Japanese Art at the Museum of Fine Arts

Galleries of World Class Art Renovated

By: - Apr 18, 2024

The collection of Japanese art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is one of the most comprehensive in the world. Five newly transformed galleries showcasing nearly 200 highlights—including painting, sculpture, decorative arts and selections from the Museum’s vast collection of ukiyo-e prints—open on May 11, 2024. Displays will change regularly, presenting icons of the collection and new acquisitions—giving visitors the opportunity to see even more works in a setting that honors and celebrates Japan’s rich history and cultural legacy. The renovations are made possible through the generosity of a community of supporters including individuals, families and corporate partners.

The new Arts of Japan galleries include the Japanese Buddhist Temple Room—a visitor favorite— which originally opened in 1909. The contemplative space has been fully renovated and features seven sculptures that have undergone extensive conservation treatment beginning in 2018. A ritual to rededicate the gallery will take place on May 11, conducted by a delegation of monks from Miidera, one of the largest temples in Japan. The ritual will be simulcast from the Temple Room to the MFA’s Remis Auditorium, and the monks will greet the public afterward, inviting visitors to explore the newly opened galleries. The MFA has a historic relationship with Miidera, where the early founders of the Museum’s Japanese collection—Ernest Fenollosa, William Sturgis Bigelow and Okakura Kakuz?—studied Tendai Esoteric Buddhism. It is also where Fenollosa and Bigelow are buried today.

“The story of Japanese art at the MFA is ever-evolving, and we’re excited to present this next chapter,” said Anne Nishimura Morse, William and Helen Pounds Senior Curator of Japanese Art. “We’re very fortunate to have a truly remarkable collection here in Boston, which was the first of its kind in the U.S. when it was established in 1890 and has since grown into the largest outside Japan. I’m very excited for visitors to see some of their old favorites and discover new works in these galleries, which span from historical to contemporary masterpieces.”

The largest gallery, Arts of Japan (Gallery 280), introduces major forms of Japanese art including paintings, N? masks and robes, swords and sword furnishings, netsuke carvings and tea ceramics. The presentation provides different approaches to appreciating distinctive Japanese genres and aesthetics such as an Edo-period folding screen by Ogata K?rin, Waves at Matsushima (18th century), which depicts pine-clad islands with bold, decorative patterning and abstracted forms. This gallery also offers an overview of how the objects on view functioned in their original contexts and explores the creative traditions in which they were made. Tea ceramics are presented as part of an adaption of a traditional tea room, with tatami mats and an alcove, while a multimedia display brings the drama of N? theater to life.

The Japanese Buddhist Temple Room (Gallery 279) invites reflection and appreciation of the Museum’s collection of Japanese Buddhist sculpture. In recent years, these celebrated works have undergone extensive conservation work. They include the monumental Dainichi, Buddha of Infinite Illumination (1149), the supreme and central deity of Esoteric Buddhism, and Bishamonten, the Guardian of the North (late 11th–12th centuries). The room’s architectural elements, though not a replication of a specific site, are adapted from plans for an 8th-century monastic complex and give the sense of being inside a centuries-old Japanese temple hall. A new touch screen interactive, located just outside the gallery, presents information—including new conservation findings—about each of the individual sculptures.

The Japanese Print Gallery (Gallery 278A) showcases the MFA’s celebrated Japanese print collection—the largest outside Japan, with over 50,000 sheets from the 8th century to the present. A rotation of prints will present a new thematic exhibition about every six months. The first rotation, Reworking the Past: Japanese Prints Old and New, compares 19th-century ukiyo-e prints to contemporary prints made from the 1950s through the 2010s.

Two Buddhist Art galleries (Gallery 278B and Gallery 278C) include important Japanese Buddhist sculptures and paintings dating from the 8th through the 14th centuries. One of the highlights is the statue of Miroku, Bodhisattva of the Future (1189) by the 12th-century sculptor Kaikei, made with gilded Japanese cypress and featuring inlaid crystal eyes. A selection of Buddhist paintings will also rotate in these spaces.

In celebration of the new galleries, global apparel retailer UNIQLO—a longtime supporter of Japanese arts and culture at the MFA—is sponsoring a free admission day on September 14. UNIQLO is also the sponsor for the accompanying multimedia tour and family guide. Available for free on the MFA Mobile on Bloomberg Connects app, the interactive guide offers a closer look at themes throughout the galleries as well as specific objects. Speakers on the tour include Anne Nishimura Morse; Abigail Hykin, Robert P. and Carol T. Henderson Head of Objects Conservation and Linsly Boyer, Associate Conservator; contemporary artist Kond? Takahiro, who discusses his sculpture Reduction, Self Portrait (2015); and N? theater expert Mayo Miwa. The free family guide invites visitors of all ages to explore the new galleries and look for nature symbols found in Japanese culture.

Songs for Modern Japan

In addition to the Arts of Japan galleries, the MFA is showcasing Japanese art from the 20th century in Songs for Modern Japan: Popular Music and Graphic Design, 1900–1950, on view through September 2, 2024. The exhibition explores how sheet music covers provide a window into Japanese society and culture during a period of immense transformation. Through investigating styles of graphic design, bold typography, genres of music and the societal environment in Japan, visitors get a glimpse of how design and music celebrating modernity and globalism gave way to endorsing nationalism. About 100 sheet music covers—alongside paintings, photographs, textiles, music, film clips and musical instruments from the period—capture the dynamic effects of international artistic exchange and the profound societal shifts in a globalizing Japan.


The renovation of gallery 280 was made possible with generous support from Caroline and John Rutherfurd.

The renovation of the Japanese Buddhist Temple Room was generously supported by the Vance Wall Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Lisbeth Tarlow and Stephen Kay, Bettina Burr, Dainippon Sumitomo Pharma Co. Ltd., and Mr. and Mrs. Charles C. Cunningham Jr.

The renovation of gallery 278A was made possible with support from UNIQLO USA.