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Explaining Pictures

A book review by Andrew May

First published in The Middle Way, August 2006

EXPLAINING PICTURES: Buddhist Propaganda and Etoki Storytelling in Japan, by Ikumi Kaminishi, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2006, ISBN 0 8248 2697 3, pp. 256, $52.

"Explaining pictures" is a literal translation of the Japanese word etoki, which can be used to mean either "pictures that explain" or the act of interpreting such pictures verbally. In a Buddhist context, etoki refers to a traditional form of sermon in which a picture - for example a wall-painting or hanging scroll in a temple, or a hand-scroll carried by a travelling missionary - is used to convey a religious message. Due to its strong visual appeal, especially among less educated and less literate classes, etoki played a major role in the spread and popularisation of Buddhism in Japan during the Middle Ages.

Professor Kaminishi’s book is divided into eight roughly chronological chapters covering the period between the 10th and 19th centuries, with particular emphasis on the Pure Land schools of Buddhism. She provides a detailed analysis of a few important etoki pictures, such as a pictorial biography of Prince Shotuku, and three intricate mandalas depicting various heavens and hells, but her main interest is not so much in the pictures themselves as in the practice of etoki as a religious and cultural phenomenon. Although the first etoki practitioners were ordained priests, by the fourteenth century the practice had spread to itinerant lay missionaries for whom etoki performances were a way of earning money as well as gaining converts. The complex and tantalising nature of etoki pictures meant that the best etoki performers - often women rather than men - could demand high prices from listeners desperate to have a picture properly deciphered for them!

This is a specialised book that will only be a "must read" for people interested in the social history of Japanese Buddhism. Aficionados of Buddhist art and iconography will find it less satisfying, although there is still something in the book for them. There are more than fifty black and white illustrations as well as twelve colour plates, but in many cases these are tiny reproductions of very large originals and so it can be frustratingly difficult to pick out the details that are referred to in the text.

Copyright © 2006 Andrew May

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