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A Case Study of Heian Japan through Art:
Japan's Four Great Emaki

by Jaye Zola, Retired Teacher and Librarian, Boulder Valley Schools

Chōjū giga (Scroll of Frolicking Animals),
Genji Monogatari emaki (The Illustrated Tale of Genji),
Shigisan engi emaki (Legends of Mt. Shigi),
Ban Dainagon ekotoba (The Tale of the Courtier Ban Dainagon),

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The Heian period is considered the peak of the Japanese aesthetic tradition. Art, poetry, and literature permeated court life. As Dr. Segal points out, during the Heian period the Japanese moved away from Chinese models in the arts, as well as in government. Emakimono or emaki, narrative picture scrolls, often called hand scrolls, provide an excellent case study of the period because they came to Japan via China but developed into a distinctly Japanese art form in the Heian period. In addition, analysis of the varied scrolls of the period can provide insights into the highly refined court culture, politics, and religion in the late Heian period.

This lesson uses four remarkable hand scrolls of the period that have survived to the present, each providing evidence on aspects of Heian life. The nobility appreciated and cultivated the culture of beauty, manners, and ritual as is reflected in the great Genji Monogatori emaki (Illustrated Tale of Genji). Buddhist art was central to court life as the focus for prayers and ritual, and the Shigisan engi emaki (Legends of Mt. Shigi scroll) showed the respect for monks, myth, and magic. Changes in power and their impact on religious life are reflected in the satirical Chōjū giga (Scroll of Frolicking Animals). Court intrigue and everyday life are portrayed in the Ban Dainagon ekotoba (The Tale of the Courtier Ban Dainagon). In this lesson, students observe, analyze, and interpret these four scrolls in order to learn about the different aspects of Heian life.

The lesson opens with a brief teacher-directed introduction to emaki. Students then individually analyze one of the four scrolls. They then form pairs to compare two scrolls and finally connect with another pair to create a foursome with a member “expert” on each of the scrolls. After students have shared their analyses of the four scrolls, they work in their foursomes to create a preview poster for a museum exhibit featuring the four emaki. The lesson ends with a class discussion of what can be learned from the scrolls about Heian Japan.


At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be better able to:

Describe how the Genji Monogatari emaki (Illustrated Tale of Genji), Chōjū giga (Scroll of Frolicking Animals), Shigisan engi emaki (Legends of Mt. Shigi), and the Ban Dainagon ekotoba (The Tale of the Courtier Ban Dainagon) represent emaki as an art genre.
Describe Japanese life during the Heian period.
Interpret a primary source document.
Use pictorial evidence to create and support a thesis.
Demonstrate visual literacy by analyzing a work of art within its original historical, political, economic, religious, or social contexts


Ban Dainagon ekotoba: scroll called The Tale of the Courtier Ban Dainagon in English

Chōjū giga: scroll called Scroll of Frolicking Animals in English

emaki or emakimono: a hand scroll, usually with ink painting on paper; they are occassionally made of silk

engi: narrative about the origin of a place, usually a temple

Genji Monogatari emaki: illustrated hand scroll of The Tale of Genji

Heian period (794-1185): historic period when the Imperial court was located in Heian-kyō (modern Kyoto), known for its elegant court life and artistic contributions

Parody: (1) a literary work that mocks an idea, person, place, or thing by mimicking it in a humorous fashion; (2) the techniques used in a parody

Satire: (1) a literary or artistic work that uses irony, derision, and wit to ridicule human actions, beliefs, and customs to expose the foibles and follies of humans; (2) the techniques used in satire

Shigisan engi emaki: scroll called Legends of Mt. Shigi in English

Materials and Advance Preparation: Make enough copies of Handouts H1 through H4 for one-fourth of the class to have each. Make copies of Handouts H5 through H7 for all students. Handouts H8 and H9 are optional: Handout H8 provides background on the Heian period while Handout H9 is an art lesson. Gather poster paper and markers. Finally, print the scroll selections from the Internet sites listed below. You will need enough copies of the selections from each scroll for one-fourth of the class. Alternatively, if you have enough computers for every two students to have a computer, you could download the visuals and make them available at the classroom computers or allow students to access the visuals directly from the Internet; they can start from the Heian Japan Online Image List to find the appropriate images.

Chōjū giga (Scroll of Frolicking Animals)

Genji Monogatari emaki (The Illustrated Tale of Genji)

Suzumushi Chapter: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Genji_emaki_SUZUMUSHI.JPG

Scene by Kashiwagi III:

Shigisan engi emaki (Legends of Mt. Shigi)

Rice bowl taking storehouse: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sigisanengi_tobikura.jpg

Sending the rice back:

Ban Dainagon ekotoba (The Tale of the Courtier Ban Dainagon)

Fire at the second gate: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ban_dainagon_ekotoba.jpg

Scenes from all three scrolls: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Bamse/Ban_Dainagon_Ekotoba#scene

Bibliographic information on the images:

Chōjū giga (Scroll of Frolicking Animals)
Detail from scroll 1,Chōjū giga, showing a religious service; mid-twelfth century; hand scroll, ink on paper, height 12½ in.; Kōzanji, Kyoto

Genji Monogatari emaki (The Illustrated Tale of Genji)
First image: Illustration 2 from the “Suzumushi” chapter of Genji monogatari emaki; first half of twelfth century; hand scroll, ink and color on paper; Gotoh Art Museum, Tokyo
Second image: Illustration 3 from the “Kashiwagi”chapter of Genji monogatari emaki; first half of twelfth century; hand scroll, ink and color on paper; Tokugawa Art Museum, Nagoya

Shigisan engi emaki (Legends of Mt. Shigi)
First image: Illustration from Shigisan engi emaki, showing bales of rice sent to Myōren; second half of twelfth century; hand scroll; ink and color on paper; Chōgonsonshiji, Nara
Second image: Illustration from Shigisan engi emaki, showing Myōren sending back the rice; second half of twelfth century; hand scroll, ink and color on paper; Chōgonsonshiji, Nara

Ban Dainagon ekotoba (The Tale of the Courtier Ban Dainagon)
Details from scroll 1, Ban Dainagon ekotoba, attributed to Tokiwa Mitsunaga; second half of twelfth century; hand scroll, ink and color on paper, height 12-3/8 in.; Sakai Tadahiro Collection, Tokyo

Introduce the activity by explaining to students that they will be using art as a primary source document to learn about life in Japan during the late Heian period. The documents they will be using are emaki or hand scrolls that are from the late Heian period. (See Teacher Background Information for more information about scrolls.) If students are not familiar with hand scrolls, make sure they understand how they were read and viewed. Explain that the students will use this pictorial evidence to develop their understanding about the historical, political, and religious life of the nobility and Buddhist clergy at this time. If students need background about the Heian period, Handout H8 provides such information.

Organize students into four groups. Using the jigsaw method, students will work individually, then form pairs to compare two scrolls, and finally connect with another pair to compare four scrolls. In the end, the foursome will have one student who is an expert on each scroll. In deciding who gets what scroll, note that the Chōjū giga (Scroll of Frolicking Animals) is probably the most difficult to analyze because of its use of parody and satire. Give each group one of the four scrolls and accompanying handout:

Chōjū giga (Scroll of Frolicking Animals), Handout H1
Genji Monogatari emaki (The Illustrated Tale of Genji), Handout H2
Shigisan engi emaki (Legends of Mt. Shigi), Handout H3
Ban Dainagon ekotoba (The Tale of the Courtier Ban Dainagon), Handout H4

Give each student a copy of Handout H5, which provides instruction for analyzing the scrolls. Explain that the first step in the lesson will be individual examination of the scroll panels.

Let students work individually for 5 to 10 minutes, completing the questions on Handout H5. Explain that they will have a chance to explore more with their group.

Have students discuss their answers in the group that shares the same scroll. Encourage students to clarify their responses and answer questions before they meet with students from another group. Provide 10 minutes to talk with each other.

Regroup students into pairs. Put one Genji Monogataristudent with one Shigisan engi student until everyone has a partner. Pair one Ban Dainagon student with one Chōjū giga student. Pass out Handout H6 to each student; this handout calls for students to create a Venn diagram showing the similarities and differences between the two scrolls. Have the pairs use Handout H5 and each other’s scroll panels in completing this diagram. Allow 10 to 15 minutes for students to analyze and complete the handout.

For the final regrouping, put student pairs together to form groups of four representing the four scrolls. Give students 20 minutes to look at the four scrolls and share their observations from Handout H6.

After students have shared, explain that each group is going to create a preview poster for a museum exhibit featuring the four emaki. They are to create a poster “teaser” that will get people interested in the exhibit. Distribute poster paper and markers, along with Handout H7, which provides instructions for this activity. Allow 30 minutes for the groups to create their posters. Post the posters around the room and let students examine them.

Debrief the activity by discussing the question from Handout H7: What can we learn about Japan in the late Heian period from the scrolls?

The emakimono or emaki is a horizontal illustrated narrative scroll that is distinctly Japanese. Its predecessors originated in India and, along with Buddhism, came to Japan through China. Scrolls were used to depict stories of historical events, provide religious commentary, illustrate works of fiction and poetry, or serve as a form of creative expression for the artist.

Scrolls were most often made of paper or occasionally from silk. They were attached to a wooden dowel at the left end and then rolled up for storage on shelves or in boxes. The story or narrative was read by unrolling the scroll a little at a time, from right to left, like Japanese is written. Japanese is traditionally written in vertical lines from right to left so the format of scrolls, with the text alternating with pictures, was a format compatible with Japanese writing conventions. The scenes developed in movie-like fashion, unrolling the narrative for the viewer. After the scroll was viewed, it was rolled up.

Pictures were drawn with ink, painted, or stamped. The ink or water-soluble colors were applied with animal-hair brushes. There was no way to correct a mistake or to repaint, as can be done with oil or acrylic paint. Planning ahead was important; because painting was done on the spot, the result was a spontaneity and freshness to the work. Work was intense because a single brush stroke could ruin a scroll.

Scrolls were generally 8 to 20 inches in height and could reach up to 60 feet in length. A story could take from one to as many as ten scrolls. Scrolls were enjoyed as they were unrolled with one or two feet viewed at a time. The gradual revealing of the story was what gave the scroll its life; the effect is lost when the whole length is spread out. Some of the scenes were independent, and some were pictures that evolved from the right to the left within one “frame.” The artist illustrated time and place as the scroll was unrolled.

A feature of note is the absence of definite borders for the scenes. In European, Indian, and Persian art, most pictures are carefully framed. Frequently in Japanese emaki, diagonal lines of buildings and slanting spaces are used to restrict the focus of attention and to highlight certain features. A diagonal structure that runs down the right will point to a certain event or object at the left side of a scene. Figures leaving always face left and those arriving always face right.

The Japanese were the first to develop this genre, which is thought to have influenced the later development of woodblock prints. (Some scholars even claim a link between emaki and manga and anime, but others refute the claim.) The typically Japanese form of painting seen in the emaki, depicting local life and landscape, is known as yamato-e, signifying a native Japanese subject matter. The yamato-e developed during the Heian period. Previously, Chinese scenery and styles dominated Japanese art.

The most famous Japanese narrative hand scroll that was created during the late Heian period is the Genji Monogatari emaki. It depicts important scenes from The Tale of Genji, Japan's first and perhaps most important novel. The Shigisan engi emaki (Legends of Mt. Shigi) illustrates a folktale about the miracles associated with the founding of a temple. The Ban Dainagon ekotoba (The Tale of the Courtier Ban Dainagon) is an historical account about court intrigue, concerning events of the Ōtemmon Conspiracy. The Chōjū giga (Scroll of Frolicking Animals) is a humorous caricature of animals acting like humans.

It is unclear who created most of these scrolls. Only the Ban Dainagon ekotoba can be confidently attributed to the court painter Tokiwa Mitsunaga. Some scholars attribute the Chōjū giga and the Shigisan engi scrolls to the Buddhist clergyman Toba Sōjō. The Genji Monogatari emaki is believed to date from the first half of the twelfth century, as is the Chōjū giga. The Shigisan engi emaki dates from after 1150, and the Ban Dainagon ekotoba was created between 1157 and 1180.

Teacher Resources:

Addiss, Stephen, and Audrey Yoshiko Seo, How to Look at Japanese Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1996).

Hall, John Whitney, et al., The Cambridge History of Japan, Vol. 2: Heian Japan, Donald H. Shively and William H. McCullough, eds. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Mason, Penelope, History of Japanese Art, rev. ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ : Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005).

Copyright © 2008 Program for Teaching East Asia, University of Colorado.


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