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Busshi of Japan. Sculptors who made Japan's Buddhist Statues.BUSSHI  仏師 OF JAPAN = SCULPTORS OF JAPAN
Who Made Japan’s Buddha Statues?
Sculptors, Schools & Workshops
in Japanese Buddhist Statuary

Before starting, please see the Busshi Index. It provides an overview of Japan’s main sculptors (Busshi) and sculpting styles, a helpful A-to-Z Busshi Index, plus definitions for essential terms and concepts. This section of our site includes 14 pages, covers 100+ sculptors, features 100+ photos, and provides the web’s first-ever integrated guidebook to Japan’s sculptors.

Meiji Era Buddhist Sculptors (Busshi) in JapanNOTE: This page relies heavily on the wonderful research of longtime site contributor and Japan resident Gabi Greve. Without her help, the Edo-to-Modern pages about Japan’s main sculptors would not be available. Gabi’s page on Edo-to-Modern sculptors is here.

Busshi (Sculptors) of Japan's Meiji Period - Buddha Statues in Japan


Takaoka Daibutsu - Washing the Big Buddha
Takaoka Daibutsu
Takaoka City, Toyama Pref.
Construction of this
reproduction began in 1907.
Completed in 1933.

HISTORICAL SETTING. At the start of the Meiji Era 明治時代 (+1868-1912), Japan was forced to end decades of isolation. The "black ships" of Commodore Perry convinced the new Meiji leaders to open Japan's doors to Western culture, commerce, and technology. Japan thereafter enthusiastically entered a race to modernize and thus block the colonization of its islands. In the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the imperial family was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo (formerly Edo), the emperor regained imperial sovereignty from the Tokugawa shogunate, and a new government composed of a small band of samurai and nobles institutionalized Shinto as the new official state religion (one focused on emperor worship) and implemented restrictive policies against Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions. Shintoism was easily co-opted by the government and used to galvanize the nation into building a modern military, administrative, and educational state. Shintoism and Buddhism were forcibly separated, with Buddhism declared a superstitious foreign import. By decree, fiat, and force, the Meiji government proceeded to break up the once-powerful Buddhist estates. Temples were forced by law to cut their Shinto ties, harassed on all sides by new laws and estate taxes, and soon stripped of their lands and artistic treasures. Government attempts to destabilize Buddhism contributed to the anti-Buddhist riots of the late 1860s, when popular sentiment turned against Buddhism, portraying it as a foreign cult of corruption and decadence. In some areas, notably Satsuma 薩摩, raging mobs burned down temples and decapitated statues. These anti-Buddhist riots are referred to as Haibutsu Kishaku (廃仏稀釈), which literally means "Abolish the Buddha, Kill Shakamuni."  

MAYHEM. The separation of Shinto & Buddhism brought mayhem. Says Kondo Tadahiro about the cleaving of the great syncretic Buddhist-Shinto stronghold in Kamakura during that time:

    Tsurugaoka Hachimangu-ji Shrine/Temple 鶴岡八幡宮 in Kamakura had to remove or thrown away all structures and objects associated with Buddhism. The Emperor turned living god, and those who dared to gaze directly at the divine Emperor were subject to arrest. Some critics say that wartime Japan was more fascist than today's North Korea, since Kim Jong Il was never divinitized. Today's Japanese emperor is no longer a god, of course, but the Japanese constitution still defines the emperor as "symbol of the state and of the unity of the people." Shinto, moreover, continues to this day to be the religion of the Imperial Family, and traditional Shinto rituals take place regularly in the Imperial Palace. The influence of this can be seen in Japan's modern national holidays -- many originate in Shinto rituals. <end quote by Kondo Tadahiro

AMERICAN RESCUES JAPAN’S BUDDHIST STATUARY. Some lament the great pillaging and pilfering that occurred in the Meiji period, when temple treasures were sold off at rock-bottom prices, with many pieces finding their way into the hands of Western collectors and museums. The once-powerful Buddhist monasteries of Japan became mere shadows of their former selves. Much of their old-world glory was lost, sold to the cheapest bidder. Surprisingly, the great treasures of Buddhist art in Japan were rescued by a young American named Ernest F. Fenollosa フェノロサ (+1853 - 1908). Appointed by the Meiji government to catalog and register Japan’s Buddhist treasures, Fenollosa played a major role in saving Japan’s artistic heritage from the ash-heap. He was awarded four times for his efforts by the Meiji Emperor (Meiji Tennō 明治天皇 +1852-1912), receiving his last award in +1890, when the emperor requested a personal audience and bestowed the “Order of the Sacred Mirror” on Fenollosa (one of various classes of awards called Zuihōshō 瑞宝章, or Imperial Orders of the Sacred Treasures). In China, the Japanese award was called 神镜勋章. The sacred treasures of Japan are the three imperial regalia of Shinto, which include the sword (Kusanagi 草薙劍), the necklace of jewels (Yasakani no Magatama 八尺瓊曲玉), and the sacred mirror (Yata no Kagami 八咫鏡, also known as Shinkyō 神鏡, or Divine Mirror). Until that time, the award had never been given to a foreigner. Fenollosa also lectured at the Tokyo Imperial University 東洋美術研究家, and became the first curator of the Oriental collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. His ashes are today buried at Miidera Temple 三井寺 near Kyoto, a rare honor befitting his meritorious service to Japan. Among those who remember, his moniker in Japan is “Bodhisattva of Art.” Says his wife, who wrote the introduction to his book Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art” after his death: 

    In 1882, Ernest Fenollosa was asked to assist in organizing the “Bijitsu-kai” or “Art Club of Nobles.” At the first meeting, largely attended, for by this time his name was spoken everywhere, he opened proceedings with a fearless and inflammatory speech denouncing a race who would see their greatest birthright slipping through their fingers and make no effort to retain it.

    Source: Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art by Ernest F. Fenollosa, published by ICG Muse Inc. ISBN 4-925080-29-6.

Modernization of Buddhism. Many fought hard to retain Buddhism as a feature of modernized Japan. But they did so by denouncing all forms of superstition and by focusing entirely on elements that conformed to Western notions of “religion.” They claimed that Buddhism was a birthright of the Japanese people, one that should not be purged “en masse.” Instead, they stressed elements of Buddhism that accorded with Western religious concepts. One of the most powerful voices was that of Inoue Enryō 井上円了 (+1858-1919). Inoue published a piece called Superstition and Religion 迷信と宗教 about three years before he died. His main goal was to reform Buddhism and make it more tenable to foreign audiences. He recommended the purging of “superstitious” elements to achieve this purpose:

  1. Do not say that foxes or badgers deceive or possess people
  2. There is no such thing as winged goblins (Tengu 天狗)
  3. Theres is no such thing as curses
  4. Do not believe in dubious ritual prayers (kaji kitō 加持祈祷)
  5. Do not trust in the efficacy of magic or holy water
  6. Do not put your trust in divination, whether by written oracles, physiognomy, geomancy, astrology, or ink stamp
  7. It is wrong to be concerned with omens and auspicious or inauspicious days
  8. Do not otherwise believe in anything that is generally similar to these things [above]

    Source: “When Buddhism Became a Religion.” By Jason Ananda Josephson, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 33/1, 143-168, 2006.   

Like Inoue, the main goal of the Meiji government was to purge precisely these types of beliefs, to downplay the sphere of the supernatural, to eliminate such rituals and beliefs. But doing so purged Japanese Buddhism of its most common elements. It left the common people with nothing but scholastic Buddhism. This attempt to modernize Japanese Buddhism failed, and today the Japanese people continue to believe in age-old rituals, mythology, and superstitions about good and bad luck. Is Buddhism a religion? Yes and no.

For the moment, please visit Gabi Greve’s page,
found here, which lists up Edo-period busshi (sculptors)

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  • JAANUS. Japanese Architecture & Art Net Users System. Online database devoted to Japanese art history. Compiled by the late Dr. Mary Neighbour Parent, it covers both Buddhist and Shintō deities in great detail and contains over 8,000 entries.
  • Dr. Gabi Greve. See her page on Japanese Busshi. Gabi-san did most of the research and writing for the Edo Period through the Modern era. She is a regular site contributor, and maintains numerous informative web sites on topics from Haiku to Daruma. Many thanks Gabi-san !!!!
  • Heibonsha, Sculpture of the Kamakura Period. By Hisashi Mori, from the Heibonsha Survey of Japanese Art. Published jointly by Heibonsha (Tokyo) & John Weatherhill Inc. A book close to my heart, this publication devotes much time to the artists who created the sculptural treasures of the Kamakura era, including Unkei, Tankei, Kokei, Kaikei, and many more. Highly recommended. 1st Edition 1974. ISBN 0-8348-1017-4. Buy at Amazon.
  • Classic Buddhist Sculpture: The Tempyo Period. By author Jiro Sugiyama, translated by Samuel Crowell Morse. Published in 1982 by Kodansha International. 230 pages and 170 photos. English text devoted to Japan’s Asuka through Early Heian periods and the development of Buddhist sculpture during that time. ISBN-10: 0870115294. Buy at Amazon.
  • The Great Age of Japanese Buddhist Sculpture, AD 600-1300. By Nishikawa Kyotaro and Emily J Sano, Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth) and Japan House Gallery, 1982. 50+ photos and a wonderfully written overview of each period. Includes handy section on techniques used to make the statues.  The Great Age of Japanese Buddhist Sculpture (AD 300 - 1300).
  • Comprehensive Dictionary of Japan's National Treasures. 国宝大事典 (西川 杏太郎). Published by Kodansha Ltd. 1985. 404 pages, hardcover, over 300 photos, mostly color, many full-page spreads. Japanese Language Only. ISBN 4-06-187822-0.
  • Bosatsu on Clouds, Byōdō-in Temple. Catalog, May 2000. Published by Byōdō-in Temple. Produced by Askaen Inc. and Nissha Printing Co. Ltd. 56 pages, Japanese language (with small English essay). Over 50 photos, both color, B&W. Some photos at this site were scanned from this book. Of particular use when studying the life and work of Jōchō Busshi.
  • Visions of the Pure Land: Treasures of Byōdō-in Temple. Catalog, 2000. Published by Asahi Shimbun. Artwork from Byōdō-in Temple. 228 pages, Japanese language with English index of works. Over 100 photos, color and B&W. Some photos at this site were scanned from this book. No longer in print. Of particular use when studying the life and work of Jōchō Busshi.
  • Numerous Japanese-language temple and museum catalogs, magazines, books, and web sites. See Japanese Bibliography for extended list. Also relied on Hōryūji Temple 法隆寺 (Horyuji) catalogs and Asuka Historical Museum.

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Dharma WheelspacerJAPANESE BOOKS

  • Comprehensive Dictionary of Japan's National Treasures. (国宝大事典 (西川 杏太郎). Published by Kodansha Ltd. 1985. 404 pages, hardcover, over 300 photos, mostly color, many full-page spreads. Japanese Language Only. ISBN 4-06-187822-0.


Introduction & Index to Japanese Buddhist Sculptors (Busshi)

Asuka | Hakuhō | Nara | Heian | Kamakura | Muromachi | Edo | Modern

Busshi Glossary  |  Jōchō Busshi  |  Unkei Busshi  |  Kaikei Busshi

Contemporary Busshi Mukoyoshi Yūboku & Nakamura Keiboku


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