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Asuka and Nara Art in Japanese Religion

Asuka and Nara Art in Japanese Religion Free Essay

Religious education is a diverse academic area that concerns the study of religious cultures, rites, and beliefs of various groups of people. The study encompasses several aspects of people’s beliefs about supernatural forces; the study of religion is under methodologies of sociology, psychology, and history of worship. The study of religion originated in the 19th century with the paraphrasing of the teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism into European dialects together with the analysis of the Bible (Sullivan, 821). Students all over the world have an opportunity to engage into the religious studies. In Japan, the main religions are Shinto and Buddhism: Shinto is the traditional religion in the country while Buddhism was adopted in the 6th century (Park, 630). The religions incorporate the use of arts, which have a religious meaning and connection. The religious art includes the Jomon, Yayoi, Heian, Kamakura, Asuka, and Nara art among others (Sullivan, 821). The main aim of the essay is to discuss the uniqueness of the Asuka and Nara art.

The Asuka Art

The Asuka period is named after the Asuka area located a short distance from the south of the present Nara, it was the center of governance of the country at that time, and it was a period of revolution. The imperial court was situated in the Asuka area as well as a number of conflicting clans, among which the strongest were Soga, Mononobe, and Nakatomi. The clans had a common tradition of presenting their leaders with girls to marry and provide traditional activities. The tax supervisors who came from Soga and Mononobe provided healthy young men to safeguard the community as soldiers. The imperial court made an allegation that they had acquired leadership heredity from the son of the goddess. Japan created divine relations with other cultures on the continent while the seat of power was in Asuka.

Due to the political and traditional contacts between Korea and Japan, Korean communities, such as Silla and Paekche, allowed the efficient absorption of Korean traditions, Buddhism religious practices, and the Chinese practices that people had learned through a Korean prism. Japan desired to remain relevant on the Korean peninsula by initiating good relations with the Kaya tribe; it had a mutual agreement with Paekche to challenge Silla in its efforts to control Kaya before proceeding to Paekche. However, after some time, the Silla warriors overcame the Japanese, but this time, there was an opportunity for Japan and Paekche to establish close relationships, which would eventually yield a necessary modification of the visual arts in Japan. Paekche being a Korean tribe meant that it had adequate art skills; therefore, the relations were very useful to Japan as it granted an opportunity to explore arts to the Japanese who were experiencing a period of transformation.

The introduction of Buddhism was the most notable change, though historians disagreed on the exact time of the introduction of this religion as a form of worship (Park, 630). Buddhism did not start with a new language owing to the close relationship of Japan with Korea; Japanese had already learned some fundamental aspects of Buddhism from their informal interactions with Koreans (Park, 630). The conflicts among the Japanese clans intensified. Soga clan was originally from Korea and, therefore, had better connections with the Korean culture. However, they were less close to other Japanese communities to gain power over other clans in Japan. In general, Soga were very passionate about the introduction of Buddhism in the country.

The Nakatomi and Mononobe clans were against the assimilation of Buddhism as they were satisfied with Shinto, but the Soga clan appreciated the Korean concept of federal leadership and the incorporation of Buddhism as a form of worship. The Soga were known to include strong warriors; therefore, they overcame Mononobe and Nakatomi eventually taking leadership in the region with Prince Shotoku from Soga. The prince was motivated to study Buddhism, Asian culture, and Confucianism with the help of Korean religious study researchers. He contributed to making Buddhism a national religion and gave instructions on the establishment of national policies on the basis of Confucian guidelines. The prince left a legacy in the form of the development of national and spiritual issues of the country. Soga’s passion for Buddhism was evident to all, and the misuse of power by Soga led to their fall in the 640s (Park, 631). Though Buddhism had undergone several renovations, the great artwork, such as calligraphy, sculpture, temple architecture, was under proper maintenance.

Sculptures and Paintings of the Asuka Art

The temple structures may not have survived the test of time, but some sculptures did owing to Tori, the native who had roots in China. The provision of high-quality sculpture requires sufficient knowledge of materials. A large image of Shaka, the traditional Buddha, continues to exist from the Asuka period. The Shika Triad has undergone numerous renovations, and due to the styles used in its construction, there is a connection with Tori, which is evident from the top of the Buddha. The Shika Triad has an inscription, which is a clear depiction that the statue was an imitation of the Patron of Horyuji Temple, Prince Shotoku. The construction of the statue happened at the time of his death as a prayer for him to ascend to a pureland. His mother and wife died around the same time and were represented with the help of the statues. The Shaka statue demonstrates a left-hand gesture, which is an element that is not common for any other Buddhist image.

The wooden statue of Kannon discovered in Horyuji Temple has borrowed much from Tori style, which is an indication of reliance on the Chinese Buddhism art. The sculptures demonstrate such features as the use of symmetry, current facial appearance, and an ancient smirk. The temples were not only associated with statues, but they also had unique paintings, though most of the Asuka pictures perished. However, an outstanding painting is the Tamamushi Shrine with miniature kondo stuck to a rectangular bottom. The kondo uses an embellishment of the excellent colors of the Asuka period; the decorations of the bottom sheets demonstrate the elements of Buddhist creative work of Jataka (Crane et al., 78). The Jataka decoration borrowed some Indian aspects which employ the liquid straight lines of the Chinese wei approach.

The Nara Period

During the period when Empress Gemmei was in power, between 707 and 715, the capital city was moved to the Nara basin and was called Heijo-Kyo, which is currently known as Nara (“Nara,” 1). The move was the result of the overcrowding and the high level of Buddhist establishment in the region. The Nara period was marked between 710 and 784 when the Japanese were trying to copy and improve the Chinese cultural and political organizations (“Nara,” 1). The combination of the forces of Tang and Silla was unsuccessful in term of politics. The establishment of the social setting in the new capital emulated the Tang and traditional beliefs of the people of the region with all the power residing with the emperor. Religious beliefs were integrated into the scheme, and many of the leaders offered their ideas as part of the new management of the capital (“Nara,” 1). The secular authors were no more viable, and they withdrew its support from this ruling. Buddhism, therefore, gained more support, and most of the decisions were made in accordance with its teachings.

The 8th century was marked with most of the political leaders seeking power. There were many attempted and some successful coups in most governments and many epidemics too (Crane et al., 80). Shomu, the emperor who reigned between 724 and 749, used religion to rule over the people (Crane et al., 81). Strengthening the Buddhists’ spiritual beliefs was one of the ways to facilitate one’s ruling, and he reinforced the beliefs of the citizens. Thus, he started the Kokubunji system in 741 and built a monastery and a nunnery in every province (Sullivan, 822). They were all controlled by the central power in Nara, namely the Todai temple constructed in 743 (Sullivan, 822). With such a well-structured spiritual framework, the emperor was able to make decisions and easily force people in the region to follow the established rules. An enormous statue of Birushana Buddha, who was known as the Great Buddha, made of bronze, was erected at the place to signify the belief (Park, 632). Buddhists were able to rule over people, acquire wealth, and interfere with the secular life of the people.

The Nara Taxation System

During the reforms of the Taika, the Chinese tax system was adopted. The system presupposed the ownership of property and the farming of rice, which were used to determine the amount of tax that people paid. Many of the farmers were oppressed by the taxation system since they were responsible for building the temples and their produce was small. In the middle of the century, a minister of state Fujiwara Nakamaro, who ruled between 706 and 764, introduced some reforms to reduce the Buddhist power and reduce the taxation burden that people were enduring (Crane et al., 85). Restructuring the government and managing the power that the Buddhist clergy had required more time. The weak government that was in power had to devise new methods to facilitate their ruling. Reducing the influence of the Buddhists was one of the ways to change the people’s beliefs in the religious ruling capability and ensure the ruling of the government.

The main monument that remains from this period is the Todai Temple complex and the bronze central image of the great Buddha. The Great Buddha Hall was constructed in 745 and was about 15 meters high (Crane et al., 85). Its first opening ceremony was conducted in 752, although the temple later was destroyed (Crane et al., 85). The existing fragments in the region are the result of the reconstruction done in 1692 (Crane et al., 86). The other two temples predate the Todai Temple project. They are Kofuku and Hokkedo, which have a different art associated with the Japanese culture of the 8th century.

The Nara Sculpture

A total of 27 sculptures, which featured the images of Shaka Bodhisattvas and others, were located in Kofuku Temple in 734 (“Nara,” 1). They signified the ten disciples and the eight classes of beings. Most of the sculptures used the hollow-core dry lacquer technique which was common at the time (“Lacquer,” 1). They also had become a major artwork of the time similar to most of the Chinese sculptures in this technique. The art offered a better option than the use of bronze and, therefore, was encouraged. It also was associated with a better plastic usage and made the sculptures more beautiful. Hokkedo is another significant figure of this period, which was also known as Sangatsudo. It was located in the eastern part of the Todai complex and was considered the oldest building in the Todai Temple. Emperor Shomu is believed to have visited the Todai Temple, and he was responsible for the temple’s construction. Today, there are 16 sculptural structures at the temple’s altar, and the most visible ones are the clay images of Gekko and Nikko (Crane et al., 86).

There is a secret image of Shukongojin made in 733 that represents the guardian deity and is allowed for public viewing for only once a year (Crane et al., 87). The sculptures of the later Nara period used a better-lacquered technique whereby a cloth was used to cover a carved wood. The artists also employed the paste techniques, which were common in the hollow-core lacquered technique. The lacquered technique also considered the effects of expansion and contraction, and, therefore, the interior wood in the sculpture was hollow. The use of wood as a natural resource and the reduced costs of the art contributed to its popularity among many interested artists. It appeared as a result of the association of the technique with the Chinese people who had come to Japan together with the Chinese Monk called Ganjin in 753 (Crane et al., 88).

Toshodai Temple was founded by the Monk Ganjin in 759 and became the residence of many works from 760 (Crane et al., 88). A massive sculpture of Ganjin is also a significant artwork in the temple. The sculptures of the Nara period reflect a general shift of techniques and ideas. The style was known as Hompa-Shiki and became prominent in the Heian period.

The Nara Painting and Decorative Arts

The pictures of the Nara period followed the Tang prototypes found in the Yakushi Temple (Sullivan, 822). They depicted beautiful and elongated figures with round faces and had visible brush strokes, similar to the ones later used in the impressionism period of the 19th century (Sullivan, 822). For example, the illustrated scriptures Kako genzai inga kyo emaki, which means “sutra of cause and effect.” The paintings represent the historical Shaka Buddha. The decorative arts within the Todai complex had some elements of China’s styles.


The Asuka art was given the name due to the developments of Buddhism in the region when the Asuka valley was the center of authority in Japan. Later, the seat of power was taken to Nara, and the development of art which took place during that time became known as the Nara period. There was a massive construction of temples in each province, which illustrated the incorporation of Buddhism in the region making Buddhism and Shinto the primary forms of religion in Japan. The Asuka and Nara art are unique in the Japanese religion since they represent the introduction of Buddhism in the country. Some of the statues of the time have characteristic elements which other images lack; for example, the Shaka Triad statue, which has an inscription representing Prince Shotoku, a founding father of Buddhism in Japan. The inclusion of two attendants in the Shaka statue is a unique feature critical in solving the puzzle concerning the statue’s iconography.

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