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Special Exhibition: The Artistic Cosmos of Hon’ami Kōetsu

  • Image of "Writing Box with a Pontoon Bridge, By Hon'ami Koetsu (1558-1637), Edo period, 17th century (National Treasure)"

    Writing Box with a Pontoon Bridge, By Hon'ami Koetsu (1558-1637), Edo period, 17th century (National Treasure)

    Japanese Archaeology and Special Exhibition (Heiseikan) Special Exhibition Galleries
    January 16, 2024 (Tue) - March 10, 2024 (Sun)

    Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637) created groundbreaking works of art in a variety of genres during a time of warfare and political turmoil in Japan. These artworks had a tremendous impact on Japanese culture for generations to come. However, Kōetsu’s oeuvre is as profound as a vast cosmos, making it difficult to comprehend in its entirety.

    To better understand the context that drove Kōetsu’s artistic genius, this exhibition examines a social group known as the hokke machishū — townspeople who followed the Lotus Sutra, a Buddhist text also devoutly worshipped by Kōetsu and his family. This social group is the thread that connects Kōetsu’s psychological realm — as expressed through his ceramic art and calligraphy — with the creative activities of contemporaneous artisans who were united by a common faith. These artisans produced a variety of art objects in response to the society they lived in, including lacquerware lavishly decorated with gold. This exhibition aims for a comprehensive examination of Kōetsu by juxtaposing the latest art historical research with insights into the religious beliefs of the time.

    As stated in a record known as the Hon’ami Gyōjōki, Kōetsu was known as an “eccentric” who “throughout his life, hated to follow others.” Driven by a firmly grounded aesthetic sense supported by unwavering religious faith, Kōetsu produced numerous masterpieces. How do these treasures appear to us in the present day? The exhibition explores this very question.


What makes Kōetsu special?

Born into a prestigious family of sword appraisers

Kōetsu was an exceptional sword appraiser who won recognition by the shogun and samurai lords.

Established strong ties with other devout individuals

Using his status as a member of the Kyoto machishū (wealthy merchants and artisans), Kōetsu established an extensive network based on religious faith and blood ties.

Worked as a multi-talented artist

Kōetsu not only excelled at his family business — he was also a master calligrapher whose creative activities encompassed ceramics, lacquerware, and publishing.

Produced artworks that are greatly admired today

Many of Kōetsu’s extant works are designated as National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties.

Hon’ami Kōetsu
Attributed to Hon’ami Kōho; Edo period, 17th century;

Highlights of the Exhibition

Chapter One: The Hon’ami Family Trade and Their Faith in the Lotus Sutra The Sources of Kōetsu’s Art

Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637) worked in diverse genres, including calligraphy, painting, and decorative arts. Today, works bearing the name Kōetsu hold a hallowed place in Japanese art history.

The Hon’ami family trade was sword polishing and appraisal, and they were a recognized authority in their field. Kōetsu’s aesthetic sensibilities in part derived from examining blades to determine their value. He used these sensibilities and the connections he made in his family’s line of work as the foundation for his artistic endeavors, which blossomed during the latter half of his life. The Hon’ami family were also devout believers in the Lotus sect (Hokkeshū) of Nichiren Buddhism, which reveres the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. Kōetsu was a passionate adherent to the faith and, through the sect’s strong network, collaborated with other craftspeople working in a range of mediums.

This section explores the sources of Kōetsu’s art through objects related to the Hon’ami family trade as well as their religious faith.


The Threefold Lotus Sutra Heian period, 11th century, Honpōji Temple, Kyoto (Important Cultural Property)
Blade for a Dagger (Tantō), Inscribed “Hanagatami” (Flower Basket) By Kaneuji, Kamakura–Nanbokuchō period, 14th century (Important Art Object)
Guardless Dagger Mounting (Aikuchi Koshigatana) with Squirrel's Foot Ferns Edo period, 17th century

Chapter Two: Noh Chant Books and Kōetsu Maki-e Explosive Words and Forms

A bold new style of lacquerware suddenly emerged at the beginning of the Early Modern period (1573–1868). It featured large lead plates that intentionally disrupted delicate maki-e designs as well as the unconstrained use of mother-of-pearl. This new style possessed an unfettered charm and bore designs reminiscent of the famed painter Tawaraya Sōtatsu (dates unknown). It was later called Kōetsu Maki-e due to the presumed involvement in some form by Hon’ami Kōetsu. Around the same time, a wave of interest in chants performed in Noh theater swept through the merchant, warrior, and noble classes alike, even reaching Kōetsu himself. To aid them in their pursuits, libretto-like guides to Noh chanting (called utaibon) with ornate decorations and bindings were made. The designs on these objects feature words and images that allude to literary works, including poetry like waka and renga. To understand how the people of the day interpreted these motifs and to better illuminate Kōetsu Maki-e as a whole, this section traces how earlier designs evolved into unorthodox forms and taps into the rich world of literature to decipher their meaning.

Writing Box with a Pontoon Bridge By Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558-1637), Edo period, 17th century (Tokyo National Museum, National Treasure)

Chapter Three: Line and Form in Kōetsu’s Calligraphy A Master of Two-Dimensional Space

Some of Kōetsu’s best-known calligraphic works are scrolls of waka poetry brushed on paper decorated with innovative artwork. The calligraphy is particularly notable for its skillful modulations in line thickness and the use of “scattered” characters that play off the designs underneath. Yet, Kōetsu’s brushwork was not limited to grand, decorative styles. The artist’s sincere religious devotion is reflected in his sharp, conscientious lettering when creating copies of texts related to the Lotus sect. Further, his personal correspondence suggests his natural disposition in the unstinting richness of its lines. The wavering handwriting of his later years is likely evidence of a battle with palsy. Kōetsu’s lines and forms create a variety of impressions and offer a window into the expressive power of a master calligrapher throughout his lifetime.

Poems by the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets over Paintings of Cranes Calligraphy by Hon’ami Kōetsu, Paintings by Tawaraya Sōtatsu, Edo period, 17th century, Kyoto National Museum (Important Cultural Property)

Chapter Four: Kōetsu’s Tea Bowls Blades of Clay

Kōetsu is thought to have begun making pottery in earnest in 1615, when the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616) granted him a plot of land called Takagamine on the outskirts of Kyoto. He came to focus in particular on molding tea bowls by hand as a result of his close relationship with the Raku lineage of potters, which had mainly produced tea bowls since it was founded by Chōjirō (d. 1589). Kōetsu’s works reveal a keen understanding of form that arose from his family background in sword polishing and appraisal. His tea bowls exhibit an extraordinary degree of individuality, with each having its own distinct shape and glaze finish. Yet, all are carved with meticulously calculated strokes and feature applications of glaze uniquely tailored to the texture of the clay.

Tea Bowl, Named “Shigure” (Early Winter Rain) By Hon’ami Kōetsu; Raku ware, black Raku type Edo period, 17th century, Nagoya City Museum, Aichi (Important Cultural Property)

General Information

Period January 16-March 10, 2024
Venue Heiseikan, Tokyo National Museum (Ueno Park)
Hours 9:30-17:00
Open until 19:00 on Fridays and Saturdays.
*Last admission 30 minutes before closing.
Closed Mondays (except for February 12) and February 13

Visitors can view this exhibition without making reservations.

Adults: ¥2,100 (¥1,900)
University students: ¥1,300 (¥1,100)
High school students: ¥900 (¥700)
Junior high school students and under: Free

  • *Prices in parentheses indicate discount ticket prices for advance purchase.
  • *Persons with disabilities are admitted free with one accompanying person each (please present an ID at the ticket booth).
  • *Visitors with tickets for this exhibition may also view the regular exhibitions on the day of their visit at no extra charge.
Access 10-minute walk from JR Ueno Station (Park exit) and Uguisudani Station
15-minute walk from Keisei Ueno Station, Tokyo Metro Ueno Station and Tokyo Metro Nezu Station
Organizers Tokyo National Museum, NHK, NHK Promotions Inc., The Tokyo Shimbun
With the Sponsorship of Mitsumura Printing Co.,Ltd.
With the Assistance of Genesis of Japanese Culture & Art
Catalog The exhibition catalog (3,000 yen) is available at the Heiseikan Special Exhibition Shop and at the museum shop in Honkan (Japanese Gallery).
General Inquiries 050-5541-8600 (Hello Dial)
Exhibition Website https://koetsu2024.jp/