Here and There :

Here and There introduces art, artists, galleries and museums around Japan that non-Japanese readers and first-time visitors may find of particular interest. The writer claims no art expertise, just a subjective viewpoint acquired over many years' residence in Japan.

Demons and Demigods: Ashura at the Tokyo National Museum
Alan Gleason
Ashura, 734 (Nara period), Kohfukuji, Nara Close-up of the front face of Ashura Close-up of Karura (Garuda), one of the Hachi Bushu (Eight Classes of Guardian Deities), 734 (Nara period), Kohfukuji, Nara

Since its construction in 710, the Main Hall, or Chukondo, of Nara's Kohfukuji Temple has burned down and been rebuilt seven times. Miraculously, a number of priceless Buddhist sculptures were rescued each time and survive today. To celebrate its 1300th anniversary next year, Kohfukuji is currently restoring the Chukondo to its original specifications; meanwhile, the temple's astonishing collection of statues -- all designated as national treasures -- is on display at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park until June 7, 2009.

The centerpiece of the exhibition -- and its relentlessly hyped image -- is the three-headed, six-armed statue of an Ashura, one of the "Eight Classes" (Hachi Bushu) of Buddhist guardian deities. Touted as one of Japan's best known and most beloved Buddhist sculptures (there is even an Ashura Fan Club counting various celebrities among its members), the Ashura dates back to 734. Though the other seven classes of deities are also represented here, the Ashura gets its very own hall, where it stands on a center dais around which hordes of visitors circumambulate clockwise, spurred on by vigilant museum staff (there is no glass barrier shielding the statue from the adoring throngs).

The hubbub about "Japan's Venus de Milo" notwithstanding, the Ashura is a lovely, and lovingly preserved, work. Made of dry lacquer, its arms and torso are slender, even feminine, in contrast to the uniformly stocky, armored figures of the other seven guardians that make up the set. Ashura's three faces, particularly the central one facing front, are also more subtly expressive than those of their brethren.

Yakuo Bosatsu, the "Medicine King" Bodhisattva, 1202 (Kamakura period), Kohfukuji, Nara
Jikokuten (Dhritarashtra),
one of the Shitenno (Four Deva Kings), 1189 (Kamakura period), Kohfukuji, Nara

In Buddhist mythology the Ashura are guardians of the Dharma, but they have a checkered past. Originating with the Aryans, whose Ahura were the highest-level divinities (e.g. the Zoroastrians' Ahura Mazda), the Asura of Hindu mythology fell from grace and were viewed as a type of quarrelsome demon, constantly fighting with the more godly Devas. Though rehabilitated by the Buddhists in China and Korea before emigrating to Japan, the Ashura are still a rung below humans on the spiritual scale and are known for their anger and violent behavior, which consigns them to the same endless cycle of rebirth as humans. Indeed, an Ashura's two side-faces typically display anger while the front face reveals a more complex expression of hubris and suffering. In a nutshell, Ashura may be the most human of Buddhist deities, which could explain the adulation this statue inspires.

The museum has illuminated all of the Kohfukuji statuary in a most flattering manner. Particularly beautiful is the lighting that bathes the huge statues of the Four Deva Kings (Shitenno), which share a hall with two equally impressive Bodhisattvas of medicine, the siblings Yakuo and Yakujo Bosatsu. All of these were carved at the end of the 12th century to replace a set that had been lost in yet another fire, casualties of the civil wars of that era. Perhaps reflecting the turbulent times in which they were created, the Deva Kings are more powerfully wrought -- and if anything, more fierce and warlike -- than the venerable Ashura.

All images courtesy of the Tokyo National Museum
The National Treasure Ashura and Masterpieces from Kohfukuji
Tokyo National Museum
13-9 Ueno Park, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Phone: 03-5405-8686
Open 9:30-5:00 (last admission 4:30), closed Mondays and December 28 - January 1
Transportation: 10 minutes walk from Ueno or Uguisudani Station on the JR Yamanote Line
Alan Gleason
Alan Gleason is a translator, editor and writer based in Tokyo, where he has lived for 25 years. In addition to writing about the Japanese art scene he has edited and translated works on Japanese theater (from kabuki to the avant-garde) and music (both traditional and contemporary).