Unkei (運慶)

Unkei (unknown birth date - January 10, 1224) was a sculptor of Buddhist statues who was actively engaged in his career from the end of the Heian period to the beginning of the Kamakura period.


Unkei was a child of Kokei, a Buddhist statue sculptor from Nara, who performed his craft mainly at Kofuku-ji Temple in Nara City. According to the inscription on the base of the principle object of worship in the main building of Myoho-in Temple's Rengeo-in (Sanjusangen-do), the first son of Kokei was born in 1173, and it is therefore estimated that Unkei was born sometime in the middle of the 12th century.

The oldest work in existence by Unkei is the statue of Dainichi Nyorai (Vairocana), completed in 1176, located at Enjo-ji Temple in Nara. In 1183, Unkei completed the calligraphy of Hokekyo (Lotus Sutra) that he had been planning for a long time. This Hokekyo is currently called 'Unkei Gangyo' (stored at the Shinsho Gokuraku-ji Temple in Kyoto, privately owned, and a national treasure). The postscript of the Hokyekyo includes the names of several people with the Chinese character 'kei' in their names who helped produce it as part of their devotions (kechien), some of whom later became famous Buddhist ststue sculptors.
This shows that Kokei's followers, among Nara-based Buddhist statue sculptors, had formed a school called 'Kei-ha.'

In 1180, Todai-ji Temple and Kofuku-ji Temple in Nara burned to the ground due to fires started by the Taira family in battle. Statue restoration work at Kofuku-ji Temple was shared between Kyoto-based Buddhist statue sculptors known as the En-pa and In-pa (En school and In school), and Nara-based Buddhist statue sculptors such as Kokei and Unkei. The work was divided according to influence in the Buddhist art field, with the En-pa and In-pa creating statues for major halls and towers such as the Kon-do (Main Hall) and Ko-do (Lecture Hall), Nara-based Buddhist statue sculptor Kokei creating the main statue for the Nanen-do (South Octagonal Hall), and Seicho, another Nara-based Buddhist statue sculptor of Imperial lineage, in charge of the main statue for the Shoku-do (Dining Hall).

However, for some reason, Seicho did not commit himself to the creation of the main statue for the Shoku-do, and headed to Kamakura to create the main statue of worship at the Shochoju-in Temple for MINAMOTO no Yoritomo.

Meanwhile, after completing the Shakanyorai (Gotama Siddhattha) statue, which was the main statue in Kofuku-ji Temple's Saikon-do (West Golden Hall) in January, 1186, Unkei started to take assignments associated with the Kamakura bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) as if he were following Seicho's move. On May 30, Unkei started to create the Amida-Nyorai (Amitabha), Fudo-Myoo (Acala), Nidoshi, and Bishamonten (Vaisravana) statues ordered by Tokimasa HOJO for Ganjoju-in Temple in Kuni City, Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture. Three years later, in 1189, Unkei created the Amida Sanzon (Amida Triad), Fudo-Myoo, and Bishamonten statues ordered by Yoshimori WADA for Joraku-ji Temple in Yokosuka City, Kanagawa Prefecture.

The style of statues at Ganjoju-in Temple was truly striking and outstanding, completely differing from Buddhist statues carved in the late Heian period. Buddhist statues of the Jocho-yo (Jocho style), which was hugely popular in the capital in the late Heian period, were characterized by smooth creases in the clothes that were carved shallow and parallel, facial expressions that looked satisfied and calm, and only little amplification of form, representing the taste of Heian aristocrats; however, as a result of mass production of similar Buddhist statues through division of labor, the statues were no longer unique and always looked the same. Meanwhile, Unkei's style was characterized by masculine facial expressions, a wide variety of expression of clothes texture, and powerful and heavy bodies, a style that seemed to have matched the tastes of eastern bushi (warriors). Unkei perhaps studied the large amount of classic Buddhist statues that were left in Nara, discovering and establishing his own style. It is understood that his style flourished with the statues he carved for the Ganjoju-in Temple because they were ordered by an eastern bushi whose taste had not been shaped by the standard of Jocho-yo.

In 1196, together with Kokei, Kaikei, and Jokaku, Unkei participated in a major assignment to create the Ryowakiji statues to be placed on either side of the Daibutsu (Big Buddha) and the Shitenno (Four Heavenly Kings) statues for Todai-ji Temple, but these statues do not exist any more as they were destroyed along with the Daibutsu-den (Big Buddha Hall) in a fire. His major work still in existence would be the Kongo Rikishi (Nio) statues at the Nandai-mon Gate (Great south gate) of Todai-ji Temple carved in 1203. These huge statues are eight meters tall, and as a result of renovation carried out recently, documents were found inside the statues confirming that Unkei, Kaikei, Jokaku, and Tankei (Unkei's son) led many Buddhist statue sculptors specialized in carving smaller items to carve the whole thing in only two months, and it is also believed that Unkei was in charge of the entire production process.

From 1208 to 1212, Unkei led Buddhist statue sculptors of his sect to create the Seated Statue of Miroku Buddha, which was the main statue of worship of Kofuku-ji Temple's Hokuen-do (North Octagonal Hall), as well as the Muchaku and Seshin statues. It should be noted that the Muchaku and Seshin statues are considered masterpieces of Japanese portrait sculpture.

During the very last years of his life, Unkei worked only for important people of the Kamakura bakufu such as MINAMOTO no Sanetomo, Masako HOJO, and Yoshitoki HOJO. During this time, in 1216, Unkei created a Daiitoku-myoo (Yamantaka Vidya-raja) statue at Shomyo-ji Temple's Komyo-in in Kanagawa as requested by Daini no tsubone, who had raised Sanetomo.


Although an extremely large number of Buddhist statues (Nio sculptures in particular) across Japan are claimed to be the Unkei's work, only a few of them have been confirmed to be his real works based on inscriptions, items stored in statues, and reliable historical data. The following statues are works by Unkei or members of his workshop, and there has been no disagreement on this in the academic field.

Seated Statue of Dainichi-Nyorai (national treasure) at Enjo-ji Temple, Nara Prefecture (1176). Seated Statue of Amida-Nyorai, Standing Statue of Nidoshi, and Standing Statue of Bishamonten (important cultural asset) at Ganjoju-in Temple, Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture (1186). Amida Sanzon statue, Standing Statue of Fudo-Myoo, and Standing Statue of Bishamonten at Joraku-ji Temple in Kanagawa Prefecture (important cultural asset) (1189). Standing Statues of Kongo Rikishi at Todai-ji Temple's Nandai-mon Gate in Nara Prefecture (national treasure) (1203). Carved by Buddhist statue sculptors of the school such as Kaikei, Jokaku, and Tankei, led by Unkei.

Seated Statue of Miroku-butsu at Kofuku-ji Temple's Hokuen-do in Nara Prefecture (national treasure) (1212). Carved by Genkei and other sculptors under the lead of Unkei.

Standing Statues of Muchaku Bosatsu and Seshin Bosatsu at Kofuku-ji Temple's Hokuen-do in Nara Prefecture (national treasure) (1212). Carved by Unsuke, Unga, and other sculptors under the lead of Unkei.

Daitoku-myoo statue at Shomyo-ji Temple's Komyo-in (Yokohama City) in Kanagawa (1216).

Sculptures that are Considered to be Unkei's Works
The following works are strongly believed to have been carved by Unkei or members of his workshop because of their style, items stored in sculptures, and records.

Wooden Buddha head at Kofuku-ji Temple in Nara Prefecture (important cultural asset) (1186). Head of Shakanyorai, which was the former main statue at the Kofuku-ji Temple's Saikon-do (no longer in use).

Standing Statues of Hachidai-doji (Eight Great Youths) at Kongobu-ji Temple in Wakayama Prefecture (1197). Seated Statue of Jizo Bosatsu (Jizo Bodhisattva) at Rokuharamitsu-ji Temple in Kyoto Prefecture (important cultural asset). Seated Statue of Dainichi-Nyorai at Kotoku-ji Temple in Tochigi Prefecture (important cultural asset). Standing Statues of Shokannon Bosatsu (Holy Deity of Mercy), Bon-ten, and Taishaku-ten at Takisan-ji Temple in Aichi Prefecture (important cultural assets) (1201). Seated Statue of Dainichi-Nyorai stored at the religious organization Shinnyoen in Tokyo Prefecture: the statue was privately owned before Shinnyoen obtained it in 2008, and it was deposited at the Tokyo National Museum from 2003 to 2007. This statue would be the Dainichi Nyorai statue that is mentioned in an inscription on the miniature shrine at Kabasaki-dera Temple in 1193 recorded in "Banna-ji Kabasaki Engi Narabi ni Butsuji Shidai" (History and Order of Buddhist Services at the Banna-ji Temple in Kabasaki), and there is a theory that this statue was carved by Unkei based on its style and items stored in the statue revealed by X-ray photographs. Refer to the following publication for information on this statue.

Tsutomu YAMAMOTO, 'The Newly Discovered Statue of Dainichi Nyorai and Unkei,' "MUSEUM" volume 589, Tokyo National Museum (April, 2004).

Sculptures that are Claimed to be Unkei's Works
Seated Sculpture of Shunjo-shonin (Shunjobo-chogen) in Todai-ji Temple's Shunjo-do in Nara Prefecture (national treasure): although there is no historical material directly mentioning carving of this sculpture, some think it is created by Unkei judging by its style.

Standing Statues of Shitennno (Four Heavenly Kings) in Kofuku-ji Temple's Nanen-do in Nara Prefecture (national treasure): although there are some theories that the original hall contained these statues, there is a hypothesis that these statues used to be in Kofuku-ji Temple's Hokuen-do. If this theory is accurate, then these statues would match the description of the statues created by Unkei's four sons under his lead (Jikoku-ten by Tankei, Zocho-ten by Koun, Komoku-ten by Koben, and Tamon-ten by Kosho).

[Original Japanese]