Who is our Female Shinto Deity?

This female Shinto deity, purchased by the Sainsburys in 1997 and carved from a single piece of camphor wood, dates from the Kamakura period, c.1185–1333. Faint traces of colour can still be detected on the statue, which was probably covered in white paste and then painted, creating a polychrome effect.

To a non-Japanese observer the female deity is remote, self-contained, lost not in isolation but in calm contemplation. The exquisite simplicity of the smooth drapery carving, sharply highlighting the sleeves then softly flowing down to the ground unbroken by any pleating, conveys a powerful aura of stillness and peace.

Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, Sainsbury Centre Trustee, Former Director, V&A

Identifying a Deity

The crafting of deity, or kami, statues came from Buddhist sculptors, so it is difficult to know for certain who exactly the statue is based upon. We know from another item in our collection, the head of a male Shinto deity, that such statues represented family members of powerful clans. One theory is that it could be one of Prince Shōtoku’s wives, daughters of the Empress Suiko to whom Shōtoku was Prince Regent.

Powerful Women in Early Japan

Without doubt, this Female Shinto Deity was modelled after a woman of power. Up to the 7th century, it was not uncommon for powerful clans to be led by ruling pairs, be it husband and wife or aunt and nephew. Some women assumed total control of their clan and even commanded armies, such as the legendary Empress Jingū of the 5th century. Empress Suiko, to whom Prince Shōtoku was regent, acted as a powerful leader, defying savvy politicians and mighty warlords in pursuit of her own agenda.

Looking into the eyes of this female Shinto deity, what do you see? The calm composure of a driven politician? The commanding stare of a shrewd military tactician? Perhaps the reassuring gaze of a protective goddess?

Find out more about what women were capable of in early Japan on Beyond Japan with Professor Chizuko Allen:

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