Flute in the art of Japan

Flute in the art of Japan

by Yulia Berry, D.M.A.

Article © Copyright 2023 by Yulia Berry. All Rights Reserved

The most exquisite form of art in Japan besides music is painting. It was inseparable from calligraphy, like the fine arts of China and Korea. Japanese artists developed interesting techniques that have nothing in common with Western art. The Japanese style of painting is characterized by an unusual composition and exquisite color schemes. For the masters of the Land of the Rising Sun, harmony, an emphasized fusion of nature and man, has always been most important.

The art of China has had a strong influence on the traditional painting of Japan. The famous artist of ancient China, Gu Kaizhi (c. 344-406), formulated the task of art in conveying the spirit through the image, and the Japanese masters, following the Chinese, sought to achieve it.

How did painting develop in Japan?

Kofun period and Asuka period (covers up to 710)

The painting of ancient Japan is the Kofun period and the Asuka period. The first period includes wall paintings, which are found in ancient crypts – these are geometric and figurative compositions. During the Asuka period, Chinese culture began to penetrate Japan along with Buddhism. Hierographic writing is developing in the country, artists copy the techniques of Chinese painting.

Nara period (710-794)

During the Nara period, temple frescoes and religious paintings appeared. Anonymous artists of that time use the techniques of Chinese art.

Heian period (794-1185)

Heian period – the Yamato-e school appears. Its characteristic feature is bright silhouette images. At this time, the art of illustrating literary works was born. The most famous monument of the era is “The Tale of Genji”, which tells about the adventures of the emperor’s son. This is the first written illustrated scroll, both artists and calligraphers worked on it. There is a dialogue of word and image – this is what distinguishes traditional Japanese painting from European.

Kamakura period (1185−1333)

The Kamakura period continues the tradition of the Heian period. At this time, the art of sculpture is actively developing.

Muromachi period (1333−1573)

The Muromachi period is the heyday of monochrome landscape painting. Although Japanese masters still work in the Chinese tradition, famous artists with a recognizable manner appear – Sesshu, Kano Monotobu and others.

Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603)

The Azuchi-Momoyama period is the era of the emergence of a multi-color style, large-scale works are created using gold and silver foil. The decorative painting of Japan is actively developing, complex painted screens are coming into fashion.

Edo period (1603-1868)

The Edo period is characterized by the emergence of the Rinpa school – its representatives reinterpreted classical subjects in a decorative manner. But the main thing is the appearance of the ukiyo-e woodcut, which glorified Japan all over the world. These engravings depicted everyday scenes, landscapes, sumo wrestlers, geishas, ​​and kabuki theater actors. Color woodcuts were made from engravings, which were very popular. The most famous artists of the era are Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige.

After 1868

In subsequent periods, the classical painting of Japan undergoes a significant transformation due to Western influence. This continues to this day. An interesting phenomenon arises when, on the one hand, the classical Japanese traditions in painting continue, on the other hand, the commercialization of art leads to the emergence of hybrids like manga, in which there is a strong Western influence, but there is also a national identity.

It is impossible to tell everything about painting in Japan within the framework of one article, so we will review only the most important styles and genres.

Shakuhachi flute made by Yamaguchi Shiro (Tokio, Japan) in late 1930s, played by Elizabeth Reian Bennett in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


There are essentially two types of scroll: emakimono (hand scroll) and kakemono (hanging scroll). While emakimono are made to be viewed horizontally and slowly opened and closed to reveal a sequence of pictures, the kakemono are displayed fully open, hanging vertically on a wall.

Emakimono (also called emaki) is characterized by a variety of subjects. These are not only landscapes and portraits of nobles, but also images of natural disasters (for example, floods), personifications of mythical creatures, and images of architectural objects. In emaki there are also portraits of commoners and servants, not only nobles.

Unknown, Japan / Hanging scroll: Young man playing a flute on an ox accompanied by three figures 17-18th century / Ink and colour on paper.

Tosa School

In the 16th century, the artistic movement of Tosa was formed. It was named after the founder, Tosa Mitsuyoshi (1539-1613). It was a polychrome painting with a characteristic image of golden clouds. This direction existed until the 19th century, developing in parallel with the current created by Kano Motonobu.

Nobleman playing flute. 17th century. Tosa school. In the collection of Seattle Art Museum

Ukiyo-e prints

Ogata Gekko: Flute playing Samurai – Nihon Hana Zue – Artelino. 1898
Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912). Playing the flute.
Kubo Shunman, Young Woman Playing the Flute by a Bridge. 19th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Ushikawa Playing His Flute, issued by the Seirei Akabaren
Aoba no fue no monogatari “The Tale of the Flute with Green Leaves”. Late 17th century
A Doll Representing a Boy Playing a Flute. ca.1780. Artist: Torii Kiyonaga (Japanese, 1752-1815). Edo period (1615-1868).

Nanga and Shijō

Simultaneously with the art of ukiyo-e, two more directions in painting developed – Nanga (Bunjinga), which was influenced by Chinese painting, and Shijō, in which the naturalistic depiction of the animal and plant world was considered the main one.

Japanese Shijō School. Two panel screen circa 1920.
Koto and Flute Players. 1823 Signature: Getchi Rojin aratame hitsu


The peculiarities of painting in Japan lie in the fact that for a long time it developed in isolation from the Western one. But in the 18th century, the Dutch brought European engravings to Japan. And Western traditions began to influence Japanese art. This is how elegant surimono engravings were born, executed on square-shaped paper. Often they were made to order by various public institutions as an analogue of modern postcards, since the image was supplemented with calligraphic inscriptions. Still life was the main genre of surimono. Often these were congratulatory surimonos for the New Year, covered with gold and silver sparkles.

Shakuhachi flute by Sunayama Gosei (Japanese, 18th–19th century). Woodblock print (surimono); ink and color on paper. In the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Best Japanese masterpieces of art on the flute related subject

No doubts that the best art masterpieces on the flute related subject belong to Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1832-1892), the last great master of Japanese woodblock printing (ukiyo-e) and one of the great innovators and creative geniuses in this field of art.

One of them is “The Heian poet Yasumasa playing the flute by moonlight”, exhibited at the Exhibition for the Advancement of Painting in the autumn of 1882. The story relates that while Fujiwara no Yasumasa, a courtier who lived in the middle of the Heian period, was playing on Ichihara Moor, he was approached by the bandit Kidomaru who intended to kill him. Instead he was overcom by the beauty of the music and gave up his plan.

The masterpiece was published 1883 by Akiyama Buemon and considered by cogniscenti to be Yoshitoshi’s finest design. Yoshitoshi’s work was so well received, the subject was incorporated into a play with Ichikawa Danjuro IX playing Fujiwara no Yasumasa several months after the publication of the print.

The Heian Poet Yasumasa Playing the Flute by Moonlight, Subduing the Bandit Yasusuke with His Music (detail), 1883, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japanese, 1839–92)

Another stunning work by Yoshitoshi is “One Hundred Aspects of the Moon”, published by Akiyama Buemon in 1886.

Minamoto no Hiromasa (918-980) was the grandson of Emperor Daigo, but is best known for his musical ability. He played several instruments, including the koto and the biwa, but his specialty was the flute. According to legend, a demon at the Rashomon gate gave him the famous Genjua biwa; and the demon at the gate of Suzakumon, where this engraving is located, presented him with the famous Ha Futatsu flute. In this composition, Hiromasa, dressed in a court period hat and robe, Heian turns away from us, playing the flute, accompanied by a bearded foreigner. Although the story is not clear, it is likely related to the legend of the demon Suzakumon.

One Hundred Aspects of the Moon: Suzaku Gate moon – Hakuga Sammi, signed Yoshitoshi and published by Akiyama Buemon, 1886

The most famous Japanese artists

Sesshū Tōyō (1420-1506)

The founder of the tradition of painting suibokuga (ink painting) was Sesshū Tōyō. He was the son of a samurai of the Oda dynasty, and was trained at the Shokokuji Monastery. Then Tōyō went to China, where he studied painting. Inspired by the mountain landscapes he saw during his travels, Tōyō created his own style, which combined the technique of broken lines and dotted writing. This style further inspired Sōami, Motonobu and other artists.

Kanō Eitoku (1543−1590)

The largest Japanese artist of the Momoyama period is Kanō Eitoku (1543−1590). He became the ancestor of a new style, when artists began to turn not to a holistic landscape, but to its large multi-colored detail. On a shining golden background, the artist painted flowers and trees with rich colors.

Tawaraya Sōtatsu (1600-1640)

The formation of the Rinpa school is associated with another artist. This is Tawaraya Sōtatsu. The peculiarity of his manner is that he abandoned the contour linear framing, creating a form with a spot. The artist also washed out the color by applying the next coat of paint to the still wet surface of a different color. Sometimes he used golden or silver powder

Katsushika Hokusai (1760−1849)

The most famous Japanese artist is Katsushika Hokusai (1760−1849). His engravings “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” and “South Wind. Clear Day (Red Fuji)” are so often replicated by designers and illustrators that they are known even to people unfamiliar with Japanese painting.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797−1858)

Utagawa Hiroshige is another famous contemporary of Hokusai. He worked under the pseudonym Ando Hiroshige. He was famous for his ability to convey the variability of nature, combining dynamics and immobility in his works. Bright colors and a flexible contour line captivated.

What impact did Japanese art have on world culture?

The culture and painting of Japan also influenced European painting. For works of Turner and Constable, British landscape painters who were influential exponents of romanticism, Japanese art was a source of inspiration.

It is generally accepted that the origins of impressionism are achievements in the field of optical physics, which made artists interested in working in this direction. However, the impressionists were also greatly influenced by traditional Japanese drawing, more precisely, printed graphics. It was characterized by unusual angles, rich colors, the absence of perspective and realistic three-dimensionality familiar to European artists, and a special construction of the composition.

At that time, Japanese art became available relatively recently, Europeans knew almost nothing about it, even the most venerable critics. Therefore, artists got acquainted with this art exclusively through personal impressions. Interestingly, Japanese engravings came to their attention almost by accident. They were used as authentic packaging for Japanese chinaware, which was just in vogue at the time

The engravings of Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige made a strong impression on many. Van Gogh made several copies of the works of Utagawa Hiroshige, trying to repeat traditional Japanese graphic techniques in colors. Van Gogh was not rich, but he was able to collect a good collection of Japanese prints, which numbered more than 200 pieces, and more than 40 of them were the work of Hiroshige. Japanese masters also inspired other impressionists. It is believed that Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire may have been influenced by Utagawa Hiroshige’s View of the Yatsumi no Hashi Bridge.

Japanese music on the western concert flute

Some of the best classical western flute players love to incorporate Japanese music into their repertoire. In 1967, Jean-Pierre Rampal released “Japanese Folk Melodies” vinyl, which later was also released on CD.


In 1979, Sir James Galway released the album “Song of the Seashore”, which immediately became very popular.

Live recording from a concert by Horacio Parravicini, solo flute of the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, Spain.

Read my interview with Horacio Parravicini

Denis Buryakov, soloist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, plays an encore at the Tokio Opera City concert hall:

Beautuful Japanese music and culture continue to inspire classical western composers of today. In 2015 a wonderful, NY based flutist and film score composer Bonnie McAlvin composed stunning “Cherry Blossoms” for flute solo. The piece is based on Japanese folk song “Sakura” and uses multiphonics, a very interesting contemporary technique.

Read my interview with Bonnie McAlvin

Yulia Berry


Yulia Berry is founder of Web Flute Academy, The Babel Flute, The Babel Flute Courses and New England Flute Institute, creator and developer of the popular “All about Flute” Mobile app and the First Global Game for Flutists, highly experienced flutist and mentor teaching at all levels, with a Doctor of Music Arts degree focused in Flute Performance, Pedagogy and Music Education from the Saint Petersburg State Conservatory named after N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov (Russia).

She has performed as a soloist and chamber musician in prestigious venues around the world, and has been praised for her virtuosity, musicality, and expressive playing.

Yulia Berry is known for her expertise in flute pedagogy, innovative and effective teaching methods, which emphasize technique, musicality, and artistry, and her dedication to helping students achieve their full potential as flutists.

She wrote many articles on the connection of the flute with art and the role of the flute in the arts and cultures of different eras and cultures.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *