Arm and leg votives from Mikata Ishikanzeon Dou, Japan

Yoshiharu Kamino is Professor at Musashino Art University, and former chief of the university museum and library. He specialises in folklore studies and anthropology, and is currently studying Japanese anatomical votives.

Shrines and temples are Japanese people’s spiritual hubs, and can be found everywhere. The former generally serve local deities, and the latter as a place to worship the spirits of our ancestors. You can find a variety of figures in these precincts apart from their main ones. Not only that, any random place, from roadsides, forests, mountains, or sea shores can be home to Japanese deities and spirits, and one can find monuments related to them. Eight million is the commonly expressed number of our watchers, as eight is also synonymous with ‘numerous’ in Japanese language.

Their role is likewise varied, from delivering on general and traditional wishes like good crops, fishing hauls, trading, and family welfare, to more specific ones like protection from epidemics, vermin, storms, earthquakes, and burglary. There are also ones who fulfil romantic or academic wishes, and even modern ones like road safety. The way people wish also varies; they make icons in their image or their vehicles’, or offer their favourite foods during festival days. It could also be items that represent their wish, whose most famous example is something called ‘ema’. Offering objects in the shape of body parts was also a way to wish for good health or recovery from disease.

Like Ancient Greece and Rome, Japan also had a custom of offering such objects, especially limb-shaped ones. Our focus is brought to the shrine that boasts approximately sixty thousand of anatomical votives (Figure 1). It is called Mikata Ishikan’non (or Ishikanzeon) located in Fukui prefecture, about 60 km to the north of Kyoto, near the Japan Sea.

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Figure 1. Hand votives from Mikata Ishikanzeon Dou (Photo by Yoshiharu Kamino)

Ishikan’non is a 4 metre statue of Kan’non (common translation of bodhisattva, also known in the Chinese translation as Guanyin) that is sculpted on the rock wall. The local legend says that Kukai (774–835, also known as Kobo Daishi) visited this place and challenged himself to sculpt a Kan’non on to the rock in one night. But a rooster cried in the morning before he could finish it, and he left the place without finishing the last part, namely its right hand. There is no proof to support the story, but the statue has been called the one-handed kan’non and believed to have a special ability to cure arm- and leg- related injuries and diseases, garnering votives since then (Figure 2). If one had such misfortune, they would borrow one from the temple and give prayer to the kan’on at home every day. If they recovered, they would return it and offer a new one as thanks and to release the kan’on from his duty to watch over them. This routine was believed to be exceptionally effective, and is how they ended up with such a large collection.

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Figure 2. Hand votive from Mikata Ishikanzeon Dou (Photo by Yoshiharu Kamino)

In 1812, the temple built a hut around the statue. Since then, it has been opened to the public every 33 years. People started to have festivals for this, and it’s believed that the tradition of anatomical votives started around that time too. It’s not a long history, but it has lasted at least 200 years.

I have been leading the research team of Musashino Art University, Tokyo, since 2011. We finished cataloguing almost all 60,000 votives in November 2018. We have not analysed the data yet, but here’s the outline.

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Figure 3. A hand votive made from a flat board, with writing, from Mikata Ishikanzeon Dou (Photo by Yoshiharu Kamino)

There were more than 100,000 limb-shaped votives present by the 1960s, but after the temple was met by a flood in the ’80s, the damaged ones were discarded. Most of them are wood. There are sculpted limbs, as well as flat boards cut in shape (Figure 3). Most of them are about 20–30 cm in length, but some are life size. The most popular anatomical parts are legs, arms, breasts, and legs are twice as frequent as arms. There are rare ones, like the whole lower body, torso, and head, as well as a leg whose knee joint actually tilts. We also have two penises, two horse legs, and crutches (Figure 4).

Many of them have donors’ names, age, addresses, and the year of donation, which gives us a detailed perspective. The oldest dated ones are from the 1820s.

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Figure 4. Foot and hand votives from Mikata Ishikanzeon Dou (Photo by Yoshiharu Kamino)

The variety in the quality is also noteworthy. We have votives that have the mark of the busshi (sculptor specialised in Buddha/religious statues), and unnamed but aesthetically remarkable ones. Even in the less elaborate ones, you can recognise the anatomical details they have put effort into. In modern era, the temple started making the limbs by themselves and the shape became similar, but there were people still offering their home-made ones. Nowadays, people borrow a ready-made limb, and offer new ones once they recover, with some gratuity. The custom has become rather standardised, but hasn’t died.

These votives are important artefacts that illustrate a form of folk belief in Japan, and the effort is being made to preserve them as cultural heritage. We are also planning to hold an exhibition at our university this summer. It is tentatively called The Shape of Hands, The Power of Hands. It will be themed around human hands and tools, with the central focus on the votives. It will be held from 9 August to 21 September 2019, at the Musashino Art University Library.

By Yoshiharu Kamino (translated by Toshi Omagari)

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