Bright lanterns

Art - Susanna Jones enjoys an illuminating insight into Japanese history

Japanese decorative art is associated with restraint, serenity and stillness. We have in mind, perhaps, a Hokusai view of Mount Fuji at sunset, or a woman in a kimono gazing wistfully past a peony into the distance. The "Kazari" exhibition at the British Museum, showing pieces from Japan, the UK and the US, is a vibrant spectacle that belies the notion of minimalism in Japanese art. Lavish, colourful, and often playful, this display of almost 200 exhibits gives a dynamic picture of Japanese history and culture from the 15th to the 19th centuries.

Kazari translates broadly as "to decorate" or "to display" and can be traced back to eighth-century court poems describing the effect of ornamenting the hair with flowers. Its meaning is more than simple adornment; rather it involves transforming the ordinary object into something extraordinary. The object's relationship with its surroundings and its own purpose are integral to kazari. This duality is evident throughout the exhibition. There are pieces one would expect to see - screens, kimonos, ceramics, fine lacquerware and theatrical costumes - but there are also fascinating and unexpected items such as pipes, firefighters' clothing, writing boxes and playing cards. Beautiful in themselves, the objects give a tantalising glimpse into the hierarchical world of samurai, merchants, courtesans and actors.

Japan has always had a gift for importing ideas and making them Japanese. Most aspects of Japanese culture came at one time from China - the tea ceremony, for example - and the first section of "Kazari" shows Japan's fascination with China in the 15th and 16th centuries. At the shogun's court, the marriage of architecture and decoration was essential in impressing important guests. The shoguns sought the finest examples of Chinese textiles, lacquerware, and hanging scrolls.

Peace and a vibrant economy in the first half of the 17th century led to experimentation. The warriors had vast wealth and appropriated artistic symbol as a means of maintaining power. Kabuku, meaning "twisted" but referring to something eccentric or outlandish, became the aesthetic ideal and ceramics were deliberately distorted or flawed. Sets of tea bowls are misshapen and each piece is slightly different from the others.

Prolonged peace also led to an increase in portraits of people at leisure. Picnic under Cherry Blossoms is a six-panel folding screen, gold-flecked and stunning with crimson blankets laid out under the pink blossoming trees. A woman performs a fan dance while another accompanies her on the samisen. The emphasis is on the activities and expressions of the figures rather than the place, creating a scene of both precision and fantasy.

Not all art was sponsored by the warrior class. With its new money, the merchant class of the 17th and 18th centuries began to rebel against the military elite. Des- pite their wealth, the merchants were low in the social hierarchy because warriors considered themselves the natural rulers. However, merchants were brought together by tea and literary gatherings and had refined tastes in art. The Rinpa school of this era is characterised by references to courtly literature such as the Tale of Genji, a scene from which is depicted by Ogata Kenzan on a tiny incense container made of porcellaneous stoneware. Also on display are women's kimonos decorated with designs of fashionable views of the time. Sightseeing was a new pastime of the rich merchants and some of these decorative motifs were based on illustrations from guidebooks.

Modern Japan has a reputation for producing goods that are disposable after one use: chopsticks, umbrellas, cameras. In fact, the tradition goes way back in Japanese history, when ceramic dishes were lovingly crafted, only to be used once and then thrown away. Ogata's Eight Dishes with Seasonal Designs, of the early 18th century, with motifs of summer and autumn on the interior, would have been appreciated for their very disposability, as transient as the seasons they depicted.

As you might expect, the Floating World is represented here. Works by Hokusai, Utagawa and others (late-18th to 19th centuries) detail the bustling activities of the pleasure districts, the most famous of which was Yoshiwara in Edo (now Tokyo). Yoshiwara may or may not have been a pleasure for the courtesans and geishas, with their heavily circumscribed lives, but artists of the time were entranced.

In Utagawa Toyoharu's Display Room of the Tamaya in Yoshiwara, a group of courtesans is on show in the Tamaya brothel. The five highest-ranking women are seated on red carpet, while the novices sit deferentially around the edges. Each is involved in some activity as she waits for customers: origami, pipe-smoking, playing the samisen. At a time when samurai protocol often prohibited ostentatious dress in public, everyday items such as smoking sets, inro (seal pouches), writing boxes and ivory combs became fashion statements, a means of self-expression but also of competition and status.

Days, too, were divided into ordinary and extraordinary. The final section of the exhibition is dedicated to festivals. Colourful floats and costumes were decorated to entertain and create spectacle, but also to venerate the gods. Screens and decorated doors show sweeping scenes of townspeople, musicians and acrobats pulling ornate wooden floats.

Throughout "Kazari", there is a striking sense of movement and life. A turtle on a hairpin catches the light. A kabuki costume almost rustles with the presence of an actor. The exhibition shines a bright lantern on Japanese history, engaging and delighting the imagination.

"Kazari: decoration and display in Japan, 15th-19th centuries" is at the British Museum, London WC1 (020 7323 8000) until 13 April

Susanna Jones's second novel, Water Lily, will be published by Picador in March