November 7, 2011

Images of Bishamonten

This work is a print of Buddhist images called syubutu or inbutsu. The print was originally placed in the internal cavity of a wooden standing statue of Bishamonten, considered a protector of the teachings of the Buddha. This particular Bishamonten was housed in a statue at the Yamato Nakagawa Temple, which prospered in the late Heian period as a branch of Kōfukuji Temple in Nara. The print has seven Bishamonten impressions, four on the upper part of the page and three on the lower part, each approximately 17 centimeters tall. They stand on bases made of rocks, with swords in their right hands and miniature stupas on their left palms. An annotation on the back of the print dates it to the year 1162, making this the oldest extant print of Buddhist images bearing the year of production. The work is also an important document for the study of print culture in the Heian period (794-1185) and the Kamakura period (1192–1333).

Manuscript of Swordsmiths' Signatures and Sword Connoisseurship

This document is the oldest existing manuscript relating to swordsmiths in Japan. The text contains a description of the year 1316, which indicates that the original was written in the late Kamakura period. However, the postscript gives the date as December 21, 1423, which means this is a copy made in the Muromachi period. The document gives a genealogy of swordsmiths from the most ancient of times to the late Kamakura period, and describes the swordsmiths of the day. The section of the manuscript entitled Kokon shokoku kaji no mei (Inscriptions of swordsmiths over time in various districts) gives an outline of 52 swordsmiths and the style of each one, including the names of their swords, their region, and period.

Record of an Imperial Visit in the Kan’ei Period

This picture scroll depicts the procession of Emperor Gomizunoo (reigned 1611–29) on a visit to Tokugawa Hidetada and Tokugawa Iemitsu, who were both among the most prominent lords of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Tokugawa shoguns were a family of military leaders who were the real power in Japan from 1603 until 1868, although nominally appointed by the emperor. The emperor and his extensive entourage are shown on their way to Nijō-jō Castle, the Tokugawa residence in Kyoto in September 1626 (the third year of the Kan'ei era, which ended in 1643). Both pictures and letters are printed in type, the only such example in the printing history of Japan.

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

This 17th-century scroll recounts the story of Taketori Monogatari (The tale of the bamboo cutter), famous as the earliest piece of prose fiction in the Japanese literary tradition and originally written around the 10th century. In the scroll, flowers are drawn on the paper of the main text. The main preoccupation of the story is Kaguyahime, discovered as a tiny infant inside a mysteriously glowing bamboo stem by an elderly bamboo cutter. He and his wife raise her as their daughter, and Kaguyahime quickly becomes a beautiful young woman, a shining princess. Destined to return to the moon, her true home, Kaguyahime attempts to discourage her five princely suitors by demanding from them impossible tasks. All fail, and the emperor of Japan too becomes an enamored but rejected applicant for her hand. When an embassy of heavenly beings arrive in a chariot to collect her, she dons a feather robe and they take her back home to reclaim her rightful place as an immortal.


Daietsu is a story with a happy ending, in which an affectionate and dutiful son, Daietsu-no-suke, becomes a rich man blessed with many descendants by the grace of Kiyomizu Kannon (the goddess of mercy) and Daikokuten and Ebisu (the gods of wealth). The story dates from the 16th century, but this pair of picture scrolls appears to have been painted in the 18th century by Sumiyoshi Hiromori (1705–77), an artist of the Sumiyoshi school. The scrolls are gorgeously colored and richly adorned with gold leaf on a traditional high-quality eggshell-colored glossy paper. The paper was first decorated with gold paint (a mixture of gold powder and liquid glue made into a painting material) in a design of flowers before the application of the script.

Twelve Months by Toyokuni: First Dancing Practice of the New Year

This nishiki-e (Japanese multicolored woodblock print) is one of a 12-part series depicting annual events and the changing of people’s lives with the seasons, from January to December, modeled on beautiful women in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in the early 19th century. This picture, a happy and brilliant scene that symbolizes the New Year, represents January and is titled in the top left-hand corner. It shows two young women having their first dancing practice of the New Year to a shamisen accompaniment. The dance is Harukoma, which expresses the wish for health and prosperity throughout the year. The two dancers are each holding a horse’s head puppet with a scarf representing a bridle. Their long-sleeved kimonos have a pattern of plovers, the waterfowl that from ancient times has represented winter in Japan. The women’s red under-garments have a hemp-leaf pattern, a popular motif at the time, as hemp is a strong, fast-growing plant. Their black obis have wave-like swirls. The screens in the background show young pines and full-blown ume (Japanese apricot) blossoms. The pine tree has a strong life force and signifies prosperity, while the ume, which blossoms in the coldest season, is the flower that celebrates the New Year in Japan. At the bottom of the picture are printed the artist’s name, the year 1854, and the names of the publisher and the engraver. Utagawa Toyokuni III (circa 1786-1864) was a prolific artist in the ukiyo-e style, who also produced many book illustrations. He flourished at around the same time as Utagawa Hiroshige I (1797–1858) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849).