Nearly all works of art from the Asuka period are inspired by Buddhism, the central cultural influence of the times.
There were two distinctive stages of Buddhist art during the Asuka period.
The first stage involved works of art sponsored mainly the powerful Soga clan, and commissioned by Prince Shotoku. Buddhist images of this era are known as “Tori-shiki” and are influenced by the northern Wei Period in China. Their characteristics include almond-shaped eyes, upward-turned crescent-shaped lips, and symmetrically arranged folds in the clothing.
Asuka Daibutu, the Shaka Triad (623) is perhaps the most representative work of the time. It is an early statue that displays the Chinese Wei sculptural style.
Another important piece showing similar influences dating from around the same period is the Miroku Buddha at Chuguji.
From the 7th century, the Kudara Kannon carved from camphor wood, shows its links to Kudara or the Paekche kingdom of Korea. Most of the artists and artisans in Asuka were Korean immigrant (toraijin) artists, artisans and specialists in Chinese culture.
The second stage of Buddhist art is known as Hakuho culture emerging in the mid-7th century (and is generally known for the Taika reforms) until moving to Nara capital.
Outstanding works of Hakuho culture are the Miroku Buddha at Taimadera along with the eastern pagoda of Yakushiji Temple. The carved motif on top of the pagoda and the Yakushi Triad are famous treasures of the period.
One unusual work of art from the mid-7th century, is the Tamamushi Shrine’s panel depictions of scenes from the previous lives of the Buddha. It is rare masterpiece that uses the iridescent wings of the tamamushi beetle and the only known oil painting (done on lacquered wood) before the Europeans introduced the technique centuries later.
Perhaps the most famous wall painting of the Hakuho era are those found at the Takamatsu tumulus. One of the wall paintings shows a bevy of women in Chinese dress. Another wall painting at the Kondo of Horyuji temple showed the same influences as those in a wall painting in Ajanta in India. The painting was however damaged by fire in 1949. The paintings attest to the continental influences of the times.
Takamatsu tumulus wall painting of women in Chinese-style dress
From these earliest examples of Japanese sculpture and painting, we can see that Japanese sculpture showed both Wei and Tang influences via Korean artisans and craftsmen.
Early sculptural style of Korea followed closely Chinese models which in turn were influenced by Indian models in the early days. Images from China’s Wei period that portrayed the Buddhist deities with wide foreheads, sharp bridged noses, small mouths, slim bodies, and stiff stately facial attitudes. This Wei style clearly influenced early sculptural traditions of both Korea and Japan.
By the Tang period, however, Chinese Buddhist statuary had distanced itself somewhat from the styles of India, and began to portray the Buddhist divinities with greater realism, supple attitudes, fuller forms, clothed in flowing garments, and decked in ornaments (bracelets, jewels, etc.).
Later in the late 9th century, Japan’s break with China allowed the opportunity for a truly native Japanese culture to evolve, and the emergence from this point forward of indigenous secular art which continued to develop in tandem with religious art until the Kamakura era in the 16th century when secular art came to the fore due to the Confucian ethic of Edo-era shogunate and contact with West.