Way of Life as a Craftsman


4)    Buddhist statues sculptor, Mr. Gakyû Miyamoto 宮本我休

5)    Noh mask maker, Mr. Ôtsuki Kôkun 大月光勲

6)  Noh costume maker, 佐々木能装束店 Sasaki Noh Costume Studio


  • The mechanics of each craft
  • The circumstances/context in which these craftsmen have worked over time
  • How each one attempts to balance tradition and modernity

Buddhist Statuary — History

Buddhist statuary was introduced to Japan around the 7th century. Prior to this time, Buddhism had roots in China, Korea, and India, its spiritual birthplace, and Japanese statuary was simple in its depiction of kami, Japanese deities worshipped throughout the country, and its terra-cotta material.

From this point of origin, Buddhist statuary grew increasingly common as the religion expanded its influence within Japan. Government officials, military officers, Buddhist priests, and elite patrons (many of whom fit within many of these categories) commissioned these statues in a variety of materials and sizes. Those in charge of making them were typically involved in the construction of a temple until the busshi, or Buddha statue sculptor, became an officially recognized term and practice.

The 8th and 13th centuries are seen as the golden ages of Buddhist statuary. During these times, the art of sculpting Buddhas developed in terms of style and difficulty, aided by government backing. The extant works from the former period are classified as “Tempyo sculpture,” notable for their clay and dry-lacquered forms, while those of the latter are called “Kamakura sculpture,” known for their consistency and quality achieved by the likes of Unkei Busshi. Four factors engendered the second golden age in particular: the culture promoted by the military administration, the increased demand for Buddha statues because of Buddhist temple construction, the inspiration coming from extant 8th-century sculptures in Nara, and the influence of Sung Dynasty statuary.

The 14th-century Muromachi period marked the gradual decline of Buddhist statuary, for the ruling military administration (samurai) favored Noh and sculpted portraits of priests, two artistic practices institutionally and financially backed at the expense of busshi nationwide. In modern times, these craftsmen face an additional hurdle: the lower numbers of Japanese who practice Buddhism, which has caused the closure or the adaptation of thousands of temples today.

Noh Masks — History 

The exact origin of Noh masks is undecided among scholars, but there are two theories that are generally accepted. One theory is that Noh masks originated from folk masks in the early 14th century. The other theory is that both Noh masks and folk masks originated from an unknown mask in the early 14th century. Scholars have divided the creation of Noh masks that we know today into three periods: formation period (early 14th century – mid 16th century), refinement period (mid 16th century – mid 17th century), and retrospection (mid 17th century – 1868).

During the formation period, the different classes of Noh masks were created. These classes are Okina, Kishin, jo, young man, woman, and onryo. The refinement period is when the honmen (exemplary masks) were made. These masks are considered the best masks that were made. The retrospection period was focused on carving utsushi (replicas of honmen), and very few new types of masks were made. Noh mask carving was halted by the Meiji restoration that began in 1868.

Noh Costumes — History

Noh plays did not use specialized costumes in its beginnings in the 14th century. Instead, it used everyday samurai costumes due to its close ties with the samurai. In the 15th century, a few Noh specific costumes arose, such as maiginu robes, which is used for goddesses. In the late 16th century, the elite samurai class began wearing clothing with more extravagant weaving and bolder designs. The Noh costumes followed the same trend with the use of vibrant textiles such as karaori, which is mainly used for women’s roles. These types of clothing persisted in Noh even when the elite samurai class did not use them anymore. Noh plays became officially supported by the government in the Edo period (1615-1868) by the Tokugawa Shogunate. With the support of the elite class of Japan, the volume of Noh costume production increased, and they became even more extravagant. Many costumes incorporated gold in their designs as a result of Noh’s close ties with the elite class.

Noh costumes consist of a few components. The outer robes are divided into wide-sleeved robes (osode) and short-sleeved robes (kosode). They also have inner robe, trouser (hakama), wig, and sash components. Other accessories, such as neck pieces, are also included in some roles.

Presentation Script:

Slide 1: Kyoto: Ways of Life as Craftsmen

C: Hi, my name is CJ Salapare.

S: And my name is Si Hou Lon.

C: Today, we’re going to be discussing our exploration of the way of life as a craftsman, with emphasis on Zen Buddhism and Noh plays. During our stay, we met with three craftsmen in particular: Gakyu Miyamoto, a Buddhist statue sculptor, Ohtsuki Kokun, a Noh mask maker, and Sasaki Yoji, a Noh costume maker. All three showed us what they’ve devoted their lives to produce and how they’ve done so, the in-person nature of which radically altered how the both of us now perceive these three crafts.


Slide 2: Pre-Kyoto Questions

C: Before embarking on this trip, we had to familiarize ourselves with the three practices we would see in person within a couple days’ time. During this process, we developed a series of questions we wanted to explore, with some questions pertaining to artistic issues and others tapping into larger cultural concerns:

  • What is the importance of tradition? Is modernity always good?
  • In what order do we place conceptions of labor within a hierarchy of cultural value?
  • What does it mean to be an artisan/craftsmen? Are they artists?
  • Tradition and modernity: are they mutually exclusive or dependent?


Slide 3: Gakyu Miyamoto — January 16, 2018 (Miyamoto-sensei)

S: The first artisan we met was Gakyu Miyamoto, the Buddha statue sculptor whose beautiful works you might have seen around this building, Terminal Kyoto. We had looked up his works in Williamstown and were already amazed, but his photos did not do these sculptures justice. Before elaborating upon his works, Miyamoto-sensei delved into his carving process, which you see pictured. Various blocks of cypress will be gradually chipped away until they become something like… (turn to next slide)


Slide 4: Conventional Buddha pictures

S: These Buddha sculptures, many of which are exhibited mere meters away. They are highly stylized, influenced by traditional guidelines, as noted in the hand gestures and body position, among other factors. We were engrossed by his anecdotes of creating each statue, but more immediately, by the experience of being so close from each carved feature.


Slide 5: Unconventional Buddha pictures

S: Miyamoto-sensei told us about how he had been studying fashion design before dropping everything to become a busshi, or Buddhist statue sculptor, and honing his craft without distraction for the next nine years. After learning the basics, he realized he could play around with his statuary, specifically with that of the Daruma. We fawned over the balance achieved between craftsmanship and contemporary sensibility — sculptures that are cute yet solemn, and playful but also spiritual.


Slide 6: Miscellaneous

S: On top of these Buddha statues, Miyamoto-sensei also carves other unrelated works, like the mirror stand on the left. It is representative of the clouds, turning the mirror into either the moon or sun. He even creates personally significant statues, like the hybrid of Kannon and St. Mary that sits upon a hand, which he gave to his wife for their engagement. We all swooned! Over the course of our session, we felt a deep connection with the works on display but also with the sculptor responsible for creating them.


Slide 7: Ohtsuki Kokun

C: A couple days later, we visited Ohtsuki Kokun, one of the city’s most esteemed Noh mask makers. Like Miyamoto-sensei, Kokun-sensei was eager to show us his carving process, as seen here, which consists of wood carved, covered with gesso, and then painted.


Slide 8: Other masks

C: We had read a lot about the interplay of light on Noh masks and their subtlety of expression pre-Japan. However, it was a tad disappointing watching the performance and having neither the eye nor attention to focus on it intently. However, we were able to see this at play within Kokun-sensei’s studio. The photo on the left shows various masks of young women in different emotional states, while the right is of demonic beings.


Slide 9: Different

C: To the right are some Kyogen masks of foxes, but what really struck us were the new masks he has been working on, which are either fresh interpretations of Noh masks or ones for entirely new plays that he is writing. The right photo shows a mask of a spirit who is ostensibly innocent but is more malicious than perceived — her face is rendered in mosaic form, so that it shifts from a Pointilist-esque composition to something more sinister. Seeing this degree of creativity in a practice that is so rigidly defined was honestly refreshing to us.


Slide 10:

S: The Noh costume maker Sasaki Yoji was the last artisan whom we met. He is a part of a family enterprise, the history of which was evident in the facility in Nishijin. To the right are some of the sumptuous fabrics that have come out of this remarkable place, which feels like you are transported back in time.


Slide 11: Looms

S: We were blown away by how time and history could be so palpable, from the looms that have been used for over a hundred years (and are still going strong) to the punchcard system for weaving individual threads into patterns. Everything about it was steeped in the continuity of tradition, reinforced by the younger employee present among all his elderly counterparts.


Slide 12: More Looms

S: Seeing each individual thread woven in time and time again until a rhythm was achieved was oddly relaxing and mind-blowing. It’s a painstaking task, but one that certainly reaps a bountiful reward, albeit not in the conventional sense of profit. We’d like to think that the contribution to extending tradition is priceless in value.


Slide 13: Did we find any answers?

C: After visiting all three artisans, our conceptions of their work were founded upon real-life encounters instead of only scholarly articles and books. We felt that we made headway in the questions we posed before departure: we’ve grown to see tradition as a fundamental foundation or framework for any form of culture, but that modernity necessitates new approaches. One fact is clear: stagnancy is an equivalent for decay. Thus, these two forces must uneasily coexist within the practices of craftsmen but also within the larger domestic and international contexts of Japan and the world.


Slide 14: Hierarchy of Value: Labor

C: One part that filled us with sadness was seeing these handcrafted works made at the hands of devoted individuals one moment, and stumbling upon factory-made and cheap reproductions at stores moments later. One great example of this is the daruma, which you see pictured twice. Does the presence of the latter reduce the value of the former? We worried that it weakened one’s interest in handmade goods, which are understandably more expensive, but also thought of the potential it wields: by circulating these images, can we use them to increase the awareness and importance of these artisan practices?


Slide 15: What is an artisan? Can they be artists?

S: We also discovered that the term “artisan” is interpreted in different ways. Miyamoto and Kokun-sensei are able to sign their works and to declare a sense of artistic ownership, whereas the various weavers at Sasaki-sensei’s facility leave little trace of individuality. Their fabrics are simply commissioned, made, and sold. In a similar vein, the freedom to interpret these also varies, but all three have some space for creativity within the boundaries of tradition. Lastly, and most evocatively, we felt intimately connected with the people behind these crafts. Looking through the magnifying glass to see the complex stitching to gazing at the chisel marks on the inside of the mask was a beautiful means of interacting with another person’s product of work, love, and devotion.


Slide 16: Tradition and modernity: are they mutually exclusive or dependent?

C: Our final question is one that we are still ruminating about at this time of speaking, and for the many years to come. Before the trip, we were of the mind that modernity simply left no room for tradition — the latter had to go. After meeting with these craftsmen, we realized that these forces are not necessarily opposed–from hearing about new treatments of old materials, to seeing a young face within a profession of elderly masters, the coexistence of old and new, and traditional and modern is evident within the craftsman’s studio. Step outside and you will see it wherever you go: there are the temples that have vending machines, and the concrete buildings that surround their roof-tiled walls. Tradition is everywhere in this city that we’ve had the privilege to know intimately. There’s a reason why Kyoto is known as the cultural capital of Japan: in its balance of these two forces, it feels so wonderfully alive.


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