Art

Todaiji's Imperial legacy of treasures beyond counting

by Gary Tegler

NARA — Almost every year since 1946, the treasures of the Shosoin, storehouse of Nara’s famed Todaiji Temple, have been put on display for all to see. These treasures have survived from the eighth century, preserved and protected by both Imperial favor and the unusual structure of the Shosoin, which stands on stilts, so sparing its contents from too much dampness.

Some of the 76 articles in this year’s exhibition — the 53rd — at the Nara National Museum highlight distinctive aspects of the Japanese aesthetic. Others feature motifs and techniques that found their way to Japan from Central Asia via the Silk Road. In this, they document the spread of cultural influences eastward, the particular interest of the collection.

Twenty-two of the artifacts have never before been publicly displayed. Highlights include a document from 757 placing an order for 2,016 ryoof gold dust (about 30 kg) to be used in the gilding of the statue of the Great Buddha at Todaiji; an intricately woven eighth-century pair of socks with ancient Chinese motifs; and a sandalwood armrest used by Emperor Shomu (701-756) and ingeniously inlaid with deer horn.

“These treasures are rare in that they are not archaeological finds but have been handed down and preserved since the eighth century,” said Hiromitsu Washizuka, director of the Nara National Museum.

The treasures are from two main sources. The core collection of some 700 items was donated by Shomu’s widow, Empress Komyo, to the Great Buddha at Todaiji following her husband’s death in 756; the other articles are those transferred to the Shosoin from the Kensakuin, a subtemple of Todaiji.

The property of Todaiji until the Meiji Era, the treasures were then entrusted to the safekeeping of the Imperial Household.

Prior to the end of World War II, only a handful of scholars, priests and members of the Imperial Household were allowed to view the artifacts, and to this day a ceremony is held prior to the annual airing-out of the collection at which a member of the household must be present.

Though the artifacts have been housed in an adjacent concrete building since 1963, the wooden Shosoin structure, a marvel of Nara Period architecture, still stands. When completed in the mid-eighth century, the Shosoin, situated about 300 meters north of the Hall of the Great Buddha at Todaiji, was just one of several repositories built to house the items dedicated by the empress to the Great Buddha.

Moved to their new home in four installments over a period of several years, the items originally included armor and weapons. Most of these, however, were removed from the repositories by troops defending the Imperial family during the Emino Oshikatsu War of 764-765. They were never returned.

“Empress Komyo also donated 70 types of medicine which are inventoried in a document titled ‘Shujuyaku-cho, The Record of Various Medicines,’ ” said Washizuka. “Only 40 types remain, and some researchers have suggested they may still be efficacious.”

Shosoin may house yet more treasures thus far unknown, Washizuka said, explaining that there are thousands of items in the collection, and as many of them are fragments of textiles, their exact number has not yet been ascertained.