A Group of Twelfth-Century Japanese Kami Statues and Considerations of Material Intentionality: Collaborative Research Among Wood Scientists and Art Historians

Mechtild Mertz, Suyako Tazuru, Shirō Itō, Cynthea J. Bogel

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A collaboration and Japanese art statues historians, datingbetween this to the report woodtenth investigates anatomiststo twelfth century now preserved in American, British, Canadian, and Japanese museums and private collections. This is the first article in any language concerning a “group” that at present comprises eighteen wooden icons we place in the genre of shinzō (statues of kami, i.e., divinities). They are related in terms of style, physical features including size and carving technique, and—the impetus for this study—rare wood choices. Some, perhaps all, are related in terms of provenance. A 1930 illustrated catalogue for an exhibition of Shinto statues and objects, the Shinzō shinki zuroku, describes two of the statues as the kami embodiments (shintai) of the historical figures posthumously known as Shōtoku Taishi and his consort. The Catalogue also notes that they are said to have come from a [Shinto] shrine in Izumo (northern Honshu) and are made of Japanese bigleaf magnolia (hōnoki / Magnolia obovata) or possibly ancient kusunoki (camphor wood). Over several years, working closely with institutions and owners—three right up until the month this report was written—wood samples of twelve of the eighteen statues were microscopically tested with the permission of the owners (all but two were tested by authors); four have been carbon-14 dated. The combined results of the tests are astounding. Ten of the twelve are made of magnolia (mokuren-zoku / Magnolia sp.), one of (sumomo-zoku / Prunus sp.), and one of Japanese chestnut (kuri / Castanea crenata). These woods are not as yet recorded for use in shinzō and as such represent a topic worthy of serious study. Carbon-14 dating confirms the dates as circa tenth to eleventh century (for three) and eleventh to twelfth century (for one). In addition to details about the choice of woods this study discusses the shinzō in terms of categorization, iconography, historical definitions and viewpoints, acquisition and provenance, and suggests avenues for further research among scholars and the institutions and individuals who care for the icons today. The authors hope that this article will facilitate further understanding of scientific research such as wood identification and dendrochronology, and its applications to the religious, historical, economic, ecological, and stylistic study of icons.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)127-158
Number of pages32
JournalJournal of Asian Humanities at Kyushu University
Publication statusPublished - 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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