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Thirteen Great Buddha Statues in Japan

Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th​ century, in either 538 or 552 CE, on a journey from India that took several centuries. The king of Paekche, one of three Korean kingdoms, sent one of his sons to the Emperor of Japan. The mission presented an image of Buddha, several sutras, and other ceremonial items to the emperor, along with a letter that praised the dharma. Historians view the Korean mission as the introduction of Buddhism to Japan. While the powerful Soga clan welcomed the new religion, other influential families defied it for religious, political and xenophobic reasons. It was under the reign of Empress Suiko and her regent Prince Shōtoku that Buddhism gained significant traction. With the spread of the religion from Nara, temples emerged throughout the country. Prominent places of worship, such as the Tōdai-ji in Nara, erected vast statues of Buddha (大仏 Daibutsu) crafted in various materials, sizes, and poses. We want to present a selection of these magnificent statues, ancient and contemporary.

1. The Great Buddha of Tōdaiji (Nara Daibutsu)

Great Buddha of Tōdaiji (Nara Daibutsu)

The Nara Daibutsu was completed in 752 and embodies Buddha Birushana (毘盧遮那仏 Birushana-butsu), who was regarded by the Kegon sect to be the cosmic, central Buddha, presiding over myriads of worlds, each in turn ruled by a lesser Buddha, as described in the Flower Garland Sutra (華厳経 Kegon kyō). The tall image surpassed many contemporary Buddhist statues produced in Tang China (618-907) and became the symbol of Japan's rise from a backward country to a highly developed one. Over the centuries, the icon was severely damaged several times and finally restored to its present form in 1692. The statue is made of gilt bronze and is almost 15 metres tall. The Great Buddha is regarded as the National Treasure and a historical monument of ancient Nara.

2. The Great Buddha of Kamakura (Kamakura Daibutsu)

Great Buddha of Kamakura (Kamakura Daibutsu)

The Great Buddha of Kamakura is a bronze statue of Amida Nyorai (阿弥陀如来 Amitābha), the principal object of worship in Pure Land Buddhism. It was constructed in 1252 and is located on the premises of Kōtoku-in temple. Initially, the Daibutsu was inside a temple hall destroyed several times by storms, earthquakes, and tsunamis. The statue measures 13.35 metres in height and weighs 93 to 121 tonnes (depending on the source). Its other dimensions are not less impressive: the face measures 2.35 metres, each eye about one metre, the ears are 1.9 metres in length, and even the thumbs have a circumference of 85 centimetres. The statue is hollow. The interior can be visited for a nominal fee of 20 JPY. During the current coronavirus pandemic, however, it has been closed to the public. [Location]

3. The Great Buddha of Takaoka (Takaoka Daibutsu)

Takaoka Daibutsu (高岡大仏)

The Takaoka Daibutsu (高岡大仏) is located at Daibutsu-ji Temple in Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture. The original golden-coloured wood statue was built in 1221 and destroyed several times by fire and natural disasters. Today’s statue was completed in 1933, twenty-six years after its reconstruction began. It is made of bronze and stands 16 metres tall. [Location]

4. Jizō Bosatsu of Kenchōji

Jizō Bosatsu of Kenchōji

Although not a Daibutsu statue, the magnificent Jizō Bosatsu of Kenchōji has every right to be on our list. Jizō is a bodhisattva revered in East Asian Buddhism and usually depicted as a Buddhist monk. Jizō is the protector of the poor and the children. With the pedestal, the sculpture stands 4,95 metres tall. It was probably created after the great fire of 1414, which destroyed the original sculpture. [Location]

5. Ueno Daibutsu

Ueno Daibutsu

The original Ueno Daibutsu was a seated statue of Shaka Nyorai built in 1631 in Ueno at the private residence of the daimyō of Nagaoka domain, Hori Naoyori (堀直宥). It was made of clay and destroyed in an earthquake in 1640. The second clay statue fell victim to fire in 1841. In 1843, Hori Naohide, a descendant of Naoyori, had it rebuilt in bronze. The bronze statue survived the Great Ansei Earthquake in 1855 but was severely damaged. In the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, its head fell off, and the remaining fragments were stored at Kanei-ji temple, the Tokugawa family temple. In the Second World War, the bronze parts were melted down and repurposed for military use. Buddha's face, however, survived and has been on public display at the temple since 1972. [Location]

Ueno Daibutsu

Ueno Daibutsu in a Taishō-era postcard

6. Nihonji Daibutsu

Nihonji Daibutsu (日本寺大仏)

The Nihonji Daibutsu (日本寺大仏), a 31-metre tall statue of Yakushiji Nyorai (薬師如来), the Buddha of healing, was created in 1783 by Ōno Jingorō Eirei (大野甚五郎英令) and his 27 apprentices and was the largest stone-carved Buddha statue in pre-modern Japan. Ravaged by erosion and earthquakes, it was restored in 1966. [Location]

7. Gifu Daibutsu

Gifu Great Buddha (岐阜大仏)

The Gifu Great Buddha (岐阜大仏 Gifu Daibutsu) is a 13.7- metre tall statue of Shaka Nyorai (釈迦如来) located in Shōhō-ji temple in Gifu City. It was built in 1828 using a curious mix of materials: its central pillar is ginkgo tree wood covered in bamboo lattices and clay. The outer surface, covered in scriptures, is finished in lacquer and gold leaf. It is the largest statue of its kind in Japan. The Daibutsuden holds about 500 statues of various Buddhist disciples, while the entrance has a statue of Yakushi Nyorai (薬師如来, Buddha of Medicine). The Great Hall and the Buddha statue are unique in their architectural appearance. [Location]

8. Shurakuen Daibutsu

Shurakuen Buddha

Shurakuen Daibutsu (聚楽園大仏) is a statue located in Tokai, Aichi Prefecture. It was completed in 1927 to commemorate the marriage of Emperor Showa. It is made of reinforced concrete and was repainted in a copper colour in 1985. It stands 18.79 metres tall, outreaching the Buddha statues in Nara and Kamakura. [Location]

9. Tōkyō Daibutsu

Tōkyō Daibutsu

Tōkyō Daibutsu (東京大仏) is a Great Buddha built in 1977 and is about 12,5 metres tall. It is located in Jōren-ji temple in Itabashi. It is the third-largest Daibutsu, smaller only than the statues in Nara and Kamakura. [Location]

10. Shōwa Daibutsu

Shōwa Daibutsu

The Shōwa Daibutsu (昭和大仏) is a Great Buddha statue representing Vairocana, known in Japan as Dainichi Nyorai (大日如来), the principal deity of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. It is situated in Seiryū-ji temple (全仏山 青龍寺) in Aomori, a Kōyasan Betsuin affiliate temple, and was built by Oda Ryūkou in 1984. The Shōwa Great Buddha is 21.35 metres tall and depicted in the lotus position, making it the tallest seated bronze figure of Buddha in Japan. The Obon festival in August is the most important of this temple's festivals, attracting many people to this area. [Location]

11. Fukuoka Daibutsu (Tōchō-ji)

Fukuoka Daibutsu (Tōchō-ji)

The Fukuoka Daibutsu (福岡大仏) is the largest wooden statue of a sitting Gautama Buddha, with a height of 10.8 meters and a weight of 30 tonnes. Factoring in the halo and the thirteen Buddhas carved around it, the statue stands 16.1 metres tall. The height of 10.8 metres reflects the 108 vices in Buddhism. The Fukuoka Daibutsu is located at Tōchō-ji temple in Hakata, Fukuoka, the family temple of the Kuroda Clan (黒田家). [Location]

12. Fukuoka Daibutsu (Nehansō)

Fukuoka Daibutsu (Nehansō)

The Fukuoka Daibutsu is the world’s largest reclining Buddha statue (涅槃像 Nehansō) in the world. It was constructed in 1995 and is situated in Nanzoin temple (南蔵院) in Sasaguri, Fukuoka Prefecture. The temple was threatened with destruction by anti-Buddhist forces in the Meiji Period and was relocated from Koya-san in Wakayama Prefecture. The Nehansō has a length of 41metres and a height of 11 metres. [Location]

13. Ushiku Daibutsu

Ushiku Daibutsu (牛久大仏)

The Ushiku Daibutsu (牛久大仏) is located in Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture, and was completed in 1993. It stands some 120 metres tall (including a 10-metre base and a 10-metre lotus pedestal) and is the largest Buddha statue in Japan. The Guinness Book of World records listed it as the world's tallest statue till 2002, and it was the largest Buddha statue from 1993 to 2008 (nowadays, the largest Buddha stands in Lushan, China, with a height of 153 metres). The bronze statue is surrounded by a park, a flower garden, an Animal Park and a Koi pond. The statue is four-storeyed and houses a museum. About 3,300 golden Buddha statues are exhibited on the third floor in what is called 'The World of Lotus Sanctuary'. An elevator takes visitors to the chest of the Daibustsu and allows enjoying the beauty of the Ushiku region. [Location]

There are even more contemporary giant Buddha effigies scattered across Japan: the Hill of Buddha in Sapporo (2015), the Kamaishi Daikannon (釜石大観音) in Iwate, the Kannon Bosatsu in Akita, the Jibo Kannon (慈母観音) in Aizumura, Fukushima, Byakue Kannon (白衣観音) in Ofuna, Ryōzen Kannon (霊山観音) in Kyōto, Byakue Kannon (白衣観音、慈眼院) in Takasaki, Gifu, the Torii Kannon (鳥居観音、白雲山鳥居観音) in Hannō, Saitama, the Usami Kannon (宇佐美観音) in Usami Shizuoka, the Tōkyō Bay Kannon (東京湾観音) in Futtsu, Chiba, the Byakue Kannon (北海道大観音) in Ashibetsu, Hokkaidō, the Sitting Byakue Kannon (百尺観音) in Soma, Fukushima, the Big Jizō Statue (大地蔵) in Sado, Niigata, and the Awaji Kannon (世界平和大観音像, World Peace Great Kannon Statue), not counting in all the effigies carved in cliffs and caves.
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