Japanese Art – Yamato, The Earliest Art Center

In old Japan there were five cultural centers, Yamato, Nara, Kyoto, Kamakura and Edo (present Tokyo). In each of these five places, which were simultaneously political centers, Japanese art made an epoch-making change and development. The most noteworthy feature in the development of Japanese art was the introduction and assimilation of foreign arts, from which was created the peculiarly native one. These processes of introduction and assimilation were carried out in the five centers of culture, and thus in these places there remain today a number of important arts and historical sites which are living monuments to our nation’s cultural development.

The first great place where an epoch-making change took place was Yamato, where the Japanese Empire was for the first time consolidated in the proto-historic age. The protohistoric Yamato represented the stage of burial-mounds, in which Chinese bronze mirrors of the Han Dynasty were found in large numbers, together with native pottery and other native objects. The most interesting among these relics are the bronze mirrors. All of which are circular and ornamented with elaborate designs in relief, revealing to us the different phases of Chinese mythology, philosophy, folklore, and religion. In the design inscriptions of Chinese characters are often met what were probably the first written letters with which the Japanese people came into contact, and from which they invented Japanese writing. On some extremely rare examples of bronze mirrors are found Japanese inscriptions in Chinese ideographs, of which only the phonetic value is borrowed. When one compares these Chinese or Japanized bronze mirrors found in Japan with the Han bronze mirrors remaining in China, it cannot be denied that Japan was influenced by Chinese art and thought in this proto-historic age in Yamato, the earliest cultural center in Japan. A number of these bronze mirrors found in Yamato are now shown in the Imperial Household Museum in Ueno Park, Tokyo, with many similar bronze mirrors of other districts in Japan and some examples of Han mirrors brought from China. Besides bronze mirrors, there are clay figures, arms and armor made of iron or gilt bronze, and different kinds of personal ornaments, such as gold ear-rings and necklaces composed of various colored jewels. All these objects from the proto-historic burial-mounds illustrate Japanese life and art in the archaic period when the Japanese Empire was consolidating its foundations.

In the middle of the sixth century, Buddhist culture was introduced to Japan through Korea, and began to be held in high esteem at the Imperial Court in Yamato. It brought gilt bronze figures of Buddha, entirely new to the Japanese. Architects, painters and artisans of different branches, came to Japan and engaged in the building of Buddhist temples. Thus the fruits of a much higher culture than that which Japan had at that time were introduced by Koreans, and highly welcomed by progressive men. The best-known among them was Prince Shotoku Taishi, who was the greatest patron of Buddhism. He expounded Buddhist sutras and encouraged the erection of great monasteries of state.

The Horyü-ji monastery, which still stands almost in its original condition, was one of the seven monasteries founded by Prince Shotoku. Japanese people are proud of it, because it is the oldest specimen of wooden architecture in Japan, and in fact, in the world, as well as a symbol of the Japanese spirit. The buildings, paintings, sculpture, and other works of art included in it are from almost all periods. However, the most noteworthy among them are examples of early Buddhist art of the 7th and early 8th centuries.

The monastery is divided into two enclosures, west and east. In the west enclosure stand the Golden Hall, and the five-storied stupa, enclosed by the Chümon gate and galleries. These are the original buildings, about thirteen centuries old.

On either side of the entrance gate (Chumon) stand two wooden statues of guardian kings, bearing expressions of overwhelming menace to the enemies of Buddhism. But on entering the court, the magnificent pitch of the tiled root of the Golden Hall and the rythmic repetition of the eaves of the five-storied stupa tapering to Heaven captivate our hearts and fill them with a feeling of peace and sublimity. It was a marvelous achievement to the early Japanese, who had never before seen such magnificent buildings. However, it is still a wonder to us that they have lasted down to our times in spite of exceedingly long duration elapsed since they were contracted.

The Golden Hall is built entirely of wood, without any stones or bricks as are found in contemporary Korean and Chinese buildings, and forcibly expresses the vigorous and daring spirit of Prince Shotoku. On entering the hall, rare art objects from the seventh century await us. In the center of a dais is enthroned the gilt bronze figure of the Shaka-muni triad. It was cast by Tori, the oldest known sculptor in japan, and was dedicated to the Shaka-muni Buddha. The main figure sits cross-legged, with an attendant standing on either side. This is one of the oldest styles of Buddhist figures produced in the reign of the Empress Suiko. Its technique shows the direct indebtedness to the North Wei style of Chinese sculpture.

In the background of the figure stands a tall slender statue made of wood, which is much more graceful than the one by Tori just described. These figures represent the two earliest types of sculpture, both produced in the early 7th century, the former being called Northern Wei style of China, and the latter Korean.

In this hall are also found examples of another style, called Gupta, which originally developed in India and exercised much influence on Chinese sculpture and painting in the Sui and Tang dynasties. But as far as the actual examples are concerned, the wall painting of this hall shows its influence most remarkably upon Japanese Buddhist art. The expression of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas is Indian, and recalls that of the figures in the Ajanta cave temple in India. On the whole, idealistic expression is harmoniously combined with realistic delineation of faces and postures, not only in the forms but also in the color scheme.

There is another example of Gupta sculpture in the same hall. It is a triad of Amida on a dais enshrined in the Lady Tachibana’s Miniature Shrine.