Art

There are gods behind the Idemitsu Museum of Arts

by Rei Sasaguchi

Special To The Japan Times

“Revere gods and love people” was the motto of Sazo Idemitsu (1885-1981), the founder of Idemitsu Kosan Co., Ltd., and he literally followed it his entire life.

In 1942, Idemitsu, a native of the Munakata area of Fukuoka Prefecture, led the Munakata Shrine Fukko Kiseikai (Restoration Committee) and was instrumental in restoring the grand shrine’s buildings, which were by that point in a derelict state. So much work was involved that it was not until 1971 that it was ready to revive the tradition of receiving worshippers.

Now the Idemitsu Museum of Arts in Tokyo is holding an exhibition of 106 artifacts from the Munakata Grand Shrine, including many national treasures, alongside others excavated on the island of Okinoshima. The exhibition is the legacy of Idemitsu, who devoted his life to restoring the shrine prominence.

The Munakata Grand Shrine consists of three smaller shrines dedicated to different Shinto deities: Okitsugu on Okinoshima, which enshrines the image of the goddess Tagorihime; Nakatsugu on the island of Oshima, dedicated to Tagitsuhime; and Hetsugu, the main shrine at Tashima in Munakata City, dedicated to Ichikishimahime. Together, the goddesses were believed to protect ocean traffic in ancient Japan, when Munakata and the Sea of Genkai were important transport routes to the Korean Peninsula and China. Legend has it that these three deities were born of Susanoo-no-Mikoto, god of the sea and storms, and their births are mentioned in the ancient records of the “Kojiki” and “Nihon Shoki.”

Idemitsu invested time and money into the Munakata project, sponsoring three research programs on Okinoshima between 1954 and 1971. The excavations on the island, which took place at 23 sites known to be areas where local gods were celebrated, unearthed around 80,000 objects, all of which were likely offerings to the gods on festive occasions.

Dating from the fourth to the ninth century, the artifacts, now part of the Munataka Grand Shrine’s collection, are rich in variety, hailing from Japan, China, Korea and Persia (now Iran). Some of the most exciting to see include a large, circular bronze mirror with an intricate geometric design from the Kofun Period (250-552); a simple but beautiful Silla Korean gold ring (57 B.C.-A.D. 935) and a pair of gilt-bronze dragon heads from Eastern Wei Period China (534-550).

Perhaps there’s more to Idemitsu’s words than a simple saying: His devotion to the Munakata Grand Shrine rewarded him well, not only with a vast and fascinating collection, but through his development as a successful, culturally aware businessman and through the legacy he left for his successors. The Munakata deities must be watching even now.

“National Treasures of the Munakata Shrine” at Idemitsu Museum of Arts runs till Oct. 13; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 7 p.m.). ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.idemitsu.co.jp/museum

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