Home > Exhibitions & events > The Beauty of Japan ISE JINGU
  • Dates and Times
  • December 1, 2012 - February 28, 2013
    Open everyday from 10:00 - 19:00(last entry: 18:50)
  • Venue
  • Admission
  • Free
  • Organized by
  • FUJIFILM Corporation
  • Cooperation
  • In Cooperation with the Yoshio Watanabe Photography Research Center
  • Current exhibitions & events

The Beauty of Japan ISE JINGU

Flash Area.

Please note that this exhibition closed on Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Photographer’s Fascination with the Ise Grand Shrine

The two main shrine buildings at the Ise Grand Shrine complex are rebuilt every 20 years, and photographer Yoshio Watanabe captured images of three of these landmark occasions. Prior to WWII, admission to the Ise Grand Shrine was strictly limited; with only Shinto priests and those directly related to shrine affairs permitted access, and photographs could only be taken from outside of the shrine’s enclosure. Yoshio Watanabe’s photographs of the rebuilding of the main shrine in 1953, 1973 and 1993 are therefore considered as significant historical archives.

At the beginning of 1952, the Society for Promotion of International Cultural Relations decided to publish a photographic collection to introduce Japanese culture to an international audience. Watanabe was commissioned to compile a photo collection of the Ise Grand Shrine, and thus began the photographer’s lifelong fascination with the sacred shrine. At the outset of the project, however, many shrine priests and officials were outraged by the decision and permission to take photographs of the sacred site was denied. The following year, rebuilding work of the main shrine to re-house the Shinto deity was underway, and Watanabe managed to persuade shrine officials that his photographic project was aimed solely at capturing images of the architecture of the shrine, and promised that he would not be taking any photographs of the ceremony for the transfer of the deity to the new shrine building. He was therefore granted permission and thus became the first person ever to take photographs from within the shrine complex.

In 1993, after completing his third photo session of the rebuilding of the main shrine, Watanabe commented, “If I am able to take photos of the next reconstruction, I would really like to capture the entire rebuilding process from start to finish. Actually, that is what I wanted to do on this occasion, but unfortunately I didn’t have enough time. In photography, you really have to capture images when you have the chance. The opportunity may never come again.”

This exhibition features original prints of the valuable historical photographs that Watanabe took of the rebuilding of the main shrine in 1953 and 1973. The architectural splendor of the shrine that Watanabe captured in his images astounded fellow photographers at the time, and we are delighted to offer visitors the opportunity to view the exquisite depictions that Watanabe captured using a large-format camera and silver halide photographic film.

“When I realized this was the original architectural form, I felt that my eyes had really been opened.”

Upon viewing the main shrine during his first photographic session, Watanabe remarked, “When I actually looked at it, I was amazed at how simple it was, and how its construction was so different from other temples and shrines that I had seen. Resting on a carpet of round white stones, the shrine had a simple, clear and strong linear composition supported by sturdy columns that extended far below the surface of the ground. The exterior walls were constructed of thick wooden planks and topped with a thatched roof. On the first photo session, I wasn’t given permission to photograph the shrine’s main entrance, so I took photos from the rear of the shrine. However, rather than the main entrance with its flight of stairs and pavilion, it was easier to appreciate the simplistic beauty of the shrine by viewing it from the rear.”

”A cloud is an object of emotion.”
“I prefer architectural photographs free from emotion.”
”This is because when a cloud is included in an image, it somehow gives it the feel of a landscape photo.”

Watanabe described the principles that guided his photography thus, “Fine, cloudless days are best for capturing images of the purity of architectural forms. When photographing the Ise Grand Shrine, the thing I am most anxious about is cloud. It doesn’t matter how venerable the photographic subject is, whether it is an object of religious faith, the Imperial Palace or the State Guest House in Akasaka Palace, I always take a long, hard look at the subject and capture it as objectively as I can.” Despite this pronouncement, however, Watanabe always took great care to ensure that he didn’t offend any religious sensitivities on the three occasions that he photographed the reconstruction at the Ise Grand Shrine.

Transfer of the Deity

The architectural style of the Ise Grand Shrine is completely different from those employed in the construction of other temples and shrines, and the thatched roof supported by sturdy Japanese cedar pillars buried deep into the ground is a particular characteristic of this style. As Japanese cedar can only be used as a support structure for around ten years, the system of regularly rebuilding the shrine to give it a sense of permanence was instituted. Some 1,300 years ago, Emperor Temmu (reigned: AD 673-686) decreed that rebuilding should take place every 20 years, and the first rebuilding project took place in the year 690 during the reign of the Empress Jitou (reigned AD 690-697). It was hoped that by re-purifying the entire area, and not merely reconstructing the shrine, the power of the deities would be reenergized, and that both Japan and its people would remain invigorated. This has had a lasting impact on the unique way Japanese people over the centuries have perceived the natural world and has formed the basis of their prayers.

Profile of Yoshio Watanabe (1907-2000)

Born in Niigata Prefecture, and graduated from the Tokyo School of Photography (modern-day Tokyo Polytechnic University) in 1928. Joined the Oriental Photo Company and worked on magazines such as the popular Photo Times. He was later admitted to the New Photography Research Society and became a strong advocate of new styles of photography. After the war, he became particularly interested in architectural photography, capturing images of the Imperial Hotel, and the ancient Horyuji and Todaiji temples in Nara. In 1953, he became the first ever photographer granted permission to take photographs of the reconstruction of the main shrine building in the Ise Grand Shrine complex, and went on to record images of the shrine reconstructions in 1973 and 1993. In 1957, he was elected as chairman of the Japan Professional Photographers Society, a position he held for 23 years, and was also appointed as the first director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. His publications include The Imperial Hotel and The Ise Grand Shrine.

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