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Art and Architecture of Buddhism in Japan

Art and Architecture of Buddhism in Japan

Author: Ian McConnell
This lesson will explore the influence of Buddhism in Japanese art and architecture.
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An overview of the art and architecture of Buddhism in Japan.

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. Welcome to this episode of exploring art history with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about the art and architecture of Buddhism in Japan. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives, or the things we're going to learn today, are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, you will be able to identify and define today's key terms. Explain the cultural influences of China on the art and architecture of Japan. And identify examples of Japanese art and architecture.

Key terms as always are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is kondo, the main hall in the Japanese Buddhist temple. The big idea for today is that Chinese cultural influences, including Buddhism, Confucianism, Chinese writing, and elements of the Chinese royal court, were very influential in the art and architecture of Japan. And when in history are we looking? The art and architecture from today takes place between the seventh and the 13th centuries AD.

So Japan, shown here in dark green, is a country consisting of four large islands with numerous smaller islands, just east of mainland China. So why do we care about the cultural influence of China on Japan? Mainly because of how significant the influence is. Japan owes a lot of its culture to Chinese influence, such as the system of writing, religion, and elements of the royal court. In particular, the Japanese culture copied Chinese Buddhism very closely.

Our first example of Japanese architecture is from the Horyuji Buddhist temple complex in the Nara Prefecture in Japan. And it is this kondo, which is the main hall in a Buddhist temple. It was originally built during the seventh century AD, and rebuilt a few times after, due to fire damage, et cetera. But at its core remains very much as it was, and is, in fact, the oldest surviving example of a wooden building in existence. Now note the formal similarity to the Chinese pagoda, such as the curved roof, the shrinking size of the upper stories, and wooden building on a stone platter. What can't be seen is the Chinese bracketing system, or the dougong, used to support the building.

This bronze Buddha sculpture is located within the Horyuji complex, and is a bronze triad, which is a common Buddhist depiction of a central Buddha figure flanked by two bodhisattvas. It was created by the artist known as Tori Bushi. Bushi means maker of Buddhist images. And is made in the preferred style of the Chinese at that time, which depicts the figures with elongated heads and highly stylized folds within the robes.

The central Buddha is Shaka, which is the historical Buddha, as opposed to one his many manifestations. Seated in the meditative Lotus position, with his right hand in a specific type of mudra, or gesture, called the "fear not" gesture. Behind the Buddha is a highly stylized flaming mandorla.

To compare and contrast the previous image with this example, called the Yakushi Triad, from the late seventh, early eighth centuries. It shows a stylistic influence of the Tang dynasty, from mainland China, and takes care to render the forms in a much more realistic manner. The clothing isn't as overtly stylized as it is in the Tori Bushi triad. But instead, it clings to the forms and reveals the body definition underneath.

Also notice the contrappostos-like stance of the nearest bodhisattva figure. According to scholars, this stylistic influence can be traced back to the Indian influence on the stylistic conventions of China, which were then borrowed by Japan. Which itself may possibly have been an influence for cultural exchange that occurred between India and Greece during the reign of Alexander the Great.

During a period known as the Heian period in Japan, the court moved the capital to Kyoto. It was a time of extended peace and prosperity in Japan. It was during this time that a lady of the court, known as Lady Murasaki, wrote what has come to be known as the first novel, and graphic novel, in history.

This story is called The Tale of Genji. It's a major literary work of Japan. And gives insight into the courtly life of an 11th century aristocrat, told through the main character of the prince, Genji. The scholarly language of the time was Chinese. But this was written in a more common form called hiragana script. Which was often used by women, because it was thought to be easier than other forms of Japanese writing.

Works of writing like this weren't considered to be equal with poetry, so it's very likely this would've been looked at as nothing more than a novelty in its time. This image is a scene from the talk from The Tale of Genji. And what's interesting about the depiction of these stories is in the perspective of the viewer, because we're looking down at the characters at an angle, from above, inside a building, thanks to the roof being blown off. Which is a typical Japanese stylistic preference. Also similar is the way in which emotions are conveyed through color, symbolism, poses, and overall composition.

During the Heian period, a form of Buddhism called Esoteric Buddhism became the main form of Buddhism during the 10th century. It emphasized complex hierarchies of gods, which were depicted in mandalas like the Womb World Mandala, shown here. I think of it as a Buddhist flow chart, it helps to keep things straight.

Pure Land Buddhism remained popular during the Kamakura period in Japan. The period of time from the late 12th century through the early to mid 13th century, that set the foundation for feudalism in Japan. Pure Land Buddhism emphasizes the importance of the Amida Buddha. And the path to salvation that is achieved by committing oneself to the salvation of Amida Buddha, or Amida Buddha.

During this time, speedy descent images of the Buddha became popular with Amida Buddha shooting down from the clouds to help someone in need, usually a dying person. This however, is an image of the Amida descending slowly over the mountains. I guess speedy is a relative term.

The Pure Land of Pure Land Buddhism referred to a paradise, of sorts, created by one of the manifestations of Buddha. The Phoenix Hall, located in Kyoto, Japan, uses careful stylistic detail, such as the more accentuated curled roofs, more recessed, central building, the narrower space between sections of the roof, and the reflection pool to evoke a sense of a heavenly realm of the pure land on earth.

That brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives, to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you explain the cultural influences of China on the art and architecture of Japan? And can you identify examples of Japanese art and architecture?

And once again, the big idea for today is that Chinese cultural influences including Buddhism, Confucianism, Chinese writing, and elements of the Chinese royal court were very influential in the art and architecture of Japan. There you go. Thanks for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Notes on "Art and Architecture of Buddhism in Japan"

Key Terms


The main hall in a Japanese Buddhist temple.

Heian Period

Heian means peace and tranquility; a period from 794-1185 in Japanese history when Buddhism, Taoism and Chinese influences were important; a period of time especially noted for its art, poetry and literature.

Hiragana Script

Japanese writing system of characters.


In Buddhism, an artistic grouping of three characters, usually Buddha in the center flanked by two bodhisattvas, but there could be some variation.


Image of Japan Map Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Japan_(orthographic_projection).svg; Image of Confucius Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Konfuzius-1770.jpg; Hory-ji Kondo; Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Horyu-ji_kondo02_2000b.jpg Shkyamuni Triad; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Shakyamuni_Triad_Horyuji.JPG Taizokai; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taizokai.jpg Genji Visits Murasaki, from the Minori chapter, Tale of Genji; Public Domain: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Genji_emaki_01003_013.jpg Byodoin Phoenix Hall; Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Byodoin_Phoenix_Hall_Uji_2009.jpg Triad of Yakushi; Creative Commons: http://townley-apah.wikispaces.com/The+Art+of+Early+and+Late+Japan Descent of Amida over the Mountain; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Descent_of_Amitabha_over_the_Mountain.jpg