When people from Japan and China come to London, nearly all of them try to pay a visit to the British Museum.
It is the leading tourist attraction in the UK, attracting nearly seven million visitors each year, many of them from East Asia.
The Asian visitors are able to see some remarkable collections of treasures from their own countries and from around the world. This autumn, the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries will re-open at the museum, including some lovely objects which haven’t been displayed there before.
A refreshed gallery
The gallery’s curator, Tim Clark, says he is particularly proud to show some “sublime works of art of the highest quality” including a picture entitled Courtesan Reading a Letter, which was made in about 1806 by Kitagawa Utamoro.
It depicts a lady wearing sumptuous robes and hair ornaments, signs of her high status, while she stands reading a letter. The letter’s contents are illegible, leaving the viewer to guess at its contents and the identity of its author.
There are also some striking new modern pieces in the gallery, such as a new contemporary acquisition called Time Waterfall created in 2017 by Miyajima Tatsuo. Mr Clark explains that it shows “digitally generated, differently sized random numbers, which tumble endlessly down an LED panel, in a mesmerizing kinetic performance. ‘Keep Changing; Connect with Everything; Continue Forever’ – these are three basic principles of Miyajima’s art, reflecting his Buddhist worldview,” he says.
Art or craft?
There is often a debate in Japan about the distinction between art and craft.
Many everyday objects, such as ceramic pots or tobacco pouches, have been regarded as precious – sometimes even more so than the exquisite statues to be found in ancient temples.
I have a theory that the Japanese tend to treat material things with rather more respect than people often do in the West. If you look at the objects in museums from pre-modern Japan, even the most utilitarian of them are often characterised by high stands of workmanship and an elegant simplicity of design. These qualities are still upheld today as models for Japanese designers to follow and there is a connection between this aesthetic and the philosophy of minimalism, which runs through Zen Buddhism.
Historically speaking, Japan has had limited natural resources. This appears to have inspired its craftsmen to be especially creative and careful when working with rare materials – such as ivory, gold or even paper.
Of course, I have observed that in contemporary Japan, there is a tendency towards consumerism, which is rather wasteful – just as there is in most places.
But if you look around, you’ll see plenty of examples of the old values of craftsmanship – including in shops like Muji, which often pays respect to the traditional crafts of Japan.