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Along with the prior , the Nara era is part of Japan’s
“Great Age of Gilt Bronze.” This page
presents a guided tour of period statuary.

Related Pages

Birushana - The Big Buddha at Todai-ji in Nara
Big Bronze Buddha at Tōdai-ji in Nara
(aka ). H = 15 meters.
Photo: Yabūchi Satoshi (Uwamuki Project)

Jump Directly to Photo Tour

Celestial Musician, Octagonal Latern at Todaiji Temple, Nara Era
Octaganal Bronze Lantern
in Tōdaiji Temple courtyard (Nara)

Buddhist Art in Early Japan




Overview of Nara History
The Nara period begins with the relocation of the capital to Heijōkyō 平城京 (present-day Nara). The new Japanese capital was modeled after the Chinese capital of Chang'an 長安 (Jp. = Chōan), underscoring Japan’s fascination with Tang culture (Jp. = Tō 唐; + 618-907), art, and architecture. Today, Chang’an is known as Xian (Jp. = Seian 西安), and is home to one of the most significant archeological excavations of the 20th century -- a massive discovery of (outside link) dating back to China’s Qin Dynasty (− 211-206).

The Nara period is marked by the Japanese court’s fascination with Tang culture in China, by strong court-clergy relations, and by lavish state spending on Buddhist temples, images, and texts. The so-called were active at the time. Introduced from China and Korea, the six were largely academic schools, under state control, centered in Nara, devoted to mastering Buddhist philosophy, and to maintaining court patronage. This period is called Nara Buddhism. These six schools did not show much doctrinal innovation, and were largely devoted to state functions.

The Nara period might rightfully be called the Shōmu Era, for the capital in Nara during the reign of Emperor Shōmu 聖武 (+ 724 to 749) covered about 35 square miles and was home to more than a million people. It represented Japan's first real age of imperial splendor. During his rule, Emperor Shōmu (also spelled Shoumu or Shomu) ordered the establishment of a nationwide system of provincial temples (kokubunji 国分寺) and the construction of the at Tōdaiji Temple 東大寺 in Nara (see photo at top of page). This giant bronze statue was itself inspired by a giant Buddha carving in the cliffs of Longmen 竜門 (near Chang'an), again underscoring Japan’s enchantment with Chinese culture.

: The Nara Daibutsu, whose image embodies the Buddha , dates back to 752 AD. Over the centuries, the statue has been damaged in various battles, but has always been restored afterward. The body of the statue was reconstructed in 1185, and the 5.3-meter-high head was rebuilt in 1692. At 15 meters, it is the largest gilt-bronze statue in the world.

The Nara period is often portrayed as Japan’s first great age of artistic statuary genius. This, in my mind, is incorrect. The great apogee of Japanese Buddhist art occurs later, during the late Heian and early Kamakura periods. Buddhism during the Nara period was essentially for the court, upper classes, and clergy. The artistic contributions of the Nara era were curtailed by the court’s embrace of Tang culture and Chinese traditions. Buddhism was not yet widely accepted by the common people (despite the construction of temples throughout the country), and its dissemination was largely state-controlled (top-down). Artwork from the period is mostly a reflection of Chinese influences, aristocratic tastes, and the reproduction of imported sculptural models from China and less and less so from Korea. The great age of Japanese Buddhist art comes later, following the breakdown of imperial supremacy, the ascendancy of the military Shogunate in Kamakura, and the widespread dissemination of Buddhism among the commoner. Buddhist wood sculpture in Japan reaches its final triumphant climax -- in my eyes -- during the Kamakura period, and thereafter it declines.

Wood (although highly prized) was not yet the dominate material used to make Buddhist imagery. Wooden sculptures were, in fact, still outnumbered by statues made of metal () and clay, and competed as well against a new production technique called Kanshitsu 乾漆 (hollow dry lacquer), a method then popular in Tang China. Clay and dry lacquer flourished throughout the 8th century, but were then supplanted by wood. Unfired and brightly poly-chromed clay images such as those found in China at Dunhuang 敦煌 (Jp: Tonkō) were also made during the Nara period. continued to flourish until the 12th century, underscoring the great value of the (rōgata 蝋型). 

One reason for the continuing dominance of bronze during the Nara period was the discovery, in 708 AD, of copper in Japan in large quantities. After this discovery, it became possible to create bronze images of life-size or larger proportions. During the preceding , bronze statues were typically small, about 30 cm on average, mainly because metal materials had to be imported.

During the Nara period, numerous (outside link) were sent to China as well, and the Japanese monks on these journeys brought back innumerable texts and images, which were then copied endlessly for the provincial temples. Despite Japan’s fascination with the culture and art of Tang China, the Nara period gave birth to a “semi-independent” Japanese sculpting style, one that no longer relied exclusively on images imported and slavishly copied from Chinese and Korean models. Nonetheless, artwork of the period still mostly reflects Chinese influences. The Nara era ends when the capital moves from Nara (Heijōkyō 平城京) to Kyoto (Heian 平安), and the subsequent Heian Period begins.

Wood Materials in the Nara Era
Unlike the , when champhor 樟 (kusu) was the main type of wood used for wooden statues, the most used in the Nara period for single-block sculpture were Katsura 桂 (Judas tree), Keyaki 欅 (Zelkova), and Kaya 榧 (Japanese nutmeg). Kaya was a prized aromatic wood growing inside Japan. It was used more and more in place of sandalwood, the latter the premier aromatic wood for Buddhist statues in India and China. Sandalwood needed to be imported from mainland Asia. Since it had a relatively small trunk, sandalwood could only be used for smaller statues. Kaya was indigenous to Japan, had a larger trunk, and became a popular replacement for sandalwood during this period, especially for constructing large statues of the 11-Headed Kannon. See for details.  

PHOTO AT RIGHT. Octagonal Bronze Lantern depicting the Bosatsu of Sound (Onjō Bosatsu 音声菩薩). Tōdaiji Temple 東大寺, 8th century. Lantern post bears excerpt of Buddhist text extolling merits  of lighting . Photo courtesy temple catalog 1996.

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Bronze, Clay, & Dry Lacquer Rule the Roost
Click any image to enlarge.

Yuima, Clay

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Horyu-ji Temple - Exploring the Beauty of Japan #11, July 9th 2002Horyu-ji Temple and Shotoku Taishi -- Exploring the Beauty of Japan #11, July 9th 2002Exploring the Beauty of Japan #11
July 9th, 2002

40+ pages, 70+ color photos
Japanese Language Only
Publisher: 小学館、東京都千代田区
一ツ橋 2-3-1, TEL: 03-3230-5118
Wonderful magazine featuring treasures of Hōryū-ji Temple. Above photos were scanned from this magazine.

BOOK - Butsuzou

仏像 (English = Buddhist Statues)
Copyright 2006. Kōzō Ogawa, Nobuko Seki, Takayuki Yamazaki.
772 Pages.
Published by:
YAMA-KEI Publishers Co. Ltd.
1-9-13 Akasaka, Minato-ku (Tokyo)
ISBN 4-635-09031-0

Kofukuji Temple English Catalog

Kōfuku-ji Temple

English-language Catalog
44 Pages.

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  • Shōsō-in (or Shoso-in) 正倉院 at Tōdaiji Temple 東大寺 (Nara) is a world treasure house, even today. Its many treasures, collected by Emperor Shōmu 聖武 (+ 724 to 749), were donated to the temple by Shōmu's widow, Empress Kōmyō 光明,  in 756 AD, and dedicated to the Buddha. The temperature-controlled Shōsō-in serves as a repository to store and protect the collection from damage. It is not open to the public, although many pieces from the collection are exhibited yearly at Japan’s major museums. For more, please see the two sites below:
  • Tōdaiji (Todaiji) Temple in Nara 東大寺

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First Published July 2007



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