A young voice speaks up for Buddhist sculpture

by Kenichi Okumura, Yomiuri Shimbun, Apr 9, 2009

NARA, Japan -- A young woman dubbed "Butsuzo girl" because of her decision to devote her life to promoting the interesting aspects of Buddhist statues spoke about the origins of her passion--uncommon for a person of her age--during a public lecture held in late March at the Nara National Museum in Nara.

Ikumi Hirose, 29, of Yokohama, even refers to herself as Butsuzo girl, which literally means a young female who cherishes Buddhist statues.

Hirose told a packed audience of about 200, which included more than a few young faces: "I'm not a researcher, priest or Buddhist sculptor. I'm just fond of Buddhist statues."

Explaining how she became Butsuzo girl, Hirose recalled how after her father died while she was in her third year of middle school, she embarked on a period of rebellious behavior as she dealt with her sense of loss.

Two years after her father's passing, she visited Sanjusangendo temple in Kyoto. Upon seeing the 1,000 statues of the icon Senju Kannon, literally meaning 1,000-armed Kannon but which actually has 42 arms, her eyes suddenly flooded with tears.

"I was overwhelmed by the fact that those statues were only in front of me because of the people who made and then renovated, protected and worshiped them over a long period of time. I felt their existence was like a miracle," she said.

Hirose then enrolled in Sophia University, where she studied Buddhist art. "I learned about ancient Japanese culture by using English texts. Somehow, that method was nice and easy for me. It suited me well," she told the audience.

As an example of the benefits of studying in her second language, she cited a well-known Buddhist statue at Koryuji temple in Kyoto.

"The English explanation of the statue is plain and simple. It says, 'The statue thinks of how to save us.' On the other hand, the Japanese version is much more complicated and makes heavy use of jargon," she said.

It was in May 2007 that Hirose realized she wanted to devote her entire life to Buddhist statues. Since then, she has appeared several times on TV, published a book and used the Internet to disseminate her ideas.

She is currently touring all 47 prefectures in the nation in the hope of visiting as many Buddhist statues as possible and meeting other people who share her interest.

Maho and Yuki Wada, sisters of Oyodocho, Nara Prefecture, attended the event and, like Hirose, they enjoy visiting temples to worship Buddhist statues.

Maho, a 23-year-old graphic designer, said: "The look of the statues differs according to the time they were made. The more I know about those differences, the better I feel I can communicate with the statues."

Yuki, a 21-year-old college student studying art, confessed to having fallen in love with Taishaku-ten at Toji temple in Kyoto, saying: "I collect posters of the Taishaku-ten whenever I go to the temple. I also hang them at the college around my work space. My friends ask me to get rid of them."

Following Hirose's lecture, she was joined on stage by Atsushi Nishiyama, a renowned researcher at the museum who specializes in Buddhist art.

Together they introduced the audience to scores of their favorite Buddhist statues, displaying pictures on a large screen as they explained the reasons for their affection. They grouped the statues into four categories: nyorai, bosatsu, myoo and ten.

Nyorai statues represent the successful attainment of enlightenment, and Nishiyama offered Yakushi Nyorai (the Buddha of medicine and healing) at Yakushiji temple in Nara as a favorite example.

"The statue is perfectly shaped. My mother, who never knew her father, said she felt as if he was present when she stood in front of the statue," he said.

As for bosatsu, which guide people toward enlightenment, Hirose recommended the 11-faced Kannon Bosatsu at Kogenji temple in Shiga Prefecture. She told of a local legend that says the statue was hidden underground in the 16th century by local residents eager to protect it after medieval warlord Oda Nobunaga burned down Enryakuji temple, located across Lake Biwa from the temple.

Hirose said that, more so than in other museums, she often finds people praying at Buddhist statues kept inside the Nara National Museum. Nishiyama joked that perhaps the museum takes better care of the statues than did the temples where they were first held.

Mieko Nakamura, a 49-year-old former piano teacher of Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, said after attending the event: "I was fascinated with the Ashura statue of Kofukuji temple when I saw it at an exhibition in 2007.

"Since then, I've come to the temple a few times a month to worship the statue, and I've started learning about other Buddhist statues. It's great to rediscover Buddhism and Japanese tradition in general at my age."