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National Treasure
Cypress Trees
Kano Eitoku
Azuchi-Momoyama period, 1590
Colour and gold leaf on paper
Source: ColBase (

Wed, Nov 9, 2022

Japanese art according to Sophie Richard: Celebrating Tokyo National Museum’s history and its National Treasures

Thanks to the long-awaited reopening of Japan’s borders, Japanese and overseas visitors alike are now able to visit this season’s art exhibitions taking place around the capital. One of the most remarkable is certainly “Tokyo National Museum: Its History and National Treasures” (Oct. 18-Dec. 11, 2022), a special exhibition that forms part of a program of projects celebrating the institution’s 150th anniversary. The first part of the show brings all of its 89 designated national treasures together (with rotations midway), an event that has never taken place before.

The Tokyo National Museum (Ueno Park, Tokyo) is a complex comprising several buildings, erected at different periods and each devoted to a particular theme. The show in question here is being held in the Heisekan, whose upper floor is dedicated to large-scale thematic exhibitions. Its galleries are now busy with a crowd eager to see this exceptional gathering of national treasures, as well as to learn more about the history of Japan’s oldest and largest museum.

Visitors first encounter the national treasures, which have been arranged by categories.

In the paintings section, the gorgeous folding screen representing “Cypress Trees” by Kano Eitoku (1590) dazzles with its gold background, ultramarine passages and the energic black brush lines animating the tortuous trunks. In contrast, “Cooling off” by Kusumi Morikage (17th century), in ink and light colour on paper, showing a couple of humble folks and their young child enjoying the freshness of the night under a full moon, is delightful in its restraint and deceptive simplicity.

National Treasure
Cooling off
Kusumi Morikage
Edo period, 17th century
Ink and light colour on paper
(Photo by Kazuki Matsuura)

Rarer in traditional Japanese art is portraiture, here illustrated with the “Portrait of Takami Senseki” (1837), a samurai and scholar of Dutch studies (the term for the study of Western technology and culture at the time) depicted with great liveliness by his pupil Watanabe Kazan who incorporated some shading and sense of perspective in emulation of Western art techniques.

The famed “Autumn and Winter Landscapes” by Sesshu Toyo (15th-16th century) elicited cries of appreciation from a group of visiting monks on the day I went.

Examples of calligraphy and a few non-Japanese works follow. Several of the Horyuji Treasures are also presented, among them works in metal and bamboo; rather movingly this group includes the letter that records the imperial bequest to the Horyuji temple in 756. Lacquerwork is illustrated by the glorious “Writing Box” by Hon’ami Koetsu (17th century), an unconventional and beguiling object featuring a bridge made of lead cutting across the lid where lightly delineated boats float onto the golden surface.

The archaeology section features a wonderful “Haniwa figure of a Warrior” (6th century). The recent conservation work realised on this terracotta revealed a remarkably fresh and detailed surface, full of elements enlightening us on the appearance of warriors from the Kofun period; the small bows holding in place the figure’s full-body armour are simply irresistible.

National Treasure
Tomb Sculpture (Haniwa): Warrior in Keikō Armor (rear)
Found in Ota, Gunma Pref.
Kofun period, 6th century
(Photo by Kazuki Matsuura)
Small bows are seen on the back of the haniwa figure.
Source: ColBase (

While all the priceless masterpieces in the first part of the exhibition are displayed behind glass, it is not the case for all the artworks in the next section. Organised in chronological chapters, Part Two recounts the history of the museum and the successive stages (and name changes) that led to what the institution is today. The foundational event in its history was an exhibition held in 1872 to showcase Japanese art and to preserve the country’s heritage, two missions the museum continues to uphold to this day. Very informative, this part weaves in instructive panels and documents with works of art that were acquired in each period.

An eye-catching ceramic by Miyagawa Kozan I representing crabs crawling on the side of a large footed bowl dripping with coloured glazes (1881) illustrates the trend for ceramics created for the export market during the Meiji Period. The year it was made this work was exhibited at the second National Industrial Exhibition held in Ueno park (not far from where the museum now stands) and soon entered the museum’s collection.

Important Cultural Property
Footed Bowl with Crabs
Miyagawa Kōzan I
Meiji era, 1881
Glazed stoneware
Source: ColBase (

Other chapters in the life of the museum include facing the aftermath of Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the evacuation of works during World War II.

The show ends with a bang with the display of a pair of “Gate Guardians” that tower above the visitors. Dating from the 12th century these large wooden sculptures used to adorn a temple in Shiga Prefecture and were acquired by the museum just a few months ago, in February 2022.

Gate Guardians
Wood with pigment
Heian period, 12th century
(Photo by Kazuki Matsuura)

As the works will be rotated midway during the exhibition period, those who wish to see all 89 national treasures are encouraged to visit more than once.



Art Historian


Born in Provence and educated at the Ecole du Louvre and at the Sorbonne in Paris, Sophie worked in the art world in New York before moving to London where she now resides. She has been a regular visitor to Japan for the last 15 years. Passionate about Japanese arts and culture, she set out to explore the country’s many museums. In the course of her research she has visited close to 200 venues across the country. Her articles on Japanese museums have appeared in the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan. Her first book on the subject was published in 2014 and then translated into Japanese. Her new book “The art lover’s guide to Japanese museums” was published in July 2019. In 2015, Sophie received the Commissioner’s Award from the Agency of Cultural Affairs in Tokyo, in recognition for her work in bringing Japanese culture to a wider audience. (Photo©Frederic Aranda)



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