Faces of Faith: Early Japanese Religious Statuary at the Sainsbury Centre

Date: 18th June – 3rd October 2021

It is said that 1,400 years ago a giant of Japanese history passed away, leaving behind a legacy which defined the formation of a nation. In bringing Buddhism to the Japanese courts, Prince Regent Shōtoku Taishi came to power through his marriages to the daughters of the Empress Suiko and ushered in a new era of faith, politics and artistic expression which laid the foundation for the nation state.

Female Shinto Deity, Japan, Kamakura period, AD 1185-1332.
Sainsbury Centre, object number 1146
Photo: Sainsbury Centre

Now, as museums across Japan commemorate this anniversary, the Sainsbury Centre presents its fascinating collection of rare Buddhist and Shinto artefacts to celebrate the UK-Japan season of culture and invites you to step in to this time of monumental change in East Asia, centred around the exceptional Kamakura period (13th century) statue, the Female Shinto Deity. We will also replicate the Shōtoku Taishi Biographic Scroll through a high-resolution video annotation courtesy of the Tokyo National Museum.

The display joins a series of events in Norwich which seek to deepen the curiosity in Japan generated in the UK by the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. Our Shōtoku intervention aims to contextualise the range of Japanese artefacts on display in the Sainsbury Centre through the life of Shōtoku Taishi.

Researching Prince Shōtoku

As part of my MA in Cultural Heritage & Museum Studies, it was my pleasure to do a placement with the Sainsbury Institute in organising this display at the Sainsbury Centre. In researching Prince Shōtoku, a number of challenges soon arose in how to concisely explain him to a general audience unfamiliar with early Japanese history: it was difficult to tell where the myths ended and the facts began with the legendary prince; to understand the significance of the introduction of Buddhism, it was necessary to understand what faith structures existed before; and as a regent to an empress, the role of women in the court needed to be explored too.

The trick to any good display is to say a lot in as few words as possible. Dense walls of text are a quick way to put off your audience, a philosophy at the heart of the Sainsbury Centre’s interpretative style where the focus is on the object. It was with this in mind that I proposed the title Faces of Faith as we wanted the visitor to be immediately drawn to the face of our Female Shinto Deity and to ask themselves what they saw there: the calm composure of a driven politician; the commanding stare of a shrewd military tactician; or perhaps the reassuring gaze of a protective goddess?

We still believe, however, that visitors who wish to learn more should have their appetites sated. To avoid excessive text, we decided to turn our popular podcast series, Beyond Japan, to the task and set about recording three experts to contextualise the display in accessible terms.

Beyond Japan Podcast Series

To better explain the significance of Prince Shōtoku and this dynamic period of Japanese history, the Sainsbury Institute has dedicated three episodes of its Beyond Japan podcast series to explore three themes of the faith, politics and history of early Japan. The series demonstrates the international and interdisciplinary significance of Japanese Studies, breaking down key topics through accessible conversation with leading experts and scholars in the field. Visitors to the display curious to learn more about early Japan can scan QR codes which will let them instantly listen to a half-hour episode straight from their phone. This content is available at where a digital display space will be released on the 18th June launch date. The three episodes are presented below:

Oliver Moxham is a Project Support Officer at the Sainsbury Institute and host of the Beyond Japan podcast series. He is currently finishing his MA in Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies at the University of East Anglia.

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