As an independent off-spring of the larger IMJS at Columbia University in New York, the Research Institute in Kyoto focuses largely on amamonzeki (imperial convents) and their heritage. These select nunneries were once headed by the daughters of emperors and high-ranking nobility. As religious institutes with close ties to the court they preserve not only the tangible items that speak of their Buddhist faith and imperial connections, but also intangible heritages in their customs, language, and rituals.
Our activities center on supporting the convents on a variety of levels. Foremost, we are engaged in historical research on the convents and their past abbesses so that they can be restored to Japan’s religious and cultural history. Investigation of documents is complemented by the study of artifacts and identifying those in need of restoration. We endeavor to implement/facilitate the conservation of such items (paintings, sculpture, textiles, lacquerware, etc.) as well as architecutral structures by seeking funding through the Amamonzeki Conservation Project and also finding appropriate artisans to do the necessary restoration work. Bringing together benefactors and conservators, clerics and curators, cultural experts and scholars has built a web of interconnections. The resulting ongoing cooperative relationships have spurred new ties and alliances, and the invaluable advice we receive has deepened our insights and aided us in our research and conservation efforts. In addition to building this kind of network our broad aim is to bring awareness of these hidden cultural enclaves to the general public through publications, lectures, exhibitions, and other activities. We are also deeply engaged in nurturing young scholars in the field. The Center maintains a library and archives of material related to women and Buddhism.
Since our staff is small and operates largely on a voluntary basis, it is necessary to effectively collaborate with public and private sectors and to seek sponsors and private funding for our various projects. Ongoing activities include the Amamonzeki Conservation Project for restoring imperial convent cultural properties and the Textile Conservation Project, set up to foster conservation of fragile fabrics and garments and illucidate their cultural context. Present undertakings include the Mugai Nyodai Project, which brings together a group of scholars dedicated to gathering and analyzing primary resource materials on an outstanding thirteenth-century Zen nun, the Shōkenji Project, which investigates the literary legacy that grew up around Nyodai’s legend, and the Shōken Kōtaigō Taireifuku Project aimed at conservation and research related to the Meiji Empress’s oldest extant Western-style court dress, which is owned by one of the imperial convents. Our overriding objective is to reconstruct and rewrite the history of important Buddhist women and to help preserve the remaining documents and artifacts related to them.