This handscroll, intended for transcription of Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra (also known as the Kannon Sutra), is a specially commissioned work in the style of several famous Heian-period Lotus Sutras. One of these is the Kunoji Lotus Sutra of 1141-42, the other is the Heike Nogyo, a set of thirty-three lavishly decorated Lotus Sutra scrolls dedicated to Itsukushima Shrine in 1164 by Taira no Kiyomori, and now registered as a National Treasure. In the frontispiece the shapes and lines of the Japanese kana syllabary are rendered as pictures of rocks, waterfowl, and waterside scenery in a decorative style of calligraphy known as ashide-e ("reed script painting").
The scroll shown here is not signed, but can only be the work of one man, Tanaka Shinbi (1875-1975), an acclaimed craftsman and restorer trained in the traditional yamato-e style of painting. Tanaka was so good that he was commissioned to copy almost every major narrative handscroll. In 1920 the head priest of Itsukushima Shrine asked him to make a complete copy of the Heike Nogyo; the project, which took nearly six years to complete, was funded through the efforts of the collector Masuda Takashi (1848-1938), director of the Mitsui conglomerate. In 1912 Masuda had Tanaka copy five volumes of the Kunoji Lotus Sutra scrolls in his collection (the originals are now in the Tokyo National Museum and the Goto Museum). For Shinbi and Masuda see Christine Guth, Art, Tea and Industry: Masuda Takashi and the Mitsui Circle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993); and Meiho kankokai, comp., Tanaka Shinbi: Heian-cho bi no sosei ni sasageta hyakunen no seijun (Tanaka Shinbi: A hundred-year life devoted to the revival of Heian-period art) (Tokyo: Tendensha, 1985). Tanaka described his working techniques in "Techniques of the Heike Nogyo," Bijutsu kenkyu 47 (November 1935): 514-17.
The accompanying lacquer sutra box was made by Moriya Shotei (1890-1972). Shotei was born in Kyoto and studied from 1908 with Shirayama Shosai (1853-1923). He completed a writing box, now in the MOA Museum, Atami, which his master had left unfinished at the time of his death (see Arakawa Hirokazu, Kindai Nihon no shikkogei [Japanese lacquer art of recent times] [Kyoto: Kyoto Shoin, 1985], pl. 69). Shotei showed his work in the early to mid-twentieth century Teiten and Bunten exhibitions and in the 1940 San Francisco World exposition.