In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhist Art and Architecture in Japan

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Architecture
  • Iconicity
  • Institutions
  • Collections

Buddhism Buddhist Art and Architecture in Japan
Heather Blair
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0010


When Buddhism entered Japan in the sixth century, its sculpture, painting, architecture, and texts—and the sophisticated technologies used to produce them—played a major role in attracting new adherents. These materials came to be viewed as “art” only with Japan’s participation in international exhibitions and the domestic development of museums during the 19th century. Today it is primarily art historians who study Buddhist art and architecture, but as buddhologists take an interest in social history and material culture, cross- and inter-disciplinary research is becoming more common. Disciplinary stereotypes do persist, however. They would have it that art historians are preoccupied with formalism, while buddhologists are so sunk in a textual mindset that they are unable to assess material objects critically. The Japanese-language literature on Buddhist art and architecture is voluminous, and is not covered in any significant detail here. Non-art historians should also understand that exhibition catalogs have been and continue to be a major publishing genre in both Japanese- and English-language art history. Catalogs do have their limitations, but they can be tremendously useful and anyone interested in a specific topic would do well to search out relevant exhibition materials. Happily for those who do not read Japanese, since the 1990s it has become common practice for Japanese catalogs to include English captions and even translations and synopses of essays.

General Overviews

Brock 2004 provides an overview of Japanese Buddhist art that is clear, cogent, and very brief. Longer introductions to the topic can be found in Leidy 2008 and Fisher 2002; the former survey is organized chronologically and the latter geographically. Seckel 1989 provides an accessible introduction to the forms and history of Buddhist art in East Asia, but lacks color illustrations. Pre-modern Buddhist materials comprise an integral part of the Japanese art historical canon, and Mason 2005, now the standard survey of Japanese art, provides strong coverage in this area. To date, researchers have all but ignored early-modern and modern Buddhist art, deeming it aesthetically inferior when they have noticed it at all. Graham 2007 (cited under Momoyama and Edo) is an important corrective to this tendency. Older state-of-the-field articles by eminent US art historians (Rosenfield 1998 and Yiengpruksawan 2001) provide orientation to the topical preoccupations and intellectual politics of Japanese art history. A more recent special issue of Acta Asiatica gives a Japanese perspective on the same topic and provides a helpful guide to Japanese-language publications. Exhibition catalogs, which are usually organized around a particular theme or collection, can provide survey-style treatments, and such materials are discussed under various subheadings below. See also Collections for a range of paper-based and digital reproductions.

  • Brock, Karen. “Japan, Buddhist Art in.” In The Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Edited by Robert Buswell. New York: Macmillan, 2004.

    Brief introduction to ritual use and typology of objects that are now subsumed under the rubric of “Buddhist art.”

  • Fisher, Robert E. Buddhist Art and Architecture. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002.

    Accessible, well-illustrated, and inexpensive region-by-region introduction in the World of Art series. Useful for basic pan-Asian Buddhist context. Japan is treated together with Korea in chapter three. First published in 1993.

  • Leidy, Denise Patry. The Art of Buddhism: An Introduction to its History and Meaning. Boston: Shambhala, 2008.

    Up-to-date, comprehensive, erudite. Chronologically organized survey by Metropolitan Museum of Art curator.

  • Mason, Penelope E. History of Japanese Art. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.

    Accessible textbook, first published in 1993. Sound and reasonably comprehensive coverage of pre-modern religious art (see especially pp. 58–99, 122–161, 184–233, 305–311, 324–326). Does expand canon, but has little to say about early modern and modern Buddhist materials, for which see Graham 2007, cited under Momoyama and Edo.

  • Rosenfield, John M. “Japanese Art Studies in America since 1945.” In The Postwar Developments of Japanese Studies in the United States. Edited by Helen Hardacre, 161–194. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1998.

    Clear discussions of art historical infrastructure in Japan and intellectual architecture of Japanese art history in the United States; brief analysis of modern interpretation of religious objects as “art.”

  • Seckel, Dietrich. The Buddhist Art of East Asia. Bellingham: Western Washington University, 1989.

    Provides straightforward, basic background on a variety of topics with thematic chapters on architecture, particular media, ritual implements, etc. Easy to read, but not well illustrated. Complements Leidy 2008, Fisher 2002 and Mason 2005.

  • Special Issue: The Current State of Research on Japanese Art History and Related Issues. Acta Asiatica 85 (2003).

    Special issue of the bulletin of the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Eastern Culture. State-of-the-field English-language essays by prominent Japanese scholars. These do not focus on Buddhist art, but they are useful for up-to-date orientation to the field, especially in Japanese-language research.

  • Yiengpruksawan, Mimi Hall. “Japanese Art History 2001: The State and Stakes of Research.” Art Bulletin 83.1 (2001): 105–122.

    DOI: 10.2307/3177192

    Necessarily dated but incisive snapshot of structure, politics, and trends in the field of Japanese art history. Brief overview of 19th- and 20th-century development of category of “art” in Japan is particularly useful (see pp. 111–117).

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