The kesa, worn draped over the left shoulder and under the right arm, plays an important role in many aspects of Buddhist ritual. Not only is it worn for ceremonial purposes but its construction, transmission, and even its cleaning have a place in the practice of Buddhism. The practitioners of Buddhism also benefit from the donation of garments or fabric. After death the deceased's garments are often given to the monasteries and in return prayers are said to protect the soul of the departed. Some kesa in the Museum's collection are lined with fabric which is typical of kimono and other Japanese garments. This reincarnation of the garment
or cloth into a kesa is symbolic of the transitory character of life, one of the principal tenets of Buddhist teachings.
The construction of the kesa may have roots in the past when mendicant Buddhist monks wore garments which were pieced together from donated scraps of cloth. Japanese kesa are rectangular in shape and are composed of a series of odd-numbered vertical bands called jo ranging from 5 to 25 in number. There is a central band down the center from which an equal number of bands reflect on either side. This central band is symbolic of the central axis of the universe. In the four corners of the kesa are patches called shiten representing the four directions of the compass. "'When a kesa is worn it is representative of a mandala, or symbol of the universe, encompassing the wearer.
In contrast to their impoverished origin, the kesa of 18th and 19th century Japan are luxurious garments, pieced together of rich fabrics brocaded with silk and gold threads. The kesa in this exhibition all date from this period in which the weaving arts flourished in Japan. Silks patterned with gold threads give evidence to the wealth and power of the Buddhist sects which throughout most of Japanese Buddhist history were supported by the government as the official religion. The wealth of the monasteries and the flourishing of the textile arts coincided to produce some of the most luxurious vestments in the world. The kesa featured in this installation are all made of fabric known as nishiki in Japan. This term refers to a warp or weft patterned textile and translates best as the word brocade. Archeological evidence exists to show that nishiki textiles were produced in Japan since at least the fifth century A.D. But it is due to the stimulus of Chinese textiles, especially those imported during the Ming period (1368-1644) known as shokko, that the Japanese began to produce similar designs (see 35.331 and 35.316). By the mid-18th century the Japanese nishiki weavers had reached full maturity and were centered in the Nishijin district of Kyoto.