Enma and his Attendants
Have you seen the movie The Invalid, directed by Juzo Itami? It
is the story of a man dying of cancer. This theme is used to show
the bewilderment with which our modern society deals with death.
Why is death so frightening? Maybe it's because we don't really
know what will come afterwards. Will it be a great, unlimited darkness?
This is where religions play a role. Religions are important to
us because they tell us what will happen after death. Christianity
says that people go to heaven or hell after death, but Buddhism
claims that through reincarnation, the deceased are reborn into
another world. After a person dies, however, he or she first must
appear before Enma, king of the underworld, who judges the person
as good or bad and decides into which afterworld he or she will
be sent. The worst world to go to is the Buddhist hells.
This idea of reincarnation originally came from India. Before entering
Japan, however, Buddhism passed through China, where it became mixed
with native Chinese religious beliefs. The Chinese believed that
there were many kings who administered the afterlife, including
one named Taizanfukun. When this belief was combined with the Indian
beliefs, a whole new system called "Ten Kings Worship"
was created. In this new Chinese Buddhism, ten kings, including
Enma and Taizanfukun, were chosen to rule the afterlife. The dead
person would have to be judged ten times before going on to the
Enma was believed to be the most important of these kings, so his
statue would always be placed in the center, with Taizanfukun and
another king called Godo Tenrin-o on either side. In front of these
three kings sat two officials: a judgment-reader (shimyo and a record-taker
Look at the photo below.
King Enma and His Attendants
These are the sculptures of King Enma and his attending kings and
officials that were kept for many years in the Kyoto National Museum
(although they left the KNM in 2002 to go back to a newly constructed
hall at the temple). They are arranged just as described above.
These statues are originally from a temple called Enmado, but they
are now owned by a temple in Kyoto called Hoshaku-ji in Oyamazaki-cho,
Kyoto Prefecture. They are the oldest statues of their kind and
date to the beginning of the Kamakura period, in the 13th century.
Look more carefully at the eyes on these statues.
King Enma and His Attendants (King Enma)
The eyes glitter because they are made of quartz. Inlaid quartz
eyes are a unique characteristic of sculptures from the Kamakura
Now, pretend you are the spirit of someone who has just died. You
are standing in a hall awaiting judgment from these kings and officials.
You hear an angry voice coming from the judge's bench. As you look
up to the bench, you see the menacing eyes of the judge glistening
in the lamplight. Suddenly you remember all the bad things you have
ever done in your life, and you are filled with shame and despair!
This is the effect these statues are meant to have!
When you look at enormous statues of godlike figures in a dark hall,
you might for an instant have the illusion that they are real. These
are the same feelings that people have experienced throughout time.
If you are able to experience these feelings, you have taken your
first step in understanding history!
Every year in July, the Japanese celebrate Obon, the Festival of
the Dead. Some places celebrate it in August in accordance with
the old lunar calendar. A similar festival called Jizobon is also
in August. Regardless of when they are conducted, these festivals
are a time for the Japanese to contact and make offerings to the
spirits of their ancestors every year in hopes that they won't suffer
in the afterlife. In the same way, people in the Kamakura period
made prayers to King Enma and his attendants that they would not
be thrown into Buddhist hell, and so that the spirits of their ancestors
wouldn't suffer in their lives after death.
Text by Shiro Ito, Department of Museum Research
Illustrations by Satoshi Ichida, Department of Public Relations
English translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives