An eighth-century lacquered sculpture of Ashura, the Buddhist deity of war, reached superhero status last year when it was taken from Kofukuji Temple in Nara to be displayed at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno, then later at the Kyushu National Museum in Fukuoka.

At both venues, visitors made huge, hourlong lines day after day just to get up close and personal with the famed slim figure with three faces and six hands — and with each face bearing a slightly different, enigmatic and nuanced expression.

The Tokyo show in particular, which ran from March 31 through June 7, drew huge crowds to view the designated National Treasure that was innovatively displayed and lit to be clearly visible from all sides without glass screens. Indeed, with its total attendance of 946,000, the exhibition became something of a social phenomenon in Japan — as well as being the most-viewed museum exhibit in the world in 2009, according to the Art Newspaper.

But what’s behind the sudden Ashura craze?

Certainly Ashura, one of eight guardians of the Buddha, has enjoyed unwavering popularity among templegoers for a long time. But the boom — which continues to this day, as seen in throngs of tourists besieging the newly renovated Kokuhokan (National Treasure Museum) in the precincts of Kofukuji Temple (where that Ashura statue currently resides) — seems to have restored such Buddhist imagery to a lofty standing it has long lacked.

As a result, these ancient statues are now much closer to many people — not just the elderly and the religious who are their traditional fans — but the young and the not-so-Buddhist. In the last few years there has been extensive media coverage in Japan of a new generation of Ashura admirers termed Ashura (Ashura-ers) — in the same way that the early ’90s spawned Shanera (young women decked out in Chanel clothes and accessories) and a decade later it was the post-bubble turn of the Maira (those obsessed with collecting air miles to enjoy the perks).

Certainly, in the case of the current Ashura phenomenon, the boom has in large part been purposefully created — as a high-ranking official of Kofukuji Temple acknowledges.

“It was all part of our 10-year efforts to build a momentum toward the 1,300th anniversary of the founding of the temple (which was built in the same year as Heijokyo, Japan’s first major capital, was established),” Myoshun Tsuji, head priest of the Eastern Golden Hall of the temple, and a mastermind behind the massive publicity surrounding the Ashura statue, said. “We did everything to sow the seeds.”

Included in that PR blitz have been tieups in recent years with media companies; creating an Ashura fan club; and introducing an “Ashura-boy” category in a popular boys’ beauty contest. The temple even launched an iPhone application in March allowing iPhone/iPod users to simply touch their screens in order to enlarge an image of the statue and turn it around to get a 360-degree view.

All of this was done to make the statue — and Kofukuji Temple — more accessible to young people in order to help fund the rebuilding of its Chukondo Hall, which burned down for the seventh time in 1717 and has not been properly restored in the intervening three centuries, Tsuji explained.

“I knew some people might frown on the idea (of turning a Buddhist deity into a touchscreen object),” he said. “But what I feared more was the possibility of people losing interest in us.”

Behind his sense of crisis seems to be the fact that, despite all the attention the temples in Nara have received in the leadup to the 1,300th anniversary, many of them — including famed ones with astoundingly rich cultural traditions — are now on shaky financial ground. Therefore, they find themselves constantly in need of fundraising drives to maintain, repair and restore their properties, said Tsukiko Ogura, an official at the renowned Shin Yakushiji Temple a couple of kilometers from Kintetsu Nara Station.

The temple was founded in 747 by Empress Komyo in an effort to divinely encourage the healthy recovery of her husband, Emperor Shomu, who suffered from an eye ailment. Originally boasting vast grounds that matched those of Todaiji Temple, many of its buildings and sculptures have been lost to fires and thieves. Currently, its main hall with its central Buddhist statue and those of the “12 Heavenly Generals” (11 of them designated National Treasures), are all that Shin Yakushiji Temple has left.

“Having National Treasure status does not mean we get any financial support from the state,” Ogura said, noting that unlike ordinary, community-based temples across Japan, many of those in Nara — because they were originally built by the state — do not hold funerals or have graveyards for followers. Consequently, they must rely entirely on visitors’ entrance fees and donations for their income.

Little has been done over the last 1,200-odd years to conserve the “12 Heavenly Generals,” which are made of clay, Ogura added, noting that, because they are so fragile, they could fall to pieces at any moment. “It’s a miracle that they have survived to this day,” she said.

However, the ephemeral nature of such manmade icons — and the fact that so many have survived for so long — is a strong reminder to us of their enormous power, argues Ikumi Hirose, who goes by her professional name of Butsuzo Girl (Buddhist-statue Girl).

Hirose, 30, who often lectures and writes on the attraction of Buddhist statues across Japan, says she had her awakening during her teens, when she visited the Sanjusangen-do Temple in Kyoto, home of the famed “1,000-armed Kannon.” When she saw the 1,001 golden kannon (goddess of mercy and compassion) there — including the central statue with 1,000 hands — tears streamed down her cheeks, she said. She was overwhelmed, she recalled, by the huge amount of hard work it must have taken so many people through the ages to create and preserve the masterpieces.

Hirose, who has been accorded the title of Cultural Ambassador by the Nara National Museum for her work in spreading her love of Buddhist statues to younger generations, acknowledges that the current boom in the popularity of such statues has to some extent been manufactured through publicity. However, she claims that the boom has sparked a genuine rise in interest in the statues.

“I think the people who are drawn to the statues do feel their power,” she said. “What attracts people about Ashura, for example, are his expressions. Depending on who looks at him, he looks different. To some people he appears to be boyish, while to others he looks like a girl. Some, too, may regard him as being angry, or sad and depressed. Everyone has a different impression of Ashura.

“I once met a woman around the age of 40 who told me that Ashura looked cold. But then she realized, she said, that she herself had looked cold. She was grateful that Ashura made her realize that.”

At the end of the day, nobody knows whether the existing Buddhist statues — and the temples that host them — will survive another millennium, or whether they will suffer the same unfortunate fate as many others, which, over the centuries, have been destroyed by natural calamities or fires — or have been demolished or just left to go to ruin.

However, during this reporter’s recent visit to 1,370-year-old Hasedera Temple, nestled in the mountains of Hatsuse in the southern Nara Prefecture city of Sakurai, many people were seen having silent, private moments alone with the temple’s 10-meter-high wooden kannon statue, which holds a tin wand in one hand and a water vase in the other.

The statue, the temple’s eighth, as it has suffered fire damage seven times in the past, is rich in anecdotes of it “having made all a person’s wishes in this world come true,” said Hiroaki Koda, the temple’s curator.

“To receive a divine message from the kannon, which is usually delivered in people’s dreams at night, many people used to sneak into the main building to stay there through the night,” Koda said. “Others walked around the statue 100 times, believing that doing so would help them realize their wishes.”

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