ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailPositive ArrowIcon PrintIcon Twitter

National Treasure: Japan and China defy pandemic to return Ganjin's relics

Joint effort helps Nara temple regain reliquary in time for Buddhist rite

This reliquary, originally brought to Japan by the Buddhist monk Ganjin in the eighth century, was returned safely to Toshodaiji in Nara from the Shanghai Museum in October.

TOKYO -- In the eighth century, the monk Ganjin famously needed six tries to cross the sea from China to Japan, where he established a new school of Buddhism and became the first abbot of Nara's Toshodaiji temple.

More than a millennium later, a treasure brought with the Chinese monk on that final crossing underwent a similarly harrowing journey -- stymied not by storms or pirates, but by the coronavirus pandemic. The painstaking efforts in a race against the clock to return it safely to the temple from the Shanghai Museum showcased the centuries-old bond between the two countries.

The museum opened an exhibition in December 2019 featuring murals from Toshodaiji painted by 20th-century artist Kaii Higashiyama, as well as items from the temple including a gold reliquary containing bones of the Buddha that has been designated a Japanese National Treasure. The opening ceremony was attended by Myogen Nishiyama, head of the temple, and Yang Zhigang, the museum's curator.

Keen interest in Japan's Buddhist culture brought nearly 10,000 people a day to the Shanghai exhibition at its busiest times, before the coronavirus struck.

The Shanghai Museum was shut in late January even though the exhibition was originally scheduled to continue for three more weeks. The event reopened for 20 days from mid-March, but traffic was lighter after the outbreak. The Toshodaiji exhibition sold a total of about 220,000 tickets.

Toshodaiji's murals painted by artist Kaii Higashiyama on display in Shanghai. (Photo courtesy of Shanghai Museum)

The pandemic created another problem for the exhibition: With bans blocking people from traveling between China and Japan, how could these cultural treasures be returned to the temple?

The Higashiyama murals, which lacked a high-level official cultural designation, were easier to handle. The two sides communicated online to direct the packing process, and the murals arrived safely in Japan in May.

But National Treasures are more strictly regulated. When one is being transported, a curator from a Japanese national museum must be present for disassembly and packing to observe the process.

Complicating matters further, Toshodaiji needed the reliquary in October for an annual rite in praise of the Buddha. The ceremony has taken place each year without fail for eight centuries, and Nishiyama feared this tradition could be broken during his time.

Spurred by lobbying from the worried temple and the Japanese government, Yang appealed to customs, quarantine and other authorities. Arrangements were made to send the reliquary and other treasures back via a ferry connecting Shanghai, Osaka and Kobe -- the Xin Jian Zhen, which bears Ganjin's Chinese name.

The Buddhist temple Toshodaiji in Nara was founded in 759 by the Tang dynasty Chinese monk Ganjin. (Photo by Naoko Okada)

Shipping the relics back by sea was unusual. But Nobuyuki Matsumoto, director of the Nara National Museum, noted that it was not without precedent. A curator from the Nara museum flew into Shanghai, and -- after a two-week quarantine -- work began on the transporting the reliquary.

The crew of the Xin Jian Zhen had not disembarked from the ship in more than half a year to keep the virus from spreading, at the request of authorities. Workers carrying the reliquary on board wore protective gear and avoided contact with crew members. The operation drew the attention of local media.

The treasure arrived at Toshodaiji on Oct. 14 and was unpacked Oct. 18, in time for the start of the rite three days later. The temple sent a message of gratitude praising the altruism of those in Shanghai as well as a valuable book of sutras for the museum's collection.

In response to intense interest in Japanese Buddhist art, many Chinese cities and museums have sent requests to Japanese temples and shrines to exhibit their works. The Toshodaiji operation may serve as a lesson in crisis management should another show go awry.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this monthThis is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia;
the most dynamic market in the world.

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia

Get trusted insights from experts within Asia itself.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 1 month for $0.99

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this month

This is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia; the most
dynamic market in the world

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 3 months for $9

Offer ends July 31st

Your trial period has expired

You need a subscription to...

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers and subscribe

Your full access to Nikkei Asia has expired

You need a subscription to:

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers
NAR on print phone, device, and tablet media

Nikkei Asian Review, now known as Nikkei Asia, will be the voice of the Asian Century.

Celebrate our next chapter
Free access for everyone - Sep. 30

Find out more