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Reviewed by:
  • Accounts and Images of Six Kannon in Japan by Sherry D. Fowler
  • Sinéad Vilbar (bio)
Accounts and Images of Six Kannon in Japan. By Sherry D. Fowler. University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2016. x, 411 pages. $70.00.

Accounts and Images of Six Kannon in Japan is a thorough art historical investigation of the Japanese Buddhist cult of Six Kannon that will serve as a resource for senior-level scholars of Japanese art history, religion, and social history. In the process of investigating the Six Kannon tradition, the volume also offers a solid introduction to some key primary texts for understanding [End Page 405] the import and function of religious icons in medieval Japan. Written by art historian Sherry D. Fowler, the book undertakes the crucial work of piecing together from what physical and textual traces remain what can no longer be seen of a once flourishing religious tradition centered on multiple manifestations of the bodhisattva Kannon. The main purpose of the book is to present the establishment and development of Six Kannon–focused Buddhist practices. A secondary goal is the description of a subsequent shift to Thirty-Three Kannon Buddhist practices, which also explains in part the general abandonment of Six Kannon practices.

Classical connoisseurship plays an important role in the book, especially with respect to the fragmented sculptural groups discussed, and insightful interpretation of compendia of ritual records and temple histories creates a helpful window onto how people initially engaged with their icons in ritual spaces. In cases in which an object's story is left incomplete by the historical record, Fowler presents well-reasoned hypotheses for what may have motivated patrons to create it or how they may have used it. An unexpected sidelight in Fowler's research methods is her acknowledgment of resourceful bloggers, amateur historians who have mapped out leads to local histories that might otherwise have escaped her notice and whose efforts helped point the way to bigger pieces of the puzzle of recreating a world in which Six Kannon practices were prevalent.

If one reads the book straight through, the text moves along its basic trajectory from the Heian period (794–1185) to the Edo period (1615–1868), and from Six Kannon groups to Thirty-Three Kannon groups, with the exception of the second chapter, which focuses specifically on the cult of Six Kannon in Kyushu and its connection with kami veneration. Along the way, one encounters the alternatives of Juntei or Fukūkenjaku within the Six Kannon lineup, the phenomenon of Seven Kannon, and the Six-Syllable Mandala. In taking a straight route through the book, however, the level of detail surrounding individual objects of interest can at times impede a strong grasp of the narrative thrust of the text. Since there is a fair amount of reiteration of central ideas over the course of the chapters, though, the more timid among us can also take each chapter, or even sections of chapters, out of order as their own case studies and piece them back together in any number of ways that emphasize different aspects of the whole. For instance, the figure Ono no Ningai (951–1046) appears repeatedly across the chapters after his introduction in chapter 1, and his involvement with the establishment of the Six Kannon cult might even be compiled into its own phantom chapter.

In the process of describing the evolution from Six Kannon to Thirty-Three Kannon practices, Fowler grapples with the multiple lives of some of the images she tracks. This concept of images and their environments as mutable is an important thread in the book. That is, as she states in her epilogue, in this case in reference to stone images, "like most of the Buddhist images discussed in this book, we find that they too may be moved, [End Page 406] modified, stabilized, repaired, and enhanced." Gregory P. Levine's 2001 article in The Art Bulletin, "Switching Sites and Identities: The Founder's Statue at the Buddhist Temple Kōrin'in" is an earlier foray into this type of study in Japanese art history. Both Fowler and Levine cite the 1997 study Lives of Indian Images by Richard Davis (Princeton...


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pp. 405-409
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