REVIEW: Faith and Power in Japanese Buddhist Art: 1600-2005

Faith and Power in Japanese Buddhist Art: 1600-2005
by Patricia J. Graham
University of Hawaii Press, 2007

Book Review by Jonathan Ciliberto for Buddhist Art News

Visual art is deeply tied to Buddhist practice, and certain sites and structures possess special significance to this practice. In Faith and Power in Japanese Buddhist Art: 1600-2005 Patricia J. Graham tracks “the thread of change over time to the practice of Buddhism” through a thorough examination of works of Japanese Buddhist art and architecture from the 17th into the 21st century. This superb survey includes non-traditional works — that is, those not connected with institutional Buddhism in Japan — including those intended for museums. It also aims to overturn the fallacy of the ‘declining’ Buddhist arts of Japan in recent centuries.

Thus, the book has three goals: 1) to reconsider the canon of Japanese art in order to make room for Buddhist art and architecture from the 19th century to the present; 2) “to define the social history of recent Japanese Buddhist art and architecture” (p 3); 3) to illustrate the place of Buddhism as an influence or inspiration on art and artists outside of institutional Buddhism. It is the first book to study the 400-year span from the beginning of the Edo period to the present and to link this period to the established canon of Japanese Buddhist art (p 9-10).

In contrast to the typical Western perception of Japanese Buddhism — Zen — two often overlooked practices are considered: the layperson’s (seeking relief for dead relatives, working toward a better rebirth for them) and the political (prestige derived from funding Buddhist art and power gained through control of sacred images). “The power of religious art empowers those who control its images. The finely made statues and ornaments housed in Buddhist temples created a theater, a showcase to display a patron’s splendor” (p 3, quoting Ikumi Kaminishi).

Summary of Contents

The traditional view, that Tokugawa Ieyasu’s consolidation of power in 1600 represented a shift in power away from Buddhism — as a means of limiting the power the sacred had had over the secular — is questioned by Professor Graham. Early 19th c. revisionist history described the pro-Confucian (anti-Buddhist) actions of the early Tokugawa shogunate, a politically-motivated description designed to undercut the power and influence of Buddhism on a rapidly modernizing culture. Thus, the canon of Japanese art came to include ancient and medieval Buddhist art while placing more recent instances from the Tokugawa in a purported period of decline. This idea of decline was also due to Western influence: the canon of Japanese Buddhist art was defined in the 19th century largely as a result of contact with Westerners and from the valuation of Western art. In addition, only sacred art was included in this canon, in part due to the preservation of such works over the secular. Finally, only works of sacred art created for the elite class were admitted to the canon. “Particularly in the case of Japan, traditionalist scholars decree that the technical sophistication, the rarity and cost of the raw materials, and the high social standing or wealth of the patrons determine whether or not a particular artifact should be defined as art” (p 9).

A major theme of the book is class and how social position has determined the boundaries of the canon of Japanese Buddhist art. Beginning with the Edo, owing to the growth of a middle class, influences on Buddhist art come more and more from sources other than the elite class. The subsequent writing of art history has tended to value these influences less than those of elite classes.

The author points to Sally Promey’s “Secularization Theory of Modernity” which posits the European Enlightenment’s disdain for the “value of religious institutions to the modern world” (p 10) as a major influence on the construction of the meaning of art in modern Japan. The author also follows Tamamuro Fumio’s lead in moving beyond the examination solely of the religious life of high-ranking priests, of “localizing the study of religion, and of transcending sectarian boundaries,” all hidden boundaries checking scholarly inquiry.

Although grounded in theses regarding class and power, the book is an historical overview of art and architecture from 1600-2005. That is, the majority of the book’s content consists of detailed descriptions of artworks and sites, rather than extended theoretical discussion. The author’s states her grounds simply, then largely allows a vast and orderly exposition of material to build them.

A study of the “broad four-hundred year span” beginning with the Edo, Faith and Power in Japanese Buddhist Art is the first to bridge the artistic histories of premodern and modern. Further, scholars of Japanese Buddhist art and architecture generally completely ignore modern works. Graham’s work fills this gap wonderfully.

A work of superb scholarship, the book examines early trends of the Edo period in which the Shogunate went further than its predecessors in using Buddhist institutions to its advantage. For example, by appropriating “two trusted Buddhist monks, the Zen abbott Ishin Sūden (1569-1632) and Nankōbō Tenkai (1563-1643), a Tendai priest” to help him draft laws, “first aimed at specific, troublesome temples and sects, then expanded to include temples of all denominations” (p 23). A household temple registration required “all citizens to register with a local temple”, in part to combat Christian proselytizing (p 24). The bakufu also took powers from the Imperial family to grant rank to Buddhist clerics. Such political uses of Buddhism find repeated historical precedent in Japan, and obviously extend to the visual arts.

Imperial patronage of Buddhist sites is exemplified by the introduction of the Ōbaku sect in the mid 1700s. Ōbaku was formed when a group of Chan (Zen) monks from China fled upon the overthrow of the Ming. Although based in Rinzai Zen, the sect had formed differently over the centuries, bringing in Pure Land, Confucianism, Daoism, as well as Zen practices like “introspective self-cultivation in reclusion” (p 52). Ōbaku spread quickly in Japan thanks to both Imperial and Shogun support. The bakufu donated both land for construction of the Ōbaku temple Manpukuji, beginning in 1661. However, the shift in class power affected this patronage system. “By the end of the Edo period, lacking funding, neither the bakufu nor the daimyo could support temples they founded and patronized. But patronage of these temples continued as these institutions embraced commoner devotees, who helped pay for new structures for their own use” (p 69).

Stable times and increased urban population, combined with education and wealth, led to a greater participation by commoners in Buddhist material culture. The “pilgrimage boom” of the 17th c., in which large numbers of commoners made journeys to sacred sites, purchasing personal icons and block prints, foreshadowed the rise of economic and spiritual influence this class would come to wield. A syncretism had long attended Japanese religious practice, with Shinto and Buddhism operating in harmony for many centuries. During the 18th c., most lay practitioners showed little discrimination for the boundaries of sects, freely worshiping at a range of sites. Professor Graham does not suggest a specific reason for this increased syncretism, other than the new urban concentrations and the “shared concerns of devotees for safety and material success in this world and fears about the unknown afterlife.” Langdon Warner refers to the “practice nature of the Japanese to explain this ease with belief in a wide range of religious sects”. Particular attention is paid to “newly popular trans-sectarian Deities: Jizō, the Rakan, the Seven Gods of Good Fortune,” devotion to whom grew rapidly during the Edo (p 97).

Professional image makers (busshi) also benefited from the burgeoning middle class. Increased population, the requirement to register with a Buddhist temple, and the effective proselytizing by clerics, all led to increased patronage of temples. This also increased opportunities for professional artists. Prior to the Edo, lay artisans created most Buddhist sculpture. “In the Heian period, busshi became freelance artists who operated family-run workshops” (p 128). The publication in 1690 of the Butsozō zui (Compendium of Buddhist Images), which “served as an authority for aspiring Buddhist painters, sculptors, craftsmakers, and the lay public” (p 110) aided artists, while also contributing to the “stylistic fatigue” noted by scholars as early as the Muromachi amongst images of the Kyōtō workshops. Thus, sculptures of the period vary between traditionalist and innovative.

Chapter Six, “Expressions of Faith,” examines visual imagery made by devout followers of Buddhism during the early modern period, images created by a wide range of class. “None sold these objects for personal gain” (p 150). For such artists, making Buddhist images was a devotional practice: to help the situation of the deceased and to help promote a particular temple.

While admired in their day for their piety, most of these artists were not considered “artists” by contemporaries. “For the most part, their imagery remains marginalized from that which constitutes the orthodox canon of Japanese art history” (p 150). The author’s implication is that class and economics, rather than purely aesthetic criteria, determined what art is, a claim emphasized with the creation of the Japanese art canon in the 19th century. Amongst the artists considered in this group are: imperial clerics and nuns, elite samurai, and daimyo wives.

As with other individuals whose work reached out to commoners, the Rinzai master Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768) has largely been excluded from the canon of Japanese art. None of his works are designated Important Cultural Properties, and few have a place in Japanese museums. Hakuin’s style was self-taught, and he was “not a professional artist who painted for the elite of Japanese society” (p 157). According to Graham, Hakuin entered the canon only after Westerners (prodded by Japanese Buddhist popularizers to the West, Yanagi Sōetsu, D.T. Suzuki, et al) began praising the work of such “primitive” expressionism.

The Meiji Restoration’s separation of Shinto and Buddhism in 1872 and the elevation of Shinto to official state religion led to the closing down of many temples and monasteries, mandated retirement of monks and nuns and although not officially sanctioned, promoted the great destruction of temples “under the slogan ‘destroy the Buddhas, abandon Shakya’ — 18,000 by some estimates” (p 177). Despite this, however, devotion to Buddhism did not diminish. Rather, Buddhist sects sought new ways to maintain their status. “The pivotal moment for Buddhists came in 1893, then four Japanese Buddhist priests (of the Shingon, Tendai, Shin, and Rinzai sects) and one Buddhist layman journeyed to Chicago to participate in the seventeen-day forum of the World’s Parliament of Religions” (p 179). The prestige this generated translated to esteem in Japan for Buddhism. The need to transmit knowledge of Buddhism to the world became closely associated with Japan’s expansionist policies.

Once again, politics motivated trends in Buddhism (and its visual art) in Japan. Aware of the place held in European’s minds for religious sites and art as culturally important, Japan’s government began identifying and restoring sites in the country, as well as establishing a national museum.

Graham describes the subsequent identification of Cultural Properties and National Treasures and the incorporation of Western styles with special lucidity, touching on themes of interest to readers engaged in cultural and colonial studies.

Simultaneous with the growth of appreciation for Buddhist arts was the appearance in Japan of foreign collectors, who came to play a significant role in the creation of the canon of Japanese art, as well as the conversion of “icon to art”.

The book continues with chapters covering Buddhist sites and visual art during the interwar period, and from 1945-2005. The latter, especially, is unique and valuable. “Since the end of World War II, Japanese Buddhist followers have become divided into two, not mutually exclusive, groups of enthusiasts: monks and lay practitioners associated with its traditional institutions, and individuals inspired by Buddhist philosophy as propagated by secular scholars” (p 251). This latter group is mirrored in the West. A great many 20th c. artists (e.g., John Cage, Bill Viola, Marina Abramovic, Allen Ginsburg) point to Buddhist ideas as the basis from which they create, without making clearly “Buddhist art”. (c.f., Buddha mind in contemporary art, edited by Jacquelynn Baas, Mary Jane Jacob.)

While temples in Japan still seek traditional art, and artists still make it for them, “other visual materials, generally more suggestive and allegorical and the product of professional secular artists” derive of the more general humanitarian nature of Buddhism. It is only the latter that are named by “scholars and art critics” art (p 251). The same dichotomy exists in western art, and for the same reason: as a means to control cultural capital.

The book’s conclusion is brief: the power shift in Japan over the past four centuries, from the religious to the secular, led to broad changes in its society. However, the Japanese faith in Buddhism has persisted, even as its visual forms have developed beyond the traditional iconographic treatments. The opening of society to other classes interconnected the aesthetics of the elites (formerly the sole province of Buddhist art) with those of the commoner/popular. The different face of this culture resulted in its rejection by scholars into the modern canon of Japanese art. “This oversight derives in large measure from the ways those in power […] use material culture to create definitions of cultural identity in the contemporary world” (p 276).


Art history has, in recent decades, followed other scholarly areas in examining more closely the prejudices and powers that have created the parameters of critical inquiry. The greater economic stakes (works of art have monetary value, events of the past, largely, do not) that art history commands have perhaps led to a harder calcification of its canons, these stakes in addition to the ones (e.g., ethnicity, gender) that attend the determination of the edges and center in any study of history. By far the majority of Faith and Power in Japanese Buddhist Art deals with trends in Japanese Buddhist art, and the historical occasions that surround them. The author is commended for not hammering away at her points regarding class and cultural capital, but rather for achieving these points by a steady, thorough, and deep examination of history and art.

Graham gives equal attention to visual art and architecture, rightly seeing these as connected, both in terms of style and the themes of her book.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that these themes spring largely from observations on Buddhist practice. Changes in Japanese culture did bring a new class into a position to influence Buddhist art, but it is because these individuals felt a genuine interest in Buddhist practice that their influence grew large.

Book Design

The University of Hawaii produces extremely well-designed books. Faith and Power in Japanese Buddhist Art: 1600-2005 is beautiful from a graphic design standpoint: simple, rather than showy, wide pages with comfortable margins. The volume’s numerous black and white photographs are kept separate from the body, allowing them room to breath, with 32 color plates set in. The paper stock is of a semi-gloss variety, and while most likely chosen for its archival properties (and cost), is not well-suited to pencil-marking. Erasure is nearly impossible. In addition to an excellent bibliography and notes, the book includes an Appendix (“Guide to the Tokyo-Area Temples…”), character glossary, and index.

Many site photographs are by the author, indicating (if further evidence were needed) the range of research: far and wide within Japan. Unlike many author’s photographs, which simply fill a need where no other option exists, Graham’s are above average, revealing a photographer’s willingness to make an extra effort to get a good shot.

~ Book Review by Jonathan Ciliberto for Buddhist Art News

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