The earliest specimens of Japanese carving-if we may so call objects more probably moulded by the hand-are the rude clay figures of men and horses occasionally found in the tumuli of Central and Eastern Japan (see Article on ARCHǢOLOGY). But the art made no progress till the advent of Buddhism in the sixth century. A stone image of the god Miroku was among the earliest gifts of the Court of Korea to that of Japan. Wooden images came also. The Japanese themselves soon learnt to carve in both materials. The colossal figure of Jizō in relief on a block of andesite on the way between Ashinoyu and Hakone, is a grand example. Like so many other celebrated Japanese works of unknown antiquity, it is referred by popular tradition to the Buddhist saint, Kōbō Daishi (ninth century), who is fabled to have finished it in a single night. The art of wood-carving has always been chiefly in Buddhist hands. The finest collection of early religious statues is that in the museum at Nara, brought together from various temples in the surrounding country. Much later- seventeenth and eighteenth centuries-are the charming painted carvings of flowers and birds in the Nikkō temples and in those at Shiba and Ueno in Tōkyō.
The old Japanese sculptors rarely attempted portraiture. A good example is offered by the seated figure of Ieyasu in the temple of Tōshōgu at Shiba. But in sculpture, even more than in pictorial art, the strength of the Japanese talent lies rather in decoration and in small things than in representation and in great things. The netsukes-originally a kind of toggle for the medicine-box or tobaccopouch, carved out of wood or ivory-are often marvels of minuteness, and alive with a keen sense of humour and the grotesque. The Japanese weakness in sculpture is no mere accident. It results from a whole mental attitude, from the habit of looking at nature rather than at man,-a habit itself rooted in that impersonality on which Mr. Percival Lowell has laid so much stress as a Far-Eastern characteristic.
Japan's most famous sculptor was Hidari Jingorō, born in A.D. 1594. The two elephants and the sleeping cat in the mortuary shrine of Ieyasu at Nikkō are among the best-known productions of his chisel. He died in 1634, leaving a flourishing school and a reputation around which legend soon began to busy itself. A horse which he had carved as an ex-voto used, it is averred, to leave its wooden tablet at night, and go down to the meadow to graze. On one occasion the artist, having seen a frail beauty in the street, became so enamoured that on getting home he set about carving her statue; and between the folds of the statue's robe he placed a mirror, which the girl had let drop and which he had picked up. Thereupon the statue, Galatea-like, came to life, and the two lovers were made supremely happy. Now for the characteristically Japanese turn given to the tale. The times were stormy, and it fell out that the life of the daughter of the artist's lord had to be sacrificed. The artist instantly cut off this living statue's head and sent it to the enemy, who were taken in by the ruse which his loyalty had prompted. But a servant of his lord's, also deceived, and believing that Hidari Jingorō had really killed their lord's daughter, took his sword and cut off the sculptor's right hand. Hence the name of Hidari Jingorō, that is, "left-handed Jingorō." Probably Jingorō's left-handedness, which undoubtedly gave him his nickname of Hidari, also suggested the legend.
Since 1892, when the first bronze statue was set up in Tōkyō in front of the Shōkonsha temple, that ancient European method of commemorating departed and even living worth has gradually come into vogue. Not only so, but the friezes of public buildings now begin to be adorned with Cupids of a Japanese cast of countenance, slant-eyed Goddesses of Poetry and Agriculture, etc., etc. It is all very strange and-very ugly. Pity that the successful adopters of an alien civilisation should not have had the sense to stop short at such incongruous superficialities!
Books Recommended - Brinkley, Japan and China, Vol. VII. passim. Huish Japan and its Art, Chap. XIII.-The Art Carvings of Japan, by G. A. Audsley and M. Tomkinson.