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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Visual and Material Culture at Hokyoji Imperial Convent: The Significance of "Women's Art" in Early Modern Japan

  • Author(s): Yamamoto, Sharon Mitsuko
  • Advisor(s): Levine, Gregory P. A.
  • et al.

This dissertation focuses on the visual and material culture of Hokyoji Imperial Buddhist Convent (Hokyoji ama monzeki jiin) during the Edo period (1600-1868). Situated in Kyoto and in operation since the mid-fourteenth century, Hokyoji has been the home for women from the highest echelons of society--the nobility and military aristocracy--since its foundation. The objects associated with women in the rarefied position of princess-nun offer an invaluable look into the role of visual and material culture in the lives of elite women in early modern Japan. Art associated with nuns reflects aristocratic upbringing, religious devotion, and individual expression. As such, it defies easy classification: court, convent, sacred, secular, elite, and female are shown to be inadequate labels to identify art associated with women. This study examines visual and material culture through the intersecting factors that inspired, affected, and defined the lives of princess-nuns, broadening the understanding of the significance of art associated with women in Japanese art history.

Specific examples of visual and material culture are studied in four chapters that challenge existing conceptions and elucidate women's art in Japan during the early modern period. Chapter One explores the historical circumstances of the convent's origins and the social, political, and religious place of Hokyoji in the visual culture of the early modern period. Chapter Two focuses on the painting program of Rice Cultivation in Four Seasons in the two most public rooms of Hokyoji's reception hall. The paintings are examined with consideration of the extent to which gender played a role in the decoration of the convent and how the choice of decorative theme may have impacted women in the convent. Chapter Three focuses on objects created by Tokugon Riho (later known as Hongakuin no miya), the twenty-second abbess of Hokyoji, highlighting the religious and imperial education that informs her art. The final chapter addresses the cultural significance both within and without the convent of a Tale of Genji-themed painted incense album by Hongakuin no miya. The album reflects personal interest, education, and the anticipation of a late Edo Genji boom in art and literature in urban centers and epitomizes cultural currents in imperial Buddhist convents and Kyoto society during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The trajectory the object takes from personal object of use to cultural marker is traced and discussed in this chapter.

Through close study of objects associated with Hokyoji nuns, it becomes possible to see how visual and material culture reflects, changes, and fulfills the lives of a segment of Japanese society for which our knowledge to date has been fragmented and incomplete. The larger goal of this dissertation is to contribute to an ongoing effort within the discipline to redefine and expand the borders of Japanese art history.

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