The Influence of Shinto and Buddhism on Japanese Art

The Influence of Shinto and Buddhism on Japanese Art


Traditional Japanese culture is a complex, dynamic system of religious and philosophical, ethical, aesthetic, social and political beliefs and values, which had autochthonous character and arose as a result of assimilation of continental teachings throughout the long history of cultural, political, and economic ties with the mainland civilizations. A special role in the formation of deep indigenous culture was played by the national Japanese religion – Shinto. Dodd and Richmond emphasize that Buddhism and Shinto have made “vital contributions to the art” of Japan (852). Throughout the history, Buddhism and Shinto have a significant influence on many aspects of Japanese culture and traditional aesthetics that were reflected in the national arts such as monochrome painting, flower arrangement, tea ceremony, calligraphy,garden art, poetry and drama.

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Shinto and Buddhism are intertwined in Japanese culture. Biswas states “Buddhist images and rituals could be observed in Shinto faith” (94). Shinto is deeply national Japanese religion and in some sense represents the Japanese nation, its customs, nature and culture (“Religion and Beliefs”). Shinto religion grew out of ancient Japanese religious views, especially of the complex of beliefs and practices which has been associated with the deification of the forces of nature. Gradually, Shinto united ethical teachings of Confucianism, magic calendar, related beliefs of Taoism, philosophical concepts and ritual practices of Buddhism. The secular cultivation of Shinto as the main source of ideological systems and rituals led to the fact that a significant part of the Japanese people perceives rituals, holidays, traditions, attitudes, rules of Shinto not as religious elements, but cultural traditions. Shinto had a decisive influence on the formation of the nucleus of ethnic mentality by shaping the foundations of culture, which were kept in it as the subtext of many phenomena of the spheres of art and life.

Shinto has a significant influence on the art in Japan. For example, in ancient Japan, natural objects and phenomena where spirits lived became symbols of deities. They were represented in amazingly beautiful mountain peaks, terrible typhoons which swept everything in their way, bottomless depths of the seas, and waterfalls of extraordinary beauty resembling a gift of heaven. These objects were transformed into the objects of worship and deification. Herein, the main distinctive feature of Shinto from other religions lies not in a simple animation of nature, but in its deification.

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In modern Japanese painting, there are two main areas: traditional (nihonga) and Western European (ega). Artists of nihonga write mostly with water colors and ink on silk and paper. Ega artists use oil paints and canvas. There is also a mixed trend among national and borrowed painting. Most Japanese artists are associated with the Japanese Academy of Arts and various civil society organizations that advocate national originality of Japanese culture. Any Japanese artist, even one who adheres to the standards of Western European painting, reflects the Japanese flavor of life and especially the Japanese national character. Japanese artists of the past hone skills by creating realistic images of nature. Although the main features of Japanese painting have been viewed since ancient times and had the influence on the Chinese masters, they have been integrated into the authentic character of Japan. According to Buddhism, the artist transmits the truth. To reflect reality, mentors teach artist to feel the breath of life, to merge with the surrounding things. The artist must not copy things, but express his inner world, his vision of reality and of each of its elements – animals, trees, flowers, reeds, grass, etc. Asymmetry is another distinctive aspect of Japanese paintings. It is also characteristic of Japanese architecture. A clear example of this feature is the Buddhist temples that are scattered on the mountain slopes of Japan.

Buddhism has had a marked influence on many poetic genres in Japan. The influence of Zen on poetry is stronger than on philosophy. This is due to the fact that poetry affects people mainly through the subconscious, emotional structure of the mind, which is the area of application of Zen. Most pronounced impact of Buddhism can be traced to a specific Japanese poetic direction – haikei. It emerged on the basis of folk-song rhymes, jokes, fun songs. This poetry was first engaged mainly in monasteries and samurai families. Haiku is a good illustration of the features of the Japanese national character, which reveals subconscious origin. Prolonged and persistent cultivation of this genre in Japanese poetry gave rise to the phenomenon of reverse effect: haiku contributed to the consolidation of the Japanese idea of the unconscious as a leading principle of life. All types of Japanese art are subject to its requirements. In Japan, the principle of the theatrical life of the subconscious is most evident in the Noh theater performances. It is strict classical, fully developed form of traditional theater of Japan. The theater puts performances based on two basic principles: monomane (imitation, stage truth) and yugen (internal depth, the highest form of harmonic spiritual beauty). The requirements of these principles are expressed in the lyrics, dance, music, singing, stage movement actors, whose main task is calling to unconsciousness. The doctrine of Zen is at the core of these principles. It is encouraged to merge subject and object, in this case – the actor and the audience.

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Flower arrangement and garden art have been influenced by Shinto and Buddhism, too. Japanese garden is characterized by an atmosphere of mystery, which forms the basis of park design. The stones are bedrock of the Japanese garden. The design of gardens is formed in the connection with Buddhism and Shinto due to bringing spiritual sense and making garden a place where one can spend time and meditate (“Japanese Garden”). Flower arrangement (ikebana) dates back to the times of the spread of Buddhism in Japan. It is based on three lines that symbolize a person, heaven, and earth.

Tea ceremony has played a significant role in the spiritual and social life for several centuries (“The Japanese Tea Ceremony”). The Japanese recognize and carefully cultivate canons of tea ceremony not only because it gives them an opportunity to have aesthetic pleasure. During the ritual they could better feel themselves through the strict regulation of behavior, set pretexts for the ceremony, etc.

Calligraphy is considered to be one of the Japan arts and is called Shodo. Along with painting, calligraphy is taught in schools. The art of calligraphy was brought to Japan with Chinese writing. Tamashige argued that it was formed under the influence of Shinto.


In conclusion, along with Buddhism, Shinto defined the basic settings for national identity and became an integral part of traditional worldview. Simplicity, naturalness, spontaneity, harmony became not only integral features of Japanese art, but also largely determined attitude to life for the Japanese.

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