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  • The Hōryūji Treasures and Early Meiji Cultural Policy
  • Hiroko T. McDermott (bio)

Today, no visitor would be surprised to see Buddhist statues and other religious icons as part of the standing exhibition of a Japanese museum. The practice of displaying such objects as examples of Japanese cultural heritage has long been taken for granted. The National Museums in Nara and Kyoto are particularly noted for displays of this sort. Among present-day museums, however, the Gallery of Hōryūji Treasures (Hōryūji Hōmotsukan ) of the Tokyo National Museum occupies a special place as a public facility dedicated entirely to a standing exhibition of three hundred-some objects from one particular temple. All of the objects in this gallery came originally from the temple of Hōryūji in Nara prefecture. No other collection in the Tokyo National Museum, or in any other public museum, has received such distinctive treatment.

Consisting mainly of Buddhist and Buddhist-related objects, the Hōryūji treasures include paintings, sculptures, mirrors, swords, sutras, ritual objects, stationery, musical instruments, ritual masks, textiles, documents, and some items of Chinese or Korean origin. Many of them date from as early as the beginning of the seventh century, when this oldest surviving Buddhist temple in Japan is said to have been founded by Prince Shōtoku (574-622). In return for its presentation of these items, in February 1878, Hōryūji received from the Imperial Household Ministry the unprecedented sum of 10,000 yen. Shipped to Tokyo at the end of 1882, the objects have been housed since then in the Museum.1 The driving motives behind this transaction have in general been [End Page 339] understood to be, on the one hand, Hōryūji's need for funds to repair its decaying buildings at a time of economic difficulty for Buddhist institutions, and, on the other, the Meiji government's interest in protecting the national cultural heritage. 2 In broad outline, this view is not necessarily inaccurate. But, by drawing on surviving records, it is possible to explore more fully the underlying ramifications of the objects' transfer.

Here I shall focus in particular on the intersection between the concerns of the temple and the efforts of Meiji officials to adopt cultural policies inspired by those they had encountered in Europe during the 1860s. The story of the acquisition of the Hōryūji treasures was intimately connected with the story of the founding of the Museum. The key figure in both developments was Machida Hisanari (1839-1897), often referred to as the "father of the Museum." Machida's activities took place, in turn, against the background of the Meiji leadership's attempt to define a secure role for the monarchy within the modern Japanese nation.

Hōryūji in Early Meiji

In the early years of Meiji, Hōryūji faced a crisis probably greater than any it had confronted since the early seventeenth century.3 The threat has usually been seen in terms of the new government's preference for Shinto over Buddhism. Unlike many other temples, though, Hōryūji seems in fact to have suffered little from the turmoil caused by the government's decree in 1868 ordering the institutional separation of Shinto from Buddhism. It nevertheless had good reason to be anxious about its political future. Located in a village, Hōryūji-mura , that had been a direct holding of the bakufu, Hōryūji had maintained good terms with the Tokugawa government from the beginning of the seventeenth century.4 The bakufu granted it lands with a productive capacity of 1,000 koku, an amount larger than that received by any other temple in the Nara area but for Kōfukuji and Tōdaiji . In 1694, when Hōryūji held for the first time an exhibition in Edo (degaichō) of its treasures, its success in fundraising owed much to support received from the shogunal house, particularly from the [End Page 340] fifth shogun's mother.5 Not surprisingly, it was only in the very last days of the Edo period, after Tokugawa forces were defeated by imperial troops in the decisive battles of Toba...


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