SOAS University of London

Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts

Art And Religious Experience In Premodern Japan

Module Code:
Module Withdrawn
0.5 unit
Year of study:
Year 1 or Year 2

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

The course aims at giving students an advanced introduction to religious arts of Japan of ancient through early modern times. While there are no language prerequisites, students will be expected to become familiar with specialized technical terms and concepts required for the study of religious art and architecture. The course will also be useful to students of religious history who wish to become more familiar with visual aspects of religious experience in Japan.

  • Student will become familiar with approximately 200-300 images of painting, sutra texts, sculpture, and architecture; a slide test at the end of the term will encourage students to review and reinforce their visual memory.
  • The writing assignment gives students an opportunity to use library and online resources to do detailed research on a subject of their choosing.
  • Students will receive guidance in class and in office hours on how to develop a thesis and strengthen the presentation of their arguments in written form.
  • Classroom discussions (non-assessed) on pre-announced topics will encourage students to gain confidence in expressing their thoughts on subjects they have read about outside of class.
  • By the end of the course, students should be equipped with analytical tools and conceptual frameworks that will allow them to pursue their own research interests with greater confidence. The course, therefore, would be suitable preparation for a student deciding to continue on the MPhil/PhD track.


11 one-hour lectures and 11 one-hour tutorials.

Scope and syllabus

The course is specifically designed to complement other offerings in the history of East Asian art offered by the Department of Art and Archaeology. This course would also serve as an excellent option for students in religious studies programmes. Student of religious art of other areas of the world would certainly benefit from it as well.

The course follows a broad chronological progression, focusing primarily on Buddhist art of the ancient and medieval eras. A distinctive feature of Japanese religious experience is the degree of overlap and interconnectedness of religious and philosophical systems. Japan inherited (with different degrees of enthusiasm) the three major traditions of East Asian thought from the continent--Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. In response to the import of these foreign thought systems, an indigenous system of beliefs was codified and called Shinto, literally, 'the way of the gods'. The course is designed to introduce the fundamental intellectual, religious, and ideological underpinnings of Japanese society. Along with focusing in on the architectural significance of temples such as Horyuji, Todaiji, and Byodoin, we discuss the most commonly encountered iconography of early Buddhist/Shinto painting and sculpture, then examine later developments in medieval Zen and popular religious arts.

Key themes of course

  1. Introduction to course and themes
  2. Bukkyo, 'Buddhism'
  3. Kegon-shu, 'Flower Garland sect'
  4. Shingon-shu, 'True Word sect'
  5. Jodo-shu, 'Pure Land sect'
  6. Shinto, 'Way of the gods
  7. Koso-den, 'Legends of Eminent Priests'
  8. Zen-shu, 'Meditation sect'
  9. Chanoyu, 'Tea Ceremony'
  10. Jukyo, 'Confucianism'
  11. Viewing sessions at the British Museum

Method of assessment

One 5,000 word essay worth 75% due on the final school deadline.

One slide test worth 25%.

Suggested reading

  • S. Addiss, The Art of Zen (New York, 1989).
  • S. Barnet and W. Burto: Zen Ink Paintings (New York, 1982)
  • H. Brinker and H. Kanazawa, Zen Masters of Meditation in Images and Writings (Zurich, 1996)
  • J. Fontein and M. Hickman, Zen Painting and Calligraphy (Boston, 1970).
  • E. Grotenhuis, Japanese Mandalas: Representations of Sacred Geography
  • C. M. E. Guth, Art, Tea, and Industry: Masuda Takashi and the Mitsui Circle (Princeton, 1993)
  • S. Hayashiya, Chanoyu, Japanese Tea Ceremony (New York, Japan Society, 1979),
  • H. Kanazawa, Japanese Ink Painting: Early Zen Masterpieces (New York, 1975).
  • C. G. Kanda: Shinzô: Hachiman Imagery and its Development (Cambridge, MA, 1985)
  • KURATA Bunsaku, Hôryûji: Temple of the Exalted Law (New York, 1981), 18-31.
  • Y. Mino, et al. The Great Eastern Temple: Treasures of Japanese Buddhist Art from Tôdaiji (Chicago, 1986)
  • Wm. Lafleur, Karma of Words (Berkeley, 1983)
  • The Renaissance of Japanese Sculpture (British Museum, 1991)
  • H.P. Varley and Kumakura I., Tea in Japan:Essays on the History of Chanoyu (Hawaii, 1989).


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules