Kevin Gray Carr’s beautiful new book explores the figure of Prince Shōtoku (573? – 622?) the focus of one of the most widespread visual cults in Japanese history. Introducing us to a range of stories materialized in both verbal and visual narratives, Plotting the Prince: Shotoku Cults and the Mapping of Medieval Japanese Buddhism (University of Hawai’i Press, 2012) frames Shōtoku as a symbolic vessel.
Part I of the book looks at the changing identities of the prince as objects of devotion and veneration, tracing his visual cult through the fourteenth century. In this context, the figure of Shōtoku, across multiple lives and associations with other religious figures, grounded a new sacred topography whose center had shifted away from India and China and toward the spaces of Japan.
Part II of the book focuses on the visual culture that mapped the various identities of the prince onto the Japanese sacral landscape. It guides readers through the experience of the paintings in the Hōryū-ji Picture Hall and places them within a wider cultic landscape. Carr introduces the notion of “cognitive maps” that integrated the elements of time, space, and personhood into the many renderings of Shōtoku’s life that were simultaneously cartographic, narrative, and iconic. In addition to this fine-grained and innovative analysis of the time and space of visual materials, Carr also shows readers the centrality of stories and storytelling in helping us make sense of the world around us, and of our own place in it.