The original Main Gallery (designed by the British architect Josiah Conder) was severely damaged in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. In contrast to western style of the original structure, the design of the present Honkan by Watanabe Jin is the more eastern "Emperor's Crown Style." Construction began in 1932, and the building was opened in 1938.
24 exhibition rooms on two floors provide a thorough introduction into Japanese art: "Highlights of Japanese Art" on the second floor introduces the development of Japanese art from Jomon through to the Edo period in a chronological manner, and genre galleries presenting specific rooms displaying ceramics, swords, lacquerwares, sculptures, modern decorative arts as well as the material culture of Ainu and Ryukyu are located on the first floor.
2nd floor "Highlights of Japanese Art"
Room 1 January 2, 2022 (Sun) - July 3, 2022 (Sun)
Japan has some of the earliest pottery in the world, dating back about 13,000 years. It was created by the people of the Jōmon period (ca. 11,000–400 BC). These people built permanent settlements and relied on hunting, fishing, and gathering.
At the height of their culture, they made pottery with richly sculpted forms and figurines with distinctive shapes.
In the Yayoi period (ca. 4th century BC–first half of 3rd century AD), people from Northeast Asia (now China and Korea) immigrated to Japan. They brought knowledge of how to farm rice and make objects with bronze and iron. More food became available and people started making tools, weapons, and ritual objects with metal.
In the Kofun period (ca. second half of 3rd–7th century), regional rulers seized power and resources. They formed an early state and the imperial line became its central authority. These rulers had giant tomb mounds built for themselves, with clay sculptures placed outside and valuable objects buried inside to express the rulers’ authority even after death.
Room 1 December 21, 2021 (Tue) - January 30, 2022 (Sun)
Japan's leaders transformed their society by adopting Buddhism and other foreign cultures and practices. Buddhism was founded by Gautama Buddha in ancient India around 500 BC. Later it spread throughout Asia and was introduced to Japan from the Korean Peninsula in the 6th century AD.
In the Asuka period (593–710), people from the Korean Peninsula brought advanced knowledge to Japan. They included monks, scholars, and artisans, who brought technology, scholarship, artistic traditions, and Buddhist teachings. Under the leadership of the emperor and powerful clans, Buddhism began to flourish as temples were built and sacred images created.
In the Nara period (710–794), Japan’s leaders emulated the Buddhist culture that was thriving in China. In the capital of Nara, the emperor oversaw the creation of a giant buddha sculpture at Tōdaiji Temple, the symbol of a state now unified under Buddhism. The sculptures, ritual tools, sacred texts, and other works on display illustrate these two periods of rapid change.
Room 2 January 18, 2022 (Tue) - February 13, 2022 (Sun)
The Sixteen Arhats were the foremost disciples of the Buddha. Before he died, the Buddha entrusted them with protecting his teachings and helping others attain enlightenment. Over 900 years old, this image is from the oldest surviving set of paintings depicting the Sixteen Arhats in Japan. It has two key features: The arhat’s form is based on similar paintings from China’s Tang dynasty (618–907), which greatly influenced early Buddhist art in Japan. The second feature is the understated color palette, which reflects the refined tastes of the court nobility, the leading patrons of Buddhist art in 11th-century Japan.
Room 3 December 21, 2021 (Tue) - January 30, 2022 (Sun)
The beliefs and arts of Buddhism, along with its followers, became more diverse over time. In the Heian period (794–1192), the emperor and court nobility practiced and supported Buddhism. They used their vast wealth to build temples and create images for worship, often in delicate styles reflecting their tastes.
In the Kamakura period (1192–1333), the samurai gained political power, also becoming patrons of Buddhism. They preferred Buddhist art that was clear and dynamic, which led artisans to develop new styles. Many common people also became followers of Buddhism at this time, blending this religion with local beliefs, especially in the Muromachi period (1392–1573).
During these centuries, monks brought new schools of Buddhist thought from China, and developed new schools in Japan based on older teachings. Buddhism also became more integrated with Shinto, the indigenous religion. The paintings, sculptures, ritual tools, and sacred calligraphy on display illustrate this diversity in Buddhism.
Room 3 December 21, 2021 (Tue) - January 30, 2022 (Sun)
After emulating China for generations, the imperial court began to develop its own cultural identity around the 10th century. This movement was led by the court nobility serving the emperor. The body of work they produced — literature, calligraphy, painting, and elegantly decorated items for daily use — became one of Japan’s cultural foundations.
Even after the samurai gained more political power than the court in the 12th century, the court remained the home of high culture for centuries.
The different art forms of the court were closely related, with literature playing a central role. Previously the nobility wrote in Chinese, but the creation of a new writing system (kana) helped Japanese literature to flourish. Both noblemen and noblewomen wrote some of Japan’s most celebrated poetry and stories, including by the court lady Murasaki Shikibu. Scenes from literature were also shown in paintings and on furnishings, which the nobility commissioned for their mansions.
Room 3 December 21, 2021 (Tue) - January 30, 2022 (Sun)
Zen Buddhism was introduced from China, and had widespread influence on culture in Japan. Zen does not stress elaborate rituals or the study of sacred texts. Rather, it teaches that meditation and daily tasks, even cooking and cleaning, are the way to spiritual enlightenment. In the 13th century, monks brought Zen to Japan as a complete school of Buddhist thought.
These monks also brought the latest cultural practices from China. One of them was ink painting, which uses expressive lines and delicate gradations to portray nature and people. Ink painting spread beyond Zen temples and became a major artistic tradition in Japan.
Another practice was calligraphy by Zen masters, which was prized for its spiritual and aesthetic value. Along with the painting and calligraphy shown here, Zen Buddhism influenced tea ceremony, garden design, and many other forms of art.
Room 4 January 2, 2022 (Sun) - March 21, 2022 (Mon)
Tea drinking and its role in society changed over time. In the 12th century, Zen monks introduced a new kind of tea drinking from China: green tea was ground into a powder and mixed with hot water. Monks drank this tea as a medicine and to stay awake during meditation.
Before long, the samurai also began to drink tea and competed for prizes in blind tasting competitions. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the elite samurai who ruled Japan focused on the aesthetics of tea drinking. They collected valuable Chinese works like paintings and tea bowls, displaying and using them during tea gatherings.
A century later, Sen no Rikyū (1522–91) established the foundations of the tea ceremony. When serving tea, he used valuable Chinese works together with simple utensils. He also stressed humility and the beauty of imperfection. Elite samurai practiced his style and its variations as a social, aesthetic, and spiritual pursuit.
From its origins until the present, the tea ceremony has always incorporated diverse genres of art. Works that tea masters believed had great aesthetic or historical value were carefully passed down through the generations. A selection of these works is shown here and changed regularly to reﬂect the seasons.
Rooms 5 & 6 December 21, 2021 (Tue) - March 13, 2022 (Sun)
The samurai ruled Japan for nearly 700 years, from the late 12th to the 19th century. They emulated the imperial court, which was the home of high culture, but also borrowed from the practices of common people. Wishing for divine protection in this life and salvation in the next, they worshipped both Shinto and Buddhist deities. The culture of the samurai was complex and ever–changing, but always reflected their authority as the warrior class of Japan.
This gallery focuses on the most prominent symbols of samurai authority: swords, armor, and other military equipment. These had many purposes. Through diverse colors and materials, they showed the tastes of their owners. Differences in shape and construction reflected differences in rank and social standing. Many samurai passed down this equipment as heirlooms, while high–ranking samurai exchanged it as diplomatic gifts. Swords and armor were also donated to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in prayer for victory in battle.
Room 7 January 2, 2022 (Sun) - February 6, 2022 (Sun)
The paintings here were not just for looking at — they served many other purposes, even that of furniture. Sliding doors divided rooms, while folding screens could be placed anywhere to create private spaces, reduce draftiness, or hide items from view. Sometimes artisans decorated the paintings with gold leaf, which reflected light and helped to brighten dim interiors.
A painting could also change the mood of a room. Ink paintings might create a relaxed or meditative atmosphere. Ones with bright colors and gold leaf might evoke an extravagant feel. The subject matter and style of a painting could also reflect the formality of a room, the current season, and the tastes of the owner. This gallery surrounds visitors with large–scale paintings to show how they create different moods.
Room 8 January 2, 2022 (Sun) - March 21, 2022 (Mon)
From the late 16th century, changes in society helped artisans to develop the decorative arts. In the Azuchi–Momoyama period (1573–1603), samurai warlords united Japan after more than a century of fighting. The following Edo period (1603–1868) saw economic growth under a new samurai government, with merchants and other people gaining the wealth to buy art.
Potters succeeded in making Japan's first porcelain in the early 17th century. Methods for decorating porcelain and other ceramics then became more diverse, as shown by works with gold, silver, and color enamels. Meanwhile, textiles saw rapid technical advances. The loom was improved to make complex weaves possible, while dyeing became as detailed and expressive as painting.
Items like furniture and dining sets were coated with lacquer and decorated with metal powders, most often gold. Lacquer workers refined this technique, called maki–e, and combined it with new materials for more elaborate designs. Metalworkers also began using a wider variety of base metals and alloys, creating works with greater detail and precision.
Room 8 January 2, 2022 (Sun) - February 6, 2022 (Sun)
A thriving economy, foreign trade, and better education invigorated painting and calligraphy. Previously, ruling classes like the samurai and court nobility were the main patrons of art. But in the Edo period (1603–1868), more people started to benefit from the economy. Successful merchants in particular gained the wealth to support artists and buy their works.
Many painters continued working in traditional styles, while others started looking to outside sources for inspiration. Paintings and painting manuals imported from China were one source. Another was the books and prints that traders brought from Europe, which showed techniques like realistic shading and perspective. As a result, painting in Japan became more diverse in style and subject matter.
Meanwhile, the ancient custom of writing with a brush and ink continued. The literacy rate increased dramatically as schools for different social classes were established, particularly in cities and towns. The publishing industry thrived and more people took up the art of calligraphy.
Room 9 January 2, 2022 (Sun) - March 6, 2022 (Sun)
As one of the traditional performing arts of Japan, noh theater originally served to pray for good harvests, the prosperity of descendants, health and longevity at temples and shrines. Therefore, noh costumes and props were often decorated with auspicious patterns. In Japan, there are both traditional Chinese patterns and unique Japanese patterns. Please have a look at the auspicious patterns motifs in noh designs on display in this room.
Room 10 January 2, 2022 (Sun) - March 6, 2022 (Sun)
Japan's traditional clothing, kimono, are based on kosode — the outer wear of the Edo period (1603–1868). At first, the court nobility and samurai wore under other clothing. But from about the 15th century, the samurai began using them as daily outer wear. In the 17th century, kosode became the most common clothing for men and women of all classes.
Wealthy women placed orders for custom–made kosode at luxury clothing stores. They often chose the patterns from clothing–design books that were published and widely circulated. Together with these kosode, they wore hairpins and combs to accent their elaborate hairstyles.
In contrast, men wore kosode with understated patterns like stripes or checks.
Their usual fashion accessory was a small case (inrō) and a toggle (netsuke) for securing the case to the sash. This gallery features kosode and accessories, together with prints and paintings (ukiyo–e) showing how people wore them and how fashions changed over time.
Room 10 January 2, 2022 (Sun) - January 30, 2022 (Sun)
Prints and paintings called ukiyo–e were the first genre of art enjoyed by common people on a large scale. Economic growth contributed to the creation of this genre in the 17th century. As living standards improved, common people developed an urban culture that was passionate about trends, fashion, and entertainment.
At first, ukiyo–e depicted the celebrities of the day, especially actors of the kabuki theater and courtesans of the pleasure quarters (the legal brothel district). The subject matter later expanded to include topics like seasonal festivals, travel spots, and landscapes.Techniques for making ukiyo–e also changed over time. Early ukiyo–e were painted by hand. Artisans later started carving images into blocks of wood and using these blocks to print ukiyo–e in large numbers. These black–and–white prints were much more affordable. As carving and printing techniques were refined, prints a brilliant range of colors became possible.
The Prince Takamado Collection Room January 2, 2022 (Sun) - March 21, 2022 (Mon)
This exhibition displays contemporary netsuke, which was collected by the late Prince Takamado with her Imperial Highness Princess.
Rooms T1 & T2 January 2, 2022 (Sun) - January 30, 2022 (Sun)
To celebrate the Museum’s 150th anniversary and the year of the tiger, we’ll be sharing artworks with this ferocious animal. Tigers can be found in art throughout Asia. Here we’ll explore how people imagined and depicted them, and what kind of symbolic meaning they had.
1st floor Genre Exhibits
Room 11 November 16, 2021 (Tue) - January 30, 2022 (Sun)
Japan has three main traditions of sculpture: Buddhist deities, Shinto deities, and portraits of people. Buddhism was introduced to Japan from the Korean Peninsula in the 6th century, together with sculptures of Buddhist deities. These sculptures were made primarily for worship. Making a sculpture was also an “act of spiritual merit” that would help one’s prayers to be answered.
In contrast, Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan. Since ancient times, people believed that Shinto deities dwell in natural features like mountains and rivers, and rarely depicted them as humanlike sculptures. Even when a Shinto shrine had a sculpture for worship, the priests usually kept it hidden from view out of respect.
Some portrait sculptures were also worshipped, as they showed deified monks or samurai. Others were made to remember the dead and pray for their salvation. This gallery features works mainly from the Heian (794–1192) and Kamakura (1192–1333) periods, when many of Japan’s most admired sculptures were created.
Room 12 November 23, 2021 (Tue) - February 20, 2022 (Sun)
Lacquer is the sap of the lacquer tree, which grows in East and Southeast Asia. Naturally sticky, it can be brushed onto different materials, and hardens into a durable coating that is waterproof and resistant to acids, alkalis, and heat. Because of its versatility and beauty, lacquer has been central to daily life in parts of Asia for over 9,000 years.
In Japan, artisans coated everyday items with lacquer, including furniture, boxes, dining sets, and cosmetic and writing tools. The base material could be wood, pottery, cloth, leather, or paper. To decorate these items, artisans painted designs with a mixture of lacquer and pigment, or used lacquer like a glue to inlay metal and mother-of-pearl.
But the pinnacle of lacquer decoration in Japan is maki-e (sprinkled picture). It consists of painting a design with lacquer, and then sprinkling metal powders onto the sticky lacquer before it hardens. Artisans first used maki-e techniques in the 8th century. As shown in this gallery, they developed them to an extraordinary degree over the centuries.
Room 13 November 30, 2021 (Tue) - February 27, 2022 (Sun)
This exhibition provides a historical overview of Japanese metalwork from the Heian (794–1192) to the Edo (1603–1868) period. Objects are displayed by category, such as Buddhist ritual implements, mirrors, tea kettles, objects with designs in cloisonné, decorative fittings, and okimono ornaments. Visitors are invited to view the beauty of metals such as gold, silver, copper, and iron, as well as the shapes they were crafted into, and the designs they were freely embellished with.
Room 13 November 9, 2021 (Tue) - February 6, 2022 (Sun)
Room 13 features selected swords and sword–fittings from the Heian to Edo periods, including the Long Sword (Tachi), Named “Mikazuki Munechika”, By Munechika.
Rooms 13 will be closed from December 23 to December 25, 2021 due to the maintenance.
Room 13 November 9, 2021 (Tue) - January 30, 2022 (Sun)
Early Japanese ceramics were heavily influenced by techniques and processes originating in China and Korea. Over time, a more diverse range of forms and styles came to be embraced in Japan. This increased diversity was driven by economic and political factors, including foreign trade and the changing preferences of disparate social classes.
Throughout Japanese history, people of different social classes—emperors, nobles, samurai, and townspeople like merchants—held political or economic power at different times. Potters responded by creating regionally distinct ceramics that met the needs and tastes of each set of clientele.
This gallery traces the history of Japanese ceramics from around the 12th century onwards, beginning with storage jars for daily use, which highlight the unique colors and textures of local clays. It continues with tea bowls and other utensils for the tea ceremony, a practice that greatly influenced ceramic production. The ceramic traditions of Kyoto are then presented, followed by porcelain made in Arita, and other works from regional kilns.
Rooms 13 will be closed from December 23 to December 25, 2021 due to the maintenance.
Room 14 December 21, 2021 (Tue) - February 20, 2022 (Sun)
For over 1,000 years, from the late 10th to the early 20th century, ceramics for both local use and export have been produced in what are now Fujian and Guangdong provinces. The kilns in this area of South China were privately owned, producing ceramics with a robust and casual quality.This exhibition looks at the allure of these ceramics from South China and explores how they influenced the aesthetic tastes of people in Japan.
Room 15 January 25, 2022 (Tue) - March 21, 2022 (Mon)
Tokyo National Museum has more than artworks and archeological artifacts. The collection also includes records, which provide valuable insights into history and the cultures of different ethnic groups. This diversity stems from the Museum’s origins as a comprehensive institution in 1872. It was even home to animal, plant, and mineral specimens, although these were moved to the National Museum of Nature and Science in 1925.
The extensive collection of historical records at Tokyo National Museum now includes maps, diagrams, texts, photographs, ink rubbings, and copies of artworks. These items, dating mainly from the 17th to 20th century, shed light on politics, society, culture, transportation, and scenery in Japan. Here we display a selection of these items under different themes throughout the year.
Room 16 December 7, 2021 (Tue) - March 6, 2022 (Sun)
Stretching from north to south, the Japanese archipelago is home to diverse cultures that have flourished in its rich natural environments. Representing such cultures from northern Japan, this gallery is currently displaying tools that the Ainu people used daily for subsistence activities, such as hunting, fishing, and farming.
Representing a southern culture, decorative art objects from the Ryūkyū Kingdom—mainly lacquerware and textiles—are also on display in this gallery. The Ryūkyū Kingdom developed its unique culture through trade with regions in Asia including China, Japan, the Korean Peninsula, and Southeast Asia.
Room 18 January 25, 2022 (Tue) - April 17, 2022 (Sun)
Drastic changes in the late 19th century created new challenges for artists. The samurai government that had strictly regulated contact with the outside world collapsed in a civil war. Japan's new leaders announced the start of the Meiji era (1868–1912), engaging with the world and reforming their nation to be more like “the West” (mainly Europe and the United States).
These leaders soon realized that works produced in Japan were not seen as “fine art” in the West. Artisans often mounted paintings on sliding doors and folding screens, but this practice made them look like furniture to Europeans and Americans. Japan's ceramics, lacquerware, metalwork, and textiles were also labeled as “decorative art” rather than “fine art.”
In response, artistic traditions were changed to meet Western standards. Japan's leaders established schools of fine art, organized national exhibitions, and urged artists to participate in world fairs. They intended to show the world that Japan was a “modern” nation with sophisticated arts and culture. The works on display reflect how Japanese artists met these challenges.