the Asuka and Nara periods, so named because the seat of Japanese government
was located in the Asuka Valley from 552 to 710 and in the city of Nara until
784, the first significant invasion by Asian continental culture took place in
Japan. The transmission of Buddhism provided the initial impetus for contacts
between Korea, China, and Japan, and the Japanese recognized facets of Chinese
culture that could profitably be incorporated into their own: a system for
converting ideas and sounds into writing; historiography; complex theories of
government, such as an effective bureaucracy; and, most important for the arts,
advanced technology, new building techniques, more advanced methods of casting
in bronze, and new techniques and mediums for painting.
the 7th and 8th centuries, however, the major focus in contacts between Japan
and the Asian continent was the development of Buddhism. Not all scholars agree
on the significant dates and the appropriate names to apply to various time
periods between 552, the official date of the introduction of Buddhism into
Japan, and 784, when the Japanese capital was transferred from Nara. The most common
designations are the Suiko period, 552-645; the Hakuho period, 645-710; and the
Tempyo period, 710-84.
earliest Buddhist structures still extant in Japan, and the oldest wooden
buildings in the Far East are found at the Horyu-ji to the southwest of Nara.
First built in the early 7th century as the private temple of Crown Prince
Shotokuconsists of 41 independent buildings; the most important ones, however,
the main worship hall, or Kondo (Golden Hall), and Goju-no-to (Five-story
Pagoda), stand in the center of an open area surrounded by a roofed cloister.
The Kondo, in the style of Chinese worship halls, is a two-story structure of
post-and-beam construction, capped by an irimoya, or hipped-gabled roof of
the Kondo, on a large rectangular platform, are some of the most important
sculptures of the period. The central image is a Shaka Trinity (623), the
historical Buddha flanked by two bodhisattvas (Buddhist saints), a sculpture
cast in bronze by the sculptor Tori Busshi (flourished early 7th century) in
homage to the recently deceased Prince Shotoku. At the four corners of the
platform are the Guardian Kings of the Four Directions, carved in wood about
650. Also housed at Horyu-ji is the Tamamushi Shrine, a wooden replica of a Kondo,
which is set on a high wooden base that is decorated with figural paintings
executed in a medium of mineral pigments mixed with lacquer.
building in the 8th century was focused around the Todai-ji in Nara.
Constructed as the headquarters for a network of temples in each of the
provinces, the Todai-ji is the most ambitious religious complex erected in the
early centuries of Buddhist worship in Japan. Appropriately, the 16.2-m (53-ft)
Buddha (completed 752) enshrined in the main hall, or Daibutsuden, is a Rushana
Buddha, the figure that represents the essence of Buddhahood, just as the
Todai-ji represented the center for imperially sponsored Buddhism and its
dissemination throughout Japan. Only a few fragments of the original statue
survive, and the present hall and central Buddha are reconstructions from the
around the Daibutsuden on a gently sloping hillside are a number of secondary
halls: the Hokkedo (Lotus Sutra Hall), with its principal image, the
Fukukenjaku Kannon (the most popular bodhisattva), crafted of dry lacquer
(cloth dipped in lacquer and shaped over a wooden armature); the Kaidanin
(Ordination Hall) with its magnificent clay statues of the Four Guardian Kings;
and the storehouse, called the Shosoin. This last structure is of great
importance as an art-historical cache, because in it are stored the utensils
that were used in the temple's dedication ceremony in 752, the eye-opening
ritual for the Rushana image, as well as government documents and many secular
objects owned by the imperial family.
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