Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 25, 2004
Andrew M. Watsky Chikubushima: Deploying the Sacred Arts in Momoyama Japan Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003. 368 pp.; 64 color ills.; 86 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0295983272)

Andrew Watsky is an extraordinary detective, solving the mystery of an exquisite lacquered wooden building hidden inside another older structure on a tiny island in Japan’s largest lake. In explaining how that jewellike hall came to Chikubushima, he provides an in-depth report on aesthetics, religion, politics, and patronage in late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century Kyoto as well as a thorough discussion of architecture, painting, lacquer, woodwork, and metalwork of that era. Because he treats the hall and its elaborate decorations as an “ensemble,” he is able to decode what has eluded Japanese scholars and visitors for centuries.

Evidence on this building is varied: official government edicts, shrine and temple documents, personal diaries by Buddhist monks and Jesuit missionaries, cryptic comments in journals by masters of the tea ceremony, bilingual dictionaries for European traders, and the very limited physical remains from that era. Kyoto was burned several times in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and this little building is one of the few surviving examples of the spectacular public architecture erected by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his family during the Momoyama Period, often described as Japan’s “Golden Age.”

Watsky begins his case study with a brief survey of politics and culture in late-sixteenth-century Japan, a time of cataclysmic change and widespread destruction. He carefully documents the rise to power of Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598), important military leaders and art patrons, and parallels that with a discussion of how religion and the arts were employed by both men to validate and celebrate their new social systems (chapters 1 and 2). The island of Chikubushima had long been a place to worship the Buddhist deity Benzaiten (Watsky provides a detailed chronicle of her association with the “Diamond-Treasure Seat Rock,” a place where spiritual enlightenment could be attained), the bodhisattva Kannon, and certain Shinto kami. In the 1570s Nobunaga built his Azuchi Castle on the shores of Lake Biwa, with a clear view of Chikubushima, and he put Hideyoshi in charge of the region, establishing a close relationship between Chikubushima and the Toyotomi family. This connection would result in the Main Hall, built sometime after the 1558 fire and remodeled in 1602 by Hideyoshi’s heirs to contain an elaborately decorated sanctuary. That three-bay square inner core is the focus of this mystery. Who built it, and why? How did it come to be installed inside the Main Hall? What do its complex iconographic programs mean?

The first important clue was discovered during conservation work on the inner building’s rafters: “This lacquered thing was coated at the Daibutsu” (49). Watsky explains that the structure was probably created in Kyoto at the lacquer workshops associated with the Daibutsu/Great Buddha Hall of Hokoji, an enormous Buddhist temple begun by Hideyoshi in the mid-1580s. Through discussions of Hokoji’s history and ritual ceremonies, of Hideyoshi’s many other religious and secular building projects (temples, shrines, palaces, and castles) in the Kyoto–Osaka area, and of the reconstruction of Kyoto following the 1596 earthquake, Watsky explores the various contexts for the lacquered hall. In doing so, he describes the ways in which Hideyoshi used the sacred to promote his political and personal agendas.

The second set of clues is imbedded in the lacquer itself. By analyzing the ornamental motifs that cover nearly every exposed surface of the tiny building, he finds “numinous meaning in mundane motifs” (108) and posits (in chapter 3) that the structure was built in the 1590s as a memorial for Hideyoshi’s son and heir Sutemaru (1589–1591) and was originally located in the Zen temple of Shounji, adjacent to Hokoji. Both Shounji and Hokoji are now gone, so this little building is a valuable remnant of an enormous complex. Watsky also suggests that the entire design for the Sutemaru building was coordinated by Kano Mitsunobu (1565?–1608), hereditary leader of one of the great painting studios in Kyoto. This attribution is surprising, for Mitsunobu is usually thought of as just a painter, but Watsky’s provocative proposition is supported by a comparison of the Chikubushima imagery with Mitsunobu’s painting style and spatial compositions. More clues are found in the production of maki-e lacquer, an expensive process used only for the most prestigious projects such as a memorial hall built by Japan’s all-powerful military dictator to honor his deceased son.

In compiling this evidence, Watsky ranges widely and crosses traditional boundaries of art-historical research to examine the entire “ensemble” and its “aesthetic excellence,” bringing together (in chapter 4) disparate and detailed bits of information to create a convincing argument for the building’s pedigree and prominence. He writes, “Although this resplendent structure is the most fully realized monumental ensemble surviving from the Momoyama period, no comprehensive attempt has ever been made to retrieve precise information about its pre-Chikubushima history” (108). Watsky now fills this lacuna. His methodology is successful, and his careful attention to a variety of media yields rich results. He moves Japanese art history out of the arbitrarily narrow confines of painting studies, lacquer studies, and tea-ceremony studies and demonstrates how a more catholic approach provides a more comprehensive understanding.

Having established the “true identity” of this memorial hall and decoded its layers of decoration, Watsky closes the case with an extended discussion (in chapters 5 and 6) of how and why the lacquered pavilion was moved to Chikubushima. The struggle for power following Hideyoshi’s death in 1598 pitted the very young heir Toyotomi Hideyori (1593–1615) and his mother Yododono (d. 1615) against the seasoned warrior Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616). The Toyotomi sponsored religious rituals and temple constructions/reconstructions to improve their political standing and cultural authority. The deification of Hideyoshi in 1599 and the construction of the enormous Shinto shrine of Hokoku jinja to honor him next to Hokoji in Kyoto is carefully described by Watsky. The remodeling of the Chikubushima Main Hall to be a protective setting for the monument to Sutemaru was part of that effort to use the sacred to validate the secular. By renovating and rededicating the hall to Benzaiten, the Toyotomi clearly linked their family to this deity associated with military prowess and demonstrated their clan’s concern for protecting the country, since Benzaiten was known for “her devotion to the salvation of people, particularly the impoverished and lowborn” (242). Thus, Hideyoshi’s memorial to his first-born son became a propaganda tool used by his heirs in the political legitimization of his second son.

Watsky’s book is elegantly written and beautifully illustrated, with crisp, clear photographs throughout that bring this obscure treasure into sharp focus. Subtitles and paragraph headings help guide the reader, and the index is excellent, with Japanese kanji provided for names and special terminology. Watsky’s argument is convincing, and his evidence carefully assembled. I read a portion of this book several years ago during his tenure review and was impressed then by his nuanced translations and subtle explanations of difficult documents; he has greatly expanded that dissertation to include even more documentary materials that further deepen our understanding of the Momoyama period and its prominent personalities. While this volume is essential reading for all Japanese historians and art historians, it should also be of great interest to others who like a “good story.”

Bruce A. Coats
Professor of Art History and the Humanities, Scripps College

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