Thailand shared its precious artefacts with Japan last year, and now it's our turn to see how Buddhism rose with the Rising Sun
MORE THAN 6,000 years of Japanese ways of life and religious beliefs are on view until February 18 at the National Museum Bangkok, in an exhibition that completes a long-planned cultural exchange between our countries.
Like its predecessors – the “Land of Buddha” exhibitions of Thai artefacts that drew 200,000 visitors to museums in Tokyo and Kyushu – “The History of Japanese Art: Life and Faith” commemorates 130 years of diplomatic relations between the nations.
That figure is echoed in the number of precious artefacts assembled for each exhibition. In the case of the current Japanese show, they date from prehistory to the Edo Period of the early 17th century.
The evolution of Buddhist art in Japan is illustrated with sacred and historical statues, all part of an exhibition marking 130 years of diplomatic relations with Thailand.
There are earthen pottery, sculptures, paintings and other forms of fine art reflecting the uniqueness of Japanese beliefs and traditions. Three items are classified as national treasures and another 25 as “important cultural properties”.
Museum director Phnombootra Chandrajoti says Japanese and Thai researchers worked closely to select the artefacts that best represented their countries’ histories and the cultural relationship between them.
“The collection we loaned to Japan last year was the largest of its kind. It included an elaborately carved door from Wat Suthat and invaluable gold objects from Wat Ratchaburana.”
The exhibition from Japan occupies the recently renovated Siwamokkhaphiman Hall, which boasts an open plan and beautiful high ceilings.
Phnombootra says Japanese and Thai experts spent 18 months installing humidity and temperature controls, suitable lighting and secure glass cabinets.
The government’s Fine Arts Department has devoted several years to returning the buildings within the museum compound to their former glory. It was formerly Wang Na Palace, erected in 1782, about the same time the Grand Palace was built.
Siwamokkhaphiman Hall, which served as the viceroys’ throne hall, is the first structure to be renovated. Work is underway on two more.
A prehistoric earthen Dogu figurine
“As an historical building, the hall is subject to relatively high humidity,” says museum curator Wiparat Praditarchip. “Except for the glass cabinets set out in a ‘U’ shape around the hall, the rest of the cabinets are new and designed specially to hold priceless works. They’re fitted with controls to maintain the humidity at 55 to 60 per cent and the temperature at 25 degrees Celsius.”
Phnombootra says Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn viewed the exhibition in Tokyo last year.
“She pointed out to us how the Japanese pay so much attention to detail in displaying priceless antiquities. Every artefact was placed on a sheet of unbleached wood wrapped in unbleached paper, then on a base to prevent any chemical damage or discoloration. We’ve used the same technique, except that we’ve used unbleached fabric instead of paper.”
The exhibition covers five general topics.
“The Dawn of Japanese Art” has prehistoric artworks created long before Buddhism arrived from China and Korea.
The oldest piece is an earthenware vessel dating to the Jomon Period (14,000-300 BCE). Its elaborate decoration – flames are depicted – suggests it was used in religious ceremonies and, coming from an area of Niigata Prefecture known for heavy snowfalls, signified human efforts to survive the winter.
A national treasure of Japan, this 11thcentury painting depicts the 16 arhats (perfected persons) of Buddhist lore.
“Every Japanese child is familiar with the Dogu figurine from history textbooks,” says Wiparat of an unglazed clay female statuette also from the Jomon. “It’s one of Japan’s important cultural properties.”
In “Buddhist Art”, bronze statues of Sakayamuni and Buddhist scriptures begin to emerge, originating from Korea and appearing during the mid-sixth-century reign of Emperor Kinmei, which coincided with Siam’s Dvaravati period.
Buddhist art flourished during the Heian period (ninth-13th centuries) as members of the nobility commissioned fine pieces. Two carved wood statues of the Buddha from this period are on display, including the Seated Yakushi Nyorai, which shows Chinese influence, and the Seated Dainichi Nyorai, believed to ward off misfortune.
Wiparat also notes the Seated Nyoirin Kannon Bosatsu, one of the manifestations of Avalokitesvara, depicted with six arms.
“That comes from esoteric Buddhism and is strongly influenced by Indian Buddhism. One of his arms holds the Wheel of Dharma, representing his protection of the world.
“While Japan learned of Buddhism from China and Korea, Thailand got it from Sri Lanka and India. The Japanese selected their most sacred Buddhist statues to show here as a way of blessing Thailand.”
An elaborate hakoseko (pocket purse) from the Edo Period, 19th century
One of the national treasures in the exhibition is an 11th-century painting of the 16 arhats (perfected persons), with bright paint on the reverse of the silk screen lending a gentle sense of colour, and pigments added sporadically to the front for highlights and shadows. The effect is strikingly three-dimensional.
“The historical artefacts made from silk and paper can’t be exhibited longer than four weeks at a time lest they be damaged by humidity or light,” says Phnombootra. “We’ll replace some pieces on January 24 with others of the same significance.”
The next part of the show covers the creativity and invention that flourished under the court aristocracy and the warrior (samurai) class between the Heian and Edo periods (early 17th to late 19th centuries).
A 12th-century sword is embellished with a pattern of long-tailed birds in mother-of-pearl, inlaid on Nashiji lacquer. The handle is wrapped in the skin of a white ray, believed imported from Ayutthaya.
“At the time, deerskin and stingray skin were among Ayutthaya’s chief exports,” says Wiparat.
European-style armour from the 16th century
You can also see European-style armour, including a cuirass lavishly decorated with the Chinese character for “heaven” and a silhouette of Mount Fuji.
There’s a jinbaori – a coat worn over armour – made from yak fur dyed black, and the formal garments of court ladies, pocket purses carried by ladies of the warrior class, and costumes and masks from Noh theatre.
The tea ceremony so deeply associated with Japanese culture dates to around 1,000 years ago, when the custom of drinking tea first took
root, an outcropping of Zen beliefs. Historical utensils used in the tea ceremony are shown.
Finally, Edo culture takes centre stage in the pageant of history as Japan’s cultural centre shifted from Kyoto and Osaka to the city that ultimately became known as Tokyo.
Among the innovations of the era were multicoloured woodblock prints (nishiki-e), among whose practitioners Hokusai is the best known globally.
Limited in their public appearances, women of the time expressed their individuality through fashion, as seen in the gorgeous garments and elaborate combs and hairpins.
THE GLORY OF BELIEF
>> “The History of Japanese Art: Life and Faith” continues through February 18 at the National Museum Bangkok on Na Phrathat Road, next to Thammasat University.
>> It’s open Wednesday through Sunday from 9am to 4pm.
>> Admission is Bt30 (Bt200 for foreigners).
>> Find out more at (02) 224 1333 and the “National Museum Bangkok” page on Facebook.
>> The exhibition is co-organised by the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan, Tokyo National Museum, Kyushu National Museum and the Thai Ministry of Culture’s Fine Arts Department.