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Views Japan’s Holy Places
A Clean Bill of Health for Kamakura’s Great Buddha

Waku Miller [Profile]


Evoking Japanese aspirations of national renewal on the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake is the newly refreshed visage of Kamakura’s Daibutsu, or Great Buddha. The iconic sculpture recently underwent nearly two months of diagnostic inspections, minor repairs, and inside-and-out cleaning at the hands of the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo. It emerged on March 11 with a clean bill of health and with a redoubled radiance.

“We really didn’t know what to expect,” explains Morii Masayuki (39), a senior researcher at the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo, who headed the diagnostics, repair, and cleaning project. “The Buddha is some 760 years old and has been sitting outside for more than 500 years, exposed to salty sea breezes, continual seismic shaking, bird droppings, and—in recent decades—to acid rain and vibration from nearby vehicle traffic.

Morii Masayuki overseeing the Kamakura Daibutsu project. Following the March 11 disaster, he also commuted to Fukushima Prefecture to supervise post-earthquake restoration work at a site famed for its stone Buddhas.

“So we knew who the main villains were. But we didn’t know how much mischief they had caused. We were therefore happy to discover that the Buddha was structurally sound and that the corrosion was largely benign.”

Kamakura’s Great Buddha evokes, to be precise, the Amitābha Buddha (Amida Butsu), revered especially by adherents of the Pure Land Buddhist sects. Those teachings hold that rebirth in paradise—the “pure land”—awaits believers who take refuge in Amitābha. They admonish the believers to attain salvation by reciting the Buddha’s name repeatedly. In Japanese, that becomes the chant “Namu Amida Butsu, Namu Amida Butsu . . .” (Ah, Amitābha Buddha . . .).

We need to understand the famously beatific visage of Kamakura’s Daibutsu in the context of Amitābha’s embrace of the faithful. The visage’s March 11 re-emergence is a moving commemoration of the more than 16,000 lives lost in the 2011 quake and tsunami. Its auspicious timing, however, was apparently serendipitous. The Daibutsu stands—or, rather, sits—on the grounds of the temple Kōtoku-in. And Kōtoku-in’s chief priest, Satō Takao (52), insists that the timing was “simply how things worked out in the work scheduling.”

A Paucity of Historical Evidence

Our knowledge of the history of Kamakura’s Daibutsu relies on historical documentation that is remarkably sparse. The Azuma kagami (Mirror of the East), a thirteenth-century account of the Kamakura period (1185–1333), reports that work on the Daibutsu began in 1252. But we lack any historical documentation of the date of the completion of the statue or, for that matter, of the identity of the sculptor.

Morii’s observation that the Daibutsu has resided outdoors for “more than 500 years” jibes with historical accounts while indirectly acknowledging their paucity. We know that Kamakura’s Daibutsu originally resided indoors, like the even larger Daibutsu at the temple Tōdaiji in Nara. But we lack any historical documentation about when it lost its protective shelter for good.

The late-fourteenth-century historical epic Taiheiki reports that the Kamakura Daibutsu’s shelter collapsed in a typhoon in 1334. And the sixteenth-century chronicle Kamakura dainikki mentions the destruction of the housing by a typhoon in 1369 and by an earthquake and tsunami in the late 1490s. The latter mention, though, is questionable. A 1486 entry in a poetry collection by the Zen monk Banri Shūkyū, Baika mujinzō, describes the Daibutsu as sitting outdoors and unsheltered.

A Beloved Presence

“This [diagnostics, repair, and cleaning] project was a powerful reminder,” marvels Morii, “of just how much the Daibutsu means to the Japanese. The media devoted extensive coverage to the project. And visitors kept streaming into Kōtoku-in to have a look, even though they knew that the Daibutsu was under wraps.”

The Daibutsu’s diagnostic and repair work took place from January 13 to the end of February, 2016. The Daibutsu then received a thorough cleaning, and the last of the scaffolding came down on March 10.

That at least most visitors knew that the Daibutsu was “under wraps” is a tribute to conscientious efforts by Kōtoku-in and the community. The temple’s well-maintained website carried a prominent notice about the project, and Kōtoku-in waived the customary ¥200 entrance fee while the Daibutsu was out of view. Asking directions at any shop en route invariably elicited the caution, “But you won’t be able to see the Daibutsu.” Yet still they came.

Satō Takao, the chief priest of Kōtoku-in. Apart from his work at the temple, Satō serves as a professor at Keiō University, where his teaching and research center on ethnology and archaeology.

“People seem to feel the presence of the Daibutsu,” observes Satō, “even when they can’t see it with their eyes.” Morii agrees. “They just want to get close,” he notes. “It’s more than a matter seeing something.” Satō adds that the sense of touch is also important in experiencing the Daibutsu.

“Our open-door policy in allowing visitors inside the Daibutsu comes up in connection with our national treasure designation,” says Satō. “The government administrators of the national treasure program take a dim view of that access. They point to the graffiti and the chewing gum that thoughtless visitors leave on the walls. And they argue that we should stop letting people inside.

“I insist, however, on keeping the door open. Access to the interior is especially important for sight-impaired visitors. Placing hands on the bronze and feeling the winter cold or the summer heat makes for incredibly intimate interaction with the Daibutsu. I’d never sacrifice that just to spare us the chore of removing chewing gum and graffiti.”

A History of Graffiti

To be sure, chewing gum and graffiti are an appalling indictment of disgraceful behavior, albeit by a minuscule minority of visitors. “We found and removed more than a dozen pieces of chewing gum,” sighs Morii. “We also removed some graffiti. The stuff written with felt pens is pretty easy to remove with alcohol. Curiously, the stuff in chalk and in sumi ink is all but impossible to remove. Of course, we could sandblast it off, but that would damage the bronze. And that would run counter to our policy of preserving the Daibutsu as it is.”

Graffiti, sad to say, has a long history at Kōtoku-in. Witness the following account by the English sea captain John Saris, who commanded the first English ship to reach Japan. Saris’s ship, the Clove, docked in Hirado in June 1613, and Saris subsequently traveled to Edo, where he met with the retired shōgun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and the current shōgun, Tokugawa Hidetada. Escorting Saris was the Englishman William Adams, celebrated in the book and television miniseries Shogun. Adams had arrived 13 years earlier, but he had traveled as the navigator on a Dutch ship.

The Countrey betwixt Surnunga and Edoo is well inhabited. We saw many Fotoquise (hotokes, Buddhas) or Temples as we passed, and amongst others an Image of especiall note, called Dabis (Daibutsu), made of Copper, being hollow within, but of a very substantiall thickness. It was in height, as we ghessed, from the ground about one and twentie or two and twentie foot, in the likenesse of a man kneeling upon the ground, with his buttockes resting on his heeles, his arms of wondefull largenesse, and the whole body proportionable. He is fashioned wearing of a Gowne. This Image is much reverenced by Travellers as they passe there. Some of our people went into the bodie of it, and hoope and hallowed, which made an exceeding great noyse. We found many Characters and Markes made uon it by Passengers, whom some of my Followers imitated, and made theirs, in like manner.

The Voyage of Captain John Saris to Japan, 1613
Edited by Sir Ernest M. Satow

The sumi-ink graffiti, applied with brushes, is something of a mystery. Visitors in any era would not ordinarily have been carrying ink and brushes. Morii suspects that Kōtoku-in provided the materials to visitors in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and encouraged them to sign their names inside the Buddha in exchange for a donation.

Satō denies that anyone at the temple would have encouraged graffiti under any guise. But he acknowledges that his predecessors had a difficult time making ends meet and that they relied heavily in income from visitors. “Kamakura was a popular daytrip destination,” reflects Satō, “for residents in Yokohama’s foreign enclave. The foreigners couldn’t travel into Tokyo without permission, but they were free to move about at will between Yokohama and Kamakura. And the Daibutsu was, of course, a favorite stop.”

Daytrips to Kamakura were a favored pastime for residents of Yokohama’s foreign enclave in the late nineteenth century. © Kōtoku-in

Today, Kōtoku-in and the Daibutsu attract some 2 million visitors a year, and non-Japanese account for about 200,000 of the total. “The Daibutsu is especially popular,” reports Satō, “with visitors from the Theravada Buddhist nations of Thailand and Myanmar.”

Joseph Rudyard Kipling also drew a connection between Myanmar and the Kamakura Daibutsu in his poem “Buddha at Kamakura.” A verse in that work, which Kipling included in the collection The Five Nations, refers to Yangon’s glorious Shwedagon Pagoda (“Shwe-Dagon”) and to its htee gilded top piece.

Till drowsy eyelids seem to see
A-flower ’neath her golden htee
The Shwe-Dagon flare easterly
From Burmah to Kamakura

  • [2016.03.11]

Writer and translator. Has published several English translations of Japanese nonfiction, including Matsutani Akihiko’s demographic wake-up call, Shrinking-Population Economics, and Ishikawa Kyuyoh’s iconoclastic history and theory of East Asian calligraphy, Taction. He has also published an English translation of a book-length work by the prominent poet Fujiwara Akiko, Pho to n. In Japanese, he published in 2015 a collection of 13 interviews with leading authorities on socioeconomic issues in contemporary Japan.

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