Art and Religion in Middle Ages Japan 中世日本における芸術と宗教

(Kamo no Chōmei, Wiki commons)

In medieval Japan it was thought that there were three Buddhist periods. The last of these was mappō an age of degeneration and lawlessness. This was thought to have started in Japan in 1051.

The belief in mappō was reinforced through a series of natural disasters and political upheaval.

Kamo no Chōmei described some of these calamities in his 1212 work, An Account of a Ten-Foot-Square Hut (Hōjōki). Namely, he mentions a major fire in which 1/3 of the capital burned down in 1177, a great whirlwind in 1180, famine from 1181-2, and a tremendous earthquake not long thereafter. When the dust settled from these events, Chōmei wrote that “the corpses of people who had starved to death lay along the earthen walls, and in the streets, their numbers were beyond reckoning" (Shirane, 627).

These natural disasters seemed a prelude to the political upheaval to come. Namely, in the late 12th century Fujiwara rule began to disintegrate and war broke out between the Taira (Heike) and Minamoto (Genji) clans.

The Minamoto emerged victorious and moved the capital to Kamakura where they established a military government (bakufu). Yet in 1333, the capital shifted back to Kyoto in the Muromachi region, and this time the Ashikaga family took power.

The period was bookmarked by further disaster and general state of lawlessness when the Ashikaga lost their tenuous grip on power, setting off the Onin War (1467-1477) and ushering in the Warring States (Sengoku) Period.

Religion helped many people explain and bear through the many disasters and changes of the aforementioned centuries. As in the Heian Era, Buddhism continued to play a prominent role in people’s daily lives. However, in addition to the Tendai sect, many new denominations emerged. The Kamakura bakufu was especially fond of Zen Buddhism, which mainly stressed contemplation and the idea that enlightenment could be found within oneself. However, many similarly universalistic sects flourished as well. Foremost among these are the Pure Land sect (Jōdō-shū) and Nichiren Buddhism.

Pure Land Buddhism, founded by Hōnen (1133-1212), stressed faith in the Buddha Amida and claimed that believers could gain salvation by chanting the nenbutsu, meaning “I put my faith in Amida Buddha” (namu amida butsu). This was expounded upon by Hōnen’s disciple, Shinran (1173-1263), who founded The True Teaching of the Pure Land (Jōdō shinshū). (Asia for educators)

See an example of Shinran’s famous thesis here.

(A portrait of Nichiren with his mantra namu myōhō renge kyō hanging above him, Wiki commons)

Nichiren Buddhism also began during this time. Named for its founder, Nichiren (1222-1282), the school stressed that belief in the Lotus Sutra was the only true path to salvation. Nichiren and his followers were militant and exclusivist, and they attempted to suppress other Buddhist sects in favor of their own. Nichiren also thought prophesized that natural disasters and political problems were the result of failure to properly adhere to his teachings. In his sermon “On Establishing the Correct Teaching and Pacifying the State (1250), he wrote: “If people favor perverse doctrines and forget what is correct, can the benevolent deities be anything but angry?” (Asia for educators)

See an example of Nichiren’s writing here.

The many natural disasters, political upheavals, and religious transformations of the middle ages were reflected in the arts as well.

Kamo no Chōmei’s aforementioned work is one notable example. In addition to the natural calamities he described, Chōmei also lived through the warring between the Taira and Minamoto clans. These traumatic events confirmed for Chōmei the transitivity of life. In the famous opening passages to his work, he wrote “the current of the flowing river does not cease, and yet the water is not the same water as before. The foam that floats on stagnant pools, now vanishing, now forming, never stays the same for long. So, too, it is with the people and dwellings of the world. […] We are like the foam on the water” (Shirane, 624). Seeking to leave the secular world of troubles and suffering behind him, Chōmei retreated to the mountains outside of Kyoto where he lived in a small hut that faced west (Pure Land Buddhism); inside hung painted portraits of Amida Buddha and Fugen, as well as a copy of the Lotus Sutra.

Read a sample of Kamo no Chōmei's writing here and watch a short video clip about the writing here

Read Kamo no Chōmei’s An Account of a Ten-Foot-Square Hut (Hōjōki) in Shirane, Haruo. Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600. Columbia University Press, 2012 and answer the following questions about the story.

  1. Describe Kamo no Chōmei's personal background.
  2. How does Chōmei describe the impermanence of all things in the story? Give examples with specific passages.
  3. Describe the various disasters that Chōmei indicates. How does he use them to illustrate his point?
  4. What messages does Chōmei conclude from the various disasters he has witnessed/experienced?
  5. Describe Chōmei's hut. What is the construction like and what items does he have with him in the residence? How do these things illustrate his values and ideas, especially those that are also reflected in his message in the story?
  6. Describe Chōmei's relationship with the people of the capital/outside world? How do they relate to each other?
  7. What are Chōmei's feelings and outlooks at the end of the text?

(A nō theater performance, from The Japan Times)

Another example was theater performances. Nō was mainly developed from earlier forms of acting such as sarugaku and dengaku. It was pioneered by Kan’ami (1333-1384) and his son, Zeami (1363?-1443?). Kan’ami’s talent attracted the attention of the third Ashikaga shogun, Yoshimitsu, who began to patronize the art form and Kan’ami’s troop. Eventually his attention shifted to the younger Zeami, who wrote over forty nō plays (Shirane, 917-19). The heavy Buddhist themes in the plays are immediately apparent. One of the main characters, for example, is nearly always a Buddhist monk or priest. On their travels, the monk/priest also typically meets a spirit/ghost/deity who is struggling to achieve enlightenment. Through the telling of the story and the faith of the monk/priest, the spirit is usually able to achieve this goal by the end. In the play Atsumori, for instance, two famous characters and former enemies from the Tale of the Heike remerge on the stage, one as a monk, the other as a spirit. In the play, the monk, Renshō, prays for the spirit, Atsumori, and once they both are able to forgive each other, they can find enlightenment.

Renshō: I shall do holy rites, and through the night
Call aloud the Name for Atsumori,
praying that he reach enlightenment,
praying that he reach enlightenment (Shirane, 987).

Watch a lecture from Donald Keene and Haruo Shirane on nō performance here. You can also see a full performance of the play Aoi no ue here and one of Adachi ga hara here. For those in a hurry, there are summaries of may nō plays at The

Read an example of a nō play from either the Japanese Text Initiative or The and then answer the following questions.

  1. Who are the characters in the play and what are their historical backgrounds?
  2. Describe the play briefly. What happens?
  3. How does the play make use of religious symbolism and elements including from Pure Land Buddhism and the idea of the impermanence of all things?
  4. What other symbolism (esp. things of cultural and historical significance) can you find in the play?
  5. Is there a message to the play? If so, what do you think it is?

Works Cited

Shirane, Haruo. Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600. Columbia University Press, 2012.

University of Columbia. East Asia for Educators. 2009.

University of Virginia. Japanese Text Initiative. “Nō Plays.” Dec. 14, 1997.

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