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Wednesday, April 18, 2001

Leaves left by the divine wind

When all Japan stood united against Kublai Khan

When England was conquered by the Normans in 1066, it was profoundly changed. We might expect the same to have been true in Japan's case if it had fallen to the invading Mongols and their Chinese and Korean auxiliaries in 1274 or 1281.

Two things prevented Mongol success. One was the famous kamikaze typhoons, which each time wrecked large parts of the invading fleets. The other was the unyielding resistance of the Japanese and their leader Hojo Tokimune (1251-1284). To coincide with the current NHK Sunday night historical series on Tokimune, the Edo Tokyo Museum is staging an exhibition of Kamakura artifacts focused on the heroic events of his life.

"Illustrated biography of St. Ippen" by Hogan En'i, picture scroll

The scrolls and documents on display include everything from official and diplomatic correspondence to diaries and poems. Among them is a copy of the letter sent from the court of Kublai Khan in 1268 demanding tribute from the smaller island nation.

Perhaps the most spectacular is an original sutra scroll from the brush of Nichiren (1222-1282), one of the great characters of the period. This 1281 scroll is in good condition and shows the unique calligraphy of the Buddhist monk who was at the forefront of the religious tumult of the time. His kanji are in different sizes, with long, sweeping brush strokes that cut across each other, creating an almost Gothic density hinting at his complex and powerful mind.

Often at odds with the authorities, Nichiren claimed that the Mongol aggression resulted from a lack of faith in the Lotus Sutra, which he preached as the essence of Buddhism. An old, smoke-damaged scroll portrait shows a rather pugnacious exterior, but with a hint of kindness.

"Hojo Tokiyori" by Ikku, wooden portrait sculpture

The portraits are one of the strengths of the exhibition. The best are the wooden sculptures, which show great individuality.

The wooden statue of the monk Eison, made to commemorate his 80th birthday in 1281, shows him holding a hossu, a kind of ceremonial whisk made from white bear hair and a symbol of religious authority. The long white hair of the hossu echoes Eison's long, drooping eyebrows, creating a charming effect.

While courtiers had great influence during the Heian Period (794-1185), the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) was a time dominated by soldiers and monks. The Mongol threat gave these two groups even more importance. After the first exploratory attack by the Mongols in 1274, the regent Tokimune, based at the military capital of Kamakura, mobilized the country's military might, while the priests and the people sought to defend Japan through prayers to gods and Buddhas.

The eclipse of Kyoto's court culture by these two groups helped not only to stave off invasion, but also gave Japanese culture a new vigor and depth. This was a time when many Zen monks came over from the tottering Sung state in southern China to be welcomed by the Kamakura nobility. Several fine Chinese celadon vessels on display attest to Kamakura Japan's strong links with the doomed Southern Sung, which fell to the Mongols in 1279.

The weapons displayed include many fine examples of Japanese swords, including several that belonged to the Hojo clan, as well as a couple of suits of Japanese armor, made from metal scales laced together with cords and weighing up to 20 kg. Thus armed, and entrenched behind palisades, the samurai were able to offer stern resistance when a vast Mongol armada returned to the site of the earlier invasion in 1281.

The Mongol weapon of choice was the composite bow. Its great strength, combined with cavalry tactics, had proved invincible over the wide open spaces of Eurasia. Japan, however, was a different proposition. The narrow, rocky coasts, sternly defended, kept the Mongols at bay for weeks until the weather took a hand and wrecked the invading fleet.

"Hojo Tokimune and His Time" runs until May 27 at the Edo Tokyo Museum, (03) 3626-9974, near Ryogoku Station on the JR Sobu Line. Admission 900 yen, students 450 yen, over 65 free.

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