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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Edited Volumes with Relevant Essays
  • Journals
  • Asuka and Nara Periods
  • Women and Buddhism

Art History Japanese Buddhist Painting
Akiko Walley
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0182


Buddhism was formerly introduced to the Japanese archipelago in the first half of the sixth century. Although the records concerning this initial introduction do not mention painting, by the latter half of the seventh century, tapestries and murals adorned the interior of Buddhist temples, and miniature shrines with paintings of Buddhist themes were being produced. Narrowly defined, “Buddhist painting” (butsuga 仏画) refers to painted images of Buddhist icons and worldviews produced as the focal point of devotional activities. More broadly, however, butsuga could also encompass any paintings in a Buddhist context, including narrative scrolls of Buddhist tales and hagiographies of eminent monks, murals and screens that adorned a monastic architecture, or visual works produced for popular consumption that appropriated familiar Buddhist motifs. Although it was initially an imported religion, Buddhism eventually penetrated the daily lives of people at every stratum of Japanese society, impacting their cultural activities even to the present. For this reason, this article adopts the broadest definition of butsuga in an effort to encompass both two-dimensional devotional images and their popular adaptations. In order to provide a reasonable structure, this article prioritizes English peer-reviewed books and articles of recent years to maximize the utility of this bibliography to scholars and students in English-speaking academia who are at the beginning stage of their research. Most of the works selected include a comprehensive list of further readings that can direct readers to seminal exhibition catalogues, Japanese scholarship, and PhD dissertations. Compared to sculpture, the scholarship on butsuga—particularly in Western languages—has thus far not been as wide-ranging. For instance, there is a cluster of significant studies on butsuga of the medieval period (roughly thirteenth through sixteenth centuries) but still relatively few on the other periods. An exciting development of the 2000s is the increased scholarly attention toward Buddhist art of the early modern period (Edo or Tokugawa period, 1603–1868). The organization of this article follows the strengths (and the holes) in the state of the field of butsuga research. Studies on butsuga often span across multiple historical periods and sectarian divides. For this reason, the headings selected for this list are generally thematic rather than chronological. Seminal works are also produced as part of transdisciplinary edited volumes. This article also includes recent studies on the visual culture for secular consumption that was nevertheless deeply rooted in Buddhist ideas and motifs.

General Overviews

Four useful works in English or Japanese to position Buddhist painting within the context of other Japanese art are Tsuji 2018, Mason 2005, Kokuritsu Bunkazai Kikō 1966–2011, and E wa kataru (1993–1996). Dobbins 2020 is an accessible overview to Japanese Buddhist culture and its icons in English. Rosenfield and ten Grotenhuis 1979 is helpful to grasp the scope of what scholars today consider “Japanese Buddhist painting.” Although it is in Japanese, Ariga 1991 is one of the few exclusive introductions to Buddhist painting, and by far the most comprehensive. There are also works that are more focused in scope but still serve as a general overview due to their transtemporal and trans-sectarian approaches. Nara Rokudaiji Taikan Kankōkai 1999–2001 introduces Buddhist works (including painting) held by six of the historically most prestigious temples in Nara Prefecture. Winfield 2013 compares imagery in Esoteric and Zen Buddhism. Phillips 2000 is a focused but informative study on medieval painting practices. Graham 2007 is the first stop for any research on Japanese Buddhist art of early modern to contemporary period.

  • Ariga Yoshitaka. Butsuga no kanshō kiso chishiki. Tokyo: Shibundō, 1991.

    One of the few and most comprehensive introductory books exclusively on Buddhist painting.

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

    A recent introductory book on Japanese Buddhist culture and its icons. Not exclusively on Buddhist painting, but a useful compendium for students embarking on a study of Buddhist visual culture. The accompanying bibliography also provides a well-rounded list of key English and Japanese works on Buddhist devotion, culture, and other related topics.

  • E wa kataru. 14 vols. Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1993–1996.

    Each thematic volume in this collection (“Painting speaks”) presents an exceptionally high-quality but accessible introduction to a Japanese painting, written by a prominent scholar in the field. Most relevant to this article are: Volume 2 on Butsu nehanzu (Nirvana) by Izumi Takeo, Volume 3 on Amida shōjū raigōzu (Amitâbha’s welcoming descent) by Sudō Hirotoshi, and Volume 5 on Hōnenzu (Catching a catfish with a gourd) by Shimao Arata.

  • Graham, Patricia J. Faith and Power in Japanese Buddhist Art 1600–2005. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007.

    By far the most comprehensive exploration in English into the Buddhist art of the Edo period and later, which has traditionally been largely overlooked. A must-read for any student interested in Buddhism and culture of early modern to contemporary periods. Graham makes errata available on

  • Kokuritsu Bunkazai Kikō, ed. Nihon no bijutsu. 545 vols. Tokyo: Shibundō (vols. 1–515); Gyōsei (vols. 516–545), 1966–2011.

    Each thematic volume is written by a prominent scholar in the field. Includes volumes dedicated to Buddhist painting. Kodansha International published a few earlier volumes in English translation. See Ishida 1987 and Okazaki 1977 (cited under Worldviews in Esoteric and Pure Land Buddhism: Overview), and Okudaira 1973 (under Illustrated Scrolls: Overview).

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

    Second edition. First edition published in 1993. One of the most comprehensive surveys of Japanese art in English. Includes discussion of major genres of Buddhist painting, particularly of the Heian into medieval periods. Some errors in transliteration of Japanese terms, and certain information is now outdated due to its age, so it is helpful to combine it with more recent studies.

  • Nara Rokudaiji Taikan Kankōkai. Nara rokudaiji taikan. 14 vols. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1999–2001.

    Second edition to the earlier 1968–1973 version with significant updates (title translates as “Six great temples in Nara: An overview”). On architecture and art (including paintings) held by the following six temples: Hōryūji (vols. 1–5), Yakushiji (vol. 6), Kōfukuji (vols. 7–8), Tōdaiji (vol. 9–11), Tōshōdaiji (vols. 12–13), and Saidaiji (vol. 14). Accompanied by extensive bibliography, transcriptions of key primary texts, and exquisite color and monochrome figures.

  • Phillips, Quitman E. Practices of Painting in Japan 1475–1500. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781503617773

    Utilizing diaries and other documental evidence, this monograph surveys the painting practices during the final quarter of the fifteenth century, which generally coincides with the beginning of the end of the Muromachi period (1392–1573). Discussions related to Buddhist painting appear in chapter 4 on the clients’ supervision of painting projects (pp. 92–117) and chapter 6 on portraiture (pp. 147–170).

  • Rosenfield, John M., and Elizabeth ten Grotenhuis. Journey of the Three Jewels: Japanese Buddhist Paintings from Western Collections. New York: Asian Society, 1979.

    Accompanied an exhibition held at the Asia House Gallery in 1979 featuring Japanese Buddhist paintings in the European and American collections. Helps define the general scope of “Japanese Buddhist painting.” Some of the works in the catalogue have changed their home in the intervening years, but it still serves as a good resource to learn about key examples of Japanese Buddhist painting one can visit outside of Japan.

  • Tsuji Nobuo. History of Art in Japan. Translated by Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

    A recent survey by one of Japan’s most respected art historians (Japanese original published in 2005). Includes Buddhist painting mainly from Asuka to medieval periods. The writing/translation is concise but accessible. List of recommended English readings will also be helpful for fledgling Japanists. The central question of this volume is: What is “art?” Thus, the explanation of the devotional context of Buddhist works is overall minimal.

  • Winfield, Pamela D. Icons and Iconoclasm in Japanese Buddhism: Kūkai and Dōgen on the Art of Enlightenment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199753581.001.0001

    Focusing on Kūkai and Dōgen, who founded Shingon and Sōtō Zen Buddhism, respectively, this dense monograph is a rare and ambitious exploration of religious imagery across the sectarian and disciplinary divides.

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