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Unkei was a sculptor of the Kei school, and is credited with creating[2] many of the most famous and treasured Buddhist sculptures of Nara and Kyoto.

Style and Methods

The figures of the Kei school are often cited as evoking more of a sense of realism than earlier modes, though the depictions are still highly fantastic and stylized. This realism, or naturalism, is seen mainly in the round three-dimensionality of the forms, in the relatively realistic, if idealized, ways the folds of robes fall over the figure, not adhering to the body as though transparent, and in the somewhat realistic proportions of the figures' bodies.[3]

Though many of Unkei's works, particularly those of muscular guardian figures, are also often described as evoking great power, there is a degree of restraint present which is not seen in later works, described by some scholars as vulgar and disfigured compared to the Kei school works. This last point, the ability to create figures with an aura of muscularity and virility without them seeming vulgar, is cited as a particular strength of Unkei's.[4]

While very innovative, the Kei school style also incorporated revivals of elements of earlier Nara and Heian period sculpture. Unkei in particular had opportunity to examine "masterpieces of early-Heian sculpture" when working at Tô-ji and Jingô-ji in the 1190s; previously, he had been exposed chiefly to the dry lacquer sculptures of Nara.[5] Though he developed a style which is often described words typical of descriptions of Kyoto area art, such as "elegant" and "refined", it is perhaps interesting to note that those works he produced in eastern Japan, with the aid of assistants from that region, bear signs of a distinctly more rustic and different carving technique as a result.[6]

In summarizing Unkei's works, art historian Môri Hisashi writes "that Unkei not only mastered the techniques of realism but also imbued his art with a magnificent heroic spirit. His sculpture, at the same time that it had a high artistic value, was easily understood by the average man."[7]

Like other sculptors of the period, Unkei created works both from single blocks of wood (ichiboku-zukuri) and from multiple blocks (yosegi-zukuri). In the latter case, as well as in the case of some other forms - such as warihagi sculpture, formed from one section of a split log, to which smaller pieces were then attached - Unkei sculpted both from the front (exterior) of the image, and from the back or interior.[8]

Very often, the head was carved separately and attached to the torso afterward. He is said to have carved the facial details first, before moving on to other parts of the head. Holes were carved in the face for the eyes, and sometimes for the nostrils. Paint was applied to the outsides of the eye sockets on the wooden head, and to the rock crystal eyes, which were held in place inside the statue's hollow head with lacquer paste or bamboo nails.[8] Ritual objects were often placed inside the hollow sculptures as well, including wooden sotoba (stupa-shaped) or gachirin (full-moon-shaped) plaques inscribed with Unkei's signature, the name of the patron, and other information; crystal gorintô (stupas/pagodas) were also not entirely uncommon.[9]


Unkei studied and worked under his father Kôkei, founder of the Kei school, alongside a number of other disciples. A work completed by Unkei in three weeks in 1175-1176, under the supervision of Kôkei, is the earliest extant known sculpture attributed to a Kei school sculptor. It is a seated Dainichi dated to 1176 and located at the Enjô-ji, near Nara. It features rock crystal eyes, an innovation attributed to Unkei by the Azuma Kagami in a section dealing with renovation efforts at the Môtsu-ji. Some scholars, however, question the accuracy of this account.[8]

Following the destruction wrought upon Nara by fighting and fires during the early stages of the Genpei War, in 1180-1181, Unkei is believed to have sought refuge in Kyoto, joining a temple as a monk. An 1183 copy of the Lotus Sutra is signed by him. The religious rituals performed during the preparation of this scroll indicate something of Unkei's devotion, and of the types of efforts which went into producing many of his works. The wooden dowels around which the scroll is rolled came from the ruins of Tôdai-ji, burned down in the 1181 siege of Nara; sacred water from Kyoto-area springs was used for the ink, and monks chanted the Lotus Sutra and engaged in prostrations and other rituals as the lines of the sutra were being copied.[8]

Immediately following the end of the Genpei War, as Kôkei, Kaikei, and others engaged in repairing and rebuilding the chief temples of Nara, Unkei journeyed to Kamakura, where he may have produced works for Minamoto no Yoritomo and his newly-established shogunate. In 1186, Unkei received a commission from Hôjô no Tokimasa, and produced images of Amida, Bishamonten, Fudô, Seitaka, and Kongara for Tokimasa's tutelary temple, the Ganjôju-in in Izu. Three years later, he produced a similar set of images - an Amida, two bodhisattvas, a Bishamonten, and a Fudô - for the Jôraku-ji near Kamakura, at the request of Wada Yoshimori.[10]

In 1193, Unkei was then commissioned by Ashikaga Yoshitane to produce a number of images for a sanctuary Yoshitane established near what is today Ashikaga city, Tochigi prefecture, for his advisor Rishin, which would in 1196 be formally founded as a temple by the name of Banna-ji. Among other works created at this time were two statues of Dainichi which have garnered much attention from the media and scholarship in recent years.[11]

Unkei returned to Kyoto/Nara after completing the Banna-ji commissions, and for a number of years afterward contributed, alongside his father Kôkei and other members of the Kei school, to the repair and replacement of the sculptures of Nara's great temples, destroyed in the Genpei War. These efforts included the repair or replacement of a number of statues for Tôdai-ji - in particular, Unkei is known to have had a hand in the carving of a statue of the bodhisattva Kokuzô, and one of Jikoku-ten, guardian of the East, though neither of these are extant today.[12]

After this major campaign of reconstruction was complete, Unkei, having inherited his father's Buddhist rank in 1195, and leadership of the school upon his father's death shortly afterward, moved their operations to Kyoto.[13][14] In the late 1190s, he repaired and created statues for a number of temples, including Jingô-ji, Tô-ji, and Gangô-ji. In 1198, he was named chief Buddhist sculptor (busshi) of Tô-ji, and from 1197 to around 1203, he repaired and produced a number of sculptures for the temple, many at the request of the monk Mongaku, and some financed by the shogunate.[15] He also received at least one imperial commission during this time, namely a white sandalwood statue of Fugen, produced for regent Konoe Motomichi in 1202.[5] Sometime later, he would establish his studio on Shichijô in Kyoto, and a family temple, called Jizô Jurin-in, in Hachijô Takakura nearby.[16]

His most famous works from this period include:

  • The pair of Niô guardian statues in the Nandaimon of Tôdai-ji, constructed in collaboration with Kaikei and with the aid of 18 other Kei school sculptors & assistants. Completed over the course of only 72 days in 1203, from multiple blocks (yosegi-zukuri), they are the tallest freestanding wooden sculptures in Japan.[17]
  • A pair of statues of the arhats (rakan) Muchaku and Seshin, and one of Miroku Buddha in yosegi-zukuri, located at the Hokuendô (North Octagonal Hall) of Kôfuku-ji and dated to around 1212.[18]

Around 1199-1201, he produced sculptures of Taishaku, Bonten, and Kannon alongside his eldest son Tankei, for the Takisan-ji in Okazaki. These statues were commissioned in memory of Minamoto no Yoritomo, who died in 1199, and Unkei placed relics of the late shogun inside the Kannon.[19]

Other works created for patrons connected to the shogunate around this time include:

As touched upon above, Unkei enjoyed strong connections with the shogunate and other prominent related figures, as well as in other corners as well. His imperial connections were strengthened when his daughter, Nyoi, was adopted by Reizei Tsubone, a lady-in-waiting to Fujiwara Shokushi, consort to Emperor Takakura and mother of Emperor Go-Toba. She inherited an estate in Ômi from Shokushi in 1199.[16]

Though in his last years he continued to produce works for patrons associated with the shogunate, there is no evidence that he traveled to eastern Japan (i.e. the region around Kamakura, the seat of the shogunate) again after returning to Kyoto in 1196. Works completed on commission from the shogunate, and other Kantô-area patrons, were produced in Kyoto and transported to the east.

He died on the eleventh day of the twelfth month of 1223.

2008 Dainichi Sale

In March 2008, a statue by Unkei of Dainichi was sold at auction at Christie's in New York for US$14,377,000, the most ever paid for a Japanese art object at auction (see Shimo no Midô Dainichi for further details on this work).[19]


  • Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.
  • Môri Hisashi. "Unkei: The Man and His Art." in Sculpture of the Kamakura Period. New York: Weatherhill, 1974. pp25-69.
  • Morse, Samuel C. "Revealing the Unseen: The Master Sculptor Unkei and the Meaning of Dedicatory Objects in Kamakura-Period Sculpture." Impressions 31 (2010). pp25-41.
  1. Mason. pp193, 195.
  2. Or leading the production of; most larger works were produced in a workshop environment, with the aid of assistants, and occasionally other master sculptors.
  3. Morse. p33.
  4. Môri. p51.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Môri. p49.
  6. Môri. p37.
  7. Môri. p66.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Morse. pp26-28.
  9. Morse. pp29-30, 37.
  10. Morse. pp29-30.
  11. Morse. p31.
  12. Môri. p45.
  13. Mason. p188.
  14. Môri. p40.
  15. Môri. p48.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Môri. p50.
  17. Mason. pp187-188.
  18. Mason. pp189-191.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Morse. p39.