"Iconoclasm" in Premodern Japan

Question raised by: Gregory Levine

Discussants: Matthew Stavros, David Pollack, Carol Tsang, Robin Gill, Lawrence Marceau, Todd Brown, Keller Kimbrough

return to archive index | top pmjs index

Date: Mon, 9 Jul 2001 16:47:52 -0700
From: Gregory Levine <gplevine@uclink4.berkeley.edu>
Subject: "Iconoclasm" in Premodern Japan

Dear Colleagues,

I am currently doing research on the breaking and abuse of visual images in premodern Japan, especially religious images, and would be grateful for any
references, especially in primary sources, to incidents of or doctrinal/philosophical postures concerning "iconoclasm" in Japan. I would also welcome references that point us toward an indigenous lexicon for "iconoclasm" in Japan and in other visual cultures in Asia.

Most of us are no doubt familiar with the Nihon shoki entry for 552 (referring to the Buddhist icon thrown into the Naniwa canal and its temple being torched). Also familiar [thanks to the work of James Ketelaar, Martin Collcutt, Christine Guth, and others] is the landscape of dismantled and ruined temples and destroyed or dispersed icons and texts emerging during the persecution of Buddhism in late Edo-early Meiji.

I'm sure there are other important moments in which sacred sites and their images were disrupted or destroyed as well as particular sectarian/philosophical positions. (We might differentiate the destruction of santuaries as collateral damage during civil war-- as in Oda Nobunaga's assault on Enryakuji-- from direct disputes over the presence of images and representation of the divine.)

Greg Levine

Assistant Professor of Japanese art history
Department of History of Art
U.C. Berkeley
416 Doe Library #6020
Berkeley, CA 94720-6020

Date: Mon, 9 Jul 2001 20:27:29 -0400
From: Matthew Stavros
Subject: Re: "Iconoclasm" in Premodern Japan

Greetings Greg senpai,

Just the other day I read the Jurgin Elisonas article in Cambridge History, vol. 4, chap. 7, "Christianity and the Daimyo." It gives highlights several cases when "native" Japanese religious imagery and architecture was destroyed (primarily in Kyushu) by late sengoku daimyo at the behest of their Christian mentors. You might want to check it out for references to primary sources.

I send my best,
Matthew Stavros

Date: Mon, 9 Jul 2001 20:57:11 -0400
From: David Pollack


I wonder if, in literature and certain forms of art, mitate might not amount to a type of iconoclasm? This would understand the practice of honkadori or other respectful allusion as a sort of elevation of the icon, and mitate as its deliberate 'breaking.' True, we usually don't think of iconoclasm as eliciting humor, but it does, and humor isn't the sole function of mitate, which can also be done for more serious purposes of disguise, satire, and for various sly and/or malevolent intentions. As it develops in the Edo period, at any rate, it seems to me that mitate becomes a very complex and inclusive mechanism that does at least part of what we think of when we use the word iconoclasm. Not the religious part, perhaps or alas, but a send-up, parody, nose-thumbing, akanbei sort of attitude toward established pieties. Find a piety or convention and you'll find its mitate. You might have some trouble locating this attitude in the sort of arts you had in mind though.

David Pollack

Date: Tue, 10 Jul 2001 07:37:14 -0500 (CDT)
From: Carol Tsang

There are numerous examples of temples being sacked in the history of the
Honganji branch of Jodo Shinshu.

The destruction of the first Honganji, in 1465, by Enryakuji. See the
works Honpukuji Yuraiki (pp. 329-32) and Honpukuji atogaki (pp. 364-6).
Page numbers refer to the publication called Honpukuji kyuki, ed. Chiba
Joryu, although there are other printed versions, e.g. in Shinshu Shiryo

Another example is the attack on Kofukuji by Honganji adherents, on
1532/7/17. Courtiers' diaries referring to this include: Nijoji shuka-ki,
Ganjo onenki, Nisui-ki and Hisamichi ko-ki. For Nijoji shuka=ki,for
example, look at entries from that date--7/17--to at least 8/9. As far as
I know, though, it's only available in Zoku nangyo zatsuroku, which I
found at Todai shiryohensanjo. Maybe somebody else knows of a printed

And, of course, there's the razing of the Yamashina Honganji in 1532 by
Nichiren adherents and Rokkaku Sadayori, though these belong rather more
to the civil-war collateral-damage category, even if the Nichiren people
used religious beliefs to justify the attack. Come to think of it, there's
the virtual destruction (temporarily) of the Nichiren sect in Kyoto later
in the 1530s by Enryakuji and Rokkaku Sadayori (at least I think it's that
Rokkaku). I don't have primary references to that close at hand, but you
should look through Imatani Akira's Tembun Hokke no Ran (Heibonsha,

"Ikkoshu" (generally taken to mean Honganji-branch) were also infamous in
the late fifteenth century for their alleged destruction of Buddhist
images and idols. A good starting place to look for that, and a good
discussion of why I say "generally taken to mean" in James Dobbins's
Jodo Shinshu (Indiana UP, 1989).

One or more of these incidents may be of interest to you.

Carol Tsang

Assistant Professor
Department of History
University of Illinois at Chicago

Date: Tue, 10 Jul 2001 11:08:37 -0400
From: Robin Gill
Subject: iconoclasm

In respect to Greg Levine's call for examples of iconoclasm:

Extremely sad yet entertaining reading on the destruction of religious sculpture by the jesuits and their converts may be found in frois's NIHONSHI, the ten or so volumes of which, if i remember right, may be found at the university of washington, which was kind enough to let me borrow it very cheaply once by interlibrary loan, (and may be at OSU, too) --- i mean there are spectacular expeditions to steal them from caves and exultation over heads flying into privies, etc.

The best symbol of the playful iconoclism suggested by David Pollack that comes to mind would be micturation on the shinto mark (torii), which every modern cartoonist worth his salt has depicted. I have an old senryu about doing the same somewhere around here and will send it when/if it is found.

robin d gill

Date: Tue, 10 Jul 2001 12:04:06 -0400
From: Lawrence Marceau
Subject: Re: "Iconoclasm" in Premodern Japan

I'm not sure whether this is what Gregory Levine is looking for, but
"doctrinal/philosophical postures concerning iconoclasm" might include
just about any of the positions made by non-Hayashi-School Confucian and
nativist scholars during the early modern period.

One well-known article with the term "iconoclast" in the title is
Shuichi Kato's "Tominaga Nakamoto, 1715-46: A Tokugawa Iconoclast." (MN
22). This includes an English translation of Tominaga's "Okina no fumi".

E. Herbert Norman (1949) and Yasunaga Toshinobu (1992) have
demonstrated that Ando^ Sho^eki held strongly critical beliefs concerning
the role of the state.

James McMullen, in his _Idealism, Protest, and The Tale of Genji_
(1999), focuses on the protest aspects of Kumazawa Banzan's Confucian

From the Christian perspective, _Deus Destroyed_ (1973) is a good
source for anti-Buddhist diatribes.

Beatrice Bodart-Bailey published "The Persecution of Confucianism in
Tokugawa Japan" in MN 48.3 (1993).

The 18th-century writer Baba Bunko^ (nꕶk, d. 1718-58) was one of
the few writers put to death for his writings critical of the regime.

Finally, while all gesaku could be construed as being iconoclastic,
the yomihon fiction of Ueda Akinari has a strong anti-establishment
flavor to it, whether it is the military regime, the Nara and early Heian
court, or organized religion.

The list goes on to peasant protest, uchikowashi, etc., but I'll stop

Lawrence Marceau

Date: Tue, 10 Jul 2001 15:18:37 -0700
From: Todd Brown
Subject: Re: "Iconoclasm" in Premodern Japan


You're probably already aware of this, but _Shasekishuu_ (1:10) contains an
interesting reference to nenbutsu practitioners who express their exclusive
devotion to Amida by rubbing _tade_ ("smartweed" in Robert Morrell's
translation) on the heads of images of Jizou. The reference is brief and
the precise significance of this act is not made clear, but it is said to
reflect the belief (not shared by Mujuu Ichien, of course) that Buddhist
deities other than Amida are "useless" (_itazuramono_). The fact that the
same passage also discusses related practices, such as throwing copies of
the _Lotus Sutra_ into rivers, may make it useful in situating iconoclasm
per se with respect to other expressions of impiety. (On the other hand, I
suppose one might argue that in the medieval Japanese context, Buddhist
scriptures -- or at least, some scriptures, such as the _Lotus_ -- had
enough in common with religious icons to require that any definition of
"iconoclasm" be sufficiently broad to include their desecration or

A rather different but perhaps relevant phenomenon is the conversion of
statues of other Buddhas into statues of Amida by removing their hands or
fingers and replacing them with new ones positioned in _mudra_ associated
with Amida. Though as a rule this was probably not intended as
"iconoclastic" by those who did it, it certainly struck at least one
observer as blasphemous -- in his _Risshou ankoku ron_, Nichiren excoriates
those guilty of this and other heretical practices inspired by Honen's
teachings for "destroying" the Buddha, the Dharma, and the priesthood.
(_Risshou ankoku ron_, T. no. 2688, 84:207b9-14; this passage is translated
in p. 35-36 of Philip Yampolsky's _Selected Writings of Nichiren_).
Nichiren's comments may also be of use in your search for an indigenous
lexicon for "iconoclasm" and for information on how iconoclasm was
perceived. The work is a polemic and the passage in question contains a
certain amount of hyperbole (the practices corresponding to "the
destruction of the Dharma" and "the destruction of the priesthood" are
copying the Pure Land sutras instead of the _Lotus_ and substituting
lectures on Shan-tao's writings for lectures on Chih-i's). Nonetheless,
Nichiren's identification of the image with the deity depicted (he writes
not of those who modify statues, but of those who "cut off Shaka's hands
and fingers") was certainly not unique, and I suspect that he would not
have been alone in equating the desecration of a statue of Sakyamuni with
the "destruction of the Buddha" (_habutsu_) himself.

I hope these references will be of at least some use to you (and won't
reach you only after a dozen or so other PMJS subscribers supply the same
information). This is a fascinating topic, and I look forward to the
results of your research.

Todd Brown

Date: Wed, 11 Jul 2001 09:46:06 -0500
From: Keller Kimbrough
Subject:"Iconoclasm" in Premodern Japan

Hello Everyone,

Todd Brown's description of the "conversion" (mutilation) of Buddhist
images to "make them Amida" reminded me of a point that Ikegami Jun'ichi
makes in his kaisetsu to the setsuwa anthology _Sangoku denki_ ("Chusei no
bungaku" series, Miyai Shoten, 1982, vol. 2, p. 3-8). Manuscripts in the
woodblock-printed _Sangoku denki_ textual line contain strong Pure Land
elements that the National Library text does not. Ikegami argues that
these discrepancies--including, for example, substitutions of Amida for
Shakyamuni, the Three Pure Land Sutras for the Lotus Sutra, and chanting of
the nenbutsu for copying out the Lotus Sutra--are the result of a pro-Pure
Land copyist's attempt to subvert the original, largely Tendai-Lotus tone
of the anthology. Like the physical alteration of statues, this kind of
textual disfigurement may or may not constitute iconoclasm, depending on
how broadly one defines the term.

Keller Kimbrough

return to archive index | top pmjs index

complete as of 2001/07/16