Kotoku-in (The Great Buddha)

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Microsoft's Encarta Encyclopedia introduces this cast-in-bronze statue as "the city's most celebrated landmark." Grolier Encyclopedia also says the statue is "the historic landmark." To any Japanese who refer to Kamakura, the first thing that crosses their mind would probably be this Great Buddha, or Daibutsu as is commonly called. Naturally, it is a National Treasure and one of the centerpieces of the city's cultural heritages, drawing nearly 1.2 million visitors a year. When President Obama visited Japan in November 2009, he said he had once come to the Temple in his childhood together with his mother, but was more focused on matcha ice cream. (Matcha is green powdered tea used at ceremonial tea party.) Exactly a year later on November 14, 2010, the President visited here again after the APEC Summit held in Yokohama, and ate matcha-icecream.

DaibutsuWhat was the motive and who built such a huge statue? When the Great Buddha Statue of Todaiji in Nara Prefecture was reconstructed in 1195, Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate, participated the inauguration ceremony together with his wife Masako (1157-1225). Seeing the colossal statue, he felt like building a matching one in Kamakura as a symbol to demonstrate his power. His wish never came true. He died four years later in 1199.

It was Yoritomo's court lady named 'Inada' {e-nah-dah} who tried to materialize Yoritomo's wish. She obtained an approval from Masako to go ahead with the project, and asked Priest Joko (his date of birth and death unknown), to travel across the country in search of alms, in other words, to solicit donations. The Kamakura Shogunate, then controlled by Hojo regents, did not give financial aids to the project because they patronized mainly Zen temples, whereas the Statue they planned to make was that of Amida (Amitabha in Sanskrit), which was venerated by Jodo sect Buddhists. In addition, Tokiyori Hojo (1227-1263), then the fifth Hojo Regent, was busy building Kenchoji, the first Zen temple.

Selection of this site, western part of Kamakura, to enshrine the Statue also reflected Jodo sect sentiment and their belief that the Lord of Pure Land Paradise dwells in the far west.

Priest Joko went on a fund-raising trip as a mendicant priest in March 1238, and he collected necessary funds at long last after going through many hardships. Construction of the Statue as well as its hall were finally completed in 1243. It was a statue made of wood, not a bronze one, with its head's girth as large as 24 meters.

Unfortunately, the statue was completely wrecked by a violent storm in 1247. Five years later in 1252, thanks again to the fund-raising campaign by Lady Inada and Priest Joko, construction of a new statue, not a wooden but bronze one this time, began with the help of caster Hisatomo Tanji (his date of birth and death unknown) and Goro-emon Ono (ditto). It took them more than a dozen years to finish up. The Great Buddha Statue we see today in the Temple is the one made at that time, though the exact date of completion remains obscure. Distinct from the statue in Todaiji in Nara is that the Statue here was built totally with the funds donated by the devout and well-wishers, getting no governmental or official aid whatsoever.

To commemorate Lady Inada's contribution, there is a cenotaph for her standing in the courtyard.

The Statue was originally housed in a large wooden building as high as 40 meters like the one in Todaiji. However, it was hit by another storm in 1335, and the building was severely damaged. The Kamakura Shogunate had collapsed two years earlier, and the area was still a battlefield for the new-comers and the remnants of the Hojo troops. Shortly before the typhoon hit the area, no fewer than 500 samurai of the Hojos had sought refuge in the building. Most of them were crushed to death, says the record, as the building collapsed.

In 1498, the area suffered again from the calamity of earthquake followed by a massive tsunami. The newly constructed building was totally ruined once more. Fortunately, the Statue was all right. Back at the time, the government was relocated from Kamakura to Kyoto under the Ashikaga Shogunate. They did not give a hand for reconstruction. The Statue has since never been housed, and has been sitting in the open air, weather-beaten, over 700 years up to now. Reminiscent of the old building are the foundation-stones that are found here and there near the gallery. On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude quake followed by deadly tsunami struck the pacific coast of northeast Honshu, killing more than 18,000 people. Cars and buildings were swept away by walls of tsunami wave, which reached 40.5 meters high in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, traveling up to 10 km. inland. Geologists say there is an 87 percent chance of a magnitude 8-plus earthquake hit Shizuoka, Kanagawa and Aichi prefectures within the next 30 years. The Temple is located just 1 km. from the seashore and 12 meters ASL. Tsunami could sweep away all the buildings around here, should the next big one occur. Not only Kamakura City Office is prepared for such a disaster, but it designated the Temple as an evacuation shelter. In the face of a looming crisis, the City revised its hazard mapping program.

The Statue had sometimes been left in natural erosion and neglect. As a matter of fact, it fell into disrepair to a point where the homeless and gamblers lived inside, making it their hideout. Saddened by the deteriorating condition, a priest Ken'yo-Yuten (1637-1718) by name at Zojoji in Tokyo, one of the seven main temples of Jodo Sect, tried to restore the old day glory of the Statue. His plan was not only to repair the Statue but also to build a large hall to house the Statue. He began to solicit contributions in 1712. Though the fund he collected was not enough to cover the construction cost of a new building, it was enough to revamp the Statue. Without his efforts, it might have been broken down by now.

In commemoration of the efforts exerted by Priest Yuten and major contributors, there are four round-shaped (lotus pedals) bronze plates lying just behind the Statue, on which donators' names are engraved. Minor repairs were made twice in recent years; once in 1923 after the Great Kanto Earthquake by which the base of the Statue was damaged, and the other in 1960. The latter was to reinforce the neck part as well as the base so that it can survive should a similar-size quake occur.

Except for the Nio-mon gate or the two Deva Kings (the guardian gods of temple) at the entrance, the Temple does not look like a Buddhist temple. First of all, there is no graveyard in sight. It looks more like a park with a statue of a hero placed in the center. Children are romping around, and many sightseers taking photos before the Statue. If you see some prostrate themselves and pray to the Statue, probably they are the Buddhists from Asian countries where the Theravada Buddhism is prevailing.

The real Kotoku-in temple, meanwhile, sits east of the gallery, and it is off-limits to occasional visitors.

Richard Cocks (1566-1624), a commercial attache of England stationed in Nagasaki city for ten years, once visited here in 1616. He was quoted as saying that the Statue must be larger than the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In view of the Statue standing over 700 years without collapsing, it may deserve to be ranked the 8th Wonder of the Ancient World.

How big is the Statue ?

The Statue is roughly seven-tenths the size of the Great Buddha Statue in Todaiji, Nara.
The following are measurements by parts (in meter):

Height: 11.36 (Front), 11.47 (Back)
Head length: 4.00 (vertical)
Depth 11.45
Width 9.63 (knee level)
Eye length: 0.94
Eyebrow: 1.21
Ear length: 2.00 (left), 1.94 (right)
Beard length: 0.24
Nose: 0.79 (length), 0.30 (height) 0.73 (width)
Mouth length: 0.94
Total weight: 125 metric tons

Component: copper; 68.8 percent, lead; 20.0 percent, tin; 9.3 percent, reminder; iron and aluminum
Thicknesss of the bronze varies depending on the part of the Statue with the range of 3 to 12 centimeters.

Take a look at the Statue closely, and you will notice several slight horizontal lines appearing on it. This tells that it was a patchwork made with eight pieces of bronze. Even today's technology, however, can not find out precisely how it was cast and built. The original, brand-new Statue may have been quite different in appearance from what we see today. It was gilt all over and should have been glittering. As the time wore, the gilt came off, and today we can recognize its traces of the original coloring only in its ears.

The hand positions making circles with thumb and index fingers of both hands is one of the typical patterns in Amida Nyorai statues in Japan and it is called 'jo-bon jo-sho-in'. Some specialists say that the Statue is of higher artistic value than that of Todaiji in Nara, indicating its beautiful proportion, powerfulness, intelligence and dignity. It is the only National Treasure in the Kanto region (metropolitan Tokyo and its surrounding prefectures) as far as Buddha statues are concerned.

Visitors can go underneath the Statue with an additional fee of 20-yen.

Kangetsu-do Hall

In the backyard behind the gallery is a sub-temple named Kangetsu-do, literally a moon-viewing hall. Enshrined inside the hall is a statue of Sho Kan'non or Arya-avalokitesvara in Skt., which was fashioned during the Edo Period (1603-1868). It ranks last of the Thirty-Three Kamakura Kan'non Pilgrimage. Sculptor unknown. The Hall was initially consecrated to the memory of Priest Yuten.

The Hall used to stand at Gyeongbokgung, Seoul, Korea. A hundred years ago when Korea was under Japan's rule, the Korean Royal family borrowed money from a bank pledging the Hall as a collateral. The Family defaulted and the Hall was foreclosed. As a result, the ownership was handed from the Family to a CEO of a Japanese brokerage house. This CEO later donated the Hall to the Temple in 1924.

Fortunately for Gyeongbokgung, it was agreed in May 2010 between Japanese and Korean Buddhist associations that the Hall be returned to Korea shortly.

Stone-marker of a Tanka-poet
On the right-hand side of the Kangetsu-do hall stands a stone marker, on which a tanka written by Akiko Yosano (1878-1942), a famous poetess, is inscribed. Tanka is a 31-syllable verse consisting of five metrical units of 5, 7, 5, 7 and 7 syllables respectively. Though the letters are blurring, it reads:


This tanka depicts her first impression at the time she saw the Statue. It was summer and she felt it looked like a good-looking Shaka (Sakyamuni in Skt.). Strictly speaking, she was wrong. The Statue is not Sakyamuni but Amida. This story is well known and quoted even in a 1949 novel written by Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972), a Nobel prize-winning writer, entitled The Sound of the Mountains (1949), in which he gave a picture of a family in Kamakura during the 1930s. An elderly married couple have a son who just married, and they are living together under the same roof. The son has adulterous affairs and his father comforts the daughter-in-law, trying also to separate the son from a woman he has affairs with. Relationship between the son and his wife, though a quiet woman she is, becomes so destructive that she has an abortion. Spiritually, she relies on her father-in-law. The story written in beautiful language really warms the heart of the readers. Somewhere in the latter half of the story, the family take a stroll around the Great Buddha, and the father point out that Sakyamuni in Akiko Yosano's tanka is not correct. (Note: The Sound of the Mountains was translated into English by Prof. Edward G. Seidnsticker.)

These days, visitors to the Temple are shared mostly by foreigners from Asian countries. We Japanese cannot tell ourselves from Chinese or Koreans by appearance. The language they speak makes it clear if they are foreigners.

The couple who attended President Obama appearing in the picture of the USA Today above are 15th chief priest (47) of the Temple, and her mother (75). The priest is wearing a Buddhist garment of Jodo sect and her mother's kimono is a formal dress worn when visting or inviting important guests. Seeing the President eat matcha ice-cream on TV, ice-cream vendors in Kamakura began to sell it naming Oba-matcha, and it is reportedly selling quite well. His visit to Kamakura was a big topic in Japan and was televised nationwide on the night. Unfortunately, however, newspapers didn't report the next morning as it was a newspaper holiday. Once a month, usually the second or third Monday, all Japanese newspapers stop publishing in concert. It is a typical cartel among publishers, but the Japanese FTC has never questioned it as it is a long-honored practice. (President Obama's visit to the Temple seems to have heightened sightseers' concern over Kamakura. According to the city office of Kamakura, the number of visitors to Kamakura in 2010 totaled 19.5 million, up 3.5 percent over 2009, reaching a 14-year high.)

(Updated July 2013)