The most recent addition to the museum’s collection of Japanese art is the wood sculpture Enlightenment by Hashimoto Chōshū, a donation from the Honolulu Myohoji Mission.

Between 1900 and 1945, the Imperial Japanese government actively supported the arts by commissioning or purchasing individual artworks and by sponsoring annual national exhibitions. These prestigious juried exhibitions attracted many tens of thousands of visitors each year, and the press reviewed them closely.

In 1930, Hashimoto Chōshū (1899–1960), a sculptor from Fukushima Prefecture who had recently returned from six months of Buddhist art research in India, submitted for the judges’ consideration Enlightenment (Hōetsu), a wooden figurative sculpture that combined traditional techniques of wood carving (kibori ) with a free-minded approach to Buddhist iconography. The acceptance of Chōshū’s sculpture into the national exhibition marked a turning point in the artist’s life. The following year, he received the grand prize (tokusen) for a similar work.

How did Enlightenment make its way to the museum? In 1931, the Buddhist priest Nisshu Kobayashi (d. 1965) founded the Honolulu Myohoji Mission; it is possible that Kobayashi brought Chōshū’s sculpture to Hawai‘i for the Mission. The sculpture has resided the temple since it opened up until this year, when Rev. Takamasa Yamamura, the current abbot of Honolulu Myohoji Mission, donated it to the Honolulu Museum of Art.

Chōshū’s sculpture depicts two women dressed in diaphanous robes and elaborate headdresses. One raises her right hand in what is likely meant to be the abhaya mudra, a gesture to dispel fear, while the other cradles in her hands a reliquary . The sculpture seems to have been inspired by esoteric Buddhist narratives, in which Chōshū expressed deep interest. Like the sculpture’s provenance, however, the artwork’s iconography remains a mystery.

Stephen Salel is the Robert F. Lange Foundation Research Associate for Japanese Art.