Exhibition: Tokimune Hōjō

Leaves left by the divine wind

When England was conquered by the Normans in 1066, it was profoundly changed. We might expect the same to have been true in Japan's case if it had fallen to the invading Mongols and their Chinese and Korean auxiliaries in 1274 or 1281. Two things prevented Mongol success. One was the famous kamikaze typhoons, which on each occasion wrecked large sections of the invasion fleets. The other was the unwielding resistance of the Japanese themselves and their leader Tokimune Hōjō (1251-1284). To coincide with the current NHK Sunday night historical series on TV, the Edo Museum Tokyo is staging an exhibition of Kamakura artifacts focused on the heroic events of Tokimune's life.

It is hard to connect emotionally with a period so different from our own. This is especially the case as many of the items and pictures on display seem so worn or faded, or are mere copies. Some original silk paintings with religious themes are now so dim as to appear like vanishing dreams. Another problem, even for Japanese, are the difficult to read scrolls and documents on display. These include everything from official and diplomatic correspondence to diaries and poems. One of the most interesting items is a copy of the letter sent from the court of Kublai Khan in 1268 ‘politely’ demanding tribute from the small island.

Perhaps the most spectacular piece of writing is an original sutra scroll from the brush of Nichiren (1222-1282), one of the great characters of the period. This 1281 scroll in good condition shows the unique calligraphy of the Buddhist monk who was at the forefront of the religious tumult of the period. His kanji in different sizes with long, sweeping brushstrokes that cut across each other, create an almost Gothic density, and hint at his complex and powerful mind. Often at odds with the authorities, Nichiren claimed that the Mongol invasions were the result of disbelief in his own Lotus Sutra which he preached as the essence of Buddhism. An old, smoke-damaged scroll portrait, sitting side by side with a recent pristine copy, shows a rather pugnacious exterior but with a hint of kindness.

The portraits are one of the strengths of the exhibition. The best of these, however, are the wooden sculptures which show a high degree of individualization. Tokimune’s father Tokiyori is represented in a rather amusing pose with his knees jutting outwards on each side as his feet poke forward. The wooden statue of the monk Eison, made to commemorate his 80th birthday in 1281, shows him holding a hossu, a kind of ceremonial whisk made from white bear hair and a symbol of religious authority. The long white hair of the hossu echoes Eison's long drooping eyebrows, creating a charming effect

While courtiers had great influence in the Heian period (794-1185), the Kamakura period (1185-1333) was a time dominated by soldiers and monks. The Mongol threat gave these two groups even more importance. After the first exploratory attack by the Mongols in 1274, Japan prepared for further invasion in two ways. The regent Tokimune, based at the military capital of Kamakura, mobilized the country's military might, while the priests and the people sought to defend Japan through prayers to gods and buddhas.

The eclipse of Kyoto's court culture by these two groups helped not only to stave off invasion, but also gave Japanese culture a new vigor and depth. This was a time when many Zen monks came over from the tottering Sung state in southern China to be welcomed by the Kamakura nobility, who absorbed their teachings. Several fine Chinese celadon vessels on display attest to Kamakura Japan’s strong links with the doomed Sung state which fell to the Mongols in 1279.

The weapons displayed include many fine examples of Japanese swords, including several that belonged to the Hōjō clan, as well as a couple of suits of Japanese armor, painstakingly made from small lacquered pieces of metal woven together with cords and weighing up to 20kg. Armed with these weapons and entrenched behind palisades, the samurai were able to offer stern resistance when a vast Mongol armada returned to the site of the earlier invasion in 1281. The Mongol weapon of choice was the composite bow. The great strength of this weapon can be inferred from the strung and unstrung examples on display. Remove the strings and the bow completely bends the other way. Used in unison with cavalry tactics, this weapon had proved invincible over the wide open spaces of Eurasia. Japan however was a different proposition. The narrow spaces and rocky coasts, sternly defended, kept the Mongols at bay for several weeks until the weather was able to take a hand and wreck the invasion fleet.

Among the artifacts of this historic event is a large ornate copper anchor recovered from a wrecked Chinese ship. Instead of anchoring an invading vessel, it was put to service as a temple bell, thanking the gods for the "divine wind" and the defeat of the Mongols, a deliverance that allowed Japan to change at its own pace.

Tokimune  Hōjō and His Time runs until May 27, 2001, at the Edo Tokyo Museum

The Japan Times
11th April, 2010
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