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The Flow
of Life

Kawase Hasui, Lake Tazawa, 1926, woodblock colour print, Tikotin collection

The Flow of Life

Water in Japanese Art


August 31st, 2001 - March 9th, 2002

Curator: Dr. Ilana Singer


Japan, the chain of islands off the East coast of Asia, is a land that nature has endowed with an abundance of sweet water to replenish her rivers and lakes, and her waterfalls. Most of the settlements in Japan are established close to supplies of water, and seafood is an important source of protein in the Japanese diet. Life and work are thus concentrated along the coasts. The sea and the distance from the mainland are the elements that have protected Japan from invasion by foreign hordes. This has allowed the Japanese to develop and safeguard their traditional culture for generations.


According to Japanese mythology, the creation of the country and its Shinto deities is linked to water. The god Izanagi and his sister, the goddess Izanami descended from the heavens to the "Heavenly Floating Bridge". Izanagi dipped his lance in the ocean, and from the falling drops of water Ono-Goro-Jima, the first of the Japanese islands, was created. The gods then came down to this island and gave birth to other islands and other deities. Izanami was burnt while giving birth to the god of fire, and died. Izanagi went down to the underworld to search for her, but was repulsed by demons. When he returned from the underworld, so the story goes, he wanted to purify himself, so he bathed in the river. The drops of water falling from his body and his clothing created more deities. From a drop falling from his left eye the goddess of the sun, Amaterasu Omikami, was born. The storm god, Susano o Mikoto, was created from a drop that fell from the end of his nose.


The Shinto belief is connected to agriculture, and it is possible that this myth is intended to explain the concept of water as the source of creation, because of the rice paddies flooded with water. Today, the Shinto ceremony, the Oharai, is still performed, a ritual cleansing of the body in water (Misogi), or by rinsing the mouth and hands in the basin (Mitarashi) at the entrance to every shrine. This water is intended to purify the soul even more than the body.


According to the Shinto belief, the Shinto deities embody and are embodied in every natural element in the universe, including the various aspects of water - cascades, well, rivers, lakes and oceans. The sacred sites are indicated by means of a rope (Shimenawa) or a Torii gate, both of them symbolizing the border between the sacred and the mundane. Thus water is endowed with great spiritual virtue. Believers make pilgrimages to sacred waterfalls in order to immerse themselves. According to belief, bathing in a sacred waterfall will even wash away sins. The print "Fudo Waterfall at Oji" (1857) by Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) shows bathers at the Fudo waterfall in northern Edo, named for a Buddhist deity (see further). "Fudo" means "immovable", and in this print the waterfall really does resemble a rigid pillar, its waters pouring vertically downward.  


There are two aspects to the water deities of Japan: The positive aspect is good fortune, e.g. Umi no Sachi (the riches of the ocean). The other aspect is negative, destructive, e.g. Tsunami (tidal waves). Archaeological findings indicate that, in very ancient times, human sacrifices were made, and metal tributes were offered to the water gods. In the Japanese chronicle ‘Nihon-Shoki', which was compiled in the year 720 CE, it is related that Ina Hime, sister of Jimmu, the first  emperor of Japan, threw herself with her sword into the turbulent Kumano Sea when she realized that her brother's ship was in danger. She was transformed into the goddess of water and the sword - Sachi Mochi no Kami. Though human sacrifices rarely occurred, it was usual, when in danger, to cast metal objects into the water - swords or mirrors - to pacify the water gods. There is a tale from the year 935 which relates that voyagers caught in a storm threw paper streamers (nusa) into the water to pacify the local water deities, but calm was not restored until they cast a mirror into the waves.  


In the 12th century, the peasants used to celebrate the return of spring, and began to prepare the fields for planting rice. They fashioned rough, coarse dolls out of paper and cast them into the river, believing that all their misfortunes and maladies would sink into the deeps together with the dolls. This ceremony still takes place today in some areas of Japan, and it is still acceptable in some places to throw rice cakes into the rivers in order to prevent floods or other natural disasters connected to water.


By the end of the year 927, when the compilation of the Engi-shiki (Customs of the Engi era) was completed, 32 shrines consecrated to the water deities were listed, - of the sea, the wells, the rivers and waterfalls, the lakes, the rain and the harbours - recognized as sanctuaries of Suijin, the god of water. In some places a statue of the god was placed by the source. Snakes and dragons were thought to be his embodiments. One of the most famous shrines appearing in the Engi-shiki is Sumiyoshi-jinja at Setsu, which is near Osaka.


Water also plays an important role in the Buddhist cosmology, because each new kalpa (4,320,000 years) begins with a breath of wind bringing water for starting a new world. In the Buddhist lotus sutra, water is a metaphor for the transient world, standing against the illusion of the permanency of all things. Sitting in meditation beside water, or visualizing water while meditating (Suisokan) is intended to bring a monk to the understanding that everything passes. Kannon, the goddess of mercy, is portrayed in Zen Buddhist paintings as of the 13th century, wearing a white robe (byaku-e Kannon) that symbolizes her pure, enlightened soul, as she sits meditating on a rock by a stream. These paintings are based on an Indian fable about the youth Sudhana, who visited Kannon at Potalaka Mountain where she dwelled, to ask her to help him reach enlightenment, and he found her sitting beside a stream in meditation. In the ink drawing by Terazaki Kogyo (1866-1919), Kannon wears a crown, behind which the rising moon forms a halo. The tree in the background echoes her silhouette. The figure and the rock have been registered with swift, free strokes of the brush, whereas the facial features and the crown have been added with clear, light lines, as in the typical ink paintings of Zen art. Only a few swirling strokes portray the flowing waters of the stream. In ink drawings in the Zen mode, water is depicted minimalistically, economically, so that it is barely represented, and the viewer must imagine it for him/herself.


In Buddhism water is sometimes described as muddy, murky, like, for example, the lotus pond with a lotus bud rising out of it. This flower, symbol of purity, rising, as it were, from the dirt, implies that the changing world has no room for conceptual distinctions. Accordingly, water contradicts the philosophy of the metaphysical concept of dualism and, in general, of spiritual enlightenment. Thus the lotus flower growing out of muddy water has become the symbol of Buddhism. 


Water is also described in Buddhism as the path from this world to nirvana. Crossing a river or any other source of water symbolizes the hope of resurrection. Water is the boundary between these two worlds, but it also joins them together. The cycle of birth and death is also linked to water (Shôji-kai). In order to be reborn on the shores of enlightenment, every living creature must pass through the waters of fate. The sutras are often compared to the boats that ferry lost souls to the safe haven of nirvana. Those who leave their families and homes to enter the Buddhist monasteries are often compared to rivers that lose their identity when they mingle with the great ocean.


A figure standing on the shore or the bank of a river is frequently present in paintings of the deities of the Buddhist pantheon. In many of them a god stands motionless on a rock in the midst of a racing torrent. Fudo Myo-o (The Immovable), most important of the "Shining Kings" for instance, or Bishamon-ten  guardian of the North, belong to the group of "Four Heavenly Kings". Fudo Myo-o is surrounded by flames - a symbol of purity. In his right hand he holds the sword of wisdom, and in his left a rope with which he binds the enemies of Buddhism. In some Buddhist writings it is suggested that the rope is also a fishing-line, used to draw lost souls out of the river and bring them to awareness of the truth. All these confirm the positive aspects of water for the Buddhists.


Throughout Japan they celebrate festivals dedicated to the gods of water. At these ceremonies, a bowl of water is presented as a tribute in front of a Buddhist sanctuary. At Nigatsu-do (the Pavilion of the Second Month) in the Todaiji Temple at Nara, they participate in a very popular ceremony known as Omizutori, during which pure spring water is offered as a tribute to Kannon of the eleven heads in the second month of the lunar calendar.


The Japanese have channeled this sense of water into ritual bathing that  combines calm, aesthetic pleasure, and wellbeing. Obviously it is connected with personal hygiene, but it is also the occasion for "naked companionship" (Hadaka Tsukiai), a social event. It is not so long since men and women bathed together, and in some places that is still the custom. Ritual bathing takes place in public bath-houses, usually located at hot springs. The Japanese are certainly among the cleanest people in the world, and will avail themselves of any opportunity for prolonged immersion in water that may be as hot as 43º, at least once a day. Perhaps bathing in such hot water is due to the very cold winters, and the difficulty, in the past, of heating the home. The woodblock print by Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815) depicts women and a child in a public bath-house. It shows the personal cleansing which takes place before entering the communal hot pool. At the upper left, a man is watching through a small grille. At the top of the print a painting of foaming and tumbling waves hangs on the wall.     


Most of the Japanese live near some source of water because their existence depends on it - from fishing to growing rice in the flooded paddies. Water is so necessary for growing rice that many poems about planting rice concern the deities of the fields (Ta no Kami), the gods created by the sun-goddess and the goddess of water. In art, they also depict creatures, both real and imaginary, who live in water - fish, turtles, and dragons.   


The sanctity of nature has certainly influenced Japanese depictions of landscape and water. One rarely sees a painting in which water is not an essential feature. Landscape is a central theme in the art of the Far East, particularly in ink drawings up to the 17th century. Contrary to western art, which focuses on mankind, in the Japanese ink drawings the main motifs are the misty lakes and the rivers and the waterfalls that pour into them amid lofty mountains, and man has only an insignificant place amid the magnificence of nature. Thus the Chinese Confucian conventions of art were established, especially in the Japanese ink drawings. According to Confucian law, everything has its place in the universe. Man may be insignificant in comparison with mighty nature, but that does not mean that his presence in the cosmos is negligible. However, it is certainly true that man's conquest of nature is very remote from this tradition. Hence nature is depicted in an idealized, hierarchical style, in which water has an honoured place.


Although, in some ways, Japanese depictions of water resemble those of the Chinese, they are essentially quite different. Together with the academic Chinese style, other styles developed in Japan - the Yamato-e (Japanese painting), characterized by flatness. A gilded background was often applied to "improve" realistic depictions of nature, in order to create a more decorative work. On some of the painted screens and sliding panels of the Kano school, which adopted the Yamato-e style, there is a forceful attempt to introduce the wonders of nature into the home, and in some of them there is an evident intention to even surpass nature. For example, a lake is presented as a large patch of blue. At the beginning of the Edo era (1603-1868) another style appeared, that of the Rimpa school. This style is decorative, the power of the work deriving from the tension between naturalism and stylization. Water, for instance, is often represented as a curling ribbon, or by parallel rows of curls.


Similarly, in this style so characteristic of Ogata Korin (1658-1716) in his picture "White Plum and Red Plum" on a pair of folding screens, we often find lacquer boxes, and stencils for printing on fabric (Katazome). In the 19th century an ornamental style ws employed to represent water, the motif of the wave becomes a semicircle, curved line below a progressively smaller curved line (Seigai-ha). Another style of depicting water is beautifully demonstrated in the print by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) "The Great Wave at Kanagawa" (appr. 1830-32). In this print, a gigantic wave is cresting, sending out fingers of white spray as if to grasp the tiny fishing boats over which it threatens to burst (nami-gashira). Hokusai's use of natural elements to construct his composition was a new trend in Japanese art at that time. It is as if the artist had redesigned nature, and its accurate depiction is only of secondary importance. The great circular form of the wave and the cone of Mount Fuji represent the integration of abstract geometrical shapes and realism. Western artists like Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) in his "Mont Sainte Victoire", and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), also adapted natural elements as subjects for their compositions.


Another way of representing water in Japanese art can be seen in Hokusai's print of the "Yoshitsune Waterfall" at Yoshino, in which he watered his horse (1834-35). The plunging water looks as if it were solid.  In the fan-shaped print by Ando Hiroshige, Mount Fuji can be seen beyond the waves at Enoshima, and the rough sea looks like folds of azure blue fabric which is held at each end and shaken. This representation may be derived from the Kabuki Theatre, in which they still flutter lengths of cloth to create an effect of water and waves.


Thus water as depicted in traditional Japanese art - the sea as a length of cloth; waterfalls as pillars or frozen cascades; foam on the waves as fingers; and streams as curling ribbons.


In the coloured woodblock prints, two or three shades of dark and light blue are used for water, and the foam is white. The movement of the lines and the splashes of colour are usually contrary to the natural reflection of light. On the other hand, the "new prints" (shin-hanga) that appeared at the beginning of the 20th century already demonstrate the influence of western art on representations of water, and the light is reflected more realistically.


Water is also present in the Japanese illustrations of fables in which the action takes place in the sea. For example, there is the story of Urashima Taro the fisherman, who was carried on the back of a giant sea turtle that he had rescued to the palace of the dragon king of the deep; the myth about the storm god Susanu o Mikoto, who slew the dragon-serpent that ruled the waters, the ocean and the rain, and drew from its tail a magic sword; Oniwaka, who killed a giant carp that had swallowed his mother, who had fallen into the Fudo Waterfall; the tale about the wife of Fujiwara no Kamatari (614-669) who dived into the ocean to retrieve her husband's priceless pearl, stolen from him by the dragon king; the story of the vengeful defeated ghosts of the Taira clan rising from the sea and causing a storm.


Water and the legends concerned with it, are present not just in Japanese paintings and coloured woodblock prints, but also on sword accessories, lacquer ware and other artifacts.

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