In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Japanese Buddhist Sculpture

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Historiography/State of the Field
  • Iconography and Iconology
  • Site-Specific Studies
  • Patronage
  • Portraiture
  • Cultural Interactions
  • Materiality Studies
  • Gender Studies

Art History Japanese Buddhist Sculpture
Sherry Fowler, Yui Suzuki
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0170


The official history of Japanese Buddhist sculpture purportedly begins when emissaries from the Korean kingdom of Baekje presented Emperor Kinmei with a gilt bronze statue of Śākyamuni Buddha and other precious Buddhist objects in the mid-6th century. Statues of Buddhist deities were first and foremost considered divine and efficacious, enshrined as main icons of worship and ritual practices inside Buddhist temples or other ritualized spaces. As the physical embodiments of Buddhist divinities, we must contend with how the limitations of the modern, art historical term sculpture (J. chōkoku) affect the scope of inquiry. Japanese Buddhist images came to be considered “works of art” and “aesthetic objects” with the modernization and Westernization of Japan in the late 19th century. With the establishment of the Japanese National Treasure and Important Cultural Property system by the Japanese government, Buddhist sculptures were conferred a new status as exemplars of fine art and culturally significant objects and thus were organized into a canonical body of art works. This article is therefore meant to help readers navigate the complex and salient question: “What is Japanese Buddhist sculpture?” After presenting general overviews and references, the first theme consists of citations organized under Icons, which is an inclusive, broad, and multidisciplinary term that bridges the gap between three-dimensional Buddhist forms and their religious functions. It is now more common to refer to Buddhist sculptures as “Buddhist icons” to acknowledge their fundamental roles in Buddhist devotional practice and ritual. This article also takes a broad perspective on sculpture to include sacred Buddhist objects such as reliquaries, bells, and ritual equipment. The sections that follow, with much overlap, are based upon trends that show how scholars grapple with particular issues. Early citations tend to focus on stylistic development. Closely intertwined is the focus on a particular period (Period-Specific Studies). Iconography and Iconology has also been a mainstay for the study of Buddhist sculpture. Other themes are broken down by religious affiliations, devotional cults of specific deities, Site-Specific Studies, named sculptors, materials, and techniques employed. The theme of Cultural Interactions responds to the fact that Japanese sculpture was not created in isolation from the rest of Asia. This article targets a multidisciplinary English-language readership of researchers who are in the beginning stages of their studies. With a few exceptions, non-English-language sources were excluded and, for brevity, PhD dissertations were generally excluded.

General Overviews

To date, no book-length overviews in English on Japanese Buddhist sculpture are available as there are in the Japanese language. The exhibition catalogues Nishikawa and Sano 1982 and Washizuka and Goepper 1997 offer a concise but useful overview of Japanese Buddhist sculpture, including techniques for production, basic iconography, a typology of Buddhist deities, good illustrations, and helpful diagrams. Suzuki 2019 provides a brief stylistic guide to help lay viewers analyze Japanese Buddhist sculpture using visual comparisons. Dobbins 2020 comes close to being a portable, illustrated general handbook on Japanese Buddhist icons. However, the illustrations of the Buddhist statues included are an eclectic mix that are not necessarily the most representative of works from a historical or art historical perspective. In this regard, Section 5 of the “Japan” article that is dedicated to sculpture in the subscription-based encyclopedia Grove Art Online (also cited under Reference Works) provides one of the best overviews on this vast topic. Significant subsections include: an introduction by Lucie Weinstein; Asuka and Hakuhō periods by Donald F. McCallum; Nara and Heian periods by Samuel C. Morse; Kamakura period by Soejima Hiromichi; Muromachi, Momoyama, and Edo periods by Donald F. McCallum; Shinto by Donald F. McCallum; and portraiture by Chie Ishibashi. Mason 2005 and Paine and Soper 1981 are both general Japanese art history survey books with extensive coverage of Japanese Buddhist sculpture.

  • Dobbins, James C. Behold the Buddha: Religious Meanings of Japanese Buddhist Icons. Honolulu: University of Hawai‛i Press, 2020.

    An accessible book that considers both the modern and the premodern perception and reception of Japanese Buddhist icons. Includes a basic guide to Japanese Buddhist symbolism and the Buddhist pantheon.

  • Grove Art Online. Edited by Jane Turner. New York: Oxford University Press.

    This subscription-based online art encyclopedia features numerous scholarly essays on Japanese Buddhist sculpture with entries organized by periods from ancient times to the end of the Edo period Also cited under Reference Works.

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

    A survey of Japanese art and architecture with decent coverage of Buddhist sculpture from the 7th to the 17th centuries. The textbook addresses contextual contexts as well as the evolution of style, iconography, and technique. The 2005 publication is an updated and expanded edition of the 1993 publication.

  • Nishikawa, Kyotaro, and Emily Sano. The Great Age of Japanese Buddhist Sculpture, A.D. 600–1300. Fort Worth, TX: Kimbell Art Museum, 1982.

    Catalogue published for the first exhibition on Japanese Buddhist sculpture held in the United States. The catalogue features fifty-two pieces loaned from Japanese temples and major museum collections. Excellent color reproductions. Includes an informative introduction by the curator, Emily J. Sano, and a fine overview of Japanese Buddhist sculpture by Nishikawa Kyotaro.

  • Paine, Robert Treat, and Alexander Soper. The Art and Architecture of Japan. 3d ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.

    First published in 1955, this classic source served as the most widely used textbook on Japanese art for decades. Organized by period, with historical information framing the introductions, the book is divided in two sections with Part 1 on painting and sculpture and Part 2 devoted to architecture. Sections on Buddhist sculpture address mainly style issues and end with the Kamakura period, as was customary in surveys written before the 1990s.

  • Suzuki, Yoshihiro. Understanding Japanese Buddhist Sculpture through Visual Comparison. Translated by Michael Jamentz. Tokyo: PIE International, 2019.

    A well-illustrated, engaging guide to Japanese Buddhist sculpture using comparative analysis and close looking to help nonspecialist viewers gain basic visual literacy. As the content does not cover iconography nor provide a basic explanation of Buddhist deity types, it works best as supplementary reading with other reference sources.

  • Washizuka, Hiromitsu, and Roger Goepper. Enlightenment Embodied: The Art of the Japanese Buddhist Sculptor (7th–14th Centuries). New York: Japan Society, 1997.

    An exhibition catalogue featuring Japanese Buddhist sculptures dated from the seventh to fourteenth century. Published with assistance from the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the government of Japan and in conjunction with an exhibition held at the Japan Society Gallery in New York. The introduction, written by Washizuka Hiromitsu, offers a comprehensive history of Buddhist sculpture in Japan, with a general discussion of major Buddhist deity types and their iconography, Japanese Buddhist practices, patrons, and sculptors with good illustrations. Suitable for undergraduates. Also cited under Material and Technical Studies: Wood.

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