Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 1, 2000
Mimi Yiengpruksawan Hiraizumi: Buddhist Art and Regional Politics in Twelfth-Century Japan Harvard University Press, 1998. 263 pp. Cloth $60.00 (0674392051)

In 1126, Fujiwara no Kiyohira dedicated a Buddhist Canon in more than 5,000 fascicles copied in alternating columns of gold and silver ink on indigo paper. This Canon is unique in Japan because of the gold and silver script and also because Kiyohira was the only commoner of his day to sponsor an entire Buddhist Canon. Kiyohira, the descendant of Emishi (“toad barbarians”), ruled from Hiraizumi, capital of a stronghold in northern Honshu that has been variously identified as a kingdom, a polity, a military government, and as “the Buddhist heaven of the eastern barbarians” (202). Kiyohira’s son Motohira and his grandson Hidehira continued to rule at Hiraizumi through the 12th century, sponsoring many artworks that, like Kiyohira’s gold and silver Canon, were simultaneously extravagant, anomalous, and provocative. Between 1150 and 1170, Motohira dedicated a Buddhist Canon written in gold ink on indigo paper that presents unusual frontispiece scenes of violence. Hidehira’s Pagoda Sutra, probably commissioned and dedicated in the 1170s or early 1180s, was also unique: it is the first known presentation in Japan of the thirty-one chapters of the Golden Light Sutra in the form of ten pagodas of text. But perhaps most extravagant, anomalous, and provocative was the way in which Kiyohira, Motohira, and Hidehira memorialized themselves in death. Their mummified remains are interred under the three-part altar in the Golden Hall at the monastery of Chusonji, in a manner that suggests connections with the aboriginal Ainu to the north. The Golden Hall itself, the exterior of which was completely covered in gold leaf and the interior lavishly decorated with gold, lacquer, and mother-of-pearl, seems less a worship hall than a funerary monument enshrining the living dead who rest underneath a crowd of statues on the three-part altar.

Mimi Hall Yiengpruksawan has written the first book in a Western language dealing with Hiraizumi, a book that will no doubt remain the definitive work on the subject for years to come. It is a tour de force, lucidly and spiritedly written, based on extensive primary and secondary works in Japanese and also informed by the author’s sensitivity to the interplay between political and visual cultures. This is a book about a provincial region that defined and distinguished itself in relation to the political and cultural capital of Kyoto. It is a book about tensions and transgressions, about liminal zones where the anomalous can occur. Early on, Yiengpruksawan states a fundamental position: “. . . I have come to recognize a drive toward difference as the fundamental agent of what others would see as the desire for conformity or uniformity. If the Hiraizumi Fujiwara, in constructing their polity and its temples at Hiraizumi, were imitating mainstream Kyoto culture, as many have argued, they were also reconstituting it to suit their own heterogeneous purposes not necessarily contained in the mainstream” (5). Legitimizing their rule by means of the power embodied in artistic and architectural programs, the Hiraizumi Fujiwara resisted capitulation to the socio-cultural center of Kyoto even as they copied and competed with it.

The Hiraizumi Fujiwara were not the civilian Fujiwara of the Kyoto capital. Rather, they were military men descended from the Hidesato branch of the family that had settled in provincial northeastern Japan by the 10th century. Yiengpruksawan discusses the ancestors of the Hiraizumi Fujiwara in the context of the history of the Emishi confederacy of tribes who populated this provincial region. Although by the early 9th century, the central government in Kyoto had established nominal hegemony over these tribes, the political relationship was often uneasy and the warlords of northern Honshu continued to rule with what often seemed like semi-independent authority. When Fujiwara no Kiyohira, who called himself the “chieftain of the fushu (acculturated Emishi),” prevailed over rival Minamoto forces in northern Honshu, and around 1100 established his capital at Hiraizumi, he initiated a new episode in the relations between center and periphery. Kiyohira began a program of building and of art production, carried on by his son and grandson, which rivaled similar activities in the capital. For example, Kiyohira and Motohira modeled their temples—Chusonji and Motsuji—on the imperial Hosshoji, built by Emperor Shirakawa in Kyoto in 1077, while Hidehira drew on an even older site, the 1053 Phoenix Hall at Byodoin, near Kyoto, as a model for his own Muryokoin.

Readers will find many gemlike discussions embedded in this learned text, for example, the analysis of the cult of Bishamonten, the guardian of the north, and of the sculptural technique called natabori (“hatchet carving”), as elements typifying Buddhist culture in the north (42-47). Elsewhere is a fascinating discussion of the sculptural Monju Pentad found in the Sutra Repository at Chusonji (149-56). Yiengpruksawan demonstrates convincingly that this pentad—of the bodhisattva of intellect and wisdom Monju (Skt. Manjusri), accompanied by Utengoku no O (King Udayana), the old man Taisho Rojin, Zenzai Doji (Skt. Sudhana), and Buddahari (Skt. Buddhapalita)—derives from the Esotericized configuration associated with the sacred mountain Wutaishan in China. Its presence at Hiraizumi is also evidence for the maritime trade controlled by Hiraizumi between northern Honshu and China.

Yiengpruksawan demonstrates a sure command of 12th-century Japanese history, evident in her masterly synopsis of the political history of 12th-century Kyoto and of the various strategies that major players in this drama developed for dealing with political anxiety through commissioning lavish artworks (89-94). Her discussion of the tensions between local artists and artists imported to Hiraizumi from the capital is also particularly illuminating (186-98).

Tension between mainstream culture and liminal or periphery culture can be seen even today in responses by scholars investigating the anomalous burials of the three Fujiwara mummies under the Golden Hall altar. The fact that the mummification practices and other details of burial are strikingly similar to burials of Ainu chieftains—for example, Motohira wears an Ainu coat in death—has disturbed many 20th-century scholars. During an exhumation in 1950, only one scholar (Tazawa Kingo) indicated possible connections between Ainu burial practices and the Fujiwara mummies. Other scholars sought—and continue to seek—connections with Chinese practices involving Buddhist monks who were mummified and placed on altars as objects for worship, even though no evidence exists that the Fujiwara mummies were ever worshipped on altars. Similarly, during the 1950 exhumation, great effort was expended on “proving” that the Hiraizumi Fujiwara were “Japanese” and not “Ainu.” As Yiengpruksawan points out, these questions await “another exhumation and the willingness of scholars to entertain ideas of greater cultural and ethnic diversity in their investigation of the Japanese past” (133).

It is unfortunate that the color reproductions do not do justice to the original works and that some of the black-and-white photographs are not clear. An uneven quality in reproductions seems to be a problem shared by many university press books. Clearly, the guilty presses must improve if they wish to publish books in which art plays an important role. Fortunately, Yiengpruksawan’s descriptions are vivid enough to offset the poor reproductions, as, for example, her discussion relating to Fig. 43, a barely visible frontispiece from the gold and blue Buddhist Canon dedicated by Motohira (114-15). Her skill at articulating the appearance of visual images is also evident in her discussion of the famous Ichiji Kinrin statue at Chusonji, for which there is no illustration at all (177-84). Although this image had been widely published through 1995, in recent years the temple authorities have denied permission for reproduction because of its status as a living, secret Buddha. (Happily, the reader can find the white-faced, low relief sculpture commissioned by Hidehira reproduced elsewhere, for example in Yiengpruksawan’s excellent article on the subject “In My Image: The Ichiji Kinrin Statue at Chusonji” (Monumenta Nipponica, vol. 46, no. 3, pp. 329-47; Autumn 1991).

Yiengpruksawan ends her book with a discussion of the 1189 defeat of the Hiraizumi Fujiwara by Minamoto no Yoritomo, the warlord who united the Japanese archipelago as it had never been united in previous history. By this act, Yoritomo also avenged his Minamoto forebear who had been defeated by Kiyohira a hundred-odd years earlier. Yoritomo showed charity toward Hidehira’s family and associates, and he spared the temples and shrines of Hiraizumi. He not only spared the religious establishments, he copied one of them, the hall of Daichojuin at Chusonji, at his new capital of Kamakura in the south. So, the 12th century ended as it began, with a warlord (Yoritomo) in part legitimizing his rule by appropriating and re-creating a religious monument associated with a political rival (Kiyohira), just as Kiyohira had appropriated Shirakawa’s Hosshoji. Yiengpruksawan has brought this century to life through her focus on tensions between north and south in a book that should absorb not only art historians but also anyone interested in Japanese political, religious, and socio-cultural history.

Elizabeth ten Grotenhuis
Associate Professor for Japanese Art, Boston University