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1906 Born in Yamanashi as Fumiaki Ito
Shinjo distinguished himself at primary school with his creative thinking and scientific aptitude. He made intricate figures, and experimented with designs for a mechanical bamboo rotor toy.
When Shinjo was aged 12, his Father taught him the Ito family tradition of divination, based on the Chinese I-Ching. At 15, to gain work and life experience, Shinjo traveled some 700 miles north to the island of Hokkaido. His Father died during his stay there, and because of the great distance involved, Shinjo was unable to return home in time for the funeral.
Two years later, in 1923, Shinjo moved to Tokyo, where he was caught in the Great Kanto Earthquake, which claimed an estimated 142,000 lives. He witnessed the appalling suffering of those caught in the disaster. In 1924 he enrolled at an English language school and graduated one year later in 1925. He then started work at a photographic supply store, and also began to build radios from American circuit diagrams. These radios became extremely popular at the time.
The same year, Shinjo began studying under the renowned portrait photographer Toragoro Ariga, who had studied in Germany and had returned to Japan to become a photographer for the Japanese Imperial Family. Two years later, at age 21, Shinjo was conscripted into the Imperial Army Air Force for two tears of compulsory service.
Shinjo’s military experience of aerial photography stood him in good stead in 1929, when he was able to reconnect with his love of things mechanical by becoming an aircraft technician for the Ishikawajima Aircraft Manufacturing Company. Located at that time in Tsukishima, Tokyo, it moved the following year to the western suburb of Tachikawa.
Toru Enomoto, the director of the Museum of Modern Ceramic Art, Gifu, says this about Shinjo’s photography:
Shinjo’s photographs can be divided between work that depicts landscape alone, and that which includes human figures. The landscape photographs capture brilliantly the movement of natural elements such as clouds and water, hinting at Shinjo’s predilection for science. However, I find myself drawn to the photographs that include human figures. The first thing that strikes me about these is their exquisite sense of distance.
The figures are not incidental details in the landscape, nor are they subjects captured at close range in the manner of a genre piece. Rather, one can detect a distinct theme in the form of the natural landscape and the people inhabiting it. One could say that these works impress on the viewer the uniqueness of Shinjo's perspective.
Another feature of these photographs is the presence of children. The photographer clearly has a sympathetic eye and shows great skill in highlighting the child-like qualities of his young subjects, something not often seen in photographs from this period. It often seems as if some of the children are Shinjo’s own.
The year 1932 saw Shinjo’s marriage to Tomoji Uchida, who remained his wife and spiritual partner until her death in 1967. Like Shinjo, Tomoji shared a strong orientation toward spirituality, hers being based on a devotional tradition inherited from her Grandmother. Her faith in both Buddhism and Shinjo would proved to be a significant influence.
In 1934 Shinjo’s photograph Afternoon in a Rural Village won a photographic competition sponsored by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. Towards the end of 1934, Shinjo became close friends with a Shingon Buddhist priest, and though his love for photography continued, it was probably at this time that the seeds of his spiritual life were sown.
In 1935 Shinjo encountered an ancient wooden sculpture of the Buddhist divinity Achalanatha, reportedly made by the renowned 12th-13th century sculptor, Unkei. It was to be a spiritual awakening for Shinjo.
In June 1936 Shinjo’s first son Chibun died of an illness aged barely two. Shinjo continued his religious training and in 1937 created his first religious artwork, a wooden relief of an Achalanatha figure. That year he received permission from Daigoji to set up a branch congregation. The following year in Tachikawa, Tokyo, he established the Tachikawa Achala Fellowship as a branch of Shingon Daigo Buddhism, and in December received the priestly name of Shinjo, meaning “True Vehicle.” In 1941, at the age of 35, he was appointed special head priest of the Johoin Temple in Murayama, Tokyo.
In 1942, Shinjo legally changed his name from the birth name of Fumiaki. The year also saw the birth of his third daughter, who later succeeded him as head of the order, Shinso Ito. He also began studying acupuncture and moxibustion, gaining a thorough knowledge of anatomy that was to prove useful in his sculpturing work. He completed dharma transmission training – a central feature of the Shingon school in which teachers pass on wisdom directly to their disciples – and was recognized by the Daigoji monastery as an Acharya, or master of esoteric Buddhism.
The Tachikawa Achala Fellowship – Shinjo’s congregation – officially broke away from the Shingon School in 1946, to become an independent Buddhist denomination.
The Great Parinirvana Image, measuring some 16 feet (480 cm) long and completed in 1957, was the first statue Shinjo created when he resumed sculpturing after World War II. He had initially approached a renowned sculptor to take on the commission but after the artist expressed reservations, Shinjo resolved to make the work himself, with the help of his congregation. The sculpture was completed in the remarkably short time span of just three months.
Regarding the statue, Satoshi Yabuuchi, a Professor at the Graduate School of Conservation for Cultural Property, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music states:
The full-scale statue was completed by Shinjo in an astonishing three months with help from his wife and congregation. Documentary photographs show the upper half of the sculpture suspended from a chain block, plaster being poured into the mold and other memorable scenes from the project.
Prior to sculpting his first Parinirvana Image, Shinjo built a workshop on the grounds of the Shinnyo-en Head Temple in Tachikawa. It was a humble structure of plywood walls and a zinc roof, and prone to drafts in the winter. Later in 1960, when a branch temple was being opened in the central Tokyo ward of Meguro, the building’s sun-room was converted into a workshop. Shinjo seemed to like this quiet section of the temple and he produced the main body of his sculptural work there during the ensuing decade. The Meguro workshop no longer exists, however surviving photographs and film footage show what it was like.
Shinjo created numerous small versions of the Great Parinirvana Image, and each one was unique. In a demonstration of his resolve to communicate with the international religious community, he presented many of these figures to the organizations he visited on his travels.
In 1960 Shinjo was hospitalized with pneumonia, and was not expected to survive. However, he recovered quickly. It was after this that he gradually turned his attention to engraving and calligraphy work as well as sculpting Buddha figures. 1964 saw the publication of his first book of sonouta, or short teaching verses.
Despite Shinjo’s increasing focus on engraving and calligraphy during this period, he still managed to create several masterful sculptures. In 1967 he sculpted Prince Shotoku, an image of the influential 6th century regent who promoted the spread of Buddhism in Japan. The work has been commissioned by the city of Ashiya as a gift to its sister city of Montebello, California. The same year he created a new Achalanatha statue, to be enshrined along with a revised Great Parinirvana Image at Shinnyo-en’s reconstructed head temple complex in Tachikawa, Tokyo.
In 1970, Shinjo was presented with a key to the city of Montebello and made an honorary citizen. Montebello was just one of the many international destinations Shinjo visited later in his life to spread awareness of Shinnyo-en and his hopes for world peace. In 1966, aged 60, he was one of the Japanese delegates to the World Fellowship of Buddhists conference in Thailand, and then went on to visit India. The following year, 1967, Shinjo led a delegation to Europe, visiting Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Italy and Israel. He lectured at Scandinavian universities and met with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican, returning to Japan in July. In August 1967, Shinjo’s wife and Head of the Shinnyo-en order, Tomoji, died suddenly at age 55.
Throughout his life, Shinjo maintained close ties with a broad range of people including high prelates of various Buddhist denominations, the monks of Daigoji; Toko Kon; the head priest of the Tendai temple Chusonji; high-ranking Rinzai and Soto Zen priests. He commemorated his active associations with overseas religious leaders by creating numerous busts and engravings.
In 1976, at the age of 70, he presided over ceremonies marking the 1100th anniversary of Daigoji – the monastery where he received his initial Buddhist training. In November the same year, he saw one of his Parinirvana images enshrined in Chusonji, one of the oldest Tendai monastic complexes in Japan, in a ceremony overseen by the head priest of Toko Kon.
In 1979, a new workshop was included in the expansion of the head temple facilities in Tachikawa, and for his remaining 10 years, Shinjo made it part of his daily routine to visit it. There, surrounded by his earlier work, he continued to create, primarily focusing on engraving.
On the 19th of July 1989, Shinjo died peacefully from heart failure. His spiritual and creative legacy continues to exert wide influence.