Momoyama Period in Japan

Sketch for Toyotimi Hideyoshi

Asian Art Newspaper looks at the culture of the Azuchi-Momoyama period and Sengoku period, when a taste for lavish gold screens of the Kano School appeared alongside the refinement of The Tea Ceremony

The Azuchi-Momoyama (1573-1603) period refers to the 30-year period from the 1573 fall of the Muromachi shogunate until the establishment of the Edo shogunate in 1603. In this exhibition, Tokyo National Museum has focused on the arts that flourished during this period, considered one of the most vibrant and magnificent in Japanese art history, from famous masterpieces, Important Cultural Objects and National Treasures, to explore Japan’s shifting aesthetics during this time. The Momoyama period in Japan was an era of great change that saw a shift from the medieval to the pre-modern, a time when Japan emerged from the medieval into the modern age, and a time which also saw great patronage and flourishing of the arts.

The Sengoku Period

In 1543, the arrival of firearms (the arquebus, long gun) in Japan symbolised the beginning of what would become the Sengoku ‘warring states’ period that lasted almost 100 years, until Portuguese boats were banned from Japanese waters in 1639, a year after the Shimabara Uprising had ended. This turbulent period had been initiated by the Onin War in 1467, when the existing feudal system that comprised a patchwork of competing warlords (daimyo) collapsed and the country was escalated into a wider civil war – the Sengoku period. By the end of the Muromachi period, power was weakened and the most powerful warlord of the time, Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), led the battle to reunite the country, a fight that was continued by his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598). By 1568, after several years of fighting, Oda Nobunaga triumphantly entered Kyoto and installed Ashikaga Yoshiaki as the hereditary 15th and final shogun, however by 1573, Nobunaga had banished the shogun to usher in the new Azuchi-Momayama period. The Momoyama period of Japan was a time when the Emperor and court was not permitted to administer the government and was expected to use its influence through the arts and scholarship, and to maintain the tradition of music, dance, religious ritual, poetry, calligraphy and writing. However, a new and powerful aesthetic also began to emerge at the time, Cha No Yu, the Way of Tea, including the cultivation of wabi-sabi sentiments, which were mainly pursued and promoted by the samurai class. Sen no Rikyu (1512-191) was the leading tea master to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who greatly supported him in codifying and spreading the Way of Tea, he also used it as a means of solidifying his own political power.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Hideyoshi’s tastes were influenced by his teamaster, but nevertheless he also had his own ideas to cement his power such as constructing the Golden Tea Room (the original has been lost, but replicas exist) and hosting the Grand Kitano Tea Ceremony at the Kitano Tenmagu shrine in 1587, considered a major cultural event of the Momoyama period, when the symbiotic relationship between politics and tea was at its height. Warlords rewarded their vassals with costly gifts of tea utensils. Sen no Rikyu served Nobunaga for 12 years and Hideyoshi for nine. The restrained, aesthetic taste surrounding the tea ceremony is in brash contrast to the ostentation seen in screens and the ‘golden world’ of public spaces.

The name of the era comes from one of Hideyoshi’s castles, south of Kyoto – the building was demolished by his successors, as it was a visible reminder of their rival’s power, and the hill planted with peach trees, hence the name Peach Tree Hill (Momoyama). Once in control, Nobunaga commenced construction on his own enormous castle strategically located at Azuchi, northeast of Kyoto. Eventually Nobunaga was assassinated by one of his own generals, allowing Hideyoshi to come to power. The third great Momoyama general was Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was destined to move the centre of power to Edo and establish a new shogunate in the city of Edo (present-day Tokyo), ushering in a more peaceful and steady regime in the country.

The exhibition of the Momoyama period of Japan presents 230 works created during these turbulent years of transition in order to look at the lives of the Japanese during these chaotic years and explore the development of the emergence of a distinct culture and taste. The show is divided into six themes to better explore these complex changes in society and taste during this pivotal period in the country’s history.

Momoyama Period of Japan Screens and Kyoto

It opens with Momoyama Essence: Art for Unifying Figures, offering an array of masterpieces representing the period when regional military rulers strove to unite the Japanese islands under a single ruler. These changes are documented in screens created at the time depicting the capital from the late Muromachi to early Edo period, reflecting the political and aesthetic changes of the times. This genre of screen paintings, called Rakuchu rakugai zu (Scenes in and around the Capital), capture the early capital of Kyoto from a bird’s-eye-view, showing the city’s temples and shrines, the Imperial Palace, the daimyo’s residences, as well as various shops and the townspeople going about their business. On show is one of the finest examples, Scenes in and Around the Capital (1565), known as the Uesugi version, it has been passed down in the Uesugi clan for generations. It was painted by Kano Eitoku (1543-1590), who served as an official painter for the warlord Oda Nobunaga (1534-82), and who gave the screen to the renowned warlord Uesugi Kenshin (1530-78). Other Eitoku highlights include a portrait of Oda Nobunaga and Chinese Lions, a six-panel folding screen, on loan from the Imperial Household Agency.

A sketch for a portrait of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, attributed to Kano Mitsunobu (1565-1608), a son of Kano Eitoku, shows the warlord and hero of the times portrayed in his sixties, with pointed beard and a ‘monkey face’ for which he was notorious. Hideyoshi fabricated an aristocratic ancestry, claiming descent from the Fujiwara family. In 1586, he was appointed to the highest court office to those outside the imperial family, as Prime Minister (Dajodaijin). However, he spent most of his life on the battlefields. There are several extant portraits of Hideyoshi, but all seem to have been executed within a few years of his death in 1598.

Works representing other great artists of the Momoyama period of Japan are also on view, including the screens Pine Trees and Maple Trees by Hasegawa Tohaku (1539-1610). An example of Kano Motonobu’s (1476-1559) work, Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons from 1550, shows the utter luxury of these screens, with their typically lavish gold-block backgrounds that were in taste at the time.

Shino and Oribe Ceramics from the Momoyama Period of Japan 

In contrast, the Shino and Oribe ware ceramics are more austere and exude a simple and refind aesthetic, typical of examples used in the Tea Ceremony. Arms and armour on show reflect the fact that power and politics were a driving force of the civil unrest and wars, a large part of life for all classes during this period, as represented by the elaborate armour worn in battle by Sengoku generals. Kodaiji maki-e lacquer and Nanban (Southern Barbarian) arts, European and other foreigners, reveal a wider world view and experience of the time, especially reflecting the interaction with Portuguese missionaries and traders.

Famous Calligraphy from the Momoyama Period of Japan

The section A Century of Change: Muromachi to Edo looks at how art and taste changed during the period. Calligraphy by Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu are all featured in the exhibition, along with portraits of the Sengoku generals, alongside paintings and a selection of decorative artworks ranging from stationery boxes to Tea Ceremony kettles, mirrors, and even coins. The objects on display convey how these changing times brought about changing tastes and aesthetics not only to art, but also to daily life.

Momoyama Period of Japan Culture and Taste

The Muromachi period built the groundwork for what would become the golden age of Momoyama culture. In Momoyama Prelude: Warring States Aesthetics, a series of luxurious gold-ground screens depicting the capital Kyoto and large format panel and wall paintings especially created for Zen temples around Kyoto became art forms in their own right. These works emphasised aesthetics that honoured the pomp and ritual of ceremonies and events related to the emperor or shogun. From the Onin War (1467-1477) and the Meio Coup (1493) onwards, the dominant culture of the day began to influence the regional daimyo and filtered through to the townspeople (chonin) throughout Japan. Their tastes added a new dimension to earlier art forms and taste, as they migrated into the next era of influence. This section confirms the classic aesthetics of the late Muromachi period, while showing the transition of taste and patronage in the nascent buds of the developing Momoyama taste that would follow. This change can be seen by comparing the calligraphies of the Emperor, the warlords Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu, and the portraits of Yoshiteru Ashikaga, the 13th Shogun of the Muromachi Shogunate, and the Sengoku generals, including a young Ieyasu Tokugawa, who would eventually usher in the following era – the Edo.

The Momoyama culture is known for its lavish gold screens and luxurious artefacts, but the foundation for this taste was laid during the Muromachi period. Before the dawn of this change of taste in the 16th century, cultural activities that had mainly been developed with an emphasis on rituals and prestige that were centred on the Emperor and the court. However, the power and influence of the warlords began to rise during the civil wars and the Sengoku daimyo became more powerful after the Onin War, when the influence of the court waned and the military class took control.

The Tea Ceremony in Japan during the Momoyama Period of Japan

Making Tea: Chanoyu from Rikyu to Oribe. As the Muromachi shogunate waned, the townspeople emerged as the standard-bearers of a new age. They studied renga linked-verse (in which two or more poets supplied alternating sections of a poem) and attended noh theatre performances, and built rustic buildings in the city where they could also enjoy the tea ceremony within suitably  wabi settings, as in samurai culture. As part of this process Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), tea master to the ruling generals of the day, created a new form of tea ceremony aesthetic. He turned everyday items into tea utensils and made his own utensils that spoke to him. He broke free from the emphasis on tea utensil provenance and style, instead giving form to tea as a sincere meeting of minds. Rikyu’s aesthetic had a great influence on later tea masters, an influence which continued for centuries. On show are the tea utensils made and used by one such master, Furuta Oribe (1544-1615), which exude a powerful and overwhelming presence. Seemingly the direct opposite of his teacher Rikyu’s tastes, in fact, some aspects of Rikyu’s tastes can also be found in the elegant Oribe ware especially created for the Tea Ceremony.

During this era when warlords were competing for power and the townspeople were gaining wealth, both classes sought out expensive objects related to the tea ceremony as well as utensils. Sen no Rikyu created new styles by choosing tools that appealed to his sentiments and visually appealed to him, regardless of trends. This spirit of Rikyu had a great influence on the successors of Furuta Oribe and others. On show are masterpieces relating to this important period of the Tea Ceremony along with Momoyama-period tea wares.

The Kano School of Painting

The height of taste and creation during this period is explored in Mature Momoyama: From Splendid to Stylish. The distinctive painting style of Kano Eitoku, the painter most favoured by Hideyoshi, was also the preferred painter for the other Sengoku generals and became the de facto painting style of the Azuchi-Momoyama period. His successors, however, distanced themselves from ostentatious displays of power, creating instead a world of beauty that emphasised refined elegance and natural harmony. This development can also be seen in the calligraphy of the time, from the uninhibited freedom of the poet Konoe Nobutada (1565-1614) to Honami Koetsu’s (1558-1637) calligraphy which brushed against a background of underpaintings by Tawaraya Sotatsu (1570-1643). There was a shift, too, in ceramics from accidental and powerful forms to more designed, stylised beauty.

Japanese Armour

The Azuchi-Momoyama period was a turbulent time of constant battles and in Equipping a General: Arms and Armour, the physicality of war is explored. To cope with the seemingly endless repetition of battles, a new type of armour was developed, the tosei gusoku, a simplified structure that protected the entire body. A new type of sword mounting, the uchigatana, could also be quickly drawn and cut, while long scabbards with sword-guards bound on by cords were widely used. All of the armour and weapons used by the Azuchi-Momoyama period generals were further enhanced with decorations and special features, elements to display their rank and personal tastes. With the advent of the Edo period, these details of individual expression became symbols of military class status and privilege.

The Edo Shogunate and Tokugawa Ieyasu

The final section looks at the drive for peace in Towards Peace: Art for a New Shogunal Era. With Tokugawa Ieyasu’s defeat of the Toyotomi forces in the Siege of Osaka (1614-15), the daimyo declared a new reign name of Genna (1615) and the end of an era of war. The Edo shogunate, headed by the Tokugawa family, then established a series of laws and edicts regulating the behaviour of the military class families and thereby brought about a new era of real peace in the land. Nijo-jo Castle was the Tokugawa family’s residential castle in the city of Kyoto, which through their patronage became one of the best examples of Momoyama taste and design, adding a quiet sense of restrained dignity to the lavish magnificence of the Azuchi-Momoyama period. The provenance of tea utensils handed down from the powerful members of the Muromachi shogunate was revered and became a status symbol of the new elite, with complete reverence given to the items owned by the Edo shogunate’s founder, Tokugawa Ieyasu. In this final section, the dawn of the new social order is explored alongside the end of the Sengoku period of warring states, and the rise of the Tokugawa Edo shogunate at the beginning of the 17th century.

Until 29 November, 2020, at Heiseikan, Tokyo National Museum,