Painting is an ancient and refined art in Japan encompassing a wide variety of styles and genres. Paintings of crude stick figures and geometric designs have been found on bronze dotaku bells and pieces of pottery that date back to between 300 BC and 300 AD. Murals have been found dated between 300 and 700 AD. It became very popular to paint Buddhist imagery in the sixth century. These works were commissioned by the ruling classes, who were erecting a large number of temples at the time. The early murals that survived from this time period include those painted on walls at the Horyu-ji Temple in Ikaruga, Nara. These depict episodes in the Buddha and minor deities' lives. They are painted in a style similar to paintings from China's Sui Dynasty.
The painting style of the Tang Dynasty became extremely popular by the middle of the Nara period. These paintings include murals that are found in the Takamatsuzuka Tomb, painted around the year 700 AD. This Tang Dynasty-influenced style eventually evolved into the Kara-e genre of painting. This genre held in popularity into the early part of the Heian period. Most of the Nara paintings are religiously-themed and painted by artists who retained their anonymity. Many pieces from this period are collected at the Shosoin Storehouse, which is controlled by the Imperial Household Agency. The popularity of the Tendai and Shingon Buddhist sects brought about many religious paintings in eighth and ninth century Japan. As Japanese Buddhism progressed in the tenth century, The Raigozu was born. This depicts Buddha Amida's arrival at the Western Paradise. An early piece from 1053 can still be found in the Byodo-in Temple that still stands in Uji, Kyoto.
During the middle of the Helan period, the Chinese Kara-e painting style was replaced by the Yamato-e as the popular style of the time. This newer style was primarily used to illustrate folding byōbu screens and sliding screen doors. Over time, Yamato-e began to be seen on other interesting mediums including the Emakimono hand scroll. The Emaki artists were able to devise illustrative conventions to convey very emotional scenes in their paintings. Of the different E-maki genres, Genji Monogatari was unique in that it was organized into separate episodes, whereas Ban Dainagon Ekotoba was more lively and used continuous illustrations to emphasize the figures in active motions with vibrant thin colors and rapid brush strokes. A very famous example of this painting style is The Seige of the Sanjō Palace. E-maki are the greatest and earliest examples of Otoko-e, which are paintings of men, and Onno-e, which are paintings of women. There are minor stylistic differences between the two genres. The Onna-e style is best represented by the hand scroll painting of The Tale of Genji. Court life and romance are the central themes of this painting style. Otoko-e focused more on recording historical battles and other important events.
Japanese painting has had a rich history. Many of today's Japanese painters work in styles that are heavily influenced by popular culture and anime. The most popular and well-known of these contemporary painters is probably Takashi Murakami. He is part of a studio collective, which is called Kaikai Kiki. His work focuses on Japanese society in the post-war period. One of the intentions of his art is to blur the lines that separate fine art from its commercial counterpart.
Japanese painting has a unique and colorful history. The creative innovation of modern artists melding popular and fine art points to an interesting future for painting in Japan.