I recently went to the Tokyo National Museum in the Ueno district to see a special exhibition titled “UNKEI--The Great Master of Buddhist Sculpture,” which is being held through Nov. 26.

Stately statues of “nyorai” (individuals who have attained Buddhahood) and “bosatsu” (Bodhisattvas), sculpted by Unkei (?-1223) and his disciples, were certainly impressive. But I was mesmerized more by images of fierce “myoo” (guardian kings) and raging demons. I felt overwhelmed by their bulging eyes and blue veins standing out on their brows, and especially by their massive musculature. I wondered whom Unkei and his disciples used as models.

“There were no anatomical models back then, but the musculature is anatomically spot-on in every work,” noted Naokata Ishii, 62, professor at the University of Tokyo specializing in the muscle physiology. “I imagine (Unkei and his disciples) observed sumo wrestlers or sketched them.”

Ishii elaborates on this matter in “Unkei Gakuen” (Unkei school), a part of the exhibition’s official website.

Focusing on the “Standing Demon Ryutoki,” Ishii notes, “He has an exceptionally well-developed gluteus medius--a broad, thick radiating muscle situated on the outer surface of the pelvis. You see this only in a thoroughly trained warrior or sumo wrestler.” Ishii says the muscle mass reminds him of the late yokozuna Chiyonofuji.

The gluteus medius supports lateral movement of the leg. The more developed it is in a person, the less prone the person is to falling.

“Back in Unkei’s time, sumo was performed as a shinto ritual and there was no dohyo ring,” Ishii explains. “To win, you had to wrestle your opponent to the ground or throw him down, not shove him out of the ring with your weight.”

In his 20s, Ishii ranked third in the world in a body building competition. As a researcher, he developed a method for determining people’s “leg age.” He caused a sensation when he revealed that some freshmen at the University of Tokyo had the legs of octogenarians.

Although Unkei’s exact year of birth is unknown, he remained active into his 70s as a Buddhist sculptor--an extraordinary longevity and health in his era.

Did he work out while wielding his chisel to train his gluteus medius? I had this unexpected image of him doing stretches in his old age in his workshop, 800 years ago.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 3

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.