In his book Ōsaki Hachiman: Architecture, Materiality, and Samurai Power in Seventeenth-Century Japan (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 2016), Anton Schweizer discusses the eponymous Shinto shrine in the northern Japanese city of Sendai. Within the framework of an in-depth case study, Schweizer raises larger questions that are of great significance not only for the field of art and architecture, but for fuller understanding of the visual and material cultures of religion, political iconography, and global mercantilism in early modern Asia.
The Ōsaki Hachiman Shrine was completed in 1607 and belongs to a very small group of buildings from the Momoyama period (1568-1615) that survive in virtually unaltered condition and with documented sponsorship. Beyond its significance as a rare historical source, Schweizer discusses the structure as a manifestation of larger concerns and developments of the period.
From the contents
Schweizer begins his study (chapter 1, “The Patron”) with an introduction to the historical context and the biography of the shrine’s sponsor, Date Masamune. Masamune was one of several dozen warlords who competed over wealth and power during the final phase of Japan’s violent and convoluted civil war period. He stands out through his wealth that allowed him to realize projects of much larger ambition than most of his peers. Masamune found a role model for his power and cultural politics in Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the hegemon who ultimately accomplished a tentative unification. Hideyoshi forced Masamune into compliance and had him, as many others, intermittently live at various castles in the vicinity of Kyoto. These sojourns gave Masamune a chance to familiarize with sophisticated court culture and enabled him to subsequently function as catalyzing figure in a cultural transfer to the northern Japanese province.
Masamune remains best remembered for the dispatch of an intercontinental embassy to Mexico, Spain, and the Vatican in 1612-1620. This mission was the only undertaking of its kind before modernity that was sent out by a Japanese ruler (in distinction to a famous mission orchestrated by the Jesuits in the 1580s). Masamune obviously pinned great hopes on the endeavor. Based on a new evaluation of textual sources Schweizer concludes that Masamune may, in addition to the promise of large revenues from a monopoly on the Mexico-trade, also have pondered a never realized invasion of the Philippines. Ultimately, he played with the possibility of becoming ruler of Japan.
In chapter 2, “Ritual Space,” Schweizer turns to the shrine building and performs a close reading of its formal and iconographic constituents. Following the example of a study by Andrew Watsky (Chikubushima: Deploying the Sacred Arts in Momoyama Japan, 2006) the author forcefully argues for the inclusion of all media (architecture, painting, lacquering, metalwork) to a balanced and holistic discussion of an architectural “ensemble.” Schweizer expands and complicates Watsky’s methodology through an interdisciplinary apparatus that incorporates thoughts on the semiotics of ornament by historian of Assyrian art, Irene Winter, as well as reflections on visual perception by art historian Rudolf Arnheim. In sum, what Schweizer proposes amounts to a new way of looking at pre-modern Japanese architecture. He walks his reader through a spatial and conceptual progression from the façade to the altar space and asserts that the shape, decoration, and orientation of the entire building is carefully constructed around a unfolding experience or, in Schweizer’s words a theatrical “epiphany of the sacred.”
Chapter 3, “Materiality,” continues in this vein by turning to the shrine building’s visual and physical substance. The structure is an outstanding example for what Schweizer calls “lacquered architecture.” In this type of architectural decoration all visible surfaces are either polychromized or coated with a complex build-up of pigmented natural lacquer (urushi). In this chapter Schweizer sets out for largely uncharted waters, since apparently nobody ever attempted a systematic description and interpretation of this type of buildings. A crucial point the author makes is about the essential unsuitability of lacquer for exterior use on architecture: urushi is light-sensitive and decays quickly if exposed to the elements. Schweizer interprets this seeming inconclusiveness as intentional embracing of temporality. This, he argues, highlights the act of building and renewing and thus, ultimately, the sponsor’s financial and metaphorical investment.
In chapter 4, “Cult and Precedent,” the author turns to two often neglected topics, namely ritual operation and formal precedents for works of architecture. Ritual activity was the shrine building’s raison d’aitre. It began, as Schweizer demonstrates, already during the laying-out of the plot (nawabari) and accompanied the successive stages of erecting the structure. Instructive analyses of a dedicatory inscription on the so-called ridge pole placard (munafuda) and an illustrated version of the official shrine legend are followed by a pivotal discussion of the main recipient of worship at the shrine, Hachiman. This deity, a syncretic blend of Shinto god and Bodhisattva, was by history closely affiliated with the imperial court and successive generations of shogunal rulers. Hachiman was called upon, in particular, as authority in issues of legitimization and state protection. Schweizer points out that Hachiman was, in addition, widely regarded as a guardian deity by warrior families such as the Date.
Lastly, Hachiman is identified as an alternative identity of the deceased Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the very hegemon who had conquered northern Japan and forced Masamune into submission. The connection of the Ōsaki Shrine with Hideyoshi’s posthumous cult (Hideyoshi’s family unsuccessfully attempted to install him as “New Hachiman”) is the bridge to a discussion of the architectural type of the shrine building, the so-called gongen-zukuri. Gongen-zukuri was employed both at the Ōsaki Hachiman Shrine and what the author claims as its model, the center of Hideyoshi worship at the Toyokuni Shrine in Kyoto (1599). Schweizer interprets Date Masamune’s shrine building in Sendai as an “architectural quote” that transferred metropolitan culture to the peripheral province of northern Japan while ostensibly joining the pious followers of the Hideyoshi cult. Simultaneously, Schweizer surmises, Masamune intended to call upon potent supernatural forces for protection of his newly founded city of Sendai and divine sanction for his unfolding regime.
The concluding chapter 5, “Performing the City,” extends the discussion from the shrine precinct to the city and the larger region around Sendai. A first section reconstructs the appearance of the castle and the city at the time of its construction. Sendai had a sumptuous palatial compound located on a steep cliff that overlooked hierarchically organized settlement areas of vassals, warriors, and commoners. The city had straight main streets that were opening visual axes toward “landmarks” in form of gateways, pavilions, and temples. Schweizer’s analysis suggests that Masamune emulated with these features Hideyoshi’s urbanist projects in Osaka, Fushimi, and Kyoto.
The second section of the fifth chapter singles out three practices that Masamune employed to highlight his role as a benevolent and active ruler: public construction, guided gaze, and processions. All three practices are, again, indebted to the model of Hideyoshi. The well organized and speedy conduction of large-scale public construction ventures can in fact be called one of the principle manifestations of rulership in the period. The same is true about hierarchical structures of gazing (ruler-subjects, deity-ruler, subjects-ruler, etc.). Schweizer identifies the dialectics of gazing manifested in textual, visual, as well as spatial representations of society. At Sendai, structured gazes were built into the urban matrix through the city’s main thoroughfares, the orientation of a viewing platform in the castle, and the positioning of the Ōsaki Hachiman Shrine.
The last example of performativity in Masamune’s “capital” that the author singles out are spectacular processions that involved uniform dress, lavish military equipment, and “extravagant” implements such as enormous swords that manifested warrior authority as the basis of Masamune’s reign.
In the concluding epilogue Schweizer reiterates his main claim that it is mandatory to include all these different media—architectural space and decoration, ephemeral material splendor, iconographic recourses to “classical” antiquity in Japan and China, the selection of an over-determined divine guardian, as well as the various human practices based at the shrine as an institution—to a balanced reading of the original message. This message formulated a strong and compelling argument for Date Masamune as legitimate and potent ruler.
The previous two decades have brought about a growth of studies that employ place-based methodologies for investigations of pre-modern Japan. These studies are inspired by a larger movement in humanities that is often labeled a “spatial turn” and were strongly accelerated by a reinvigoration of interest in Japanese architecture during the 1980s and 90s. An ignition spark for this movement was set by William Coaldrake’s much acclaimed Architecture and Authority in Japan (1996). Authors such as Mimi Hall Yiengpruksawan (Hiraizumi: Buddhist Art and Regional Politics in Twelfth-Century Japan, 1998), Gregory Levine (Daitokuji: The Visual Cultures of a Zen Monastery, 2005), and Sherry Fowler (Murōji: Rearranging Art and History at a Japanese Buddhist Temple, 2005) have then used individual religious institutions to anchor broader discussions of social, political, and artistic networks. Schweizer’s book is indebted to all of these efforts and maybe most of all to Watsky’s paradigm shifting Chikubushima. Schweizer is, however, far from unilaterally relying on western literature, but equally well versed in the work of influential Japanese authors such as Amino Yoshihiko, Kuroda Hideo, or Naitō Akira. Schweizer also draws upon less known specialists such as Miyamoto Masaaki (Toshi kūkan no kinseishi kenkyū, 2005) or Yamasawa Manabu (Nikkō Tōshōgū no seiritsu, 2009) and makes their theories productive for his argument.
What lifts the book proposed here far above other studies is the scope and depth of the investigation. Schweizer, trained both as an art restorer and an art historian, successfully bridges an often perceivable gap between practitioners and academics, those who know materials and techniques of artistic production on the one side and others who base their interpretations on theories and texts. The study is distinguished by philological scrutiny of primary text sources in classical Japanese and Chinese, Latin, and pre-modern Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and English. The discussions of pictorial sources employ throughout an up-to-date methodology and an adequately critical attitude.
In particular, the discussions of “Temporality” (pp. 191-198) in Japanese architecture and a discussion of architectural illumination (pp. 188-191) seems to have in this depth little precedent in the whole corpus of western and Japanese writing on these subjects.
A further and crucial impact of Schweizer’s study lies in its fundamental reevaluation of one of the most controversial and misrepresented examples of early modern Japanese architecture, the Tōshōgū Shrine in Nikkō (1636) that is stylistically a close relative of the Ōsaki Shrine. Since the German architectural theorist Bruno Taut used this shrine-mausoleum complex as negative example for what he deemed good architecture in an essay (1935) there has been little appreciation for this stylistic variety of “Japanese baroque.” Schweizer illuminates the origins of decorative splendor in ritual and rehabilitates the typology through reapproaching it through the “period eye.”
These topics lie at the heart of what distinguishes the Japanese architectural tradition from others throughout the world. Schweizer’s book is predestined for serving as a textbook in survey classes of world architecture and Japanese culture. Moreover, since the interdisciplinary character of Schweizer’s argument transcends the narrow confines of art and architectural history, Ōsaki Hachiman is of profound relevance for specialists of religion, social anthropology, cultural studies, trans-cultural studies, cultural transfer, nation-building, proto-globalization, political iconography.
Schweizer’s book is written in an elegant but precise English that breathes life into a field that can otherwise sometimes verge on the esoteric and dry.