Themes, scenes, and taste in the history of Japanese garden art

W. Kuitert

    Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


    The present study deals - in its three parts - with three fragments of the garden history of Japan. It reveals how the meaning a garden had to the people of its time was significantly different in all of these periods.

    Part one, titled "Themes", deals with the later Heian period, from the tenth until the late twelfth century. The foundations of a native, Japanese tradition of garden art were laid. The first chapters introduce the palace gardens of the courtly aristocracy in the capital Heian. None of these gardens exist and they are only known from records and illustrative paintings. These paintings are not only informative about the appearance of the gardens, but also show us how the gardens were used by the courtiers. For example, a spacious yard in front of the main palace hall was used for festive ceremonies, a large pond that laid in front of this yard was used for boating parties. One of the palaces, the Tosanjoden Palace, is discussed at length.
    Some late eleventh and twelfth century gardens are still found at temples that lay remote from the capital Heian. These gardens must be viewed as an extension of the traditions that originated in the palace gardens. This is illustrated in a chapter on the remains of a garden at the twelfth century temple of Motsu-ji.
    The practice and theory of garden making in the Heian period was still in an early stage. Yet a manual on gardens was written, the eleventh century Sakuteiki. The manual departs from the typical lay out of the pond gardens of the period, without further discussion.
    Part one of the present work shows how this lay out evolved as a result of modest changes in the natural topography of the typical palace site in the capital Heian. In this respect one cannot speak of a conscious design policy. Furthermore, the typical, topographically determined lay out was theoretically backed up with a philosophy on the divination of sites. It is concluded that the manual does not advocate a search for harmony with nature, or rejects man-made artificialities, as is often believed.
    The manual Sakuteiki was a secret garden book and was written by one of the Heian noblemen who showed an active interest in garden art. There were only a few interested noblemen and they all belonged to the Fujiwara clan. The manual's secrecy can be explained with its Fujiwara authorship; all clan-knowledge was secret. Although some of the Fujiwara noblemen were seriously interested in garden art, it is not likely that they had any idea of the techniques of garden making. The manual Sakuteiki does not cover this subject. Construction and maintenance of the gardens was done by nameless bondsmen that belonged to the manorial landholdings of the courtly aristocracy.
    The manual Sakuteiki, as well as contemporary novels such as the Tale of Genji, give us a clear insight into the way nature was perceived by the men and women at the court. Mental images of nature relied on archetypes that were derived from classical literature. Most outspoken in this respect were themes of the lyrical poetry that was widely read and written at the Heian court. Practically all of the lyrical poetry was concerned with images of nature, so that it gave an emotional content to plants, trees and other things of nature, present in the garden. The poetic aesthetics of plant material were apparently so well known, that the Sakuteiki hardly discusses planting design in the garden, except for some implicit remarks in its introduction. The conclusion is drawn that the illusion of landscape in the courtly garden of the Heian period relied for a great deal on the evocation and recognition of the imagery of lyrical themes. But these thematic images were not designed as a formal composition; what mattered were the essential elements of the lyrical theme. Composition of form was important for the design of decorative arrangements of rocks in the garden. The manual Sakuteiki employs in this respect the term 'landscape scenery as it is found in nature'. The phrase and the appearance of the Heian rock arrangements suggest a link with landscape painting.

    Part two, titled "Scenes", deals with the mediaeval period. In Chapter I the period is roughly defined as the fourteenth and fifteenth century. The focus is shifted from the Heian courtly nobility to the rising aristocracy of Zen Buddhist priests and powerful military men. It is shown that the small mediaeval gardens found in front of halls where the new aristocracy held their fashionable gatherings were laid out to be perceived as an outward form, a landscape scene.
    The early fourteenth century garden art in Japan witnessed a strong influence of Chinese ideas on landscape art from the Song period (960 - 1279). This is illustrated with a chapter on the extant pond garden at the Zen Buddhist temple Tenryu-ji. This garden is designed as a scene to be viewed from the main hall, a Chinese idea that was never found in Heian period gardens. Tenryu-ji's pond is too small to stage boating parties. A large rock arrangement, suggestive of a waterfall, lies at the pond edge that faces the main hall of the temple. The composition of rocks for
    this waterfall evokes a depth of perspective, for which it effectively employs the compositional theories of Chinese landscape painting. As a concept it is so revolutionary for its time that it is unthinkable that it was designed by a Japanese. Even the native landscape painters of that time did not understand the Chinese composition schemes of landscape painting and were only hesitatingly experimenting with these. In the discussion about the life of the Zen priest Muso Kokushi, who founded the Tenryu-ji, the popular view that he designed or built its garden, as well as some others, is rejected. It is concluded that gardens, such as at Tenryu-ji were conceived by Chinese immigrants. Many of these Chinese were cultured men that had fled from China after the fall of the Song dynasty. They were welcomed at the early mediaeval Zen monasteries that were directly sponsored by the central military government. Monasteries and military government formed a rapidly rising institute of political power. These monasteries were in fact prestigious academies of Chinese learning, part of which formed the literary criticism on landscape art. Japanese garden making in the Zen temples stood under strong Chinese influence, and thus the appraisal of gardens was done using Chinese phraseology.
    The situation was quite different in the late mediaeval period starting around the mid-fifteenth century. In the course of time a particular kind of cultural gathering had developed at which the elite of the military men and Zen priests showed each other the Chinese exotics which they possessed. These were imported works of art: ceramics; paintings; etcetera. Chinese literature was frequently discussed, or verses were written. Adapting to the requirements of the new salon, a type of architecture was developed, the architecture of the 'reading room', that allowed for a most profitable display of the Chinese imports. The emergence of a large alcove at the head end of the reading room most evidently indicates the changing of the function of the salon architecture. Manuals appeared on the subject of the correct arrangement of the Chinese objects in the alcove. The wall, of one side of the reading room, consisted of sliding screens that could be pushed aside in order to give a full view of the garden that was always situated in front of it. This garden could not be entered, it was only meant to be viewed and was therefore conceived as a landscape scene.
    The cramped lay out of the walled-in residences of the elite only allowed for a garden of a limited size. Illustrative for this is the small family temple, in fact the private residence-cum-working place of a wealthy Zen priest. There is an explosive growth in the number of these small temples, parallel to the waning of the central military power and the large Zen monasteries they sponsored. Within the compound of the typical family temple a reading room could be found, with a decorative garden out in
    front of it. Many of these small gardens at family temples have survived. They feature scenic rock compositions, sparse plantation but hardly ever water in a designed form, because of the limited space. The typical appearance of a scenic composition in a small enclosed space has recently aroused great interest and the characteristics of 'the' style in which they were supposedly layed out have been defined. This twentieth century stylistic definition, referred to as the karesansui , or dry landscape style, has even engendered the face-lifting of some old family temple gardens. Some of these gardens are examined as for their compositional ideas and for their historicity.
    The research into the history of the famous stone garden at Ryoan-ji is of particular interest because this garden proves to be of a much later date than is generally believed. A discussion on a recently excavated small scenic garden, at the residence of a warlord in the provinces, illustrates that the mediaeval achievement of a scenic concept of garden design should not be thought of as to be limited to the dry landscape style, as this little garden employs a pond.
    As an effect of the increasing dynamics of Japan's mediaeval economy a class of landless outcasts came into existence. They were only permitted to do dirty work: handling the dead; building roads; working with earth or garden materials. Many of them became proficient in garden making and they caught the attention of the literate. As a group of professional gardeners they were faced with the design problem of the small scenic garden outside the reading room. It is presumed that, referring to the gardens of previous times, they found the waterfalls composed of rocks most spectacular and recognized these as a landscape composition. A connection between the outcast garden makers with the late mediaeval landscape painters - now fully making use of the Chinese composition theory of landscape scenes - can be surmised. Some of the landscape painters were also of low birth.
    The waterfall composition became a popular theme in the small gardens of late mediaeval date. The gardens continued to be appraised with Chinese literary phrases, sometimes explicitly lauding the technique of evoking a depth of perspective.
    The developments in Japan's mediaeval garden history are thus interpreted in the present work as the development of a scenic garden concept. The scenic garden relied in its landscape illusion on the suggestion of a shape, a scene, rather than on themes with an implied lyrical connotation as in the Heian period.
    The last chapter, chapter 8, of part two, further clarifies my interpretation of the mediaeval small garden as being scenic, and criticizes the popular interpretation of this type of garden that sees it as an expression of 'the spirit of Zen'. The most important argument is the total lack of any historic evidence that mediaeval garden makers wanted to express the spirit of Zen with their creations. A short analysis of the origins of the 'Zen interpretation', as it presently prevails, is given. The interpretation originated in the intellectual climate of Japan's 1930's, under threatening nationalism and the advent of World War II. After the War it became popular abroad.

    Part three, titled "Taste", deals with the early modern period, roughly, the first half of the seventeenth century. It is called 'modern', because practice and theory of garden art became established in a way that differs not very much from our own twentieth century.
    The economic progress of the late mediaeval period led to the formation of several merchant towns. The old capital Heian, now called by its modern name Kyoto, was one of these. In the urban fashionable societies of such towns, a romantic appreciation of nature became a generally understood emotion in the course of the sixteenth century. This was largely due to the activities of traveling poets who came into a profound contact with natural landscapes outside the town. In the towns the poets joined the salons of the rich merchants where their poetry was read, recited, and composed in sociable sessions. Such gatherings were held in little outbuildings at the back of the town houses. Conveniences, like a hearth or a privy were luxuries like the good food and rice wine that was served. All of this not only greatly helped to heighten the atmosphere of the meetings, but also made that the hardships of nature could be appreciated as something romantic, because it was now separated from the comforts of daily life.
    Towards the end of the sixteenth century military men in the provinces rose to power. They inevitably came into contact with the commercial centres in the towns and with their leading circles. At political meetings, of military men and urban leaders, rules of conduct were of utmost importance. It took form in the elaborate etiquette of tea drinking. The tea meetings took place in the outbuildings at the back of the house, a structure now exclusively furnished for the etiquette of tea. To this small building belonged a tea garden that indicated through its stepping stones the correct way of proceeding towards the tea house. The tea garden was therefore a garden that was designed out of a single abstract concept, namely to give material form to the procedures of the etiquette; it was no longer set up as a scene or a series of themes as in earlier history. The tea experts that conceived the tea garden also introduced the free use in the garden of any kind of material they could think of. To design a garden departing from an abstract concept, as well as to make free use of any kind of material were two basic achievements in the establishment of the early modern garden art.
    The single, limited concept of the tea garden was surpassed in the garden world of the seventeenth century urban elite in Kyoto. Tea experts, artists, rich merchants, and intellectuals gathered around the emperor, who was completely stripped of any political power by the provincial military men who managed to centralize their rule over all of Japan. The elite around the Imperial Court was politically powerless, but - to keep it befriended - financially supported by the central military government. Among them a typical escapist attitude became fashionable. It brought forth an imaginative attitude towards the scenery of natural landscape as well as that of the garden. It must be taken, together with the popular rise of nature romanticism in the cities, as an important driving force behind the modernization of garden art. This modernization is illustrated by some of the imperial gardens of that time, that in their peculiar design show us the modern imaginative attitude. Romantic appreciation of landscape scenery is expressed in the gardens that take actual views of natural landscapes up as a part of the overall composition.
    The production of gardens became modern when all the stages in the process of making became the task of different or separated groups of people. It is demonstrated that Kobori Enshu, generally considered to have been a kind of garden artist, was actually a high government official who stood in hierarchy above an office that directed the building and designing of gardens. His role is illustrated with the history of the making of the well-documented, and extant, garden at Konchi-in. The intellectual and direct symbolism of this garden is also illustrative for the intellectual approach to garden design of the gardens of the early modern elite in Kyoto. The elite around the emperor developed an abstract concept of 'taste' that drew heavily on classical literary ideas and on values of the earlier urban salons. They restricted themselves to a fictitious kind of simplicity in beauty, which through its limitations automatically stressed the need for intellectualism and invention. Thus they came to value a liberal, intellectual kind of creativity, which is illustrated with the analysis of compositions of the gardens at Koho-an, where Kobori Enshu intended to live after his retirement.

    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Vroom, M.J., Promotor, External person
    • van Gulik, W.R., Promotor, External person
    • Nakamura, M., Promotor, External person
    Award date13 Apr 1988
    Place of PublicationUithoorn
    Print ISBNs9789050630214
    Publication statusPublished - 1988


    • design
    • estates
    • gardens
    • history
    • japan
    • landscape
    • landscape architecture
    • parks
    • private ownership
    • valuation
    • landscaping


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