The Magnificent History of Japanese Screens

In Japan’s premodern era, people began and ended their lives surrounded by screens. Women gave birth between screens that were covered in cranes and tortoises, animals thought to bring good fortune, happiness, and a long life. And at the arrival of death, the deceased’s body was often accompanied by an inverted or upside down screen, a visual token of irreversible loss. From castles to temples, in paper or silk, screens have played a vital role in Japanese life for centuries. Japanese Screens: Through a Break in the Clouds (Abbeville Press), edited by Claire-Akiko Brisset and Torahiko Terada, is an exquisitely illustrated and enlightening new book that reveals the screen’s unique role in Japanese history and culture from its origins to the 20th century.

Screens were first imported to Japan from China in the eighth century. The byōbu, or “barrier against the wind,” was initially an object of the imperial court, where it delineated symbolic and material space during enthronements, anniversaries, banquets, and coming-of-age rites. Large and elaborately ornamented screens served as important elements of aristocratic women’s wedding trousseaus and were sent as diplomatic gifts as far away as Europe, while smaller kobyōbu were used in incense ceremonies to trap and retain fragrances.

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Tosa Mitsuoki, “Flowering Cherry and Autumn Maples with Poem Slips,” Japan (1654/81) (the Art Institute of Chicago)

Beyond their ceremonial functions, screens like Tosa Mitsuoki’s “Autumn Maples with Poem Slips” (1649-86) offered elites a source of cultural connection. This screen — along with its companion “Flowering Cherry” — is delicately painted with gold, silver, and ink on silk, and is packed with meaning that viewers would have enjoyed deciphering and interpreting. 

The screens’ leaves and blooms will soon fall, representing life’s impermanence. Maple and cherry trees evoke the spring and autumn, themes that appear in poems written on the tanzaku strips of paper hanging from the tree’s branches. These contain verses taken from imperial anthologies that would have been familiar to the screens’ educated spectators. Empress Tōfukumon’in displayed this screen during official gatherings to spark conversation and reinforce her status. As a sign of her wealth, she commissioned 30 different calligraphers to contribute to the screen’s painted poems. 

“Whose Sleeves?” Japan (18th century), anonymous, pair of six-panel screens, ink, colors, and gold on paper (National Museum of Asian Art, Freer Gallery of Art, gift of Charles Lang Freer)

Eventually, with the arrival of the Edo period and the rise of the merchant class, screens made their way to other sectors of society. These new patrons favored more everyday subjects, including what is known as “Whose sleeve?” scenes, which depict clothing, bags, pets, and other personal effects gathered informally together. These screens were joined by smaller makura byōbu, or “pillow screens,” that kept drafts away from working class people while they slept. Another more easily accessible object that mirrored the screen’s segmented, collapsible visuals was the folded paper fan, or ōgi, which emerged in the 10th century.

Whether in a palace or a private home, screens are highly beautiful and functional elements of domestic space. Together with sliding doors, shutters, and curtains, screens create mobile partitions that can be opened, closed, and arranged according to the residents’ needs. And with these movements, screens’ images and visual readings continually shift as well. Situated at the intersection of painting and sculpture, decoration and architecture, Japanese screens are dynamic art objects. This book captures them in all their colorful, multifaceted glory.

Tawaraya Sōtatsu, “Waves at Matsushima,” Japan (early 1600s), pair of six-panel folding screens, ink, color, gold, and silver on paper, 166 × 369.9 cm (National Museum of Asian Art, Freer Gallery of Art, gift of Charles Lang Freer)
Yashima Gakutei, “White Cat Hissing at Its Reflection in a Black Lacquer Mirror Stand” (c. 1830), polychrome surimono woodblock print (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Ogata Kōrin, “Irises at Yatsuhashi (Eight Bridges),” Japan (after 1709, Edo period), pair of six-panel folding screens; ink and color on gold leaf on paper (the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Japanese Screens: Through a Break in the Clouds, edited by Claire-Akiko Brisset and Torahiko Terada, is published by Abbeville Press and is available on Bookshop.


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