Mokujiki (木喰)

Mokujiki (1718 - 1810) was a Buddhist practitioner and sculptor of Buddhist statues during the late Edo period.

He was the sculptor of 'Mokujiki-butsu' Buddhist statues a huge amount of which were left all over the country. He changed his own name three times in his life and he called himself Mokujiki Gogyo shonin (a holy priest) and Mokujiki Myoman shonin. Such priests who never belonged to specific temple, sect or school and continued their training while on pilgrimage across the country were called 'Yugyo-so' (wandering priests). Mokujiki was a typical 'yugyo-so' and he also pilgrimaged all over Japan and dedicated wooden Buddhist statues carved from one piece of wood to the places he visited.

Although Mokujiki's style was completely different from traditional sculptures, the way his chiseled work was left on the statues depicted his profound religious feelings within simple expression without any frivolity. The bold deformation found in his carvings is novel and similar to that of modern art sculptures. Enku who worked actively about a century before Mokujiki's time is well-known as a 'yugyo-so' who also left Buddhist statues all over Japan. However, the style of Mokujiki-butsu is more gentle with smiles on their faces in contrast to Enku's rough and wild style.


He was born into the Ito family, the village headman of Maruhata Village, Higashikawachi-ryo, Kai Province (today's Furuseki Aza Maruhata, Minobu-cho, Minamikoma-gun, Yamanashi Prefecture) in 1718. He was the second son of Rokube. Although his childhood name is unknown, his life can be traced back in detail in visitor's books, records of copies of sutras at temples, and inscriptions on the back of the statues he left. In 1731, he left his home for Edo saying 'I'm going out to do some farm labor' to his family in his fourteenth year (ages in this article are described by the traditional Japanese system).

Although not very much about the details of his youth are known, he became a priest at Oyama-dera Temple (Isehara City), a branch temple that belonged to Kogi Shingon (Old Shingon) sect in Sagami Province (Isehara City, Kanagawa Prefecture), in his twenty-second year in 1739. He began to call himself 'Mokujiki' in 1762, after more than twenty years since he first became a priest, and he was already in his forty-fifth year. In this year, he received mokujiki-kai under his mentor priest Mokujiki Kankai at Rakan-ji Temple of Shingon sect in Hitachi Province (Mito City, Ibaraki Prefecture). Kai' means commandments Buddhist priests should keep and 'mokujiki' means a strict commandment not to eat the five main cereals (rice, wheat, foxtail millet, Japanese millet, and millet) or the ten main cereals (the five main cereals plus corn, buckwheat, soybean, adzuki bean and black bean) and to eat only wild vegetables and raw nuts. There were many priests who were called Mokujiki shonin (high priest Mokujiki) since ancient times, and famous among them was Mokujiki Ogo, who endeavored to revive the temples at Mt. Koya and was trusted by Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI. However, Mokujiki shonin, who was the sculptor of Mokujiki-butsu, is easy to distinguish from other 'Mokujiki shonin' because his name used# '喰' for "jiki" that has a left-hand radical of '口' or "kuchi" in kanji characters. He called himself 'Mokujiki Gyodo' at first, and later changed his name to 'Mokujiki Gogyo Bosatsu' in his seventy-sixth year and then further changed his name to 'Mokujiki Myoman Sennin' in his eighty-ninth year.

When he left for a training tour around all of Japan in 1773, after more than ten years after he received mokujiki-kai and he was in his fifty-sixth year. His tracks with his disciple Mokujiki Byakudo extended literally country-wide from the foot of Mt. Usu in Hokkaido at the northern end and to Kagoshima Prefecture at the south end, and he left Buddhist statues at many places along the way. His earliest certified Buddhist statue was produced in the Ezochi (southern part of Hokkaido) in 1778 when he was in his sixty-first year. The relics show that Mokujiki started producing Buddhist statues when he was in his sixty-first year until thirty years later, when he was in his ninety-first year. He did not stay in one place for long and wandered about the whole country, with the exception of four years on Sadoga-shima Island and seven years in Hyuga (today's Miyazaki Prefecture). Mokujiki-butsu generally have a unique smile on their faces, however, his earlier works produced in Ezochi were awkward and have gloomy faces.

He visited his home in Maruhata Village in Kai Province three times when he was in his sixtieth, sixty-eighth and eighty-third year. He came home in 1800 when he was in his eighty-third year just after completing his round trip of Japan that he strongly desired to do. He built Shikoku-do hall in his home village, Maruhata and produced eighty-eight Buddhist statues for eighty-eight holy places in Shikoku Island where people pilgrimage, and he placed the statues in the hall. Shikoku-do hall was torn down during the Taisho period and the Mokujiki-butsu were scattered and lost. The Mokujiki-butsu that Muneyoshi YANAGI saw in 1913 was one of the lost statues of the Shikoku-do hall.

It is known from his relics that even in his eighty-fifth year, he left his home village on a wandering journey and kept on sculpturing statues until 1808, when he was in his ninety-first year. When in his ninety-first year, he produced and left Seven Kannon Statues (destroyed by fire in a Kofu air-raid) at Kyoan-ji Temple in Kofu (Kanente-cho, Kofu City,) and created an Amida Nyorai-zu (a picture of Amitabha Tathagata) at Kai-Zenko-ji Temple and then he disappeared. According to records brought to his remaining family in his home village, it is said that he died in his ninety-third year in 1810. Although it is not certified, it is said that he might have died at Rakan-ji Temple in Mito where he received mokujiki-kai.

There is a Mokujiki-no-sato museum in commemoration of his achievements in his home, Minobu-cho, Yamanashi Prefecture.

Rediscovery of Mokujiki

Mokujiki was completely forgotten for more than a century after his death. It was an art historian and promulgator of the folk art movement, Muneyoshi YANAGI (1889 – 1961), who rediscovered Mokujiki. Yanagi visited the home of the mayor of Ikeda Village (today's outskirts of Kofu City), in Yamanashi Prefecture and the local history researcher, Seizo KOMIYAMA in January 1924 to research Korean ceramic ware of the Komiyama family. At the time, he accidently found three pieces of Mokujiki-butsu: a statue of Jizo Bosatsu, a statue of Muryoju Bosatsu and a statue of Kobo Daishi; it is said that he was impressed with mokujiki-butsu's high level of artistry.

At the time, the existence of Mokuji and mokujiki-butsu was not known and no research or evaluation had ever been done. Although Yanagi was given the statue of Jizo Bosatsu by Komiyama, he was obliged to work on pending tasks for half a year such as opening the Korean Folklore Art Museum etc., but after he opened the museum, he started researching mokujiki-butsu and was throughly engaged in visiting many places in the country such as Mokujiki's birthplace, Maruhata, with the cooperation of Komiyama. Yanagi found more than 300 pieces of mokujiki-butsu within just an year, discovered fragmentary tracks of Mokujiki-butsu with inscriptions in black ink, sutras and guest records written by Mokuji, and he published "Research on Mokujiki-shonin" with Komiyama and the president of The Yamanashi Nichinichi Shimbun newspaper, Jiro NOGUCHI. Yanagi studied Mokujiki until 1926, and later he devoted himself to the folk art movement.

Gochi-nyorai (Five Wisdom nyorai, Tathagatas), (1800) (Eijuan, Minobu-cho, Yamanashi Prefecture)
Jizo Bosatsu, (1801), (in possession of The Japan Folk Crafts Museum)
Shichibutsu yakushi (the Yakushi and other six wisemen related to a long life, health and a safe delivery), Self-carved statue, (1807) (in possession of Bishamon-do Temple, Inagawa-cho, Hyogo Prefecture)
Seishi Bosatsu/Sho Kannon, Self-carved statue, (1807), (in possession of Tennyu-ji Temple, Inagawa-cho, Hyogo Prefecture)
Juoson/Byakki/Shozuka no baba, Tatsuki-koyasu-kannon statue, Self-carved statue, (1807) (in possession of Toko-ji Temple, Inagawa-cho, Hyogo Prefecture)