Japanese Landscapes: Sublime Beauty and Terror

A Short Virtual Exhibition Catalogue…


Japan has long been regarded as a land of spectacular, rugged beauty: a long archipelago with cragged shorelines dominated by majestic mountains, dotted with basins and valleys, punctuated with ample cliffs and slopes reflected in endless lakes and bays. But as the landscape offers infinite breathtaking vistas, it owes its very existence to the dynamic and volatile forces of nature that present a violent array of hazards to life across the countryside.


japan hazards

          Strewn along the northwestern Pacific Ocean, the nearly 7,000 islands that comprise the Japanese archipelago were created from stratovolcanic (composite volcano) formations—the result of geologic instability along the circum-Pacific belt or “Ring of Fire.”  As such, nearly one in ten active volcanoes across the globe are located in Japan, (numbering over a hundred).  Indeed, the continuous crash of multiple tectonic plates colliding and grinding along the western edge of this ring produce a startling frequency of terrestrial hazards here: between 1,000 and 1,500 earthquakes strike Japan annually, many of them of significant magnitude.  

          Earthquakes that strike offshore can also deliver specific seismic sea wave hazards—phenomena occurring frequently enough that their association with Japan earned recognition world-wide under the Japanese term, tsunami. Images from the recent magnitude 9.1 Tōhoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami horrified the world in 2011.  While this was an extreme event, two other major earthquakes had occurred just within the previous century: the magnitude 6.9 Hanshin or Kobe earthquake of 1995 (which claimed over 6,000 lives), and the magnitude 7.9 Great Kantō or Tokyo earthquake of 1923.  The latter killed between 100,000 and 140,000 people: many died as buildings of brick and stone collapsed during the tremor, while others perished as more seismically-resilient wood frame structures were either buried in landslides or engulfed in fire, the flames fanned by high winds caused by an offshore typhoon at the time – another frequent hazard to the Japanese archipelago.

            Damaging typhoons (what we call hurricanes in our Western hemisphere) threaten Japan at an average rate of about 11 times every year.  Significant advances in wind-resistant construction and infrastructure in recent decades have helped mitigate the threat of storms, although flooding and landslides can still produce a sizable threat to life and property.  As recently as 1959, over five thousand people perished as a result of one storm, Typhoon Isewan, while storms that have hit the country over preceding centuries have killed countless citizens, left vulnerable to severe wind in the light wooden frame construction that predominated Japanese architecture.

            Landscape-altering hazards of such variety, frequency, and severity would, without a doubt, alter the development of society as well.  Ever-present hazards that could suddenly claim a home, a village, or an entire city would undoubtedly influence how one abides in every aspect: philosophy, religion, and art would all yield to such surroundings.  Both admiration and respect for the uniquely remarkable and menacing beauty of Japan’s landscape are apparent throughout the evolution of Japanese culture.  Early Shinto religion accredited kami with potent powers that manifested as natural phenomena.  Zen Buddhism provided a vehicle for adherents to confront danger without fear, a practice favored by the highly-disciplined samurai military class following the 13th century.  Ukiyo-e arts flourished soon after during a time of economic prosperity, a period that witnessed of surging urban population seeking hedonistic escapism—a counter-cultural undertaking in the face of rapid social change and chronic mortal threat (such as is often attributed to the unique lifestyles associated with disaster-prone California).  Societies and geography are inextricably linked across the expanse of history, but none reveal this bond with more exquisite images of deeply spiritual marvel and gut-retching fear than in Japan.

Sesshū Tōyō

        A pivotal artist in the foundation of a uniquely Japanese aesthetic, Sesshū Tōyō (1420–1506) was raised and educated to become a Zen Buddhist priest.  As a painter, he demonstrated remarkable perception and skill and earned notoriety beyond the monastery, gaining patrons who admired (and paid generously for) his work.  As Sesshū was not confined to the patronage of a shogun, he was free from the constraints of religious Zen-themed commissions.  After being passed over to succeed his master, Sesshū traveled to western Honshū where he came under the patronage of a lord and prosperous trader in 1464.  In 1467, Sesshū accompanied his patron on a trade mission to China where he stayed a couple years to study art there.

        Sesshū was venerated by both government officials and notable painters, who considered his work superior to any contemporaries in China.  As Sesshū carefully studied the paintings he saw there, he began to focus more on the landscape. “Although the ancients said painting is not an imitation of other things,” Sesshū wrote, “real landscape, that is, everything seen before one’s eyes, is the proper teacher in painting.” Although his educational pursuits in China were efficacious, he conserved his innately Japanese sense of veneration to nature and progressed landscape study as a discipline to be revered above all else:

“Within the great country of China, there are no painting masters.  That is not to say that there are no paintings, but no painting teachers there except as there are mountains…and as there are rivers…such are the real paintings of China.”

Sesshū Tōyō

        Sesshū Tōyō was the first Japanese painter to assert independence from the constraints of religious themes, yet his artistry still conveys a Zen sensibility.  Sesshū demonstrates a spare but honest observation of nature in a momentary condition here.  He paints jagged cliffs as imposing monuments that disappear behind a shroud of washed or blank surfaces representing heavy mist or fog. He applies layers of thick black ink over thinned wet stains to create overlapping layers of nuance that gently provoke the senses.  He avoids idealizing the scene with distracting structural details.  We are left to imagine what is unseen.  We use our emotions, whether of wonder or worry of the unknown, to complete the scene in our mind’s eye.

        In contrast to the soft, wet brushwork of Haboku-Sansui, Sesshū Tōyō applies forceful brushwork here, filling the surface with delineated outlines and crystalline surfaces that invoke a hard and frozen landscape.  The gable roofed dwelling, pale blue water, and dark evergreens convey life at rest beneath imposing steep cliffs and dark steely skies.  Even in calm, quiet times, nature reminds us that destitution and death could be close at hand.

Sesson Shukei

        One of Sesshū’s successors, Sesson Shukei applied his own tempestuous style as Chinese-inspired suiboku-ga developed further from Zen inspirations to more secular concerns.  Here, Sesson conveys the awesome power of wind, an unseen force with clearly visible effects.  The foam-capped waves, bent brittle branches, and tautly-bound boat sail all succumb to the gusts bearing down from the right.  Even the thatch-roofed cottage—the last vestige of refuge in this turbulent scene—seems to bend in half in this dangerous typhoon.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi

         Unlike the bucolic Japanese landscapes his contemporaries Hokusai and Hiroshige often depicted, Utagawa Kuniyoshi created scenes that were brutally bizarre and sold them to patrons demanding all the spectacle that ukiyo-e period prints could provide.  Although he also created landscapes, Kuniyoshi was noted for his works depicting samurai battle scenes.  Here he combines the two, although the horrors of war succumb to the horrors of the wrath of nature.  The scene captures a moment during the Genpei Wars when a typhoon floods the Minamoto estate. Rushing waters swirl around capsized boats, shouting warriors grasp at debris or cling to one of the few nearby trees—the last clues left of a vanished landscape. The man-against-man conflict is now man-against-nature, and nature always wins.

Kawaraban (news broadsheets)

            The Kantō region of Japan was struck by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in the late-Edo Period that centered near Edo, the capital—now present-day Tokyo.  The 1855 Edo Earthquake (also called the Great Ansei Earthquake) claimed over 7,000 lives, caused widespread damage from shaking that set off fires and triggered a minor tsunami.  This hellish urban landscape conveys the horrors following this natural phenomenon as a unlucky citizens find themselves trapped amid ruins engulfed in a surreal firestorm.  Although we sense the eventual doom of these poor, panicked souls, the expansive fields of stylized gold flames set against the scattered green tile rooves produce a repetitive pattern that is pleasingly decorative in spite of the dreadful subject at hand. 

        The aftereffects were reported daily for several weeks via large woodblock newspaper sheets called kawara-ban.  Sensational stories conveying these dramatic events sold over 400 special editions, and the tabloid-hungry public snapped them up at book shops where they were distributed.

            Incidentally, newspapers at the time widely reported that a sea monster caused the disaster.

Nyosen Hamada

            In 1923, another earthquake struck the Kantō region, this one more devastating than the 1855 event.  The magnitude 7.9 Great Kantō (or Taishō) Earthquake claimed between 100,000 and 140,000 lives and devastated the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama.  The firestorms that followed were particularly intense as a concurrent offshore typhoon created strong winds that fanned the flames.

            That rain of flaming debris is depicted here in Nyosen Hamada’s macabre scene.  Horrified victims are rendered in emotionally-graphic detail as they succumb to their doom amid burning winds and scalding water.  Dense black smoke overhead and a smoky white horizon further convey entrapment.  Limbs flail about as bodies pile upon one another.  The violent world closes in from all sides.  Death is inevitable.

            (Note how the fading background echoes Sesshū Tōyō’s serene landscape in Haboku-Sansui.)

Yuken Teruya

            Yuken Teruya, (born 1973, Okinawa) responded to the shocking devastation of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami with a series of cut miniature trees, rendered from the pages of newspapers reporting on the catastrophic event.  The delicate paper landscape sprouting from the pages provides a poignant metaphor for the resilience of life.  Several newspapers arranged on the table allude to the Japanese archipelago itself.


Takashi Murakami

            Takahashi Murakami’s response to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami highlights the horrors of the associated human-made nuclear disaster.  The menacing landscape here is invisible like the radiation that poisons it, although the canvas conveys a crowded figural forest and horizon defined by freakish bodies. The tableau draws compositional inspiration from 19th century Buddhist painter Kano Kazunobu yet renders these bodies in radioactive colors and grotesquely-deformed faces; the result is both chaotic and cartoonish à la Hieronymus Bosch, yet it suggests a startling social and political commentary on the nuclear industry that is ultimately horrifying yet somewhat humorous—laughing in the face of disaster.

– Frank Gordón-Quiroga, University of Hartford


Addiss, Stephen, et al. Traditional Japanese Arts and Culture: An Illustrated Sourcebook. University of Hawaii Press, 2006. pp. 102-105
Corkill, Edan. “What Is Art in the Face of Disaster?” The Japan Times, 25 Oct. 2012, http://www.japantimes.co.jp
Hanga Ni Miru Tōkyo No fūkei: Kanto Daishinsai Kara Senzen Made (The Tokyo Landscape in Prints: From the Great Kantō Earthquake until before World War II). Ōta Kuritsu Kyōdo Hakubutsukan (Folk Museum of Ota City), 2002. Exhibition catalogue
Murase, Miyeko, and Pierre-Emmanuel Dauzat. L’Art Du Japon. Libr. générale française, 2001. pp. 204-206
Paine, Robert Treat., and Alexander Soper. The Art and Architecture of Japan. Yale University Press, 1981.
Rosenberg, Karen. “Takashi Murakami: ‘In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow’.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Jan. 2015, http://www.nytimes.com
Smith, Bradley. Japan: A History in Art. Toppan Printing Company, 1980.
Swann, Peter C., and Peter C. Swann. A Concise History of Japanese Art. Kodansha International, 1987. p. 192
Tsuda, Noritake, and Patricia Jane Graham. A History of Japanese Art from Prehistory to the Taisho Period. Tuttle Pub., 2009.
Weisenfeld, Gennifer S. Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923. Univ. of California Press, 2012.
“Yoritomo Water Cure at Hiraizumi.” Ronin Gallery, http://www.roningallery.com


  1. Enjoyable post. I also like Japanese art, although I am not an expert.

    One of the Japanese art questions I have been seeking an answer to is Why artists of the Edo period depicted lightning as red in color. Lightning is not read, but artists colored it that way.

    I am interested in exploring some of the connections between art, mythology and science.

    I hope you will read my post, which is a slide set from a conference presentation.



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