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Asuka Period

Updated on January 25, 2013

AD 538 to 710

During the second half of the fifth century, Buddhism became the official religion of Japan. Chinese art and custom, first introduced during the Yayoi period, almost entirely supplanted the indigenous culture. Representation of the major Buddhist deities dominates Asuka sculpture and all the works rely heavily on Chinese models.

Most statues were executed in wood or bronze rather than stone and were therefore rarely of monumental scale, the head of the colossal bronze Buddha of Asukadera (606) being among the few extant examples.

The famous Shaka Triad (623) bronze, depicting Buddha seated between two Bodhisattvas, is perhaps superior in its humane serenity to the Chinese works from which it is derived. Wooden sculptures such as the many kwannons at Horyuji temple were usually painted in gilt and brilliant colors.

Building in the Asuka period was concentrated on the construction of temples and monasteries in the Chinese style, whose main components were the pagoda and the kondo (main hall). The best preserved is Horyuji temple (original 607, rebuilt circa 670) thought to be the oldest wooden structure in the world.

Buddhism provided the impetus for the emergence of Japanese painting. Most Asuka paintings depict episodes from Buddhist legends like those scenes on the lacquered doors and panels of the Tamasumishi Shrine (mid seventh century).

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