ASUKA PERIOD ART (A.D. 538 to 710)


Hokke Sesso Bronze Plaque from Hasedera

Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) Buddhism was introduced in the Asuka period. Mahayana religious themes would endure for over 500 years. The introduction of Mahayana Buddhism marked the beginning of the development of Japanese fine arts. At this time artisans turned their attention from ceramics and metalworks to Buddhist images, namely sculptures. The earliest works of sculpture were created by Korean artisans. Example of their work remain at Horyuji Temple in Nara and Koryuji Temple in Kyoto.

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: “Nearly all works of art from the Asuka period are inspired by Buddhism, the central cultural influence of the times. There were two distinctive stages of Buddhist art during the Asuka period. The first stage involved works of art sponsored mainly the powerful Soga clan, and commissioned by Prince Shotoku. Buddhist images of this era are known as “Tori-shiki” and are influenced by the northern Wei Period in China. Their characteristics include almond-shaped eyes, upward-turned crescent-shaped lips, and symmetrically arranged folds in the clothing. Asuka Daibutu, the Shaka Triad (623) is perhaps the most representative work of the time. It is an early statue that displays the Chinese Wei sculptural style. Another important piece showing similar influences dating from around the same period is the Miroku Buddha at Chuguji. From the 7th century, the Kudara Kannon carved from camphor wood, shows its links to Kudara or the Paekche kingdom of Korea. Most of the artists and artisans in Asuka were Korean immigrant (toraijin) artists, artisans and specialists in Chinese culture. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“The second stage of Buddhist art is known as Hakuho culture emerging in the mid-7th century (and is generally known for the Taika reforms) until moving to Nara capital. Outstanding works of Hakuho culture are the Miroku Buddha at Taimadera along with the eastern pagoda of Yakushiji Temple. The carved motif on top of the pagoda and the Yakushi Triad are famous treasures of the period. One unusual work of art from the mid-7th century, is the Tamamushi Shrine’s panel depictions of scenes from the previous lives of the Buddha. It is rare masterpiece that uses the iridescent wings of the tamamushi beetle and the only known oil painting (done on lacquered wood) before the Europeans introduced the technique centuries later.

“Perhaps the most famous wall painting of the Hakuho era are those found at the Takamatsu tumulus. One of the wall paintings shows a bevy of women in Chinese dress. Another wall painting at the Kondo of Horyuji temple showed the same influences as those in a wall painting in Ajanta in India. The painting was however damaged by fire in 1949. The paintings attest to the continental influences of the times.

“From these earliest examples of Japanese sculpture and painting, we can see that Japanese sculpture showed both Wei and Tang influences via Korean artisans and craftsmen. Early sculptural style of Korea followed closely Chinese models which in turn were influenced by Indian models in the early days. Images from China’s Wei period that portrayed the Buddhist deities with wide foreheads, sharp bridged noses, small mouths, slim bodies, and stiff stately facial attitudes. This Wei style clearly influenced early sculptural traditions of both Korea and Japan. By the Tang period, however, Chinese Buddhist statuary had distanced itself somewhat from the styles of India, and began to portray the Buddhist divinities with greater realism, supple attitudes, fuller forms, clothed in flowing garments, and decked in ornaments (bracelets, jewels, etc.). Later in the late 9th century, Japan’s break with China allowed the opportunity for a truly native Japanese culture to evolve, and the emergence from this point forward of indigenous secular art which continued to develop in tandem with religious art until the Kamakura era in the 16th century when secular art came to the fore due to the Confucian ethic of Edo-era shogunate and contact with West.”

Websites: Yamato Period Wikipedia article on the Yamato period Wikipedia article ; Kojiki, Nihongi and Sacred Shinto Texts ; Imperial Household Agency of Emperors of Japan ; Buddhism and Prince Shotoku ; Essay on the Japanese Missions to Tang China . References: 1) The Chronicles of Wa, Gishiwajinden by Wes Injerd; 2) Wa (Japan), Wikipedia; 3) Excerpts from the History of the Kingdom of Wei, Columbia University’s Primary Source Document Asia for Educators. Asuka Wikipedia article on Asuka Wikipedia ; Asuka Park ; Asuka Historical Museum ; UNESCO World Heritage sites ; Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,; Essay on Early Japan ; Japanese Archeology ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives ; National Museum of Japanese History ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents

Takamatsuzuka Kofun

Takamatsuzuka ladies

Takamatsuka Tomb (Hirata district of Asuka-mura) is one of the most important archeological discoveries ever made in Japan. In 1972, archaeologists excavated the tomb inside a 5-meter-high, 18-meter-in-diameter burial mound and discovered well-preserved murals inside and the bones of a male judged to be between 40 and 50 when he died. Dated to the end of the seventh century, the murals contained images of a tiger, snakes, tortoise, dragon, and star constellations like those found in Korean and Chinese tombs. Some mural had images of people in Korean-style clothes, which seems to indicate that founders of Asuka were originally from Korea, something the Japanese are loath to admit.

Takamatsuzuka Kofun is a relatively small tumulus grave. It is one of a small number of terminal period kofun which exhibit a distinctive construction process, found only in Asuka, whereby the mound was built up in alternating layers of clay and sand. It is thought to have been built at some time between the end of the 7th century and the beginning of the 8th century. [Source: Asuka Historical Museum ]

The ceiling depicts star constellations (seishuku), and the surrounding walls depict the sun, the moon, the four heavenly guardian gods (shishin),and earthly attendants. in such a way that a sort of miniature universe was formed for the purpose of accompanying the de-creased in his eternal sleep. The person for whom the grave was built is unknown, but the decorations, grounded in Chinese concepts, are executed in a way that would befit the grave of a nobleman.

Exterior of the south end of the Takamatsuzuka stone crypt, seen from cavity produced during 1972 excavation. The construction of the tumulus through successively applied thin layers of clay and sand is well indicated. The indentations seen running lengthwise in the foreground are the tracks left by rails which supported rollers used to transport the massive cut stones to the grave site. In the structure of the Takamatsuzuka stone crypt may be seen an abandonment of the earlier pattern of a stone chamber with a laterally attached entrance corridor (yokoana-shiki sekishitsu) and substitution of a pattern in which only a sealed coffin-shaped stone burial vault, or so-called sekkan-shiki sekishitsu remained, with no passageway to the outside. The problematic wall frescoes are drawn on the inside surfaces of this crypt. (The photograph was taken after the south end of the crypt, found partially destroyed by grave robbers, had been repaired.)

The interior of the Takamatsuzuka crypt was found in a state of disorder due to a past break-in by grave robbers. However, there remained such artifacts as a wooden coffin painted with black lacquer and ornamented with metal nails and fittings, a Tang Chinese mirror whose reverse was worked in a so-called kaiju-budo pattern (depicting animals, birds, grapevines, etc.) , and ornamental fittings for a Tang style sword. As a general rule, in terminal period tumuli dating from around the same time as the Takamatsuzuka Kofun grave goods, while of superior workmanship, are relatively few both in number and variety. From a study of the bones in the Takamatsuzuka coffin, it is judged that the buried person was a male of tall stature between 40 and 60 years old. Judged from the grave goods and the content of the frescoes, he was likely a prominent member of the imperial or some other high-ranking clan.

Frescoes in Takamatsuzuka Kofun

Takamatsuzuka star chart

On the inside walls of Takamatsuzuka are paintings, designated a national treasure, of the Azure Dragon, the White Tiger, the Black Tortoise and a group of women in vibrant hues called the Asuka Beauties. The famous "Asuka beauties" were found on the west wall of the stone chamber. They carry round fans (sashiba),fly-swatters, and Buddhist-related staffs of authority (nyoi). The males shown in the frescoes hold in their hands sunshades (kinugasa), chairs, and pouches containing swords and arrows, and also have pouches hung around their necks. Figures of both sexes depict handsomely attired attendants. [Source: Asuka Historical Museum ]

If one takes a close look at the facial outlines, it is seen that, in contrast to such drawings as the female portraitures in the Shosoin, which were executed In lines which have a uniform thickness and were simply applied in a single stroke, the Takamatsuzuka portraitures were done in modulated lines, the brush having been restrained or brought to a stop at essential points. This sort of technique, and also the overall structuring of the group portraits, give eloquent testimony to the influence of Tang Chinese fresco art.

The Four Guardian Spirits (Shishin) guarding the four directions (shishin) were also frequently drawn on the walls of fresco-bearing tumulus graves in China and Korea. In their Japanese pronunciations, the names of these spirits are Seiryu ("blue-dragon") in the east. Byakko ("white tiger") in the west, Suzaku ("red bird") in the south, and Genbu ("black [snake] combatting [a tortoise]") in the north. The four guardian spirits on the walls of the Takamatsuzuka crypt, together with the star charts and the sun and moon with which they form a set, were designed to represent a universe with the buried personage at its center. The Suzaku figure which one would expect to see on the south wall no longer remains, having been destroyed at some point by grave robbers.

The Star Charts (Seishuku) of Takamatsuzuka Kofun are one of its distinctive features. The ceiling of the Takamatsuzuka crypt is dotted with small bits of gold leaf, which are in turn joined in various patterns by reddish cinnabar lines in such a way as to represent star charts. The precision with which these were executed is unparalleled among similar charts found in Chinese and Korean fresco-bearing tumulus graves. In China, such constellation charts were meant to give a representation in the heavenly bodies of the earthly political organization with the imperial court at its center. The ceiling of the Takamatsuzuka chamber is faithful to this type of Chinese concept, with the central sector of the heavens sketched in the center and 28 constellations (the so-called niju-hasshuku) arranged on the four sides, seven to a side. This is an expression of the concept of rule over the entire universe by a "sovereign of the heavens" (tentei).

The real tomb is sealed. A detailed replica of the real Takamatsuzuka tomb, nearly as good as the real thing, has been built nearby and it is open to visitors. In a display case are copies of objects that were found in the tomb: fragments of gold-leaf-covered lacquered wooden coffin, coffin fittings," copper nails, sword fittings, metal pendants, beads and a mirror with a lion of grape motif.

Restoring the Takamatsuzuka Frescoes

Takamatsuzuka tomb is sealed and investigated using cameras on fiberscope inserted through sealed openings in the tomb. But despite the best efforts the paintings have deteriorated and been invaded by mold. The entire stone chamber was removed in 2007 from the tumulus. The four panels — measuring 2.65 meters long, 1.03 meters wide and 1.13 metes tall — were moved from their original location to undergo a long preservation process. The paintings were treated with funori, which functions as both an adhesive and a surfactant that, like soap, removes stains In March 2010, the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties used a terahertz scanner to study one of the tomb paintings for the first time.

East wall of Takamatsuzuka

In May 2014, Kazuto Tsukamoto wrote in the Asahi Shimbun, Stunning murals painted 1,300 years ago in the stone chamber of the Takamatsuzuka burial mound, currently under repair, will continue to be preserved in an outside facility. The government panel that made the decision March 27 said the colorful wall paintings can stay "for the time being" outside the stone chamber even after the decade-long repair process winds up. A key reason for this is the lack of established technology to prevent mold from re-emerging and destroying what is left of the paintings. [Source: Kazuto Tsukamoto, Asahi Shimbun, May 28, 2014]

"Given existing technologies, it would be difficult to return the mural paintings to the burial mound, although we will continue our research for doing so," said Yorikuni Nagai, an adjunct professor of education policy with the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, who chairs the 17-member panel, which reports to the Agency for Cultural Affairs. "We will have to build a solid preservation facility if the process is going to take 20 to 30 years to complete." The Agency for Cultural Affairs initially envisaged returning the mural paintings to the Takamatsuzuka burial mound once the repair work was finished.

The panel’s decision represents a departure from established policy, which is based on the notion that archaeological finds should in principle be conserved on site. "It would be appropriate to preserve, maintain and display the mural paintings at an appropriate location outside the burial mound for the time being," said part of a draft plan the agency presented to the panel, which subsequently approved it. A similar decision had earlier been reached on colorful mural paintings from the Kitora burial mound (See Below). They are being preserved outside the tumulus, which also dates from the late seventh or the early eighth century.

Mural Paintings from Kitora Tumulus

art form Kitora tumulus

Kitora tomb, built around the same time as Takamatsuka Tomb, also has tomb paintings. It is is located about one kilometer from Takamatsuzuka tomb. It was discovered in 1983. A special exhibition titled “Mural Paintings of the Kitora Tumulus” was held at the Tokyo National Museumin May 2014. The ancient burial mound of Kitora is in Asuka. On display were three of the four paintings of mythological creatures that adorned the walls of the tomb’s stone chamber. [Source:Asahi Shimbun, May 10, 2014]

The Asahi Shimbun reported: “The history of the discovery of these vividly colorful murals is a fascinating story in itself. According to a book written by archaeologist Yoshinori Aboshi (1927-2006) and other sources, interest in ancient history surged following the discovery in 1972 of the Takamatsuzuka Tumulus in Asuka. The inner chamber of this tomb was decorated with murals, including a group portrait of women that came to be known as “Asuka Bijin”(Asuka beauties). Many archaeology and history buffs who saw the murals believed that meant there had to be other ancient burial mounds with similar murals--a belief shared by experts and local patrons of art. So they started searching in earnest, and their persistence was rewarded in 1983. An image captured by a remote camera of the interior of the Kitora Tumulus showed something that resembled the letter Q on a wall.

“The image represents a tortoise with a snake coiled around it. The tortoise-snake creature is called “Genbu” (Black Tortoise) and is one of the three mythological creatures that are part of the exhibit at the Tokyo National Museum. It is believed to be a “divine beast” whose role was to guard the northern side of the tumulus. The other two are “Vermilion Bird” and “White Tiger,” which guarded the south and west sides, respectively. The creatures I saw were smaller and seemed more delicate than I expected. White Tiger eluded discovery until 1989. I can only applaud the patience and perseverance of archaeologists. Unlike Takamatsuzuka, Kitora yielded no portrait of “Asuka Bijin.” When this was confirmed, a headline in The Asahi Shimbun read, “Why No Askuka Bijin?”

Development of Japanese Sculpture

Asuka Maitreya

Kawagoe wrote: “From these earliest examples of art, we can see that Japanese sculpture showed both Wei and Tang influences via Korean artisans and craftsmen. Early sculptural style of Korea followed closely Chinese models which in turn were influenced by Indian models in the early days. Images from China’s Wei period that portrayed the Buddhist deities with wide foreheads, sharp bridged noses, small mouths, slim bodies, and stiff stately facial attitudes. This Wei style clearly influenced early sculptural traditions of both Korea and Japan. By the Tang period, however, Chinese Buddhist statuary had distanced itself somewhat from the styles of India, and began to portray the Buddhist divinities with greater realism, supple attitudes, fuller forms, clothed in flowing garments, and decked in ornaments (bracelets, jewels, etc.). [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

“Almost all of the works of art that remain from the Asuka period are related to Buddhist worship. We can, for example, by examining the sculptural art of the Asuka Daibutsu, learn of Asuka’s Buddhist legacy. The making of the Asuka Daibutsu is attributed to the noted sculptor Kuratsukuri no Tori, whose family immigrated to Japan from China (possibly Korea). The seated Asuka Daibutsu sculpture is 275.2 centimeters (2.75 meters) in height (and is designated as an important cultural asset). The earliest Buddhist statue, the Shaka (Sakyamuni) Triad (623) at Horyuji Temple, attributed to Kuratsukuri no Tori, shows strong Chinese influences by Northern Wei scultural style. Another important piece, from the same period is the seated bodhisattva at Chuguji. A rare and important example of painting of the 7th century is to be found at the Tamamushi Shrine, on whose panels are depicted scenes from the previous lives of Buddha and other Buddhist scenes.

Later in the late 9th century, Japan’s break with China allowed the opportunity for a truly native Japanese culture to evolve, and the emergence from this point forward of indigenous secular art which continued to develop in tandem with religious art until the Kamakura era in the 16th century when secular art came to the fore due to the Confucian ethic of Edo-era shogunate and contact with West.”

Buddhist Images of the Asuka Period

Kannon from Horyuji

In art history, the term "Asuka Period" denotes the time between the introduction of Buddhism and approximately the middle of the 7th century, while the latter half of the 7th century is denoted by the term "Hakuho Period." Buddhist images of the Asuka Period, so defined, were made primarily by craftsmen of of continental immigrant stock, and the period’s mainstream works were the Tori-shiki Buddhistimages such as the Asuka Daibutsu, the Shaka triad (produced for the Horyuji kondo in 623 by Kura-tukuri-no-Tori),the Guze Kannon in the Horyuji Yumedono, etc."Tori-shiki" Buddhist images were influenced by the Buddhist art of the Northern Wei Period in China and exhibit such characteristics as a marked frontality, almond-shaped eyes, upward-turned crescent-shaped lips, and symmetrically arranged folds in the clothing. Besides the Tori-shiki images, there also remain from the Asuka Period such images as the Kudara Kannon at the Horyuji and the "bodhisattva half-inclined in meditation" (bosatsu hankazo) at the Cyuguji(part of the Horyuji). [Source: Asuka Historical Museum ]

The Shijuhatai-Butsu ("forty-eight Buddhist images") are an assemblage of 59 miniature giltbronze Buddhist sculptures, produced at various times from the Asuka through the Tempyo Periods. They were at one time in the possession of the Horyuji. Among them are several which had been transferred there from the Tachibanadera in the 11th century They are presently housed in the Tokyo National Museum. The number "forty-eight," while inaccurate as a name for the present collection.seems to have been chosen as a reflection of the "48 vows of Amida"

Bronze Figures of Lady Maya and Heavenly Attendants (Tennin, part of the Shijuhattai-butsu, first half of 7th century) is an ensemble representing the scene of the birth of Shakyamuni (Japanese pronunciation: Shaka) from beneath the arm of his mother, the Lady Maya. Since the earliest days of the Buddhist faith in India, objects of Buddhist reverence in various parts of Asia have included, in addition to images representing the person of the historical Shakyamuni in idealized form. paintings and sculptures recalling the vicissitudes of the Buddha’s life as given in the traditional accounts (butsuden). In Japan, however, the latter type of Buddhist art is unusual. ^

Bronze Nimbus (Kohai, One of the Shijuhattai-butsu) is the halo for a Shaka image and was produced by O En son (Chinese pronunciation: Wang Yansun), perhaps a continental immigrant, in a year which, as designated in the Chinese sixty-year cycle by the characters kolin, could represent in this case either the year594 or the year 654. It is a so-called ikkosanzon-shiki halo, designed to enfold both a central image and attendant Boddhisativas flanking it on either side. Nimbuses which, Iike this one, have attached to them small Buddhas and heavenly attendants (tennin) are very often used with Buddhist images that, Iike the Asuka Daibutsu or the Shaka Nyorai in the Horyuji Kondo. draw on tradition of the Northern Wei.

Hakuho Period Buddhist Images

Buddhist images of the Hakuho Period (A.D. 673 through 686) show a departure from the somewhat stiff feeling produced by the images of the earlier Asuka Period. The early Hakuho images typically have plump expressions reminding one of children, although under the continuing influence of Tang art. they develop into imposing pieces with adult bearing. Well-known and representative images of the period are the Buddha head from the Yamadadera with its boyish face. During this period in art history (i.e., Latter half of the 7th century), the techniques of sculpture developed greatly in the hands of craftsmen from among newly arriving continental immigrants. With the production of images in clay and dry lacquer. and with the appearance of Buddhist figures modeled from stone, cast on tiles, or hammered out on metal using reusable casts, there was a notable diversification in the types of materials employed. Also, there emerged during this period a richer diversity in modes of expression. with such works as Nyorai images seated on chairs and standing boddhisattvas with inclining waists.

Yakushi Nyorai Kondo Horyuji

During the Asuka and Hakuho Periods, there were produced many images of Miroku Bosatsu (the Boddhisattva Maitreya, sometimes rendered in English as "the Buddha of the future"). represented in a "halfinclined in meditation" posture. The illustration at the upper right is a Miroku Bosatsu image made in 666 in supplication for the recovery from illness of Empress Saimei. It is housed in the Yachuji (Osaka-fu, Habikino-shi). Although a Hakuho Period production, it retains much that is suggestive of Asuka Period imagery. The bosatsu hankazo shown in figure (e) below has a number of features characteristic of Buddhist imagery of the latter half of the 7th century. These include, for example, the delicate facial features; the type of head ornament known as sanmen toshoku, and the generous size of the lotus petals at the base. It is said to have been originally housed within the body of the Nyoirin Kannon which is the main object of worship at the Okadera.

Hokke Sessozu (Sakurai-shi, Hasedera) is a cast metal plaque with a scene of Shaka delivering a sermon. I n such features as the miniature stamped Buddha images (oshidashibutsu) attached to parts of the surface, and the hairline engravings of heavenly attendants (tennin) around the lower edge, one sees that a variety of metalworking techniques were imaginatively and skillfully employed. In its lower section,there is an inscription to the effect that it was made for the emperor In the "year of the dog" (in this case, either 686 or 698) by the priest Domyo and colleagues. According to some accounts, this bronze plaque was originally emplaced as an object of worship in a stone chamber or grotto on a hill west of the Hasedera.

The variety in the types of materials used for Buddhist images in the Hakuho Period is reflected in many forms, including the clay figures (sozo) which have been unearthed from the sites of Asuka temples. Such figures were produced by applying clay to a wooden core and were then finished by the addition of surface coloring. Besides the famous clay productions from the 8th century Which have been handed down In the Horyuji, Todaiji and Kofukuji, earlier clay figures from the 7th century have been found in Asuka. at such locations as the hill behind the Kawaradera, the Tachibanadera, the Tachibedera and the Moto Yakushiji.

Buddhist images stamped in relief on sen (brick-like tiles) were in vogue during the Hakuho Period and frequently decorated the interiors of temple halls and pagodas. One may see a reflection of this trend in the tiny Buddhist images stamped from the reverse side onto the gilt bronze foil that covers the interior of the shutters and Jnner walls of the Tamamushi miniature shrine (zushi) at the Horyuji. The stamped brfck Images (senbutsu) have designs in common with other stamped or rock-carved Buddhist images and also with the wall paintings in the Horyuji golden hall, exuding a florid atmosphere that recalls influences from early Tang China. They typically have sanzon designs (Shaka attended by two boddhisattvas) , or show other grouped figures, or flights to or from extraterrestrial abodes.

The interior walls and shutters, decorated with embossed Buddhist images (oshidashibutsu) on gilt bronze foil, give an idea of the way full-scale rooms ornamented with senbutsu must have looked. In addition to the brick-Like tiles (sen) from the Hakuho Period which depict images of the Buddha, there remain two others, both at one time in the possession of the Okadera, depicting a tennin (heavenly attendant) and a hob (phoenix-like mythical bird),respectively. An intricately constructed senbutsu fragment unearthed from the site of an abandoned temple at Natsumi, Mie-ken, shows miniature sen ornamented with figures of tennin, worshippers, incense burners and lions, surrounding the base of a shumidan (platform for a Buddhist image).The extant tennin-sen and hoooo-sen were perhaps used in the same way around the base of a full-scale shumidan.

Art From Horyuji Temple

Horyuji Temple (eight miles southwest of Nara) contains perhaps the oldest wooden temple building in the world. Covering 14.5 hectares and said to be founded in 607 by Prince Shotoku, the great protector of Japanese Buddhism, it contains many treasured buildings, sculptures and pictorial art objects. The five story pagoda at Horyuji was originally built in 607. Some have argued it had been unchanged since then. An investigation of timbers used to build the structure indicate the temple was rebuilt after a fire in 670. Examination of tree rings on the timber in the present structure indicate the trees were felled in 663, 631 and 624.

The main hall contains a triad of the Buddha Sakyamuni. Inside the Treasure Housenare the Kudara Kannon and two miniature shrines: the Tamamushi Shrine (once covered with wing shells of jeweled beetles) and the Shrine of Lady Tachibana. Hinoko cypress and Japanese cedar were used to build the main hall, the five-story pagoda and in the inter gate are believed to have been cut down between 668 and 685, which would make them the world’s oldest wooden structures Their ages were determined bu matching the growth rings of the timbers with information gleaned from historical records.

Horyuji temple was damaged by fire in 1949. Many of the temple’s delicate, 1,200-year-old works of art---mostly bronze Buddha and bodhisattva statues, nimbuses and reliefs---were placed in the Gallery of Horyuji in the Tokyo Nation Museum. Many of the treasures still in the hands of Horyuji are in such delicate condition they can only displayed on certain special occasions, only for a few hours a day.

The statue kept on Yumeddono is sacred and thought to be an image of Prince Shotoku himself. In 1894, the statue was brought out for the first time in 200 years. According to an American scholar who saw it said it was wrapped in “some 500 yards of cloth” and was compared in quality to a Greek statue. The scholar was taken by the statue’s “quite, mysterious smile...not unlike da Vinci’s Mona Lisa’s."

Art from Yamadadera Palace

Buddha head from Yamadadera

Kawagoe wrote: Yamadadera is famous for the sculpture remains of the Historical Buddha head of Nyorai which was completed in 685 (the 14th year of Tenmu’s reign), that was the main object of worship in the Yamadadera lecture hall. Only the head is left of the full sculpture, due to a fire disaster. The Buddha head reveals early Tang influences, exhibiting characteristic features of early Hakuho Period Buddhist images such as “the bright expression and boyish countenance, the eyebrows drawn out in a long arc, and the elongated narrow eyes”. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

“The Nyorai image was once banked on both sides by boddihisattvas attendant figures when it stood in the Yamadadera. The sculptures now lie in the Kofukuji east golden hall. The beginning of the latter half of the 7th century, was when large-scale sanzonbutsu attendant figures came to be created in large numbers in temples all over Japan.

“Senbutsu Buddhist images in relief on unglazed clay tiles have also been found from the Yamadadera temple ruins. These were introduced to Japan in the latter half of the 7th century and show the mature sensuous style of the early Tang Dynasty(7th cnetury). They were made by pressing clay into moulds, dyring and then firing. Surfaces were occasionally decorated with gold leaf. Senbutsu images were usually made in large numbers for decorating the interiors walls of temples.”

Asuka Stones

Maraisi phallic stone

In various parts of the Asuka region are to be found unusually shaped granite stones and stone-carved figures. Apart from the Shumisen-seki (a garden fixture carved to suggest Mount Sumeru of Buddhist mythology) or the male-female stone carving which likewise was designed as a fountain, the purposes originally associated with the other worked stones, bearing such names as Masuda no iwafune, Sakafune-ishi, Kame-ishi, Miroku-ishi, Nimen-seki, etc., have been for the most part for-gotten. The male-female stone carving. the Nimen-seki, the Saru-ishi ("monkey stones"),etc.,are different from the haniwa and other stone human figures made during the former Kofun (Tumulous) Period. Brimming with a droll sort of sturdiness, they display what is also a completely different quality from that of the later Buddhist sculptures. [Source: Asuka Historical Museum ^*^]

From the ponds discovered at Ishigami and Asukakyo enchi sites, it has become clear that many of the carved stone figures of Asuka, which have long been regarded as puzzling, were used as water fountains. In the Toyura district, there are four stones with relief carvings similar to those on the Shumisen-seki. One of these is on the grounds of the Kogenji, and the others were used as part of the construction of a tunnel built in the Edo Period to bring water to the Wada Pond. ^*^

Miroku-ishi (Height 2.5 meters Asuka-mura, Oka) is thought by some to have been used as a boundary marker between fields under the jori land division system which was put into effect after the latter part of the 7th century. Others think it may have been used as part of a dam across the Asukagawa. In popular belief it has been taken as a "Miroku" (image of the Buddha of the future). ^*^

Mysterious Stones at Asuka


Asuka has many mysteriously-shaped stone objects, whose original purposes are still being debated by scholars. The Masuda Iwafune stone weighs 800 tons and has two 1.3-meter-deep square holes carved on the top. No one knows the purpose of the stone or how it got to the top of the hill where it stands.

The Kameisha Stone sits in the middle of a rice field. Some say it looks like a tortoise. Others say it looks like a toad. Both of these animal were sacred in the Asuka period yet the purpose of the stone remains unknown. There are four Saruisha (monkey-shaped stones) in Asuka. Three of these have a faces carved on both the front and back of the head.

The Sakafuneishi stone is a huge 5.5-meter-long granite rock with pits and channels chiseled out in it. Some have speculated it may have been used to make sake (rice wine). Others say the drainage gutters and round hollows on the top were part of a system of running water. A turtle-shaped stone excavated at the site in 2000 is believed to be part of a structure for pouring and storing water used by people to cleanse themselves before entering a palace. A pattern carved in the stone may be related the position of the sun during the spring and autumn equinoxes.

Asuka Male-Female and Two-Faced Stones


A male-female stone carving (Height 1.7 meters 7th century, unearthed at Asuka-mura, Ishigami) was used as a fountain in an Asuka Period garden. It was designed so that water could rise through a hole at the bottom and dis-charge from both the mouth of the female and from a stemmed drinking cup held up to the mouth of the male. Today the lower part of the cup is missing and one sees the branched cavity through which water once flowed. The facial characteristics attract notice for their exotic cast. The carving was unearthed in 1903 from the neighbor-hood known as Ishigami, 600 meters to the southwest of the present museum. Since the 1930's, it has also been familiarly referred to by the term dosojin (a name also applied to phallic-shaped stones associated with folk religion and certain Shinto shrines). [Source: Asuka Historical Museum ]

Nimen-seki ("two-faced stone", 7th century) is today found within the precincts of the Tachibanadera, but It was brought here from a nearby area after the beginning of the Edo Period. According to certain present-day interpretations, its two faces are taken to represent good and evil. Its back side is flattened, a fact suggesting that it may originally have been used in conjunction with another stone.

Tate-ishi ("Standing Stones") — Asuka-mura, Oka (height 2.5 m), Asuka-mura, Jogo ( height 1.9 m), Asuka-mura, Toyura (height 2.9 m) — stand at three locations in Asuka-mura. The tate-ishi on the grounds of the Amakashi-niimasu Jinja (in Toyura) is said to have been used in connection with land allotments prior to the jori system. In addition to these worked stones. excavations have revealed a similarly shaped natural stone (height 1.6 m) which was stood on end along the bank of the Asukagawa east of the Kawaradera. "Mara-ishi" is an angled phallic stone.

Asuka Monkey and Turtle Stones

tortise stones
Saru-ishi (Heights: 95, 90, 87, 115 centimeters, 7th century Asuka-mura, Hirata) are four figures that stand on the plot of ground designated as the grave of Kibi-hime O. They are called saru-ishi ("mon-key stones") because of their queer shapes. Three of the figures have faces on the back side as well as the front. I t seems possible that the account In the 12th century Konjaku monogatari about "stones of demonic form" on the embankment of an emperor’s mausoleum to the south of the Karudera may refer to these stones. The Presently known Saru-ishi, five in all,were excavated from a field to the south of Emperor Kinmei’s mausoleum during the Edo (Tokugawa) Period and moved to their present locations. One of them is now on the site of the ruins of Takatori Castle, some 5 kilometers to the south-east of the Kibihime-O grave. [Source: Asuka Historical Museum ]

Kame-ishi ("Tortoise Stone", 7th century, Asuka-mura, Tachibana) is 3.6 meters in length. According to one theory, this stone was used to delineate jori field boundaries, but its real purpose is unknown. Its exterior bears lattice-shaped indentations like those on the Masuda no iwafune.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asuka Historical Museum; Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ; Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo ++; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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