Shoso-in through Foreign Eyes / Fenollosa called Nara’s antiquities Japan’s treasures

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Tokyo University of the Arts’ University Art Museum Director Hiroko Kurokawa talks about a picture scroll that depicts Shoso-in treasures in September in Taito Ward, Tokyo.

The 75th Annual Exhibition of Shoso-in Treasures will start Saturday at the Nara National Museum, showcasing a selection of precious items that have been preserved for centuries in the Shoso-in repository and convey glimpses of Nara period (710-784) culture. This is the second installment in a three-part series focusing on the history of the connection between the Shoso-in and people from other countries.


Tokyo University of the Arts is located in a corner of Ueno Park in Tokyo and is the successor of the Tokyo Fine Arts School which was established in 1887. Its University Art Museum houses picture scrolls created in the Meiji era (1868-1912) depicting Shoso-in treasures.

In mid-September, Director Hiroko Kurokawa unrolled the non-public picture scrolls.

One of them depicted “Wood Offering Box with Floral Design Painted in Gold and Silver on a Blue Ground,” which will be exhibited at this year’s Annual Exhibition of Shoso-in Treasures. The box, made of cypress wood, was painted entirely in light blue and decorated with gold and silver birds and flowers.

Courtesy of The Fenollosa Society of Japan
Ernest Fenollosa

It is said that American orientalist and art critic Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), who was instrumental in establishing the Tokyo Fine Arts School, had painters draw these copies. As a foreigner hired by the Meiji government, Fenollosa is featured in textbooks today as a person who contributed to the reevaluation of traditional Japanese art.

The scroll elaborately copied the piece down to the smallest scratch, and Kurokawa said, “It must have been done by a painter of the highest caliber.” The fact that it is drawn depicting the box from several directions suggests that “It was drawn for use as a guide for repairs and reproductions.”

Why did Fenollosa leave behind these elaborate paintings? Finding the answer would reveal the unique circumstances of the Meiji era that led to foreigners being responsible for the evaluation of ancient Japanese traditions.

Known as the era of civilization and enlightenment, the Meiji era was also a time of hardship for traditional Japanese culture.

Rapid westernization created a climate of disregard for tradition, and the ordinance to separate Buddhism and Shintoism led to an anti-Buddhism movement.

The Tokyo National Museum has a photograph of Kohfukuji temple in Nara from this period. The photo shows buddha statues with heads either removed or broken off lining the walls of the hall of the now-World Heritage site.

Although not directly entangled in the anti-Buddhism movement, an episode remains in the Shoso-in repository where a section of carefully preserved textile was cut off by the government, and its pieces were given to various parts of Japan.

That was said to have been part of the promotion of local industry, and the event tells us of the era when industrial development was prioritized over culture.

Courtesy of the Office of the Shosoin Treasure House at the Imperial Household Agency
“Wood Offering Box with Floral Design Painted in Gold and Silver on a Blue Ground”

Fenollosa’s Impact

Some foreigners who came to Japan to impart knowledge and technology to the Japanese had mixed feelings about the rapid westernization of the country.

Fenollosa — who came to Japan in 1878 as a philosophy and political economy professor — was one such person. He devoted himself to Japanese art and eventually became deeply involved in the government’s cultural policy.

As the government pushed to advance westernization, it needed a Westerner to protect traditional Japanese culture by asserting that he held it in high esteem. This strange arrangement highlights the domestic situation at the time.

Fenollosa joined a government-led team to survey ancient shrines and temples in the Kansai region. With Fenollosa as one of leaders, the team surveyed more than 30,000 ancient documents and artifacts in order to catalogue important items and protect them.

He highly praised Shoso-in, which preserves ancient artifacts along with their histories, as a one-of-a-kind museum, and the paintings kept in the University Art Museum are believed to have been made at that time. The exquisiteness of the drawings appear to show Fenollosa’s desire that this tradition should never be compromised.

One of the highlights is the speech Fenollosa gave in 1888 at Jokyoji temple in Nara, where he visited for research.

Entitled “To people of Nara,” the speech criticized Japan’s mimicry of Western culture. Fenollosa compared Nara, which is home to Shoso-in and numerous temples and shrines, to Rome, the center of Western civilization, saying the antiquities of Nara were not only the treasure of a region, but also the treasure of Japan.

When he finished his speech, the audience of 500 people gathered in the temple’s small main hall burst into thunderous applause.

Fenollosa returned to the United States in 1890, but his activities bore fruit in the establishment of museums in Tokyo, Nara and Kyoto, and in the enactment of the law for preservation of ancient temples and shrines, which became the root of the Protection of Cultural Properties Law today.

When the doors of Shoso-in were opened in the Meiji era, many of the treasures inside were damaged. “Biwa Lute Made of Sappan-Stained Maplewood with Mother-of-Pearl and Painting,” a four-stringed biwa lute that was derived from a Persian instrument, which will be exhibited this year, was repaired due missing parts and the peeling of decorative features.

Repairs were initially carried out in Tokyo by the Imperial Household Ministry, but in the Taisho era (1912-1926), the work was done by the Nara Imperial Museum — now the Nara National Museum — which was conceived by Fenollosa and established in 1895. The training of specialized staff lead to the current Office of the Shosoin Treasure House being established.

Fenollosa, who was also an art collector, has been criticized for taking Japanese treasures abroad. However, Aichi Gakuin University Associate Prof. Hitomi Inoue, who specializes in Japanese modern art history, said, “Fenollosa deserves credit for establishing the current framework of cultural property protection, which includes research, conservation and exhibition.”

On the way from JR Nara Station to the exhibition venue of the Nara National Museum sits Jokyoji. There is a sign in the temple’s precincts that reads, “Ernest Fenollosa: Discoverer of the beauty and heart of Japan.”

Courtesy of the Office of the Shosoin Treasure House at the Imperial Household Agency
“Biwa Lute Made of Sappan-Stained Maplewood with Mother-of-Pearl and Painting”