Art is a means of communicating human experiences and cultural values

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The way in which the human form is depicted in different cultures can vary greatly on which values that culture holds in highest esteem, whether it be the importance of fertility, authority or family. In Japan, there is one popular archetype we see presented time and time again, that of the divine boy. Whilst it is important to note that depictions of the divine child are seen across the world, most notably perhaps the depictions of Christ as a child, Japan is one culture that we see hold this archetype above many others in importance.

This highly spiritual culture is heavily influenced by its dominant religions, Buddhism and Shinto, and this spirituality has affected its representations in art heavily. In order to analyse why the archetype of the divine boy is so influential on Japanese art we first must look at some of the most popular examples. Images of Chigo Daishi, a Japanese cultural hero who was in his later years a high priest, as a boy are incredibly popular. (Guth. 1987. 2 )

In one of the most well known depictions Kobo Daishi (Kukai) as a Boy (Chigo Daishi) (fig. 1) the child is depicted as youthful and innocent, his hands held together in prayer. This pose shows his devotion to his spirituality, his culture and his country, even at a young age. His hair is parted in a youthful style and his is skin clear and pale, these are all features to enhance his image of youth and beauty. But why has this image so popular and appealing to the Japanese culture? And what is it trying to portray?

The idea of the young innocent child showing devotion through prayer creates a role model for the Japanese public. He is the perfect depiction of how a child, or any person, should act. Showing complete devotion to his spirituality without question also enforces the popular idea of respect for authority and respect for elders, an idea incredibly popular in not only Japanese culture but in varying East Asian countries, most notably in China. Perhaps the most important divine child in Japanese culture, more so than Chigo Daishi, is the Buddha.

Buddhism had begun to spread across East Asia and in the 7th century the idea first started to be imported to Japan, (Sawa, 1964, p9) especially during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods of Japanese history. As in all religions, the creation of icons and images to represent religious values was incredibly important to introducing Buddhism to Japan. Over this time many representations of the birth of Buddha were created, such as the gilt bronze figure found in the Todaiji Temple, Nara (fig. 2). This statuette shows the Buddha heavily posed; one arm is raised to the heavens, the other points downwards to the earth.

This stance comes from the story of the birth of Buddha, where he rose to his feet shortly after birth, took seven steps, assumed the aforementioned pose and declared “I am the chief in the world, I am the best in the world, I am the first in the world. ” thus illustrating his status as a heroic saviour. (Thomas. 1927. p31) The pose holds symbolic meaning, as the hand raised to the sky represents the Buddha’s link with the heavens and a greater power, his hand pointing to the ground representing his mortal connection to Earth.

Modern day Buddhists may quash this idea, as the modern interpretation of Buddhism has changed and he is now rarely considered god-like, however it was commonly accepted in Japan at the time of the importation of Buddhism as it blended with their own ideals spirituality and local religious beliefs. Another feature to note that is common in almost all these statues, and in latter statues of Buddha too, is that of the cranial protuberance which represents the Buddha’s awesome knowledge. It is important to remember that one of the main principles of Buddhism is the power of knowledge and wisdom.

The idea that this infant image could possess such knowledge at birth portrays the power and status that the Buddha had. This is enforced by his many adult features, the large amount of curly hair, the long earlobes, juxtaposed with the youthful cheeks which represent he is almost old before his years. These examples are just two among many varied depictions of the divine boy, in the form of princes, deities, protectors of social outcasts (as the Buddha himself was often considered) and other legends from local religions. We can see that there is something that the Japanese can relate to or aspire to within the archetype of the divine boy.

Although many of these values are based on teachings of Buddhism it is important for us to note Japans other dominant religion of Shintoism, the ancient indigenous religion of Japan that was popular before the importation of Buddhism in the 7th century. It is important to note that although Shintoism cannot be defined as religion in the term we would usually assume, instead it is more a form of patriotism for the country’s leaders, royalty and benefactors, “the spirits of these then being appealed to for protection. ” (Cobbald. 2009. 20)

For this reason it fits in well with the simplistic principles of Buddhism and the two religions are not mutually exclusive, where the simple daily principles of life are dealt with by Shintoism, but the complex concepts of death, the afterlife and godliness are dealt with by Buddhism. This idea of worshipping of every day people as gods in Shintoism relates to why we see so many depictions of saints, such as Chigo Daishi, as though they have god-like powers. But the reason for the importance of the divine boy archetype also relates back to the cultural values of Japan.

As I have said earlier, many East Asian countries hold their elders in high esteem as knowledge and wisdom are considered admirable assets that many strive to attain in their lives. The idea of a wisdomous child in contrast to this represents the idea that even “the powerless in this world might achieve sacred power through unquestioning childlike piety” (Guth. 1987. p12 ) – the idea that if all respect and devote themselves to their culture and to knowledge, no matter how insignificant or infantile they are, they can still achieve some kind of sacred power: the power of enlightenment.

Another idea the divine boy represents is that one should not judge that only those older than us can have powerful knowledge, and that appearances can be deceptive. A painting of enlightened saint Nawa Monju by Godaichi Shugaku bears the inscription “The teacher of the Seven Buddhas is a boy only five feet tall” (ibid p16) which illustrates again that one should not be deceived by appearance, and that even a young child can possess the knowledge and sacred power to teach those older than himself.

The depiction of the divine boy not only expresses these ideas that a youth can be ultimately enlightened, but they provide a comfort. Gods in other religious are often seen as powerful and wrathful, something that their worshippers should be afraid off. Buddhism, and its blended association with Shintoism do not see their deities in this way, as kindness and peacefulness is encouraged. The idea of a child to worship can be comforting to the worshippers.

The embodiment of this ultimate knowledge and power inside the body of a human child could also suggest mortal weakness showing that we are all only human, and that knowledge makes us great. After learning more about the main values of the Japanese culture, and especially the principles of Buddhism and the ideas of Japan’s spirituality of Shintoism, I believe that the divine boy archetype portrays more than just a depiction of youthful beauty.

The idea of the divine boy essentially shows that knowledge is achievable by all, no matter their age. The divine boy also acts as a comforting image and can help to express complex ideas of religion, life and death. Not only does the archetype show that appearances are deceptive, but also acts as a role model of absolute devotion and innocence that we all, regardless of age, should strive to achieve.

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