, there was even less interaction than there is now. Apart from Islamic treasures such as ceramics, put into superbly crafted boxes for use in the tea ceremony, art historians have to look hard for connections. One is the 1887 visit by Prince Komatsu Akihito, sent by the Meiji Emperor to visit the Ottoman domains. In this mission to strengthen relations between the Empire of Japan and the Ottoman Empire, the Meiji Emperor sent as diplomatic gifts a sword and a suit of armour. This was a language that both sides understood well.

Arms and Armour

The current exhibition of Islamic art in Tokyo has a suitably impressive showing of the types of arms and armour that were less for the battlefield and more for such exchanges. These had long been important imperial and diplomatic gifts, cherished for their symbolic value and for their exquisite workmanship. The aesthetics of swords, daggers and armour reflected the status, wealth and power of their bearer – on both sides of Asia.

Across the Islamic world, royal ateliers and foundries were established, and the best arms designers were employed. Royal seals were also struck onto these weapons to control the quality of such weapons. When not in use, they were placed in repositories or arsenals, where their access and movement would be recorded and controlled. This is a process that Japanese art lovers will easily appreciate, although local tastes ran more to displaying these objects than to hiding them away.

Despite a shared love of edged weapons, the Islamic world and Japan were both shaped by firearm technology. The three best-known Muslim powers of the past 500 years are the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. Although they came to be known as the ‘gunpowder empires’, their artistic output was phenomenal. Most of this exhibition’s contents represent these three groupings. By embracing gunpowder, they emerged militarily, commercially and culturally as the strongest empires in the Islamic world by the 16th century. The Ottomans commissioned local and European foundries to cast their cannon. These were used in seizing Constantinople from the Byzantine Empire in 1453 and later in securing the rest of Anatolia for Ottoman rule. Europe and the Arab world would soon know about it.

The Influence of the Ottomans

The influence of the Ottomans spread eastwards too. The Mughal Emperor Babur (1483-1530) sought their gunpowder expertise to defeat forces loyal to the Delhi Sultanate and thereby establish his dynasty in India for the next four centuries. As far away as the Malay world, sultans of Malacca sought Ottoman assistance with this new technology to combat the invading Portuguese.

Inevitably, one of the strengths of this exhibition is that it shows the whole Islamic world. There is no cut-off point at the Subcontinent. China is well represented, and the Malay world is especially well represented, stretching from the islands of Java, Sulawesi, Borneo and Singapore to the mainland Malay Peninsula, including Patani in southern Thailand. Known to the Chinese as Nanyang, the ‘southern sea’, it is a region rich in natural resources. Gold and silver, as well as tin, were formed into luxury objects, arms and armour. Textile, woodcarving and manuscript production were among the arts that flourished. Royal patronage was extended to master craftsmen; the keris, the distinctive asymmetrical dagger, was one of the most important luxury items worn as part of formal attire. The fine workmanship of silver filigree made for some of the most intricate designs on metal objects, ranging from jewellery to household utensils.

Many of the decorative patterns were inspired by the lush, green vegetation of the region. Floral designs, as well as birds and domesticated animals, were admired motifs used on wood, metal and Islamic textiles. The art of Malay manuscripts flourished as well. Above all were textiles. This is an area that Japanese connoisseurs continue to admire; these days some of the finest kimonos are made from songket metallic-thread fabrics. Batik is another technique of shared interest between the Malay world and Japan.

Betel-Nut Containers

Another speciality of the Malay World that should make an impression on Japan  with its love of gorgeously crafted boxes are finely made betel-nut containers. Betel (sirih), composed of areca nut and lime wrapped in betel leaves, is a mild stimulant traditionally chewed especially during social occasions throughout Southeast Asia. The containers are often virtuoso work, made of gold or silver. The close relationship with nature is reflected in other metal objects, including water containers (kendi) and serving plates (dulang), which are part of a wide array of objects made in the form of mythical birds and animals.

The price of placing these diverse manifestations of Islamic art on the platform they deserve is high. The world’s third largest economy – Japan – will no doubt appreciate the collaboration with a region that it has experienced troubled relations with in the past. It shows a remarkable change in world dynamics that Malaysia has an institution able to do this. It’s hard to think of anyone else who has done the same, apart perhaps from the Kuwaiti royal family, which put its rather restricted version (Mughal jewellery) on the road 20 years ago. By coincidence, this touring exhibition started at the British Museum and concluded at the IAMM.

As the Malaysian museum director Syed Mohamad Albukhary stated, the exhibition travelling to Japan to show Islamic art in Tokyo  ‘will open a window into the world of Islam’ and foster understanding. Surely a better introduction than having a brick thrown through it.


Part of the Islamic art in Tokyo exhibition is devoted to a local calligrapher – Fuad Honda Kouichi. Calligraphy is one of the most revered art forms in Islam – and in Japanese culture. It has for centuries unified the arts of diverse Muslim domains. Through the Qur’an, the status of calligraphy has been elevated above any other traditional art form. For the contemporary artist-calligrapher, calligraphy is not merely drawing lines of prayers, nor is it only a test of accuracy, skill and perfection. It is a vocation steeped in dedication, patience and passion that makes their work stand out today. It is good to see Fuad Honda Kouichi’s work represented in this exhibition of Islamic art in Tokyo.

Large-scale canvases have replaced the single folios of old, encouraging a wider platform for artistic expression. Three different works, representing the enigmatic and mystical styles of calligraphy by two men and a woman, are on display at the Tokyo National Museum: the works of Ahmed Moustafa, Azra Aghighi Bakhshayeshi and Fuad Honda Kouichi.

Honda is exceptional within Japan. He is a master calligrapher, teaching and instructing teachers and has supervised generations of young calligraphers. In the 1970s he was captivated by the limitless possibilities of written Arabic when working for a Japanese company in the Middle East. He found this form of calligraphy more liberating than what he had been brought up with.

Unlike most calligraphers in East Asia, he uses a reed pen rather than a brush. The strokes are close to the traditions of the Islamic world while the compositions are entirely different. His works glow with colours that frame the jet black of his writing. He also uses an astonishing variety of shapes; from rigid triangles to shifting dunes of sand and the celestial calm of the galaxy. From the steely light of dawn to blazing sunsets, his palette is unlike any other Islamic calligrapher’s.


The exhibition of Islamic art in Tokyo runs until 20 February, 2022, at Tokyo National Museum,