Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 25, 2008
Patricia J. Graham Faith and Power in Japanese Buddhist Art, 1600–2005 Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007. 368 pp.; 46 color ills.; 111 b/w ills. Paper $55.00 (9780824831912)

There are far too few general books available on topics in Japanese art, and those who are intrepid enough to write them are insufficiently applauded for the difficult task. Faith and Power in Japanese Buddhist Art, 1600–2005 is an excellent example of an overview of Japanese Buddhist art done exceedingly well. It does a laudable job of surveying Japanese Buddhist arts from the early modern period continuing into the present, discussing an important body of visual materials that until now has been largely overlooked. The intention of the book, Patricia Graham states, is to “suggest new directions for research and to stimulate news ways of thinking about Buddhism and its relation to the visual arts” (viii). She overturns previous assumptions about the declining quality of Buddhist art of the early modern and modern periods, and of the decreasing importance of Buddhism in Japanese society and its ability to inspire fresh works of art.

As Graham shows, the military bureaucracy and other elites continued to support institutional Buddhism and its arts during the Tokugawa period (1600–1868), even as non-elites became an increasing factor in Buddhist artistic practices. Both groups participated in the developing production of non-denominational visual materials as an expression of personal devotion. New modes of articulating personal faith continued to develop through the modern era (1868 to the present), and new forms of Buddhist art and architecture were developed even within traditional institutional Buddhism. In particular, this book readdresses Buddhist works by urban townspeople, rural feudal lords, itinerant monks, women of both higher and lower social class, and professional artists and amateurs. Furthermore, the author considers the sites of these images, whether traditional Buddhist institutions, private residences, or other secular spaces such as museums, galleries, and public parks.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part covers Buddhist arts produced during the Tokugawa shogunate; the second part considers the modern age from 1868 to 2005. In the first three chapters of part 1, Graham discusses the political, social, and economic background for the production of Buddhist art during this period, beginning in the first chapter with the warlords Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi and continuing with the Tokugawa shogunal family’s policy toward Buddhism. In addition to establishing the temples of Zōjōji, Kan’eiji, and Sensōji as important Buddhist centers in Edo (present-day Tokyo), the Tokugawa also founded the Rinnōji-Tōshōgū temple-shrine complex in Nikkō to assure the prosperity of their lineage and deify the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu, as a Shintō deity. Tokugawa reconstruction and upkeep of important temples in the Nara-Kyoto area served to demonstrate their beneficence, while at the same time a number of regulations promulgated to control Buddhism, such as the temple registration system, resulted in laity support of a vast network of temples.

The patronage of Buddhism and the production of imagery by other elites and supporters of the Tokugawa rule—primarily Emperor Gomizunoo and his Empress Tōfukumon’in (daughter of the second shogun, Hidetada), as well as the daimyō domain lords—is the topic of the second chapter. Here the establishment of the Ōbaku Zen sect and its support by the Tokugawa is discussed, along with innovations of regional domain temples, such as the reproduction of mini-pilgrimage circuits as spectacles. Chapter 3 focuses on pilgrimage and its stimulation of printed materials and didactic imagery for commoners, the effects of vast numbers of visitors upon the temple grounds and courtyards, and public viewings of temple treasures and public entertainments to attract large groups of visitors and financial support.

Graham turns in the final three chapters of part 1 to concentrate on the Buddhist art objects of the early modern period. In chapter 4, she discusses how in the Edo period some Buddhist deities increased in popularity or became new subjects of worship due to non-elite devotional practices. These include the Bodhisattva Jizō (Sanskrit: Kṣitigarbha) as savior from hell and guardian of still-born babies; the Rakan (Sanskrit: Arhats) and disciples of the Buddha that served as models for the faithful and reflected the physical forms and expressions of real people; and the Seven Gods of Good Fortune as an eclectic mix of Buddhist, Shintō, and Daoist deities prayed to at New Year. This leads in chapter 5 to a discussion of the different categories of professional artists who produced Buddhist art: sculptors from traditional Buddhist workshops, schools of professional Buddhist painters, Buddhist paintings produced by artists from the official Shogunal ateliers, town painters (machi eshi), ukiyo-e print artists, and even revivalist (fukko yamatoe) artists. In chapter 6, Graham considers devotional imagery created by the faithful: the elite nuns associated with Emperor Gomizunoo, his Empress Tōfukumon’in, and his daughters; priests and itinerant ascetics who created Buddhist sculpture and paintings for commoners; and secular artists who produced religious imagery as a result of their personal faith.

While the book’s first part serves as an informative introduction to the Buddhist arts in the early modern period and the continuing influence of established trends in worship, the second part presents new material and reassesses modern artists not normally recognized for their Buddhist works. This is an exciting and important contribution to the field. As discussed in chapter 7, new policies of the Meiji government combined with efforts by both traditional Buddhist institutions and lay believers allowed for Buddhism’s resurgence after its initial persecution during the first two decades of the new administration, from 1868 to around 1889. Buddhism’s importance was reestablished by the imperialist state as part of its expansionist program, and Buddhist temples and art were supported as symbols of Japanese cultural heritage. This official support provided opportunities for the reconstruction of ancient sites in dire need of repair, the construction of new temple halls of reinforced concrete made in a hybrid blend of Eastern and Western architectural styles, and inventive icons such as plaster-cast Buddhist sculptures made from the cremated remains of parishioners.

The transition from Buddhist icon to art object is Graham’s subject in the eighth chapter. After Takeuchi Hisakazu failed to win a prize for his sculpture of the Buddhist deity Gigeiten at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, whereas the Buddhist workshop-trained Takamura Kōun won a prize for his secular sculpture Aged Monkey (1892), the first modern Japanese sculptors turned away from Buddhist subjects, as innovation and virtuosity were more highly prized than traditional techniques or iconographic norms.

This leads to Graham’s next topic: new forms of modern sites for Buddhist art. Here she reviews a variety of approaches meant to attract contemporary audiences. These include: reinforced concrete temple halls made in the form of giant Buddhist statues; the fairground-style site at Kōsanji in Hiroshima prefecture reproducing historical temples and shrines; the re-creation of lost Nara period temples (sometimes at the expense of deconstructing Edo-period halls); theater-style Buddhist halls inspired by Western churches; public monuments that participate in Buddhist activities, such as the cenotaph at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park; and contemporary temple spaces and museum galleries that become icons in themselves, such as the Heights of Eternal Hope for the Future at Kōsanji or the Gallery of Hōryūji Treasures at the Tokyo National Museum.

In chapter 10, Graham examines a number of contemporary artists who continue to work with Buddhist subject matter, both traditional Buddhist artists and non-secular ones. Among these contemporary figures, the artist Mori Mariko creates multi-media Buddhist works informed by cosplay (“costume play,” i.e., dressing in the costume of anime characters). Yamanaka Manabu’s photographic series of homeless people as Rakan is one of the most affecting examples of Buddhist-inspired contemporary art, and it eloquently evokes the idea of “the Buddha’s devout followers that lived as ascetics in impoverished circumstances within but separate from the world around them” (264).

Faith and Power in Japanese Buddhist Art, 1600–2005 is a commendable overview of early modern to contemporary Japanese Buddhist art that introduces heretofore underappreciated visual materials and offers new avenues of approach. Its main contribution lays in the wealth of detail it provides, which cannot be adequately conveyed in a review. One of the basic difficulties of writing a book such as this is that when addressing material broader than one’s area of expertise, inconsistencies are bound to creep in; this occasionally occurs in Graham’s text, particularly in her use of Buddhist deities’ names. Nevertheless, these inconsistencies as well as a sprinkling of typos are relatively minor and could be readily corrected in a second edition. Like any great introductory book, Faith and Power in Japanese Buddhist Art is immediately accessible to the general reader; but it will also appeal to readers with more background knowledge. Because of its significance to the field, the book is crucial for anyone working on Japanese art, contemporary art in any area, and Buddhist studies in general.

Karen J. Mack
Research Fellow, Jōdoshū Research Institute of Buddhism, Tokyo, Japan