restricted access 6 Buddhist Relics from the Western Regions: Japanese Archaeological Exploration of Central Asia
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152 6 Buddhist Relics from the Western Regions Japanese Archaeological Exploration of Central Asia Imre Galambos In the early part of the twentieth century, beside the archaeological exploration of Chinese Turkestan by European explorers, many of whom represented colonial powers , there was also Japanese interest in the region. Most significant in this respect was the series of expeditions organized and financed by Count Ōtani Kōzui (1876–1948). The abbot of the Nishi Honganji branch of the Jōdo Shinshū sect, Ōtani was also a close relative of the imperial family, having married the elder sister of Empress Teimei, wife of the Emperor Taishō, who reigned from 1912. As one of the largest and wealthiest religious organizations in Japan, the Nishi Honganji of which Ōtani was abbot is the head temple for a Buddhist sect comprising ten thousand temples and twelve million followers. The temple is called Nishi (West) to distinguish it from the Higashi (East) Honganji; both temples are located close to each other in Kyoto. The original Honganji was established in the early fourteenth century, and amassed such an immense amount of wealth and power over time that when Tokugawa Ieyasu came to power in the early seventeenth century, he split the temple into an eastern and a western branch in order to reduce its influence. Both temples remained important into the modern period and are among the largest in Japan even today. With the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Buddhism fell into a state of crisis in Japan as Shinto was established as the state religion and support for Buddhist institutions was withdrawn. The ensuing anti-Buddhist movement caused great damage and led to the destruction of temple property throughout the country. Temples were faced with the need to adapt to the new situation and redefine themselves.1 The Honganji branch implemented a series of internal reforms, including a complete educational reform. Buddhist Relics from the Western Regions | 153 One of its important efforts in dealing with suppression was to dispatch clerics overseas to establish contacts with other Buddhist communities and to learn about their practices.2 The young Ōtani Kōzui, a man of exceptional talent and erudition who was at the time only the heir to the abbacy of the Nishi Honganji, traveled to a number of countries to study the role of religion in modern societies. He was trying to find alternative models for the survival of Buddhism in Japan and in the whole of Asia. It is against this background that the idea of the Central Asian expeditions was conceived, as this was the historical land through which Buddhism came from India to China and ultimately to Japan. The shared Buddhist past of East, Central, and South Asia seemed to provide a conceptual model for a pan-Asian revival under the aegis of Buddhism.3 With the Meiji Restoration, Japan instituted an ambitious policy of modernization , adopting European models for a new economic and legal infrastructure. By 1902, it had signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and taken its place among the colonial powers . Along with modern science and technology came a distinct worldview, in which Japan saw itself among Western industrial powers rather than the rest of Asia. Thus, in addition to the traditional Sino-Japanese names of countries and regions, European geographical or geopolitical denominations were also widely used. The term “Shina” was used for “China” instead of the traditional “Shinkoku” (i.e., Qing empire), while Central Asia, which had not existed as a separate entity before, became known as ChūōAjia. Japan’s attitude toward Central Asia was determined by its concern with Russian aspirations in the region. The two powers were in direct conflict over Manchuria , and this eventually led to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5, in which Japan achieved a spectacular victory. The Great Game colonial rivalry between Russia and Britain in Central Asia was therefore of interest to Japan primarily because of its ambitions in Manchuria. Having said that, at the turn of the twentieth century, Central Asia did not feature prominently in the public mind in Japan. It was Ōtani Kōzui who, with his expeditions , resurrected the region in the popular imagination as the ancient land of the Western Regions so important in Buddhist history. While staying in Europe in 1901–2, he learned about the discoveries of ancient Buddhist ruins in Chinese Turkestan by Sven Hedin (1865–1952) and M. Aurel Stein (1862–1943) and immediately realized their significance for the Buddhist quest in...