Discovering Japan’s Insatiable Urge to Decorate


By Laura Gatewood

Noh robe (nuihaku), Edo period (1615-1868), second half of 18th century, Japanese Silk embroidery and gold leaf on satin; 61 1/4 x 56"

I recently had the opportunity to visit Japan and while there had the good fortune to attend not one, but two exhibitions exploring the role of decoration in Japanese culture.

Contrary to the widely held assumption that minimalism or simplicity, known as wabi-sabi, is the primary motivation throughout Japan’s decorative history, both the Museum of Kyoto and the Suntory Art Museum in Tokyo had on view exemplary shows that supplied insight into the social motivations behind kazari, a word that encompasses the culture’s long-held attachment to elaborate ceremonial adornment. 

The Museum of Kyoto’s Kazari-The Impulse to Decorate Japan brings together an expansive collection including ancient earthenware from the Jomon Period (10,000 B.C. – 200 B.C), calligraphy from the Muromachi Period (1353-1573), armor and crests from the 16th century, as well as ornaments, kimonos, and costumes from the Edo Period to the 20th century.

The entirety of the exhibition reveals the pervasive commitment in Japanese culture to maintain strict gradations of adornment on everyday objects and those reserved for ceremonial rituals in religious and social traditions. The strategy behind kazari is that the more important the ceremony, the more elaborate the decoration, and the exhibition crystallizes this concept through the extravagantly crafted artifacts and decorative objects. 

Armor, (Late Kamakura period 1185-1333, early 14th century Japanese, Lacquered iron and leather, silk, stenciled leather, copper-gilt; 37 1/2 x 38, 3 oz.

Tokyo’s Suntory Art Museum at the top of the North Tower in Roppongi Hills displayed a complementary exhibition, titled Haute Couture Kimonos of the Edo Period that explores the evolution of design on kosode, Japan’s precursor to the modern kimono.

The adoption of kosode early in the Edo Period (1603-1867) as a universal garment led to a demand generated by the rich and privileged to visually declare their elite status by wearing increasingly intricate designs.

The decorative motifs center around expressions of courtly life, traditionally featuring fans, peonies, waterfalls, gardens on rich fabrics like silks and satins, all uniquely crafted to evidence an individual’s highly realized aesthetic taste.

The need for unique patterns cultivated a wealth of artistic genius in the design and manufacture of kosode, and in the later Edo Period artisans began to incorporate more intricate, narrative designs from the epic poetry of the day, supplying more specific attitudes about the wearer’s intellect and cultural sensitivity. Luscious beauty of the robes aside, I found more intriguing the influence of kazari as the common thread through the Suntory’s display of gorgeously crafted kimonos. 

Each exhibition was beautiful to the eye and mind. The experience of walking through both realigned my assumptions on the role that adornment plays in Japanese culture by showing that decoration is their way to highlight the separation between the banality of the ordinary and the respect for ceremony, thus becoming a functional concept that extendsbeyond the aesthetic and into social signifier.

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