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Momoka Miyoshi’s Modern Take on Buddhist Statues

Momoka Miyoshi is a young sculptor who made a sensation on social media thanks to her graduation art project, Day Off. The statue shows a Nio guardian–a Buddhist figure that usually stands at the entrance of temples with an angry face–on its day off. The statue’s gentle expression as it is holding a baby provoked many emotional and positive reactions from Japanese people on the internet.

Curious about what gave birth to its concept and the creative mind behind it, I asked Momoka for an interview. At the time, I did not anticipate it would be one of my most emotional interviews. Read on to learn how Momoka became a sculptor, her complex relationship with Buddhist statues, and the moving backstory that fuels all of her art pieces.

Discovering Sculpture as a Means of Expression

Sculpture is the best way for me to put what I have in my head into shape.

Why did you choose sculpting as a career?

It naturally happened as I kept working on what I was good at. I would not say I liked studying, but people often praised me for my drawings. I enjoyed drawing, so I decided to prioritize what felt fun to me and entered an art high school. I learned sculpture, oil painting, traditional Japanese painting, and design there. That is how I discovered I have more talent for sculpture than other arts. It is the best way to put what I have in my head into shape.

After that, I planned to apply to a university where you do not need to take an entrance exam but are judged on your high school results. However, my high school had a high education continuance rate. Some teachers visited us to introduce their art yobiko [private schools that prepare students for university entrance exams] in Tokyo. One of them told me I had the potential to enter the prestigious Tokyo University of the Arts. I took his words seriously and decided to give it a shot. I managed to pass the entrance exam, although it took me an extra year.

You were part of the Sculpture Conservation and Restoration Laboratory at Tokyo University of the Arts. How did this happen, and what did you study there?

I passed the entrance exam for the Department of Sculpture. I did my master’s degree at the Sculpture Conservation and Restoration Laboratory. What we students mainly learn there is how to restore Buddhist sculptures. Teachers and students asked me if I would enter the Laboratory. Because I had produced some Nio guardians sculptures and some jaki sculptures during my undergraduate studies. I realized that I probably unconsciously wanted to learn more about Buddhist sculptures and decided to join. The art pieces I wanted to create were of Buddhist taste. I thought restoration could be an excellent backup job if, someday, I did not want to be an artist anymore.

Instead of a master’s thesis, students of the Laboratory must produce a statue with the same materials and techniques that artisans used in the past. I decided to create a replica of a statue in Shojuin Temple in Kyoto. It is a famous statue of Acala that Kaikei made.

Momoka’s replica of the statue of Acala.

You make terracotta statues. What are the specificities of this medium, and why did you choose it?

I have studied sculpture using wood, stone, metal, clay, etc., and clay was the easiest way to sculpt what I wanted. I appreciate that terracotta allows for a lot of freedom. It is hard to repair your mistake if you carve too much wood. However, with terracotta, it is effortless to remove and add material. It is also easy to modify the angle.

Terracotta breaks easily, but at the same time, it also keeps well. For example, Haniwa [Japanese ancient clay figures] are terracotta. Wood statues can disappear in fires; in Japanese history, we have lost many Buddhist statues. If they had been made from terracotta, they would still be there!

Buddhist Statues as a Link to the Past

A small statue of a Nio guardian and a komainu before firing

What do Nio guardians and komainu [lion-dogs guarding the entrance of Shinto shrines] represent to you?

First, I would like to explain that there are four ranks among the Buddha statues you can see in the main buildings at Buddhist temples. The Buddha statues with little dots on the head, and a point on the forehead, are Nyorai statues. Often, they are accompanied by a Buddha statue wearing a beautiful robe. They are the Bosatsu, who practice in order to become Nyorai. Under them, there are the Myo-o. Under the latest, there are the Tenbu [Hindu demi-gods who were incorporated into Buddhism.] Nio guardians are part of this group. 

Usually, the Nyorai statues are far in the back, or even kept in a closed space, so you cannot really see them well. Until I entered the Sculpture Conservation and Restoration Laboratory, I hardly realized they were there because I never took praying seriously. In my mind, The Nyorai and the Bosatsu are so highly ranked that I feel they wouldn’t come and meet humans. Compared to them, Nio guardians and komainu were close to me and easy to relate to. 

Ancient Buddhist statues help me realize the reality of time.

Where does your specific interest in Nio guardians come from?

My father passed away when I was five years old, and because of that, my relatives and I often went to the local Buddhist temple. So, I often saw the Nio guardians standing at the entrance. Also, my grandfather on my father’s side looked a lot like a Nio guardian [laughs]. Because of that, Nio guardians felt very familiar.

For you, what makes Buddhist statues so special?

Of course, they look imposing. They also make me think of our place in time.

I can hardly remember my father. However, there is a pine tree at our local temple that is more than a thousand years old, which means the temple has been there for at least that long. I look at that tree and the Buddhist statues and imagine my father coming to this temple. I wonder if he also thought the Nio guardians looked like his father. I also think of my grandparents on my mother’s side, whom I have never met. I wonder if they looked at these things too, and I feel a connection with them.

Such ancient buildings and statues exist because many people have successively cared for them: people at the temple clean them every day, and if a sculpture is broken, an artist will restore it. I am moved by how it links all these people through time.

It is hard to fully realize that the world already existed before our birth and that it will keep existing after our death. Sometimes, I wonder if it is not just a dream. Ancient Buddhist statues help me realize the reality of time.

The Moving Backstory of Day Off and Nio on a Segway

Nio on a Segway and Jaki Using Smartphones

In my mind, the Nio guardians and my grandfather were like one entity.

Why did you decide to show another side of  Nio guardians in your creations?

When my father passed away, I knew nothing about death, so I kept asking family members and funeral attendees about it.. People told me my father was going to “a place very far away, with the Buddhas.” When I asked who the Buddhas were, I was told they were the most important beings in the universe. I was told that, in the end, everybody goes there, but since my father was such a good person, the Buddhas wanted him to come a little earlier. When I asked what kind of place that was, I was told that it was a place without suffering and that my father would have a banquet with the Buddhas every day.

I concluded that the Buddhas’ job was to entertain those who passed away. After that, when I went to the temple and saw the Buddha statues’ serious faces, I thought it was hypocritical because they were having a good time all day. I was convinced that our prayers would never be answered. If you are hungry, the Buddhas will not give you food. And if you pray because you are sick and recover, how can you know it is thanks to them? They were not bringing the dead back to life. I resented them because they did not do anything and just had fun. I did not like them and did not understand why people would pray to them.

I also did not like my grandfather, who looked like a Nio guardian. He was scary, and I think I only talked to him five times my whole life. I thought he had no interest in me. He was tall compared to me, and I always had to look up to look at his face, which is another common point with Nio guardians. Like them, he was bald and had the same body structure. When he walked, I thought that probably was the way Nio guardians would walk.

Before entering the temple, my mother always asked me to bow “because we are entering the house of the Buddhas.” When I bowed, I always wondered why I had to bow before them, although they never did anything for us. I bowed to the Nio guardians, but at the bottom of my heart, I thought, “old fart!” [laughs] In my mind, the Nio guardians and my grandfather were like one entity.

I make Nio guardians to apologize for my mistakes and as a gesture of gratitude.

When I was in middle school, my grandfather was hospitalized, and we visited him with my mother. I was anxious to go because my grandfather usually did not speak much, and I could only imagine awkward silence during our visit. However, my grandfather and mother could not stop talking, and my grandfather told many funny stories. I was shocked and expressed it to my mother on the way home. She said, “Of course he’s funny; he’s your father’s father! “I had always been told my father was an amusing person. At that moment, I realized that the person who I thought was an “old fart” really was my father’s father.

She also told me, “Your grandmother likes speaking so much that when he is with her, he has no time to speak. That’s why you never heard him so much until now.” I talked about that with my elder sister. She told me she liked seeing my grandfather smile beside my talkative grandmother. I realized that I had been wrong all that time and that the aspects I see in people do not reflect them as a whole.

I could finally differentiate between the Nio guardians and my grandfather. I changed my mind about Nio guardians too. I realized that through time, they must have seen many people who came to the temple because they had worries. They had been looking over us all that time. I had been blaming the Buddhas for all the things I could not accept. I had been jealous of people who were able to pray candidly.

I realized all of that and turned these feelings into pieces of art. I make Nio guardians to apologize for my mistakes and as a gesture of gratitude for watching over me so far.

I want the Buddhas to experience the joys of our terrestrial life.

Day Off

Can you tell us more about Day Off and Nio on a Segway?

Another reason why I made Day Off is because I feel Buddhism is losing its influence in Japan. I think it is because people live longer and in better conditions. I feel like Buddhism is slowly disappearing. It is sad, but at the same time, it is because people in Japan live happier lives than before. I do not pray when I go to the temple: I prefer to tell the Buddhas all the fun things I have been doing lately!

As a result, I think Buddhas have fewer prayers to answer and more free time [laughs]! I want them to take a day off and have a good time, which is why I made a Nio guardian on his day off. When I made that statue, my elder sister had just had a baby. Since I want the Buddhas to experience the joys of our terrestrial life, I made the Nio guardian hold a baby to show them what it is like.

For Nio on a Segway, my first one, I wanted to show the Buddhas how easy life has become for humans thanks to technology. I thought that if they could go outside the temple, they would be surprised by the number of cars in the streets. I guessed a Segway would be even more impactful and chose that topic. That is also why I sculpt jaki using smartphones.

In the future, I would like to make a Nio guardian waiting for his food in front of the microwave or in a swim ring, ready to go to the beach. I also would like to make pieces showing happy moments of life without technology, like a Nio guardian and jaki stargazing. I want them to have a lot of fun experiences!

Both pieces are very big. How did you fire them?

For Day Off, I used one of my university kilns, which was big enough to fire it as is. Nio on a Segway is about 180 centimeters high, so I had to separate it into pieces and build it after I fired it. To stick the different parts together, I used an adhesive for building houses. It looks like concrete, and it takes 24 hours to harden.

Was it difficult to change the usual angry facial expression of the Nio guardians to a softer, happy expression?

Since I used to have that idea of them partying all day long in their world, it was not so difficult. The fact that my grandfather looks like them also really helped. I just put into shape what I had in my mind.

Where can we see and buy your art?

An individual bought Day Off, so the public cannot see it. Nio on a Segway and Jaki Using Smartphones are kept on the second floor of N11 Gallery in Nihonbashi [in Tokyo]. This gallery’s first floor is open to all, but to access the second floor, you need to contact them beforehand.

By the way, I am currently making a half-sized version of Day Off, which a temple ordered. We digitized the original Day Off, and we will use the data to carve the new one into the wood. Of course, I will add the final details and adjustments by hand. 

As for my smaller pieces, I will be exhibiting three of them in November. Next year, I will do two personal exhibitions and one group exhibition. During the exhibitions, you can also buy my art pieces. Prices for the 20 cm ones start at 160,000 yen.

Contact me through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. You can order one of my future pieces, for which I also accept specific requests!

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.

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