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Reviewed by:
  • The Four Great Temples: Buddhist Archaeology, Architecture, and Icons of Seventh-Century Japan
  • Robert Borgen
The Four Great Temples: Buddhist Archaeology, Architecture, and Icons of Seventh-Century Japan by Donald F. McCallum. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008. Pp. xvii + 328. $40.00.

Donald F. McCallum, an art historian, has produced a detailed study of major Buddhist temples during Japan’s Asuka period, roughly the seventh century, based on careful analysis of physical remains, mostly the result of modern archaeology, and textual references. Perhaps I should have declined the request to review this book, since I am an expert in neither the period nor the academic disciplines covered by [End Page 377] the book, but I agreed to do it because, in my research, I have touched upon related matters and thought I would benefit from finding out what an expert had to say. I am pleased to report that I learned a great deal and recommend this book to anyone, specialist or not, who wants to learn more about early Japan, notably its Buddhist art and architecture and their relation to political history.

McCallum’s “four great temples” (shidaiji according Kokugo daijiten; yondaiji according to McCallum) consist of Asukadera, Kudara Ōdera, Kawaradera, and Yakushiji. Of them, only Nara’s Yakushiji will be familiar to the amateur, and that is not exactly the same Yakushiji McCallum writes about, since his focus is on the years before the capital—and the temple—were transferred to Nara. The names, however, are deceptive. Japan’s earliest Buddhist temples were named after their locations. Asukadera, thus, was “the temple in Asuka,” and so forth. By the end of the Asuka period, however the custom had changed and temples were given more proper, Buddhist-sounding names, which is why the latest of the four temples is Yakushiji, “Temple of the Healing Buddha.” When three of the original four were moved to Nara, all were given what would have seemed to be more up-to-date names. Asukadera became Gangōji, Kudara Ōdera became Daianji, and Yakushiji alone retained its original name. Only Kawaradera remained where it always had been and fell into decay, as Nara’s Kōfukuji replaced it on the list of four great temples.

Today, the original four are all archaeological sites, although Asukadera survives at its original location, consisting of little more than a single small building from the Edo period that enshrines an ancient but poorly preserved sixteen-foot Buddha. As readers of this journal probably know, such Buddhas are typically seated and hence the actual images are about half that height. McCallum assumes that his readers too will know this important detail and uses the term “ sixteen-foot icon” without explanation. When the new Yakushiji (not to be confused with Shin Yakushiji, literally “New Yakushiji,” which is also in Nara but totally unrelated) was established in Nara, it retained the original temple’s layout; therefore, although visitors to the original site will see only foundation stones, the temple in Nara continues to offer a good sense of what once had been there, particularly now that some of the ancient buildings have been reconstructed. [End Page 378]

The archaeological evidence that McCallum presents demonstrates that these were indeed great temples. For example, Kudara Ōdera appears to have occupied a site of over 180 by 260 meters. More remarkably, it featured a grand pagoda, apparently of nine stories and possibly as much as 80 meters in height. By way of comparison, the tallest pagoda in Japan today, the five-story pagoda at Tōji in Kyoto, is just under 55 meters. In the case of Kudara Ōdera, McCallum offers a year-by-year description of the digs that revealed first the location of the temple, previously known only from references in early histories, and then, as the work progressed, its enormous scale.

This is typical of the approach McCallum takes throughout his study. He carefully reviews all the evidence, written and physical, and the various theories offered by scholars, most of them Japanese, to explain the data before offering his own conclusions. If, like me, you are fascinated by the question “How do you know that?” you will...


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pp. 377-380
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