Sunday, August 5, 2018

Hell in Japanese Art by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka

Today I thought it would be appropriate to listen to some traditional Japanese music while reading today's post.  I picked some relaxing music, because the book I have reviewed is anything but.

My nephew took these photos of my son, Derek and niece, Athena in Denton, Texas.  I doctored them up a bit for fun.  I could do that for hours.

I like book covers.  I think the last would make a great book cover.  I just need to find a story to go with it.

Hell in Japanese ArtHell in Japanese Art by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is quite simply one of the most fascinating books I have ever read or seen.

I had become curious about the concept of hell in other cultures and came across this book as a result. It is not only enlightening concerning Japanese belief in the afterlife but also particularly in Buddhist writings of the after life.

It was surprising because all I had ever heard of Buddhism was reincarnation; but according to the ancient writings recorded in this book, there is a fiery furnace and exquisite suffering to endure before given another chance. However, the most minute sins are punished so I wonder how anyone can hope to escape returning to punishment.

Buddhism, at least the strain practiced in traditional Japan is quite elaborate and complex in its descriptions of hell. Like Dante's Inferno, there are several layers, but far more intricate and many, many more levels.

There is the realm of the angry demons. This is where evil spirits constantly battle with heavenly beings.

Then there is the realm of human beings. There are hell chambers for every conceivable sin. To name a few: there is the hell of repetitions, the hell of lamentations, the hell of greater lamentations, hell for priests and so many more.

The Buddhist scripture describe each realm in graphic detail, explaining the sins (greed, adultery, hurting animals, abusing authority, stealing etc...) and the specific tortures in each level the condemned person is sentenced to and for how long.

The scripture spares no detail as to every gruesome agony someone endures. Killing animals incurs torture, killing humans, another type of torture, telling a lie incurs another horrible torture.

But the writing is only half of the book. Japanese artists throughout the ages have painted large, ultra-detailed depictions of each and every type of torture. The most profound to me are the people diving head long into flames.

In fact, fire is the main feature of every chamber of hell and figures prominently in the paintings. These paintings are not only on scrolls or canvas but also triptychs and furniture, such as dressers.

/>Finally, there is a tradition Japanese male jacket with full length prints of paintings of people tortured. I do not know why someone would wear such a thing, but I bet it is a conversation starter. At least in American it would. Maybe Japanese form of etiquette doesn't permit frank discussion of hellish attire.

In short, if one wants to learn about the nether world in Japanese Buddhist beliefs as will as witness a visual account. This book is an excellent choice.

For those interested in buying the book, it is over 500 hundred pages long, but most of it is full page paintings of entire works and also close up details. All the images are in color.

View all my reviews


  1. This sounds pretty gruesome... It's interesting that the Biblical descriptions of hell are largely centered on simple imagery (e.g. eternal fire), while human ideas of it go into gory, elaborate details. I do wonder how many people pursuing Buddhism have studied these aspects of it, as opposed to reincarnation, nirvana, and other more well-known concepts.

    1. It did strike me that if one must pay for one's own sins, as in every religion except Christianity, one still would never escape hell.

  2. i've studied zen pretty thoroughly but haven't gotten much into Buddhism... zen is not a religion, but a way of looking at reality... i don't know if i could put much faith into believing all that torture and recrimination... well, i couldn't.... and don't... life itself is enough of a challenge for anyone without going into gruesome things after death... oh well, to each his own, i guess
    and what an interesting and unusual book and post: other cultures definitely offer surprises...

    1. Hi Mudpuddle. I found it interesting that traditional Japanese religion had such a profound and thorough concept of hell. I thought Buddhism was only about reincarnation, so I learned a lot from this book.

  3. This book sounds I so fascinating. I had heard of the Buddhist concept of hell but I did not know much about it. I also like book covers and book illustrations. The illustrations that you show here look very impressive.I would like to own this book.

    1. I agree, Brian. Religious beliefs from other cultures really fascinate me and this book was not disappointing. The paintings are truly gruesome. I did not realize that so many artists depicted the various levels of hell.

  4. Hmmm. Levels of Hell? So Dante was a Buddhist! Who knew?

    1. lol, RT: someone could write a thesis on that subject; maybe they have, who knows??

    2. What I find interesting is that hell is a universal concept. Where did it come from if not grounded in truth? Why would people concoct something that doesn't exist or how can mankind imagine something that never was. That goes for the afterlife as well. Or the invisible world of spirits.

    3. cold remedies, fairy tales, legends, gold mines, greed, ambition, politics, power, intimidation... it's a long list...


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.