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Thu, May 25, 2023

Passing down Japan’s artistic treasures: TSUMUGU’s repair grant for fiscal 2023

Shinyakushi-ji temple's seated Yakushi Nyorai impresses viewers with its wide-open eyes and plump cheeks. The trunk of its body is made from a single piece of wood. (Photo by Masazumi Nakahara)

Every year, the Tsumugu Project — a joint effort between Japan’s Cultural Affairs Agency, Imperial Household Agency and national daily The Yomiuri Shimbun to restore, preserve and promote the nation’s artistic treasures and traditional culture — uses a part of the proceeds from the art exhibitions it holds to help restore a certain number of cultural assets in need of urgent care.

For fiscal 2023 (financial year starting on April 1), the project has chosen seven assets to help repair, including the seated statue of Yakushu Nyorai (Shinyakushi-ji temple, Nara; a designated national treasure of Japan), and the Nirvana painting of Henmyo-in temple (Okayama Prefecture; a designated important cultural property).

National Treasure

Wooden seated statue of Yakushi Nyorai
(Shinyakushi-ji temple, Nara city)

Eye-healing Buddha

The wooden seated statue of Yakushi Nyorai (Healing Buddha), the principal object of worship at Shinyakushi-ji, is said to have been made in the late 8th-early 9th century. The sitting height is about 191.5 centimeters, making it taller than the average Japanese standing up. A powerful presence is felt from the plump and solid body, as well as its wide-open eyes. According to literature from the early Kamakura period, the statue was made when Emperor Shomu (701-56) suffered from an eye disease. The seated Buddha has been worshipped as an eye healer ever since.

The head and trunk of the body is made from a single block of Japanese nutmeg wood. The limbs, also made of nutmeg wood, were later joined to the body, but made to look as if they were stemming out from the single block by aligning the wood grain. This is why the entire statue looks as though it is made from a single block of wood. Seijo University Professor Mitsuharu Iwasa, who chaired the selection committee for Tsumugu’s repair grant project, said: “At the time, people thought it important to make Buddhist statues from a single block of wood to draw on the numen of the wood. The statue amply represents the perceptions of the time and therefore very important.”

The statue last went under repair in 1903, and its pedestal was repaired about 70 years ago in 1953. Since then, the pedestal has incurred insect damage, and its surface is now chipping or collapsing.

Consequently, conservators will spend the next two years exterminating the insects that may still be inside by fumigating the statue with a repellent. They will also take steps to prevent further peeling of the shippaku (gold leaf over lacquer) layer over the halo and the pedestal, and seal the cracks.

Jokan Nakata, the head priest of Shinyakushi-ji, stands in front of the main hall of the temple where the wooden seated statue of Yakushi Nyorai is enshrined.

The Yakushi Nyorai rests on the center of a circular dirt mound built inside the Shinyakushi-ji main hall (also a designated national treasure) surrounded by the Twelve Heavenly Generals (collectively designated as a national treasure), the protective deities of the Healing Buddha.

— National Treasure —

Documents and texts concerning Chisho Daishi (Enchin)
(Mi-i-dera [Onjo-ji] temple, Shiga Prefecture)

Notes said to be by Chiso Daishi (Enchin), founder of the Jimon school of the esoteric Tendai Buddhism, himself are written in a document recording the life story and activities of the high priest (Photo courtesy of Sakata Bokujudo)
Personal history on paper

Collectively designated by the government as a national treasure, the documents and texts concerning Chisho Daishi (814-891) — the fifth abbot of Enryaku-ji (Headquarters and monastery of Tendai Buddhism on Mt. Hiei) also known as Enchin — comprise documents that chronicle his family pedigree and personal history as a Buddhist priest, as well as papers regarding his activities before and after his study abroad in Tang-dynasty China. It also includes a travel permit — not a copy but the original — issued by a government office of the Tang dynasty, and other documents of universal and historical value.

Mi-i-dera (Onjo-ji) had time and again been caught up in the wars of the samurai class and devastated by their flames, but somehow managed to pass down numerous documents more than a thousand years old.

The documents in need of repair are severely damaged.
(Photo courtesy of Sakata Bokujudo)

Tsumugu’s grant project will help repair a catalog of Buddhist sutra drawn up by Chiso Daishi upon his return from the Tang dynasty and documents recording the life story and activities of the high priest (in three volumes).

The main paper of the scrolled documents is reinforced with backing paper. However, insect damages remain unrepaired in some parts. Conservators will spend the next three years taking measures to prevent the ink and paint from further peeling, removing the old patching material on the back and attaching new material in its place.

Continuous aid required to protect historical material
Mitsuharu Iwasa, Selection Committee Chairman
(Seijo University Professor)

We have added historical material to the list of items that will go under repair in fiscal 2023. By ‘historical material,’ we mean documents, paintings, photos and what have you needed to study history and culture. They come in great numbers and are in need of constant care. Restoring them requires time and money. The burden of expense on owners and repair grant projects are issues we need to keep considering.

Japan has a long history of taking good care of its cultural properties. For instance, temples have passed down Buddhist sculptures, and they will continue doing so for as long as they last. If a temple is abandoned for some reason, there are cases where local residents have stood up to take care of the sculptures.

Cultural properties will long last as long as people take good care of them. They have to be protected by the people, and that is the only way to go. To keep them in good shape, repair is indispensable. It is important to acknowledge that they have to be protected by the people.

— Important Cultural Property —

Partition paintings by Maruyama Okyo and Nagasawa Rosetsu
(Sodo-ji temple, Wakayama Prefecture)

Morning Glories (Two panels on the right)
Nagasawa Rosetsu
(Photo courtesy of Wakayama Prefectural Museum)
Production dates make artists’ footsteps traceable

A number of partition paintings (five works, 71 panels in total) by Maruyama Okyo (1733-95) and his disciple Hasegawa Rosetsu (1754-99) has endured time at the Sodo-ji temple in Shirahama, Wakayama Prefecture. Rosetsu produced his works upon his visit to Southern Wakayama in 1786-87 (Tenmei 6-7). The production date of these Edo-period paintings are clear, which makes tracing the footprints of the two painters in the area quite simple.

Pine and Moon
Maruyama Okyo
(Photo courtesy of Wakayama Prefectural Museum)

A total of 14 panels comprising Rosetsu’s “Morning Glories” and two other fusuma-e (sliding door paintings), and Okyo’s “Pine and Moon,” a painting remaining on the sliding doors of a tenbukuro (small cabinet attached to the ceiling), will be repaired under a five-year plan.

According to a selection committee member, sliding door paintings are usually scrolled for conservation, and those that remain as partition paintings are rare. The partition paintings of Sodo-ji are currently entrusted to the Wakayama Prefectural Museum for conservation and public display, but still susceptible to damage. They have not been repaired in earnest since the early Showa era (1926-89), and are left with stains, insect damage, wrinkles and scrapes. Conservators plan to remove the metal fittings to clean the paintings, reinforce the fusuma paper with backing paper, and take steps to prevent further peeling of the surface.

— Important Cultural Property —

Standing statue of the Eleven-headed Kannon by Inpan and In-un
(Hoshaku-ji temple, Kyoto Prefecture)

Standing statue of the Eleven-headed Kannon
Image: TNM Image Archives
In school sculptors’ display of elegance and harmony

The statue was made by joined blocks of cypress wood in the early Kamakura period by ‘In’ school sculptors then active in Kyoto. The Kannon (Avalokiteshvara) holds a flower vase in its left hand, while the right palm faces the viewer. The heavenly garment falling from its shoulders form a knot with elegant curves at its knees. The “display of elegance and harmony exemplary of an In school sculptor” (Prof. Iwasa) is simply magnificent.

Records say that Hoshaku-ji temple was struck by fire in 1232. It has been assumed that the principal image of worship, which was lost in the fire, was restored using donations gathered from the temple’s numerous followers. The temple solicitation book and list of donations found inside the statue indicate that, in concordance with the popularization of Buddhism in Japan, the temple was supported not only by residents of Kyoto, but also by people from a wider area, including some men of weight. Acceptably, the statue has been serving as a historical record which helps us better understand the history of Japanese Buddhism.

The surface of the statue is stained with a moldy white substance and lacquer layers are peeling or cracking. The halo, pedestal and other parts of the statue are covered in dust. The purpose of the repair will be to remove the moldy substance and to take steps to prevent further peeling of the lacquer layers.

— Important Cultural Property —

Seated statue of Yakushi Nyorai
(Rokudo Chinno-ji temple, Kyoto)

Seated statue of Yakushi Nyorai
(Courtesy of Rokudo Chinno-ji temple)
Made of single wood block, likely during Heian period

The seated statue of Yakushi Nyorai has been the principal image of worship at the Rokudo Chinno-ji in Kyoto, where people come to visit especially during the o-bon holidays. It last went under a full-scale repair in 1893. Since then, it has come to the point where insect damage and decay cannot be ignored, and the lacquer layer is on the verge of peeling.

A thorough research of the statue has not been conducted since 1909, when it was designated as an important cultural property. By mere observation, it was said that only the head part was made in the early Heian period, while the rest of the statue was added much later.

It was learned in a recent inspection of the interior of the statue conducted as part of the repair project, however, that it was in fact carved out of a single block of wood most likely during the Heian period. It was also learned that the interior was colored with reddish pigment.

Conservators will try and remove the kokuso urushi (a mixture of wood powder and lacquer) applied on the face as repair material to even out the surface of the statue. Resin will be applied on the insect damages to prevent cave-ins.

Professor Iwasa says he expects the facial expression of the statue in its original state to become more apparent after the repair.

Important Cultural Property

Buddha in Nirvana of Henmyo-in temple
(Okayama Prefecture)

Nirvana of Henmyo-in temple
Yamato-e style, primary colors outstanding

The Buddha in Nirvana — 163.1 centimeters in height, 153.2 centimeters in width — is said to have been produced by a local Buddhist painter in the mid-Kamakura period based on the eight-phase nirvana depicted in Southern Song paintings.

The nirvana (death of Shakyamuni Buddha) and seven other scenes are depicted in the yamato-e style. The lavish use of gold, red, white, green, blue and other primary colors is what makes the painting outstanding.

Since the painting was designated as a national treasure under the old system in 1931, it has been frequently showcased in various exhibitions. Most recently, it was put on display in an exhibition at the Ryukoku Museum (Kyoto) in 2018, when some experts voiced their opinion that the painting should go under repair.

(Right) A missing region found on the lower left part of the painting
(Left) The color of the reverse side is exposed in the upper left part
(Photos courtesy of Koeido)

According to records, the painting has been repaired three times up until 1931, making this the first full-scale repair in recent years. There are creases running across the painting and widening cracks that need fixing, and a lifting of the silk canvas that should be tended to. The repair project, backed by the Kyoto National Museum to whom the painting is entrusted, has become the first project of its kind to receive a grant from the prefecture of Okayama.

Conservators will spend two years to prevent further deterioration by disassembling the painting, removing stains, employing measures to prevent further peeling and fixing the silk canvas.

— Important Cultural Property —

Historical materials concerning Yase Doji
(Association of the Yase Doji, Kyoto)

Bearing a palanquin to be used in Meiji Emperor’s funeral service
Sept. 9, 1912 (Taisho 1)
Emperor’s message to exempt tributes

The people of Yase, a mountain village in Kyoto’s Rakuhoku area, are known as Yase Doji (literally, “children of Yase”). Historically, the locals worked for the Enryaku-ji temple on Hieizan (Mt. Hiei) and had built a close relationship with the monastery. It has been told that in 1336, their tributes were exempted for having served as palanquin bearers when Emperor Go-Daigo fled to Hieizan. From the Muromachi period (14th century) and onward, they served as palanquin bearers for the emperor, and they have been serving in funeral services for the emperor and in imperial ceremonies since the Meiji era (1868-1912).

Emperor Go-Daigo’s command
Dated Feb. 24, 1336(Kenmu 3)

The historical materials concerning Yase Doji comprises 650 documents — including imperial decrees to have tributes exempted and various documents indicating the village’s ties with court nobles and the shogun — and 91 garments. According to the Kyoto City Library of Historical Documents, to whom the materials are entrusted, a total of 25 imperial decrees from successive emporers (from Emperor Go-Daigo to Emperor Meiji) remain among the materials, allowing experts to compare documents issued for the same purpose from different times.

Conservators will clean and repair the historical materials, made of various material, after carefully evaluating their degree of deterioration.

Some of the historical materials were also repaired during fiscal 2022 and examined by Association of the Yase Doji Chairperson Katsutaro Tamagawa (left) and others. (Photo taken at the Shubi workshop in Kyoto National Museum’s Conservation Center for Cultural Properties in December 2022)

Katsutaro Tamagawa, 81, the chairperson of the Association of the Yase Doji, says, “We need the things that tell of the past to pass on our history, and I feel relieved that they are going to be repaired. We would like for the younger generation to pass down the pride of their village.”

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun and other sources)



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