Asuka period (538–710 C.E.): The introduction of Buddhism
The Asuka period is Japan’s first historical period, different from the prehistoric periods because of the introduction of writing via Korea and China. With the Chinese written language also came standardized measuring systems, currency in the form of coins, and the practice of recording history and current events. Standardization and record-keeping also encouraged the crystallization of a centralized, bureaucratic government, modeled on the Chinese.
All this was imported when a new religion—Buddhism—was introduced in Japan, significantly changing Japanese culture and society. Unlike Japan’s indigenous “way of the gods” (Shintō), Buddhism had anthropomorphic representations of deities. After the introduction of Buddhism, we see a shift in the visual and material culture of Shintō. If, before Buddhism, Shintō gods were associated with sacred objects such as mirrors and swords (the imperial insignia), after the introduction of the new religion they began to be represented in anthropomorphic images, although such images were hidden in the inner sanctuaries of Shintō shrines.
By the time Buddhism reached Japan, it had spread from India to China and had undergone several changes in imagery and styles. In Japan, Buddhism profoundly influenced indigenous culture, but it was equally shaped by it, resulting in new forms and modes of expression. The imperial household embarked on major Buddhist commissions. One of the earliest and most spectacular is a temple in Nara, Hōryūji or the “temple of flourishing law.” The founding of Hōryūji is attributed to the ailing emperor Yomei, who died before seeing the temple completed; Yomei’s consort, empress Suiko, and regent Prince Shōtoku (574–622) carried out the late emperor’s wishes. Given the influence of empress Suiko’s Buddhist patronage, the Asuka period is also referred to as the Suiko period. Prince Shōtoku, too, is celebrated as one of the earliest champions of Buddhism in Japan. In fact, a century after his death, he began to be worshipped as an incarnation of the historical Buddha.
Like the enduring legend and legacy of Prince Shōtoku, Hōryūji has had a long and complex life well past the Asuka Period. With structures that vanished in fires and earthquakes as early as the 7th century to the temple’s pagoda that was dismantled and reassembled during World War II, Hōryūji underwent numerous changes and its buildings currently date from the Asuka period to the late 16th century! A complex site with some of the world’s oldest wooden structures, Hōryūji exemplifies ancient Japanese architectural techniques and strategies, including the slight midpoint bulging of round columns, which has been compared to the similar practice of entasis in ancient Greek architecture.
Hōryūji houses one of the best known, albeit mysterious, Buddhist representational sculptures of the Asuka period—the so-called Kudara Kannon 百済観音, a slim and life-size image of the bodhisattva of compassion, sculpted in camphor wood. The first cultural property in Japan to be designated as a “national treasure,” this sculpture first appeared in Japanese records in the 17th century. The “Kudara” in its name, assigned well after the Asuka period, is the Japanese term for Baekje, one of the three historical kingdoms of Korea. The sculpture’s astounding grace derives from its slight smile, slim frame, and flowing lines.
Hōryūji was not the only major temple developed in the Asuka period. When the capital was transferred from Asuka to Nara, a temple known as Hōkōji was relocated as well. In its new location, the temple grew significantly under the name of Gangōji. One of the temple’s treasures is the Asuka daibutsu 飛鳥大仏 or the Great Buddha of Asuka—a devotional image that testifies to the early Buddhist representational tradition in Japan. It is also the oldest of the daibutsu or ‘great Buddhas’—large sculptural devotional images of the Buddha.
Of the original, cast in 609 and attributed to a sculptor of Korean descent, only the face and the fingers of the right hand remain. These details, however, reveal the Chinese-inspired style of Tori Busshi, with soft features, smooth surfaces, and simple and elegant lines.
The late Asuka period, also referred to as the Hakuhō period (late 7th century), saw a momentous transformation of Japanese society, prompted by the so-called Taika reforms. Implemented after the death of Prince Shōtoku, these reforms were modeled on the Chinese system of government and led to a greater centralization of Japanese imperial power. In the realm of Buddhist sculpture, the Hakuhō period marked a rapid expansion and dissemination of Buddhist imagery across Japan. Full-bodied sculptures, like the four Heavenly Kings at Hōryūji, are more visually assertive than the Kudara Kannon and announce the influence of Tang-dynasty Chinese culture. In that, the Hakuhō period can also be considered the first segment of the subsequent era—the Nara period.
For information on other periods in the arts of Japan, see the longer introductory essays here:
JAANUS, an online dictionary of terms of Japanese arts and architecture
e-Museum, database of artifacts designated in Japan as national treasures and important cultural properties
On Japan in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Richard Bowring, Peter Kornicki, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Japan (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993)