Japanese emergence from her period of native primitive arts was instigated mainly by the introduction of Buddhism from the mainland Asian continent about the middle of the 6th century. Together with the new religion, skilled artists and craftsman from China came to Japan to build its temples and sculptic idols, and to pass on artistic techniques to native craftsmen.
Earliest examples of Buddhist art may be seen in accumulated splendor at the seventh century Horyuji temple in Nara, whose buildings themselves, set in a prescribed pattern with main hall, belfy, pagodas, and other buildings enclosed within an encircling roofed corridor, retain an aura of the ancient era, together with the countless art treasures preserved within their halls.
Nara and its vicinity contain the vast majority of the nations treasures of the early period of Buddhist art, known in art history as the Asuka period. The sculpture of this period shows, as do most all subsequent sculpture, the influence of continental art. Noted Asuka sculptor Tori Busshi followed the style of North Wei sculpture and established what has come to be known as the Tori school of sculpture. Notable examples of Tori works are the Sakyamuni Triad which are the main icons of the Golden Hall of Horyuji temple and the kannon Boddhisatva of Yumedono Hall of the same temple, also known as Guze Kannon.
Some of the most important Buddhist sculptures belong to the ensuing Hakuho art period when the sculpture came to show predominantly Tang influence. The mystic unrealistic air of the earlier Tori style came to be replaced by a soft supple pose and a near sensuous beauty more in the manner of the Maitreya with long narrow slit eyes and gentle effeminate features which in spite of their air of reverie have about them an intimate approachability. The aloofness of the earlier Asuka sculpture is softened into a more native form; and there is to be seen in them a compromise between the divine and the human ideal.
Representative sculptures of this period are the beautiful Sho Kannon of Yakushiji temple, and the Yumatagae Kannon of Horyuji, both showing the fullness of rounded flesh within the conventionalized folds of the garments, reflecting in their artistry features of the Gupta art are transmitted to Japanese through Tang.
In 710-793, Japanese sculptors learned high Tang style and produced a style "Tenpyou Sculpture", which shows realistic face, massive solid volume, natural drapery, and delicate representation of sentiment. Emperor Shoumu ordered the colossal gilt bronze Virocana Buddha in Toudai-ji temple and completed in 752. Although the statue has been destructed twice and repaired, the minor original part has survived.
Among many original works, the Asura in Koufukuji temple is attractive, which is a dry lacquer statue and show delicate representation of sentiment. The four guardians in Kaidanin: a division of Toudai-ji temple are masterpiece, which are clay statues. A national official factory "Zou Toudai-ji si" (Office to build Toudai-ji Temple) produced many Buddhism sculptures by division of the work for Toudai-ji and other official temples and temples for novelties. Gilt bronze, dry lacquer, clay, terracotta, repousee, stone, and silver sculptures were made in the factory. Generally the sculptors are secular and got official status and salary. Some private ateliers offered Buddhist icons to people, and some monks made it themselves.
With the moving of the imperial capital from Nara to Kyoto in 794, big temples didn't move to Kyoto. Government fed new esoteric Buddhism imported from Tang china. The official factory "Zo Toudai-ji Si" was closed in 789. Fired sculptors worked under patronage of big temples in Nara, new temples of esoteric sect, the court, and the novelties. Sculptors got temple clergy status whether or not they were members of the order. Wood became the primary medium. On the style, Heian period was divided two: the early Heian period and the later. In the early Heian period (794- about the mid 10th century), statues of esoteric Buddhism flourished. Kūkai, Saichou and other members of Imperial Japanese embassies to China imported the high to later Tang style. The statue bodies were carved from single blocks of wood and appear imposing, massive, and heavy when compared to Nara period works. Their thick limbs and severe, almost brooding facial features imbue them with a sense of dark mystery and inspire awe in the beholder, in keeping with the secrecy of Esoteric Buddhist rites. Heavily carved draperies, in which rounded folds alternate with sharply cut folds are typical of the period. Among esoteric Buddhism deities, Japanese like Acala and have produced enormous Acala images.
In the later Heian period (the mid 10th century to the 12th century), the sophistication of court culture and popularity of Amida Worship gave rise to a new style: gentle, calm, and refined features with more attenuated proportion. Sculptors Japanized faces of images. Pure Land sect(Amida Worship) leader Genshin and his work Oujouyoushuu influenced many sculpture. The masterpiece is the Amida Buddha in Byoudou-in in Uji by the master Jouchou. He established a canon of Buddhist sculpture. He was called the expert of yosegi zukuri technique: sculptors became working with multiple blocks of wood, too. This technique allowed masters atelier production with apprentices. It led the style more repetitious and mediocre after Jouchou. In school, a grandson of Jouchou established an atlier which worked with the Imperial Court in Kyoto. EN school a discipline of Jouchou, also established Sanjyou-Atlier in Kyoto.
This Kamakura period is regarded as 'Renaissance era of Japanese sculpture'. Kei school sculptures led this trend, who are descendents of Jouchou. They succeeded the technique "yosegi-zukuri" (Woodblock construction) and represented new sculpture style: Realism, Representation of sentiment, Solidity, and Movement, for which they studied early Nara period masterpieces and Chinese Song dynasty sculptures and paintings. On the other side, Clay, Dry-lacquer, Embossing, Terracotta sculptures didn't revive. They use mainly wood and sometimes bronze.
Kei school looted in Nara-city, which was former ancient capitol (710-793), and worked in large temples in Nara. In Kamakura period, Kyoto Court and Kamakura shogunate military Government reconstructed large temples fired in late 12th century wars. For the project, Kei school worked many sculptures, as Kamakura shogunate supported. Many sculptures were repaired and many architecture were rebuilt or repaired. The "renaissance" character reflects the project.
Among sculptors of Kei-school, Unkei is the most famous. Among his works, a pair of Kongou-rikishi colossal in Toudai-ji is most famous, and the portraiture-like statues of Indian priests in Koufuku-ji are elaborated masterpieces. Unkei had six sculptor sons and their work is also imbued with the new humanism. Tankei, the eldest son and a brilliant sculptor became the head of the studio. Koushou, the 4th son produced a remarkable sculpture of the 10th century Japanese Budhist teacher Kuya (903-972). Kaikei was a collaborator of Unkei. He is a devout adherent of Pure Land sect. He worked with priest Chogen (1121-1206) :the director of Toudai-ji reconstruction project. Many of his figures are more idealized than Unkei and his sons, and are characterized by a beautifully finished surface, richly decorated with pigments and gold. His works have survived more than 40, many of which are signed by himself.
Sculptors also worked for Kamakura shogunate and other military clans. They produced Buddhist sculptures for them and the portrait sculptures. Portrait of Uesugi Sugefusa is a masterpiece. The colossal bronze Amidhaba Buddha in Kamakura Koutoku-in was made in 1252. All class society popular funds made this bronze colossal. Such patronage raised and sometimes replaced former wealthy and powered men's.