Photo/IllutrationPaintings installed at the main hall of Kokujoji temple in Tsubame, Niigata Prefecture, depict five historic figures enjoying a bath. (Yamato Iizuka)

  • Photo/Illustraion

TSUBAME, Niigata Prefecture--Brightly colored paintings of historic male figures as handsome--and naked--manga-like characters have brought much-needed young visitors and funds to a temple that was built here in the early eighth century.

But there was one problem.

Tsubame city authorities say the new attraction at Kokujoji temple violates rules pertaining to its status as a designated cultural property.

The city’s board of education on July 30 decided to order the temple to remove the paintings, saying it had failed to apply for the required approval to change the site. The board also cited possible structural damage.

“We can appreciate the temple’s effort to stir interest among young people, but it is not acceptable to harm the city’s designated cultural property,” a board official said.

But a notice sent to elementary and junior high schools in Tsubame showed that the education board also had issues with the content of the artwork.

The paintings, titled “Ikemen Kanno Emaki” (scroll of handsome and sensual men), appear on about a dozen panels set up in the temple’s main hall.

The subjects are five well-respected and popular historic figures, both real and semi-mythical, all of whom have connections to the temple.

They are: Uesugi Kenshin, a 16th century warlord of the Echigo region where the temple is located; Minamoto no Yoshitsune, a 12th century general of the Genji clan who was killed by his jealous brother; Musashibo Benkei, a semi-legendary brigand-monk who accompanied Yoshitsune on the run and died for his master: Ryokan Zenji, a Zen Buddhist monk who was born in the Echigo region in 1758 and was known for his humbleness, calligraphy and poetry; and Shuten Doji, a hard-drinking, powerful leader of ogres living in the Oe mountains of the Kyoto area.

In one painting, these five heroes enjoy taking an open-air bath.

Kenshin, completely unclothed except for his signature white hood, holds a small cup of sake while smiling at Shuten Doji, who is also naked and raising his trademark sake bottle made of gourd.

Behind them is Yoshitsune, who apparently just hung his pink-colored clothes on a branch and is about to enter the bath.

The genitalia of the bathing heroes are hidden. Yoshitsune covers his crotch area with a pink towel, flowers block the view of Kenshin’s private parts, and only the upper half of Shuten Doji’s body can be seen.

To their right is a panel of Benkei scrubbing Ryokan’s back with a white towel. Ryokan is kneeling, his eyes are closed, and his hands are joined in prayer. His genitals are also hidden.

The modern and eye-catching paintings at the otherwise unpretentious-looking Buddhist temple created a buzz on social media after they were unveiled on April 19.

Kokujoji was established in 709 and is said to be the oldest temple in the Echigo region, today's Niigata Prefecture.

The manga-style paintings were the idea of Kotetsu Yamada, the 52-year-old chief priest of the temple.

In an effort to bring in younger generations and female visitors to the temple, Yamada reached out to Tokyo-based artist Ryoko Kimura, who is known for her erotic paintings featuring handsome, anime-like male characters.

She completed the scroll-like paintings on panels each a few meters square. They were screwed into the outer walls of the temple’s main hall.

“We realize that visitors have increased,” said a staff member of the temple. “We have received positive feedback, especially from young women.”

Yamada has made several unconventional attempts to raise funds to make up for the declining number of parishioners since he took over the temple’s operations from his father in 1996.

Yamada was still in his 20s when he became chief priest, and he used ideas from his generation to turn around the temple’s fortunes.

“Enjo Kuyo,” a memorial service for social media backlash, was one of Yamada’s projects to stimulate interest among young people and bring the temple more in tune with the times.

Yamada started the service in October 2018 to pray for people and companies who have been abused or attacked on social network sites.

The service became a popular topic on the Internet and news media, and the temple said it has received a favorable reception from the public.

Yamada then came up with the idea of decorating the temple with sensual paintings.

The board of education learned about the paintings in May through a local newspaper’s report.

Under the city’s ordinance, changing the conditions of a designated cultural property requires submission of an application form first.

Kokujoji temple had not applied for the changes.

The board on June 14 asked the temple to follow the ordinance and submit the proper documents. It also told the temple to remove the paintings from the main hall.

After that order, the board on June 26 notified elementary and junior high schools in the city to refrain from visiting the temple for school activities, saying, “It is inappropriate for children’s development.”

At the end of June, the temple submitted the required application, accompanied by a letter expressing its willingness to lose the cultural property designation if the city rejects the changes.

After experts discussed the matter, the board of education on July 30 concluded that the existence of the paintings could damage pillars of the main hall and other areas.

“We cannot give any comment,” a representative of the temple said about the board’s decision.

(This article was compiled from reports by Yamato Iizuka, Doni Tani and Yukihito Takahama.)