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Explore highlights of our Japanese collection, from tiny netsuke to cutting edge designs, superb ceramics to Ainu artefacts.

A spectacular array

The Japanese cultural collection encompasses archaeology, woodblock prints, ceramics, metalwork, textiles, swords and sword fittings, armour, musical instruments, Buddhist items, lacquer, miniature arts, including medicine cases (inrō) and toggles (netsuke), and contemporary studio arts.

Prints and paintings | Archaeology | Ainu objects | Ceramics | Arms and armour | Clothing and textiles | Lacquerware | Buddhist artefacts | 19th century collection | 20th century and contemporary Japan | The collection on display

Prints and paintings

Woodblock print by Ohara Koson, Japan, 1930 © Ohara Koson.

From Japan’s early modern period the most substantial representation is pictorial art, with around 4,000 colour woodblock prints dating from the 19th century. These were part of a joint purchase with the South Kensington Museum (today’s Victoria and Albert Museum) in 1887. They cover the four major print genres — warriors, landscapes, beauties and theatre — with the majority of works being by the renowned artists Kuniyoshi, Kunisada and Hiroshige. The group also includes some woodblock-printed books, numbering about 30 titles. More recently, collecting has aimed to increase the representation of early modern paintings, in hanging scroll, handscroll, album and folding screen formats.

The slideshow below shows a selection of prints and paintings from our collection.

A piece of the past

Fragment of a pottery vessel: Japan, Musashi Province, Mitsusawa shell-mound, Jomon, Stone Age.

There is a large, internationally significant collection of Japanese archaeological material, which was donated to the Museum in 1908-14 by the Scottish physician Dr Neil Gordon Munro (1864–1942). This collection of over 2,000 items includes ceramics, stone tools, shells and bones, dating from the Jōmon (11,000–400 BCE), Yayoi (400 BCE–300 CE) and Kofun (300–710 CE) periods. Some of these illustrate the close technological links with the continent, and the Korean peninsula in particular.

Ainu objects

Painting of the Ainu Uimamu ritual, with Ainu chiefs greeting merchants from the Matsumae domain, against a curtain with crests of the Takeda clan: Japan, Hokkaido, by Hirasawa Byōzan, 1867.

Munro also gave a group of about 225 objects from the Ainu people of Hokkaido, including ritual items, domestic clothing and accessories. He collected these when he was serving as a physician to the Ainu community in Nibutani village. You can see the objects in the slideshow below on display in the Living Lands gallery at the National Museum of Scotland.

Superb ceramics

Large porcelain alms bowl with blue fish: Japan, by Seifu Yohei III, c1910.

The Japanese collection also boasts around1,000 ceramics from the early modern period to the mid 20th century. The historic collection includes many fine examples of export porcelain as well as pieces in domestic taste; a particular strength is the group of 58 works given in 1956 by the sisters Rachel and Jane Alexander. These were collected  by their father, the banker William Cleverly Alexander (1840–1916), who was a patron of James McNeill Whistler. A recent donation from Rene Finch of 212 pieces illustrates the development of Chinese-style blue-and-white porcelain (known as Shonsui) in Japan. In 2015 a group of more than three hundred Japanese ceramics was donated by David and Anne Hyatt King via the Art Fund. It is a strong representation of 17th-century porcelain presentation pieces and of the works by various named potters’ lineages from the mid-19th through to the late 20th century. A small exhibition Masters of Japanese Porcelain was opened in March 2015 to celebrate the gift and the entire collection is available to view online

The slideshow below shows highlights from the collection presented by David and Anne Hyatt King through the Art Fund.

Arms and armour

Colour woodblock triptych print depicting the kabuki actors Onoe Kikugorō V as Megumi Sakagorō grasping two swords, Ichikawa Sadanji I as Kuzō, and Nakamura Shikan IV as Shakki Dengorō, baring his arm: Japan, by Toyohara Kunichika, 1870-80.

In arms and armour, there are six suits of armour, around 20 swords, daggers and glaives, five matchlock guns, an indoor archery set. Some of the swords and spears were transferred from the South Kensington Museum in 1866, having formed part of the diplomatic gift in 1859 from the shogun Tokugawa Iemochi (1846–66) to Queen Victoria. There is also a collection of about 260 finely crafted sword-guards (tsuba).

Clothing and textiles

Embroidery with design of Nong Yu (J: Rogyoku) standing on a flying phoenix and holding a koto under her arm: Japan, 19th century.

Textiles comprise around 18 robes for men or women, and some examples of formal wear (kamishimo). There is a group of 27 finely embroidered gift covers (fukusa) donated by Thomas Clarke-Thornhill (1857–1934) in 1926. There is a large group of textile samples from the 19th century, illustrating a wide variety of production techniques, some from the gift to Queen Victoria.


Lid of picnic cabinet (sageju): Japan, 18th century.

There are around 150 lacquerware items, mainly writing and document boxes, picnic equipment, and various kinds of small container. The lacquer accoutrements for men comprise 67 medicine cases (inrō) and 900 netsuke toggles, the majority deriving from donations by John Jordan in 1914 and EJ Fyfe in 1946.

Buddhist artefacts

Colour woodblock print from the series Kōyasan hakkei (Eight Views of Mt Koya), depicting the main buildings of the temple complex: Japan, by Kansendō, c1860.

Buddhist artefacts are well represented, with three large bronze figural sculptures, two large bronze temple lanterns, lacquered household shrines, two paintings, many ritual implements and percussion instruments, and items used by mendicant priests.

Our 19th century collection

Detail of decoration on the back of a bronze incense burner: Japan, by Suzuki Chokichi, 1875-76.

Moving into the late 19th century, there are several large sculptural pieces in bronze and in ivory designed for international exhibitions. There are also about 30 cloisonné pieces, almost all of which were acquired before 1900.

20th century and contemporary Japan

Eight-sided lidded box of cast bronze, with patinated surface and silver leaf on inside: Japan, by Hatakeyama Koji, 2007. © Hatakeyama Kōji.

20th century arts are well represented, with a group of about 40 revivalist woodblock prints from the 1930s and about 40 works by print artists of the 1980s and 1990s. In 1989 Mrs Lebe Tokimasa bequeathed approximately 700 household items from the 20th century, acquired during residence in and visits to Japan from the 1930s to 1960s. These are primarily utensils for cooking, eating and drinking purchased in department stores.

In recent years, a strong collection of contemporary jewellery and studio crafts has been built up. Following an exhibition at the National Museum in 1993, the Kondō family of sometsuke porcelain artists is strongly represented. Other potters include Sakiyama Takayuki and Kishi Eiko. Jewellery artists include Hiramatsu Yasuki, Suō Emiko, Oda Makiko and Sonobe Etsuko. There is glass by Takahashi Yoshihiko and Miyake Michiko, bamboo craft by Buseki Suikō, and metalwork by Hatakeyama Kōji, Ōsumi Yukie and Iwata Hiroki.

Where can I see the Japanese collection?

Mask of carved and gilded wood, with eyeballs and teeth of gilt metal, representing the evil spirit Kaname-ishi, for No drama, signed: Japan, by Deme Tōhaku Mitsutaka, 1675-1715.

From 1996 to 2014 a selection from the Japanese cultural collections was displayed in the gallery Looking East: China, Japan and Korea (also known as the Ivy Wu Gallery of East Asian Art). Plans are underway for a new gallery displaying the East Asian collections, scheduled to open in 2018.

Meanwhile, Japanese items can be found all around the National Museum of Scotland. Visit Artistic Legacies to see porcelain, contemporary ceramics, sword-guards and jewellery and Inspired by Nature for woodblock prints, haniwa, netsuke and cloisonné. You’ll find musical instruments, a Noh mask and Buddhist ritual items in the Performance and Lives gallery, while Living Lands has a fine display of Ainu artefacts. Our new Fashion and Style and Making and Creating galleries feature cutting edge contemporary design from Japan, while beautiful ceramics can be found in the Window on the World.

Japan is represented also in the collections of natural history, military history, and science and technology.


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